Of Violent Mobs and Prophets

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A smug and sanctimonious religious person, shockingly from Anabaptist background, tried to hijack a point about loving individuals (rather than groups) by using an example of Old Testament judgment. They literally took the other side in a post explaining the kind of dangerous tribal thinking that led to the Holocaust. This individual really ought to be ashamed and repent of this perverse use of Scripture.

Before I go too far, it is very clear, to anyone who has read a history book or the Bible, that tribe in tribe violence and genocide were the norm. In Europe, North America and around the world, all lands have been conquered from the prior inhabitants by the current occupiers. The rivers, lakes and oceans would likely be filled with blood of our ancestors and those whom were violently removed from the gene pool by our collective ancestors.

That is the natural state of things. In an age prior to society life was, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes, for his part, credited the formation of strong central governments for the transformation. An observation that made sense in 1651, before the use of modern governments to commit horrendous acts of genocide, I suppose?

Nevertheless, there has been been a shift of thinking from a time when it was okay to completely destroy an enemies tribe and the present. Many today, at least prior to Marxist indoctrination and regression of the past decades, would find it morally abhorrent to use one crime by one individual as an excuse to raze an entire village, steal the possessions of every inhabitant, kill all of the men and take the women captive, as was the case over and over again in the Old Testament of Scripture.

Something took us from the brutality of the Old Testament, where it was okay to judge an entire tribe based on the transgressions of a few or even one, to the idea, that underpins Bill of Rights, that all individuals should be granted rights. What took us from the time when only members of our own genetic or religious tribe have rights to the present? What led to the abolishment of slavery, something that had been practiced on all Continents, by people of all skin color designations against all other people at some point in history, before becoming unacceptable?

The answer, of course, is the one man, of the Jewish people, who started his ministry like this:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

(Luke 4:16‭-‬21 NIV)

Jesus began with a declaration of the fulfillment of the Old Testament, after reading a prophecy about the blind being given sight, the oppressed being given their freedom, the poor having some good news and stunned his religious audience. Of course his message had a strong appeal to the Jewish people, who were looking for a tribal Messiah who would set them free from Roman rule. It is no surprise that in these discontented time such a man would quickly find a cult following and become a threat to the established religious order.

But Jesus continued to defy the expectations of his religious tribally-minded followers. He subverted their expectations by expressing admiration for the faith of a Roman soldier, an occupier, by going to the home of a Jewish tax collector (and collaborator) and by using the despised Samaritan people, the “deplorables” of the smug and sanctimonious religious people in his audience, as his examples of virtue. Not only did extend the boundaries of “love your neighbor” to those outside of the tribe, he also did it using it a person from a group that they despised.

The idea of a “good Samaritan” or a Roman with faith greater than all of Israel, common parlance today to many of us, would be repugnant to them. How dare he! How dare Jesus compare them, the self-proclaimed elites of their own ethnic tribe, to these unwoke heathens? How dare he criticize their measures of righteousness, their loud public proclaims of socially acceptable displays of sacrifice, defy their rules of ritual cleansing and then call them hypocrites! It is no wonder these hateful bigots tried to cancel Jesus.

Jesus, by praising the equivalent of a police officer and a “flyover country” Trump supporter who rendered aid to a traveler, defied both their tribal identity focus and oppression narrative. They were the good guys with the right to rule. And at first they concluded that Jesus was confused, they asked his disciples why he ate with the bad people, the privileged tax collectors and alt-right trolls. He couldn’t be all that wise if he didn’t know what side of the social justice fence to be on, could he? Of course Jesus had never turned anyone away, but some excessively proud hypocritical people did reject him and his teachings.

The role of underdog and social elite has flipped at many points in history. First the Christan Jews were persecuted by the anti-Christian Jews, then the Romans destroyed the Jewish center of culture, and took up persecution of the Jesus cult spreading in their own ranks, before converting to Christianity themselves. We can mention the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land and Europe before being pushed back by the Crusades. Constantinople was a bulwark of Christianity before becoming overrun by the Turks, who never were held accountable for their Armenian genocide and that eventually the inspiration for an underdog artist and war veteran seeking a “final solution” named Adolf Hilter.

The one constant during two millennia of turmoil, of nations rising and falling, of a brief period of European domination of the world (after shedding their own tribalism) leading to the present time, is that Christianity has always been force for outreach across tribal lines. Yes, some did wrap themselves up in the name of Christ without actually applying his teachings. Progress does seem to always be a matter of two steps forward and one step back. And yet this idea of tribes coexisting, the imperfect tolerance of those who look, worship or act differently from us, is the rare historical exception.

Tribe against tribe violence was and is the norm. God even directly ordered the destruction of rival clans according to the Biblical narrative. But those looking to see Ninivah destroyed, like Jonah angry and disappointed on the hill, should stop seeing themselves as God and repent. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. So those hoping for the world to burn, especially the system that has benefitted them more than most, should be warned. Jesus didn’t come so that tribal grievances could be redressed violence against a rival tribe. He came to free us all from this cycle of sin and death.

Those promoting or justifying intertribal conflict and contempt are antithetical to Christ. While Jesus sought to erase these artificial boundaries, to free us from our mental prisons of prejudice and give us sight that sees beyond race and socal status, these impostors are like Judas. They envy rather than love their neighbors and would leave a man bloodied on the side of the road if he wore the wrong skin color or may even beat him themselves. They may couch their in the words of Christ, as compassion or concern for the poor, but their real aim is social status and political power.

Those who seek to divide the church (and countries) into competing identity groups, privileged and oppressed, have betrayed the cause of Christ and seek to bring people back into captivity rather than free them. They are spiritually blind despite declaring themselves to be ‘woke’ and have nearly the entire backing of the corporate and institutional system behind them despite flaunting a victim status. They are like the Pharisees, perpetually offended, and seek to destroy anyone who would expose them for the truly toxic people that they are.

Sure, Jesus did divide, but not along lines of ethnicity, gender or social status. He subverted, not by targeting the brutal Roman rule (or laws) nor by “down with the hierarchy chants” against Jewish religious leaders. No, instead he urged compliance, he told his followers to “turn the other cheek” when insulted and to go the “extra mile” when compelled by the occupying Romans to carry their gear. Even when delivering a withering criticism of the religious authorities, he acknowledged they “sat in Moses seat” and taught that the position itself should be respected even if the occupants were unworthy and corrupt.

Those comparing an unruly mob to an Old Testament prophet (even one as contemptuous as Jonah) and suggesting the current destruction is somehow God’s judgment have no theological or moral leg to stand on. The teachings of Jesus do not give anyone licence to judge nations, that is the work of God and the saints someday, not ours. Jesus, however, did stand up to the social elites then and they hated him. They whipped a mob into a frenzy with their false accusations, an ineffectual leader bowed to the demands of the mob and that’s why Jesus was crucified.

Purity Culture Is Always Bad

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Two people responded to my last blog. One said that I had not said enough about the exploitative nature of the porn industry and the abuses common in purity cultures. Another claimed that I had overstated and generalized about purity cultures and tried to point out the good.

First, there is not enough that can be said about the ugliness of pornography and how it is harmful on both ends. My previous blog had primarily focused on the consumer end because it was about how pornography and purity cultures hurt those under their influence. However, many blogs could be written about how pornography is produced and we should not forget those many who are used (or abused) in this industry—they also need to experience the pure love of Jesus.

Second, the other person responding to my prior blog seems to have assumed that my comments, specific to purity culture, applied to my Christian experience in general. That is incorrect. I have actually had great experiences with those who were able to transcend the cancerous influence of purity culture. I have met many who are more committed to Christian love (and faith) than they are to maintaining an appearance of purity (for sake of religious peers) that comes at the expense of those aforementioned things.

What purity culture is is a misuse of a set of teachings in the same way that pornography represents a misuse of sex. It sees a corrupted version of purity as an end to itself rather than a part of something more comprehensive and complete. It leads to the same kind of dissatisfaction as pornography and that is because it has, in a similar fashion, taken a good thing in the right context and twisted it into something that it was not intended to be. Purity culture, under the pleasant facade, is always about fear, control and shifting blame rather than true Christian love.

Purity culture is, by definition, a misapplication or overemphasis on some teachings at the expense of others. In other words, purity culture is a perversion and, like pornography, not enough can be said in condemnation of this wrongful and abusive use of Biblical teachings. There is a vast difference between purity culture appearances and actual righteousness. There is nothing good about purity cultures, the bad cannot be overstated and that is a generalization we should make.

Jesus Rebuked Purity Culture

The difference between being pure in heart (as is taught in Scripture) and purity culture is as different as Jesus was from his self-righteous critics:

On a Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10‭-‬17 NIV)

Had you run into this “synagogue leader” he would have appeared to be a very pious man. He was likely there every time the synagogue doors were open, probably spent hours of time devoted to reading Scripture and may have even tithed everything even down to his spices. But under this man’s righteous outward display was a corrupt and unloving heart that placed strict adherence to Sabbath laws above the actual reason for the laws.

Jesus, who had a pattern of healing on the Sabbath as if intentionally trying to antagonize these religious elites and expose their hard hearts, rebukes this leader’s misplaced priorities. Because, while this religious leader was technically correct that this woman could’ve been healed any other day of the week, his thinking was not centered correctly, he should have been rejoicing that this woman was healed and not obsessing on when or how it happened.

A “tell” refers to those unconscious actions that betray a person in a card game. A person can bluff or deceive others with a display of confidence and yet there are often small signs that give them away to an astute observer. Purity culture also has tells. One of the biggest tells of purity cultures is it does like this religious leader Jesus rebukes and puts emphasis on the letter of law or appearances over what is healing and helpful to other people.

Here are some other tells of purity culture…

Purity Cultures Blameshift

Purity cultures always release men from being completely responsible for their own sin. Instead, they use male failure as an excuse to manipulate and control others.

For example, in a purity culture, when a man was caught by his wife viewing pornography, and the matter went before church leaders, he was treated as the victim and his wife (along with every other woman) was made responsible. In this case, they urged his wife to dress plainer and they encouraged her to become pregnant, I kid you not, meanwhile this man goes around condemning those who do not ‘dress right’ or otherwise live to a standard that would keep him from sin.

Women are often blamed for male lusts in purity cultures and this goes completely contrary to anything Jesus taught on the subject. Hyperbole or not, we are told by Jesus to pluck our own eye out if it causes us to sin. But never are we told that it is a woman’s responsibility to keep a man’s thoughts pure. Men who shift blame for their own sinful thoughts and actions have no business calling themselves Christian leaders. A real Christian leader takes full responsibility for their own sin, falls on their knees and repents.

But in purity cultures, a man is more concerned with maintaining an image. And, for that reason, he cannot repent or take complete responsibility for fear of being exposed and losing social status. So, rather than admit it was his own weakness that led to failure, he must find some reason outside of himself for the failure.

In other words, a purity culture response is like that of King Saul who pointed a finger at the people when he willfully disobeyed God and not like King David who took full responsibility for his own sin when confronted. Had David been like Saul, and not “a man after [God’s] own heart,” he would have likely blamed Bathsheba rather than actually repent and made a royal decree banning roof bathing in the kingdom of Israel.

Purity Culture Is About Outward Appearances

True purity comes from the inside out and never the other way around. Purity cultures, on the other hand, are centered on maintaining an outward appearance of purity and never leads to an inner change. The Pharisees are a pristine example of purity culture and how those in one respond when corrected:

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal. Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” (Luke 11:37‭-‬45 NIV)

Catch that?

These guys were so oblivious to their own spiritual deadness that they couldn’t even believe that Jesus was talking about them. But Jesus didn’t slow down when one of the experts said he had insulted them, he stepped on the gas and continued on with his critique. In the verses that follow those above, Jesus decries the burdens these religious elites heap on others (without lifting a finger to help them carry) and compares them to those who killed the prophets. We are told that after this they peppered him with questions and tried, desperately, to catch him saying something wrong.

What should have happened is that they should’ve recognized themselves in his words, then made no more excuses for themselves and repented. Unfortunately, pride is the most difficult sin to confess for a person who is concerned with maintaining appearances, because admitting pride is admitting that their righteousness facade is just that, a show, and means lowering themselves to the level of the more visible sinners—whom the self-righteous hypocrites think that they compare favorably to.

Purity Culture Is Itself Impure

The dirty little secret of purity culture is that it, like the pornography and sexual immorality it decries, is not what it appears to be. Yes, they, like the Apostle Paul before his conversion, may be able to follow the letter of the law and even win the praise of their religious peers. They may present themselves as completely humble and meek if that is the religious cultural expectation. However, beneath this well-manicured appearance of holiness, they are totally faithless and spiritually dead.

Purity culture depends on human effort, conformity of visible behavior, and never a true transformation of heart. It is a culture concerned with outward appearance or physical cleanliness, like the Pharisees with their ritual washing, that neglects what is actually important and totally misses the point. Many in purity cultures have bamboozled themselves with their own act, they become defensive when confronted and refuse to humble themselves when exposed as fakers.

The outward appearance of a purity culture and true holiness is so similar and that is why it is so difficult to address. Those in a purity culture, in most cases, think of themselves as the good people, and while blaming everything but themselves for their own failures, are actually making a sincere effort. But true holiness does not start with human effort, it starts with recognizing that our own effort is nothing compared to the Holiness God and is depending fully on Him.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:6 NIV)

Going From Point A To Point B — Ten Big Steps In the Right Direction

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When I prayed, a few years ago, for the impossible to be made possible, I could not have imagined where that simple statement of faith would take me.

My problem in life has never been lack of ideals or absence of ambition; I have long had a vision for life, a heart for people around the world and desire to serve God’s kingdom. However, knowing how to get from point A (my ideals) to point B (actualization) was always the problem.

The Servant Who Buried His Talent

Some can accomplish their goals, they are able to be very directional and focused. That was my older sister. She was top of her class, all-state in violin, followed through on her vision to be a doctor, is published for her research and has her own clinic. She married while in medical school and has four wonderful children

Me, on the other hand, I quit violin lessons in frustration after a month, struggled immensely trying to concentrate in school, and felt like an underachiever. I wanted to be an engineer. However, I lacked my own ideas where to go. So, I decided to apply to the same college my sister picked from her list.

But, after being accepted, ended up deferring rather than start classes in the fall. And, other than attend my sister’s graduation, I never did go to Elizabethtown College. I continued to work. My jobs (before truck driving) really did not really pay enough for me to get ahead. My dreams had been meput on hold. I felt like the servant who buried his talents and hated it—there seemed to be no answer as to how to rectify my situation.

Spiritual Awakening and New Hope Discovered

Finally, I had an epiphany, I discovered the Holy Spirit. Scripture, the writings of the apostle Paul in particular, became alive. This new understanding made me bolder. My guilt for underachieving dissipated. I now rested in God’s grace. I had worked through the death of Saniyah and found a new hope. I also paid off my house and was now financially secure. There was momentum in my life and it felt good.

Still, with my chronic dithering and endless indecision, I also felt as if I had lost a decade of my life. I was in my thirties and somehow missed my calling in the church, didn’t have a career that felt long-term and was unmarried. To fail at one out of those things was bad enough. But all three? It was unthinkable. Sure, I had life experience, I didn’t feel bound to my past failures either, and yet I still felt held back by an invisible wall.

It was in this midst of my trying that I cried out to be “made right” and began my journey of these past several years. I knew my limitations. My desire was to be taken beyond what held me back and be fully what I was supposed to be. I told God I would crawl across a wilderness of broken glass if need be. I asked for the impossible to be made possible.

These are the things that have transpired since then…

1) I rehabbed a torn ACL. One of the problems with truck driving is that it sedentary and I had gained some weight. I was trying to start an exercise program. But it is really difficult to establish a new habit when you are out on the road and your weekly schedule is always in flux.

Well, the same day I prayed for the impossible, I tore my ACL and was off work for six months so I could do physical therapy.

An answer to prayer?

Tearing my ACL, while terribly painful and a setback, was an opportunity for a change of lifestyle. I came out of physical therapy stronger than ever and made it a priority to continue the exercise routine. I can jump higher than I could at twenty and even after reinjuring that knee.

It seemed that God had answered. That gave confidence to further pursue impossibility and go further to find my missing piece…

2) I asked an ethnic Mennonite girl, in person. Part of the reason I’ve remained single so long is because of my crippling social anxieties. It is difficult to get a date if you are unable to approach the women whom you are most interested in getting to know better and attractive unmarried Mennonite women terrified me.

But I was determined not to make the mistake of not asking in person this time. And, after a conversation with her father (in which he gave me permission to ask, but told me flat out that a relationship with her was an “impossibility” in a follow-up message) I waited for that right time. It came one day when she told me she was going to be cleaning at the church.

I was shaking like a leaf when I got to the church door. I prayed she wouldn’t be startled. She was vacuuming in the sanctuary, she turned, spotted me outside, and smiled. It was a great relief that the conversation went as well as it did. I had expressed myself clumsily and still clearly enough. She was smiling and stepping in. Amazingly enough, she did not run, she said we could talk when things settled down for her and things had gone as well as one could expect.

Ultimately her Mennonite ideals made it impossible for her to love me enough to even have some ice cream and talk with me. But I had triumphed over my fears, I had pursued the impossibility and, in faith, rejecting human understanding and calculations. I was willing to be foolish in faith in a way that those who best embodied my Mennonite ideals could not (or were unwilling to) reciprocate.

3) I wrote a book. In the throes of her rejection a few weeks later, which included the words “You’re thirty years old in Milton,” I began writing. I began writing and eventually ended up with a letter fourteen pages long which explained my thoughts on faith, the development of romantic thoughts, and how, with faith to bind us in unity, our differences would actually make us stronger together.

After weeks and weeks of effort, of writing, rewriting and fine tuning, that letter was never sent. As hostile as she was acting towards me since our talk it seemed an act of futility and the letter still sits on my desk unsent. It wasn’t the right time, I decided, and would only drive her further away. No argument I could make, no matter how sincere or reasonable, would win her heart.

However, the writing of that letter convinced me of something and that is my ability to write. Armed with a new found confidence (and a new found ability to focus thanks to the miracle of an Adderall prescription) I began to write a book. The final product was over 17,000 words long, a book about faith, “Paradox of Faith” and remains unpublished in need of a final edit that has not been completed.

4) I started a blog. The book project led to the blog. It seemed like a good idea to refine my writing and articulation of thoughts. Interestingly enough, my first blogs seemed to attract more atheist and thinkers than my Mennonite religious peers. However, as I began to open up and be more honest about my own struggles, my Mennonite audience grew. The blogs hardest to share, because of the vulnerability they required, had the most significant response.

The most amazing part is that my message went viral amongst Mennonites *after* I left the denomination. It seems quite absurd, the whole time I had held my tongue about my deeper struggles (for fear of being rejected) and my moment of greatest acceptance came with my brutal honesty and with my letting go of my fears.

5) I bought my dream car. When I had asked the ethnic Mennonite, the impossibility, I was driving a mid-90’s Ford Contour that I had pieced together. It’s a long story why, I could certainly have afforded a better vehicle, cars had always been a passion of mine, but my mode of daily transportation really didn’t matter to me at this point and I had bigger things on my mind.

But, after her rejection, and on the advice of my mom, I decided to find a newer car. I started to search the used car lots and ended up with a brand new, 2014, Ford Focus. There truly is something special about being the first owner. This car was a quantum leap over the 90’s model trade-in. Practically speaking, this might have been my best purchase ever because it gets 40mpg and I got it for the same price as two year old used cars of the same model.

That wasn’t my dream car.

Years before this the current deacon of my former church, a youth advisor then, had given me a hard time about my modified (and R-title) 1992 Mercury Cougar. A conservative Mennonite can own farms and businesses worth well over a million dollars, a fleet of trucks, an airplane, a boat, without anyone raising an eyebrow. Yet, buy anything resembling a sports car and there will be disapproval.

My entire life I had curtailed my passions to please my Mennonite peers and live by their culturally conditioned ideals. I had believed that by playing by their rules they would have my back, they would lovingly help me to bear my burdens, and would truly treat me as a brother. As the betrayal became clear, upon realizing that my fears of their disapproval didn’t matter anymore, I was free and ordered a brand new 2016 Shelby GT350.

Still, I had some second thoughts after committing to the purchase. Like Judas, the money corrupted betrayer of Jesus, I questioned the excess, “Wouldn’t that be better spent on the poor?” But decided to follow through and to dedicate this ridiculous car to God, to hold it openly as we should all our possessions, to give rides to those who ask, and sell it as soon as that is required.

You would be amazed at the friendships and opportunities that opened up as a result of my buying that car and not caring so much what a small number of religious hypocrites thought. And, truth be told, not many Mennonites actually cared one way or another anyways, I was merely a prisoner of my own people-pleasing tendencies, and my conscience is clear before God.

6) I finally got the ‘right’ job. One of those things I begged of my Mennonite peers was a chance to be off the road. Some are cut out for solitude, those long hours alone in a truck cab, far away from home, but for me it was like solitary confinement, detrimental to my mental health, and started to lead to some bizarre thoughts. You really cannot know how much you need other people, even as background noise, until they are absent.

Perhaps my nagging paid off, perhaps as a consolation prize for pursuing the impossibility, or just chalk it up to God’s provision; but it was the father of the impossibility who mentioned my name to Titus (Titus, at the time, a Facebook friend, probably the result of my blogging, and not some I had met in person) who was seeking a replacement for himself as a truss designer.

Titus contacted me and the rest is history. So I owe my current job, in part, to the man who refused to recommend me to his daughter and must always give him credit for that. And, a bit over a year in, it truly is a great fit for my natural abilities. My work environment is wonderful and I couldn’t be happier. Finally my passion for engineering has found a place where it is useful.

7) I bought a rental. I really only wanted to live a small and safe life. That was my ideal as a Mennonite. And figured that once I paid my house off I would just build some savings as cushion and kick back a bit. However, a strange thing happened when I finally reached that point where I could just relax.

I owned my home outright. I owed not a dime on that unattainable dream car purchased a year before. I had given up on the Mennonite ideals (and delusions) that had kept me captivated. I could have done nothing besides maintain a lifestyle that had seemed ideal for most of my life. But somehow I ended up buying a cute little house and decided to be a landlord.

I’m not sure where that will lead. But, for the benefit of others, I hope some day to own some land and establish a business somewhere else.

Where, you might ask?

Well, that’s next…

8) I lived entirely for someone else’s good. Ecclesiastes does contain some timeless wisdom. One of them being that everything under the sun is, of itself, vanity and meaningless. I had everything I’ve ever wanted in life. I even had some ridiculous things besides. But lacked that one thing that mattered and that being the love that would last forever.

My vision of a composite of too different individuals in faith and love seemed to have failed. The Mennonite impossibility was engaged (actually, had just started dating, but that is essentially the same as engaged in the conservative Mennonite realm) and deep despair engulfed what had remained of my hopes in the denomination of my youth. I thought to end my miserable life.

Yet, while my faith internally had been extinguished, the purest part of it had survived externally in that seed of hope I planted in someone on the complete opposite side of the world. As I sank under the waves of doubt, she grabbed hold of my hand and refused to let me slip away into oblivion. I had no reason left in myself to live. However, I could not bear to see my precious bhest—the one who had been a little lost sheep when I found her—suffer on account of me.

She asked me to be strong for her and I decided then and there that I would live if only for her good. My intentions had not been romantic when we first started talking a year before and my Mennonite ideals would have prevented a relationship with her before then. But the true impossibility was being made possible in my heart. God had provided as promised.

9) I went around the world. I don’t have the millennial urge for experience. Yes, I wanted to help those in need around the world and was extremely attracted to the missionary zeal of the Mennonite ideal. But I lacked the impetus to do it on my own and hoped that this impossibility would be made possible through a Mennonite who, like my eldest sister, did have the ability to set her objectives and reach them.

Bhest, my precious bhest, gave me that clear direction of where I needed to go. I purchased my ticket in the spring of last year, brushed off my dusty passport, and planned this trip that would take me a full twelve timezones from home. And it was an amazing trip. It was absolutely wonderful to be embedded with her family during their holiday celebration a few months ago.

There is much that needs to be worked through. It is not easy to connect two lives on the literal opposite ends of the globe. My relationship with her means a permanent divorce with my Mennonite ideals. But, with God and faith, all things are possible and that was the promise that had set me on my way a few years ago.

I had my own ideas of what impossibility was and my version required other people to change. But God’s impossibility required me to change, it required me to sacrifice my own Mennonite ideals and seek what is greater faith and love. I had to choose between my Mennonite identity and what is truly Christian ideals.

10) I’ve gone beyond Mennonite. It wasn’t my own choice. I very much understand why many remain Mennonite. Who would leave their own version of Hobbiton in the Shire and second breakfasts for a true journey of faith and self-sacrificial love, right? But circumstances beyond my control have forced me to go beyond what I know, beyond my ethnic group, and find the Jesus beyond the Mennonite tomb.

Mennonite Ideals Had Entombed My Faith

Last Sunday, the Sunday of myrrh bearing women, was about the women who went the tomb to find Jesus. These women, unlike the male disciples that had fled, had remained faithful to Jesus even in his death and had gone to his grave to find him:

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:1‭-‬5 NIV)

Wow.

How profound.

My Mennonite ideals were built around my own understanding. Like those faithful women, I had entombed Jesus within my own assumptions about what is and is not possible. Even in my seeking after the impossibility I had been imprisoned by my own concepts of possibility and became extremely confused when my own limited understanding of faith died.

Many Mennonites are, likewise, prisoners to their own cultural ideals and confirmation bias. They, like Mary Magdelene, who initially didn’t recognize the resurrected Jesus, are so focused in on their own forms of devotion and so bound to their own cultural expectations, that they miss the obvious. They toil away, so faithful to their ideals, and are in denial of the greater things God has established for them by His grace.

I have traveled from point A to point B. It may not have been a straight path. I’ve spent too many years wandering the wilderness due to the limits of my own understanding and my anxieties. But the impossible becomes possible as soon we are willing to step out in faith and the promised land awaits those who do.

When is the last time you have aimed for the impossible, the truly impossible, and found God faithful in way you could not expected?

A Conservative Mennonite and Feminist Perspective…

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A conservative Mennonite friend of mine (female) asked me to read this letter and after reading it I asked her if I could publish it on my blog. Her perspective seemed worthwhile to share because she certainly is not the only one who sees some of the incongruity of expectations. I’m sympathetic for conservative women who grew up routinely lectured about protecting men from their impure thoughts and regularly reminded (albeit usually in more gentle manner) of an appropriate role of women that serves male interests. I know conservative parents who still discourage their daughters from receiving a useful education because they are apparently supposed to always be at home cooking, cleaning and caring for children. I recall a pastor who only seemed able to come up with picking the drapes as a decision his wife could make unaided by him. It is surprising that more women raised in such a setting aren’t saying “enough is enough” and finding a more hospitable environment, but just because many do not choose to leave doesn’t mean that they are unaware and these are the kinds of cultural concerns that should be addressed by those concerned about the future of the church. I used to wonder why some conservative Mennonite girls would completely drop all of the cultural standards overnight and leave never to return again. But I understand now that many Mennonite homes weren’t like the one that I was raised in…

______________________________ ,

Greetings! Your scheduled topic “Christian response to Feminism” really piqued my interest as issues surrounding female perception have been a great concern for me for the last nearly 2 years. I confess I am still struggling to find a resting place on this. It’s a deeply sensitive topic for some women, and addressing it has the potential to be either deeply refreshing, or to further solidify in a woman’s mind her reasons for her feminist views, especially when coming from a male.

May I be as bold as to say that there’s a reason for any heartfelt feminist tendencies a conservative Anabaptist woman may have, as she likely doesn’t have much feminist influence from friends, media, or literature. For myself, I began developing my own observations about the inconsistencies and ultimately dangerous effects of patriarchy in conservative culture. As I began grasping for answers, (tearfully, desperately) I was nearly horrified to discover I had so many marks of a true feminist! I was asking the same questions as these secular, assertive women! I had no prior influence of feminism, and certainly never aspired to be “one of those.” I always deemed them annoying, brash women who need to sit down and get back in their place. But I GET them. I understand why they have put their foot down and said “enough!” And to tell them to “stop being Feminist” would be completely ineffective at best. A true feminist doesn’t wake up one morning and decide to be one. It develops over years of feeling like she’s getting kicked around by the word, men in particular. Feminism is a defense mechanism. Not to say their reactions are without fault. Justified or not, All human beings have a tendency to defend themselves when hurt.

At times, I wonder where this burden for women developed for me because I didn’t have an abusive father, and my husband has been absolutely amazing in his efforts to understand my feelings. And that has meant so much to me! His humble, selfless leadership makes me want to be that vulnerable Prov. 31 woman. My father, however, was not so interested in listening to any “feely” stuff from a woman. I resented the way he expected my mother to serve him at every turn and had no regard for her schedule, etc. I saw how she cheerfully obliged. (She’s a saint!) I saw it as enabling him to be selfish. He wanted a huge family, but he wasn’t home much. I rarely ever saw him give back to my mom. But he’s a good guy because he goes to church, didn’t leave his wife, and provides (in excess) for his family. I’m sure he never meant to come off as self-centered…he’s simply a product of his culture.

Some women are perfectly content to have no significance besides wife and mother. Content to get up early Sunday mornings to make food, get the children dressed for church, then miss out on church because she’s feeding the baby. (while he drinks in spiritual nourishment) After church, the women scurry around to set out a beautiful lunch which the men enjoy and then retreat to the living room. The women then clean up the dishes, some with a child on her hip, all whilst the men enjoy a day of rest.

Me? I’m not ok with that. Not because I mind the work, but because of the existing mindset and the message it sends to our boys…“Women exist to serve men.” Can you imagine if your entire lifelong purpose as a man was to serve women, and any ambition beyond that was to take a back seat?

There are so many issues that could be discussed on roles and the way men perceive women. At times, I am frightened by what I see in our churches. We would agree that the Amish and Muslim cultures tend to suppress women with very high standards of modesty and conduct that don’t necessarily have a male equivalent. (Amish pants are not modest, and smoking is common!) And yet, they are known to have alarmingly high rates of rape and abuse. They clip the wings of their women and children so there is little contact with the outside world. It’s a ripe environment for every kind of abuse. Sometimes I fear we’re not too far behind.

We need to be very careful what messages we are conveying when we put a greater burden of responsibility on women than we do on men. For instance, why are some things more unacceptable for a woman to do than a man? Such as forsaking parental responsibility to go on leisure trips? One “upstanding” man’s response, when challenged about his hunting obsession, was “Well…at least I’m not visiting bars.” How low have our expectations fallen!? Can you imagine if his wife had given the same reply for neglecting her family responsibility? A woman must submit to her authority at all times, yet power struggles among men are common in the church. (Men are called to submit as well.) Why does it seem 95% of the time, in the case of marital infidelity in our circles, a man leaves his wife rather than a wife leaving her husband for another lover? And then she’s told it’s her fault for not being _________ enough. Answers!

If women are to be feminine, then let’s celebrate that! A friend of mine told me that her well-meaning husband wants all sons because girls just grow up and get married, and sons go out as warriors to make an impact on the world. That’s great, but how does that translate for females? Another friend told me that her (very conservative) Father-in-Law boldly declared that he wants all grandsons. Way to encourage femininity! Our church holds events where only males are expected to participate, and women spectate and watch the children. There are no events where men are to sit as spectators of exclusive women’s events. Honestly, as an ambitious, active, self-thinking woman, I feel as though I’m dying inside when it feels every outlet for expression (hobbies, ministry, using my gifts in business) is either frowned upon or stomped to death. It feels women are “set on a shelf” until needed, stuffed back in the kitchen so the “real world” can carry on, enjoying the fruits of our labors. It really is a man’s world.

I realize I run the risk of sounding whiney and downright awful “as becometh a godly Christian woman,” because Christian women should have no opinions, no passion, no voice, and no life besides wife and mother. But these are the themes I am hearing from many women who think they don’t have a voice, and feel powerless to change anything, “so we might as well grin and bear it.” You would never know because we do those Sunday duties with a smile and don’t complain. But I am sharing my honest feelings with you only to shed light on the issue of feminism as it pertains to a growing number of Anabaptist women.

We’ve come a long way since the dark ages where a man could leave the house and be gone for hours without having to say a word to his wife. We also find the Patriarchal model in the Old Testament, but it was so far from ideal. And when Jesus came, He elevated the status of women! Yes, world events have gotten worse since the 60s but they are better than Old Testament times!

I want to be clear that I fully adhere to the Biblical model for male/female relationship. I’ve always been fascinated by the “way of a man with a maiden” and longed for my prince charming even as a young girl. But it’s when those dreams of male chivalry turn to male chauvinism in reality that we begin asking questions about whether our system is God-honoring, or man-honoring. I am not advocating we do an overhaul on gender roles. The biggest concern is perception. How are females perceived by males, and what are we taught to believe about ourselves?

There are many wonderful men out there who are not out to conquer and subdue their women, but because of what they’ve come to believe about women, they assume that the patriarchal arrangement is just dandy, and I can’t blame them. They will never know differently if women don’t believe they have a right to lovingly tell them how they really feel. The Prov. 31 woman is actually much different than who we often make her out to be! She is buying and selling. She is ministering to others. Her arms are strong. She brings her food from afar. She doesn’t remind me of someone who stays within the 4 walls of her home, except for grocery trips. 🙂

The only cure for Feminism I can see is for women to feel safe under male servant leadership, to feel protected and valued as a human being…valued not for what she can offer a man (attractiveness, domestic talent, making babies…etc) but for who God created her to be…her unique purpose. Men who give to the marriage relationship by taking equal responsibility as a parent when present and valuing female perspective on important issues by asking her opinion. It takes a community of intentional, humble, sacrificial men to make women feel validated, secure, and significant in what God has called them to do as “fellow heirs together of the grace of life!”

I hope this is helpful information as you prepare your messages on the topic. This letter was approved by my husband. 🙂 If you have questions, we would be more than happy to talk! Also, feel free to share this letter with those who may benefit by it, but please omit my name. Thanks 🙂 Blessings as you serve the church!

Cultural Problems: How the Real Slim Shady Became President

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

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

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

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

The Two-way Street Between Artist and Audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollywood Hypocrisy Has Been Exposed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump Is the Symptom, Not the Disease

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

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

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

Are You Better Than Joel Osteen?

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Religious fundamentalists and their irreligious secular counterparts have found something in common—that being their shared hatred of Joel Osteen.
Osteen, a best-selling author, pastor of the gigantic Lakewood Church in Houston, has long been bashed for his positive spin on Biblical teachings and preaching what is often called prosperity gospel. Many on the religious right have long regarded him as a false teacher for the lack of fire and brimstone in his message. Meanwhile many on the left have long accused him of being hypocritical for stating that homosexuality is a sin (or his “gay problem” as Salon describes it) and for his embrace of wealth.

The latest media-fueled outrage started when JustOn Baze, a gay activist, found time—in the middle of a hurricane—to visit Osteen’s church. Baze and his friend posted a live video on Facebook that showed some parts of the exterior of the Lakewood building unflooded. His vitriolic commentary launched a shaming campaign on social media, which was reported on dutifully by the clickbaiting corporate media, and soon became a unique opportunity for activists on both sides to join forces.

Overnight, because the church was not immediately open, many on the right and left lined up to unleash their judgments of this celebrity pastor. No amount of explanation was sufficient, the conclusions had been drawn that Osteen deserves condemnation and now the effort to disparage him is in full gear…

I will not join those critical of Osteen.

I do not judge him. I do not know enough about the circumstances following Harvey to render judgment of his response. I know he has opened the doors after the storm in cooperation with the city efforts and his congregation will likely be involved in the recovery after the deluge.

I also know that most Americans should be careful not to condemn anyone for their wealth. Considering the median income in the US is over $51,000, and it takes only $32,000 to be in the top 1% of income earners in the world, we are all wealthy. Even our poor are provided for through social programs and I’m quite sure those who lost all in Houston will find a way to recover with or without a vow of poverty from Osteen.

When over 90% of Americans households have a car—a privilege less than 9% of the world can share in—we have plenty of reason to be generous and humble. We, as wealthy Americans, even those who lost all in Houston, have a billion reasons not to be judgmental of those wealthier than us. I can’t be critical of Osteen or his congregation when I consider how wealthy I am relative to most in the world.

It is really none of my business what Osteen and his congregation do with their collective resources. Their building, his salary and home, is something they worked for and therefore their perogative.

What good will come from attacking them?

We should consider this admonition:

“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)

We should consider the words of Jesus:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1‭-‬2)

It is easy to see ourselves as the good guys and feel justifed in our condemnation. But Jesus gives clear warning: We will be judged as we judge. That is good reason not to bash anyone. That is good reason to be gracious to all people—including Osteen.

Where should our focus be?

Our focus should be on living righteously ourselves. Our focus should be on showing true love and compassion to all people and especially where it is needed the most.

This week, looking through friend requests, I saw a picture on one of their pages that broke my heart:

Who will come to her aid?
Who will help the many like her born into poverty?

Filipino street children live like that every day and not just after a natural disaster. My readership is large enough that we could do something big for many children who were not given the same opportunities we have. We could fund an orphanage, programs to help set these children in the direction of success, and still have plenty left over for ourselves.

We don’t need to be better than anyone besides ourselves. Instead of bashing celebrities, our focus should be on being better than our former selves, repenting of our own sins and showing the way through example. That is true Christian leadership, that is the “good news” of Jesus Christ, and our responsibility to the world.

Who shares my vision for street children in the Philippines?

Who would help me in such an endeavor?

“They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:7)

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When Iran, a nation where people held candlelight vigils in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, were themselves the target of a terrorist attack last week many Americans (including the Trump administration) added insult to injury and called it karma.

Apparently, these Americans, reveling in a terrorist attack, are unable to differentiate between Saudi Arabian hijackers (Sunni Arabs) and Iranian civilians (Persian Shites) mercilessly gunned down in Tehran.  I guess to them terrorism is only bad when American and European people are the targets?

What’s worse is the missed opportunity to defeat a common enemy (ISIS) and also to bridge a divide between two nations that should have never happened in the first place.  This is probably because we have selective memory and remember the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 (when 52 American diplomats were taken hostage) yet not the decades of meddling by our government that led up to it.

Americans forget that we drew first blood in the conflict with Iran when our government (via the CIA) participated in the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953.  It was called “Operation Ajax,” it was intended to serve British oil interests and ended with our installing brutal monarchal rule under Mohammed Reza who was called the Shah (or king) of Iran.

With all the outrage over alleged Russian interference in our election and our own history of revolution against kings, it should be easy to understand what came next: The Iranians took their country back, the Shah escaped to the United States to avoid accountability, our government refused to send him back to stand trial in Iran, and in response, they took our diplomats hostage.

The great irony here is that the only Americans harmed were the eight U.S servicemen killed and four wounded in a helicopter crash during a bungled military operation to rescue the hostages.  That’s not to mention the one Iranian civilian, who was guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and was killed by an Army Ranger’s shoulder-fired rocket.

Yet, despite our own casualties being self-inflicted, since then the U.S. government has made it their policy to do harm to the Iranian people.  For example, there is a reason why some in our government knew Saddam Hussain had chemical weapons: we enabled him to use them against the Iranians.

The Iran-Iraq war, started in the 1980s when Iraq invaded Iran, was a bloody conflict that cost more than a million lives.  In response to the carnage Henry Kissinger, a former U.S. Secretary of State, smirked, “it is a pity they both can’t lose.”

It is little wonder that the Iranian leaders would seek a nuclear deterrence given our past (and present) aggression.  From their perspective, it is simply a matter of survival given that U.S. leaders regularly threaten.  For example, long-term Senator John McCain who thought singing “bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” was funny and praised the leader of a Marxist terrorist organization that has murdered thousands of Iranians.

McCain actually met with the leadership of Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) to express his hopes that they would someday rule in Iran.  The thought of this is horrifying to a secular Iranian friend of mine.  My friend, while not a fan of the current Iranian government, says that she (and most other Iranians) do not want the MEK in power and are shocked​ that a prominent U.S. politician would openly support terrorism.

How quickly the American public forgets that our government (including McCain) also gave support (direct or indirect) to Osama Bin Laden when he was fighting a holy war against the Soviet Union.  Of course, they do remember the blowback when the terrorist we helped to create turned his attention on us as a result of our meddling in his own part of the world.  Talk about karma.

And, no surprise, U.S. interventions (supported by then-Secretary of State, Hillary “we came, we saw, he died” Clinton, and none other than John McCain) have also resulted in the formation of ISIS.  It is obvious that our leadership never learns from the blowback and the American public—putting it too lightly—is woefully ignorant of the misdeeds supposedly done on their behalf around the world.

Any slight hope that the Trump administration would take a more sensible approach has pretty much disappeared when they responded to the terrorist attacks with political opportunism rather than solidarity against ISIS (who claimed responsibility for the attacks in the Iranian capital Tehran) and, in the process, we are driving further away many Iranians who once looked upon America as great despite our numerous violations of their sovereignty.

We put a travel ban on Iran who has never once attacked the American homeland and has only fought in defense against the attacks of the U.S. and our regional allies.  But then no travel ban is applied to Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries where the 9/11 hijackers came from.  It is absurd that we are still signing weapons deals with a nation that doesn’t allow women to drive, uses beheadings as punishment, funds the spread of Wahabbism worldwide, and backs ISIS, while opposing a nation merely fighting to keep us out.

Given our inability to admit hypocrisy or even to recognize our own mistakes, it is likely only a matter of time before the next group of U.S. supported “dissidents” and “freedom fighters” accomplish their objectives and then turn their bloodthirsty eyes on us, like Bin Laden did, and make their mission putting a permanent end to our hegemonic ambitions.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.  We are still sowing the wind, covertly killing anyone (including the murder of civilian scientists) who stands in the way of our global dominance, supporting terrorism against those who do not want to be our puppets and will likely reap yet another whirlwind as a result.

 

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?

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

Standard

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.