Should the Church Have Rituals and Traditions?


Of those traditions kept by my conservative Mennonite church, a foot washing ritual was one of the more notable. It is a practice based in the example of Jesus who washed the feet of the disciples and then instructed them to follow his example:

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17, NIV)

So, twice a year with Communion, after a sermon about some aspect of the sacrifice Jesus made, after partaking of some bread and grape juice together and then another short reminder of why we were doing the stuff we did, the men would be dismissed to the basement (leaving the women the upstairs to do their symbolic washing) and on the way down we men would pair up with the guy beside us or another guy that we selected for whatever reason.

We would remove our shoes and socks, then proceed to one of the plastic basins arranged in front of folding chairs, then take turns solemnly splashing water on each other’s feet and dabbing them dry again with a towel provided. Once finished with this ritual procedure most would shake hands (those less inhibited would kiss) and engage in awkward small talk or make a comment about keeping their washing partner in prayer over the next few months.

In our time, this act of foot washing is little more than a symbolic act of service. But when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples it was something of practical value to those traveling the dusty roads in sandals and a task typically reserved for the servants. In that context it was a very significant gesture and represented a whole new approach to leadership. In the Mennonite context this practice is sometimes nothing more than a ritual and tradition.

Is reinvention of orthodoxy the answer to dead faith?

People often equate ritual and tradition in the church to dead faith. As a result, those disgruntled with dead faith swing in the direction of innovation and spontaneity hoping to find something authentic and real. Unfortunately, while the first generation of those discarding established tradition often experience the excitement of something new, their children do not get a temporary emotional bump from the change. It should be no surprise when these children continue down the same path and throw out practices that their parents considered to be sacred and essential.

The idiom, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” (derived from a German proverb “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütte”) is a warning against destroying something good in our zeal to be rid of what is bad. This saying was first recorded in 1512 and right before Martin Luther touched off a revolt against the established church. It is a phrase, frequently used by Luther himself, perhaps worried people would take what he started too far. It remains a very popular expression with Protestants (including Mennonites) who are trying desperately to retain their own children.

There is much in Scripture about the sins of fathers being transmitted to the next generation (Exodus 34:6-7, Leviticus 26:39, Deuteronomy 5:8-10) and seems to apply to our own circumstances today. Children, through genetics or behavioral patterning, often acquire the strengths of their parents. A parent’s good example can lead their children to good habits. And, in the same manner, children often also inherit the defects, blind-spots and weaknesses of their parents as well. Children build both on the success and also on the sins and/or shortcomings of the prior generation.

So, it should not be a big surprise that the children of Protestants continue down a path of independence, reinterpretation of Scripture and departure from what was established. Protestantism, with the inordinate focus on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, has led to further division, ever-increasing individualism, and significant loss of Christian character. Many Protestants, following the example of their forefathers, assume that the path to spiritual life is found in throwing off of traditions and rituals—but I believe they are terribly mistaken.

Orthodox tradition and ritual is not at fault for abuses of the institutions of the church…

What is the basis for tradition and ritual in the church?

Many seem to forget that Jesus was a Jew and faithfully kept the Jewish religious tradition. Jesus did speak against those who “let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8, NIV) or in other words those who prioritized religious rituals over love for others.

Yet Jesus did not dismiss ritual and tradition as completely unimportant either. Jesus and early Jewish converts to Christianity (while ranking the substance of faith higher than the religious symbolism) did not totally disregard the traditions that had been established.

To truly love Jesus means to follow his example and keep his commands. This, according to the words of Jesus, is requisite to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:15‭-‬21, NIV )

Many church rituals (like Baptism, Communion and foot washing) are directly from the Gospels and given as instruction to the disciples by Jesus. And, it is in the Gospels that we read that Jesus gave authority to his disciples. He told Peter and the disciples this:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18‭-‬19, NIV)

The early church clearly had a hierarchy with real authority and one that built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. It is the writings of these early church fathers that contain their witness to the life of Jesus and also provide their reader with further divinely-inspired instruction. This is what they said:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15, NIV)

Scripture didn’t just drop out of the sky written on golden tablets. No, rather it is a collection of inspired writings compiled and later canonized by the authority of a church council. That, the Bible, is the written tradition of the church (or “letter”) and is a source widely accepted as authoritative. However, in Protestant churches, because they reject any authority besides their own, the “spoken word” of church tradition has not been firmly held—it is neglected and forgotten.

The complete disregard for the oral tradition of the church is no different from cutting a chunk out of Scripture. Sure, as a person can refrain from applying the instruction Paul gives in regards to veiling (and not veiling) in 1 Corinthians 11 and still be Christian, these things aren’t necessary to be saved. However, this represents the deterioration of church tradition and a serious problem. At some point we cannot claim to be following after the example of Jesus and continue to abandon the practices of the church he established.

There is a real loss when the established tradition is tossed in favor of a more ‘contemporary’ program. Moreover, those leaving their religious tradition often continue to benefit from the values it helped to instill in them. Sadly, the full cost is often only felt in subsequent generations who didn’t have the unappreciated benefits of the old tradition—the children raised without tradition have lost the helpful reminders given to their parents and also an important stabilizing tie to the historic church.

What makes tradition and ritual important?

The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” contains the following monologue:

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That, I can tell you in a word—tradition!

Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything—how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you—I don’t know! But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Tevye’s character is a Jewish father standing at this intersection of religious tradition and compromise in the name of progress. He points to one of the reasons why traditions are formed and that is balance. Traditions and rituals are established to help provide stability and order to our lives.

Rituals also help reduce anxiety and increase confidence even for those who do not believe they are beneficial:

Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. (“Why Rituals Work,” Scientific American)

At practice and before games my high school football team went through the same “warm up” routine. Some of the reason for this was to physically prepare us to prevent injury through stretching and get us warmed up. But the other part, perhaps even the larger and more significant part, is what this ritual did psychologically to calm our nerves and get us mentally prepared. This practice and pre-game ritual made us better individually and also helped our cohesiveness as a team.

Beyond that, it is what Jesus taught and showed by example. Jesus did not entirely do away with his Jewish rituals and traditions. In fact, he added to them, going as far as to give the disciples a template for a simple prayer (given in contrast to the arrogant public prayers of religious elites and “babbling like pagans”) and this “Lord’s prayer” is still practiced—even in Protestant churches. If one understands the value of Baptism and Communion then there should be no argument. Rituals are important to help to pattern, influence and shape our minds.

Traditions provide us with a structure that helps us to navigate our lives. When Paul urges believers to conduct their worship “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40) it is not intended to stifle their freedom or individuality. It is rather to free them from chaos and confusion. We are creatures of habit, we do not do well in a constantly shifting environment, and therefore ritual is even more important in these tumultuous times.

As Tevye said, traditions are reminders of who we are and what God expects from us.

So what to do with dead orthodoxy?

It is fairly obvious that people can continue in religion long after they’ve become spiritually dead. Ritual and tradition, while a benefit to the faithful, cannot preserve faith. Christianity is not as simple as checking the right boxes. As Jesus told the perplexed Nicodemus “you must be born again” and about how the Spirit works like “wind” that “blows wherever pleases” (John 3:1-21) there is a profound mystery in this that goes beyond a religious program and all human rationality.

Protestants, of all people, should know this. Every generation there is a new method that comes along, another “remnant” group sharing their own version of the Gospel, the next author trying to pump the purpose back into Christianity or yet another list of fundamentals, ordinances or doctrines, and all these movements eventually seem to end up in the same place again. Often these re-inventors end up leaving their children even more ignorant of church history and with even less to grasp onto. Some might declare themselves to be the more pure, but they are also void of any tradition with staying power and the proof is in the legacy they leave.

Dead orthodoxy is a result of dead faith. And, in the same manner that new window dressing won’t help to stabilize a wooden structure weakened by termites, reinventing traditions and rituals will never bring spiritual life back where the church has fallen off its foundation. The foundation of faith is Jesus, his faithful church is constructed upon that foundation—with the traditions it has passed on both in written and spoken form for our benefit—and there is no spiritual life gained in throwing this legacy out.

In fact, it is arrogant to think that we would be better to start from scratch and create our own new orthodoxy rather than draw from the experience and wisdom accumulated over many generations. It is basically to say that we today are better than all those faithful Christians of the past two millennia who kept these traditions and saw fit to pass them on to us.

Does the ritual of Baptism ever take away repentance?

Can our Communion practice come at the expense of our love for Christ’s body?

Should we stop celebrating Christmas and Easter because they aren’t found in the Bible and have been corrupted by American culture?

Our ridding ourselves of these established and orthodox Christian practices will not draw us any closer to God.

Yes, the foot washing tradition practiced at my Mennonite church is worthless if the act does not truly represent our heart. The veiling is often associated with the failures of Mennonite men to lead in the example of Christ and thus the practice of the veil is often discarded by ex-Mennonite women. But both represent cases of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is not the ritual of foot washing or the imperfect application of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that is at fault. Tradition and ritual should never be blamed for our lack of those things that should come from the heart.

True, faith is not established upon religious rituals or traditions and they certainly can be corrupted. The apostle Paul had to sternly warn early Christians against the abuse of the Lord’s Supper and had to further define the practice in an effort to prevent them from abusing it. But what he didn’t do is throw his hands up and say: “Okay, no more Communion, let’s go back to the basics and just show our love for each other through charitable acts!” No, he urged them to rediscover, not reinvent, and that is what the faithful do.

The solution to dead orthodoxy is not reinvention. The solution to dead orthodoxy is to address the real problem and renew the heart of faith that makes the tradition meaningful and allows the ritual come alive.

What tradition should we keep?

Every denomination has rituals and traditions. The format of a Mennonite service, for example, intended to be a bit less formal, can be very dry and predictable. The song leader leads some songs, men argue our pet issues in Sunday school class while women sit in stoney silence in theirs, the deacon (after pleading for us to think about the meaning of the hymns we just sang) goes through the laundry list of activities and repeat prayer requests, after another song the preacher does his thing as some doze in the pews, and finally the congregation is dismissed to talk about farming, hunting, sports or politics.

At some point all new “movements” end up creating a new ritual and tradition. John and Charles Wesley introduced a radical new “methodical” approach to study and life. This eventually became the “Methodist” denomination. Mennonites take their denominational name from Menno Simons, a Catholic priest that became caught up in the Anabaptist movement, and now are mostly an ethnic church known for a “peace witness” and shoo-fly pies.

Not all religious rituals and traditions are equal in history or value. Sunday school, revival meetings, VBS, “sweetheart banquets,” mother’s day celebrations, Bible schools and church retreats are part of the Mennonite church calendar, but they are certainly not the equivalent of Ascension day, Lent season, Paschal feast or many of the other long established orthodox practices that some have abandoned in the past few centuries. I would rather we started to look at what was established early and has worked for many generations than try to create a dumbed-down, less historically grounded version.

The tradition of many Protestant churches has become so watered down there is little left to reinvent besides the Bible. As a result, those seeking an emotional high through change are running out of options and when their current experience isn’t satisfying anymore, some decide to toss the Bible next. That is the progressive approach. That is the approach that confuses their own temporal feelings of pleasure with spiritual gain.

In conclusion…

Faith is not created by ritual and tradition nor can it be increased by discarding them. Spiritual life comes through obedience and is also a mysterious work of God. We aren’t saved through our religious devotion. A person can go through the motions of Baptism, Communion, foot washing or any other orthodox Christian practice without ever having a change of heart.

That said, the truly faithful do benefit from the reminders, the structure and patterns for behavior that orthodox rituals and traditions provide. In my own experience it has helped me to worship in a manner that has been established over many generations. To join together with that “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and to worship as Christians did for thousands of years has been a tremendous experience that cannot be duplicated with a new light show and smoke machine.

A person who burns down their house because they don’t like some of the decorations on the walls might be momentarily free. But the enjoyment and empowerment of this new found simplicity and freedom will soon be a desperate struggle to protect themselves from the elements. And the same goes for those who think they gain through taking an eraser to the rituals, traditions and established orthodoxy of the church. The benefits are fleeting and the cost of trying to restore what was lost is great.

Yes, some necessary structure can be built back in a generation or two after the full loss of the change is felt, but not without slavish effort to restore it and where is the freedom in that?

A life unfettered by any established ritual and historical tradition might seem ideal for the freedom and simplicity that it promises. However, not all is as advertised, the freedom is an illusion and the reality created is often quite complicated. Taking a wrecking ball to established order often leads to only chaos and more confusion. Worse, it robs the next generation of their religious inheritance and leaves children worse off than their perpetually dissatisfied parents.

Our faith should be founded on Jesus, our religion grounded on the truth of his word, our life lived in obedience to the Spirit, and that means keeping the traditions passed down by his church. Spiritual life is restored through genuine repentance and not by abandoning ritual. Renewed faith comes with our humble obedience and not by reinventing traditions.

Jesus did not discard all ritual and tradition nor should we. There is a place for both in the church. It is a connection that we need now more than ever in the shifting sands of our time. Perhaps it is time for some reflection, rediscovery and restoration?


When You Die Along With Your Dreams


“He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

Those words have haunted me since I read them in high school.  Jay Gatsby was a fictional character, a creation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mind, but his story of seeking something from his past (a something that seemed close enough to grab yet was already forever behind him) has stuck with me.

Gatsby’s fixation, a moment from his youth, a girl named Daisy, continued to flirt with and torment him.  The green light at the end of her dock across the water was to him a beacon of hope.  He had taken the long way around (as one not born rich) and worked hard to increase his social status, he had achieved more than most men who started where he did—yet he still was not acceptable to her or those of her class and never would be despite his effort.

“…but now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail. He knew that Daisy was extraordinary, but he didn’t realize just how extraordinary a ‘nice’ girl could be. She vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life, leaving Gatsby—nothing. He felt married to her, that was all.”

Daisy, to everyone besides Gatsby, was a frivolous person, oblivious to the carnage in her wake, and a strange obsession for a man who had everything.  But to him, in his mind looking backwards, she represents something that had escaped him, perhaps the innocence of his youth or just a moment of time that passed him by that could not be recaptured despite the greatness he achieved.  It could be as simple as his wanting her acceptance.

Ultimately Gatsby’s dream of a restored youthful romance ended in his actual death.  He was murdered, the result of a confused set of circumstances involving Daisy’s recklessness, and his deluded hopes died with him.  It was sad end, but almost the most merciful end, because he was locked in and could not escape a tragic fate.

The Mennonite Gatsby…

I’ve always been a nostalgic and sentimental person.  For better or worse, I’ve often been last to leave, the one who held on a little longer, and a person guided more by loyalties than practical concerns.  This disposition is probably why Gatsby’s hopeless pursuit of things already behind him had resonated with me.   It was sometimes difficult for me to distinguish the past from the future.

This backwards orientation is also part of my religious cultural inheritance.  Mennonites, like other Anabaptist groups, seem to find most of their identity in a defining historical figures and moments.  Ideas like non-conformity, while originating as a reference to a radical transformation of heart, have become primarily about maintaining a cultural status quo and preserving a Mennonite appearance.  Mennonite attempts to re-brand their denomination usually reach backwards for their inspiration.

Unfortunately, the past, no matter how hard you reach for it, will always stay right beyond your grasp.

And, eventually, a person reaching back rather than forward will sacrifice the only opportunity they have for a future.

There was an ideal within the Mennonite church that had held me captive for many years.  It is the story of those who do all the right Mennonite things, who find their perfect Mennonite partner, have their beautiful half dozen kids, find their special place in the church, and feel good about themselves in the process.  I had failed to achieve at many points along the way and still had hopes that someday the right pieces would fall into place for my happily-ever-after story to begin.  It was the day that never came.  My Mennonite dream was somewhere in my past, forever behind me, but I was so heavily invested and didn’t know how to let go.

In the past year, mostly in one cataclysmic moment, the dreams of my continued participation in the Mennonite church were extinguished.  It was not that I was disallowed, I was not excommunicated nor was it physically impossible for me to attend, but the desire to belong that had propelled me onward for many years had disappeared.  After years of struggle, after years of faithful devotion to a hope against hope, there was simply nothing left about the denomination for me to love.

Could Gatsby had continued to live on after his dream died?

The outcome I had feared was now upon me and inescapable.  But, unlike Gatsby whose end came with poetic grace, my story continued brutally on—a forced march into the void that had become my life.  There was no longer a reason within myself to continue on.  Had I not had someone who needed me, who told me that if I go to take them with me, I would certainly have ended my own miserable existence.

I continued to walk although dead inside.

I continued to do my job but without a reason besides that one person who had their hopes tied up in me.

Later, in the spring, I mourned with my grandpa who lost his wife of six decades.  He had lost the wife he knew, who spent all those many years faithfully beside him, who shared a part in so many of his memories, and could never be replaced.  Her death had profound implications for someone who had hoped to someday achieve what they had.  It is a dark moment of realization that all of our cherished dreams will eventually die—only my dreams of having what my grandparents did in their years together died before ever being born and thus would never get so much as a decent burial.

In truth, what was me has died with my dreams and is now gone forever.  I am the same person and yet there is this strong feeling that I’m a different person in a body that was once occupied by someone else.  I don’t care about many of the things that I once did.  I’m not as afraid to take risks that were once impossible for me.  And, nearly a year after setting foot in my old church, I do not miss any of it.  My friends from the past remain my friends, but there is nothing about being Mennonite that appeals to me like it once did.  Even discussing Mennonite issues has become more difficult because it has stopped mattering anymore.

I’ve done what was impossible for me this past year.  I’ve left the Mennonite denomination and have no intention of going back—there is nothing there for me anymore.  There is not a feeling of loss nor even understanding of why I longed to be a part of everything there.  I’m living beyond the death of my dreams, I’ve died with my dreams, and I am a different person.  My Mennonite dream betrayed me, it left me to die cold and alone, but God’s love never left my side.

My hopes built over many years had expired.  However, by God’s grace, I’ve continued on in love and have found deeper faith.  We will all die, everything in this world will pass away, and with it even the meaning of our struggles here.  But, after all is stripped away from our existence, gone forever and never to return, only true love remains.

A friend from my new church posted this…

“Everything betrays you: family, friends, acquaintances, riches, sensory pleasures. Even your own body will leave you at some point. All the elements of nature deceive you. So make sure you cleave to God, because He alone is love.” —Saint John of Kronstadt (20th century)

Spaghetti in Grandma’s Kitchen


Every moment spent with someone we love is precious.  But there are also those special and defining moments that stand out from the others.  The places where these memories were forged later become sacred reminders and a reason to reflect on love and life.

Grandma’s Kitchen

One of those significant places is my grandma’s kitchen.  Her kitchen table was once the hub that the family farm revolved around.  It was what met you walking through the front door, and was the central space of the home where my mother and her siblings were raised.

In years past, there was a fierce-eyed matriarch (the perfect complement and companion to the strong-willed patriarch) pacing about her domain.  Grandpa and the boys would come in for a break from their work and Grandma would be ready with a hot meal.

It was not an extravagant kitchen.  The decor, updated last in the 1980s as I recall, was nothing like those glossy magazine showplaces; it was a functional workspace and guarded by an extraordinary woman…the cooking area virtually off-limits to everyone (including my mom) at one time.

Nevertheless, it was a welcoming and warm place.  I remember many good meals, lively conversations, and happy moments around Grandma’s kitchen table.  

Spaghetti with Mashed Potatoes

In recent years, I typically planned my visits with the intent to avoid mealtimes.  I knew my grandma would never let me leave without at least offering me something to eat, and I wanted her to relax rather than worry about preparing food for me.  But I would occasionally stop over before dinner because what bachelor can resist a home cooked meal?

It was one of those occasional times when I stopped in around dinnertime.  Grandpa and I were talking at the table.  Grandma offered to cook a meal and as soon as she got the answer she was looking for there was no stopping her.  Promptly commenced sounds of steaming pots, frying ground beef and clanking spoons, and an aroma of smells that would soon lead to a hearty meal.

That evening, an old standby recipe was served: spaghetti along with mashed potatoes and a green vegetable.  Spaghetti and mashed potatoes, strange as it might sound, is an absolutely wonderful amalgamation.  Served with Coke, provided as a special treat for us grandchildren.

I know I had seconds and probably even a third portion, in an awareness that this was an experience that might not continue much longer.  Perhaps my awareness was due to my consciousness of the frailty of life heightened by the suspicious lumps (swollen lymph nodes on her neck) she showed me that night.

It was, in fact, the last meal my grandma would ever serve me.  After that, tests revealed the lymphoma, ushering in a new chapter of chemotherapy and a precipitous decline.  

My Opportunity to Serve

Grandma quit cooking while being treated, and; despite eventually winning the battle against cancer, she never did return fully to her former strength.  A mix of dementia and Parkinson’s disease began to erode her abilities.  Her process memory faded away, making her once nearly-unconscious routines into an impossible task.

It was during this time that I stopped in one day to chat around the table.  Before heading out the door, I jokingly made an offer to provide a meal and then quickly added with a smile, “it will need to be spaghetti; that is the only thing I’m good at making…”

“Nobody has brought us spaghetti,” they responded with pleading eyes.

To my surprise, none of the children (who took turns providing meals) had brought them spaghetti.  So I decided immediately, then and there, to return the favor of that last spaghetti meal Grandma cooked for me.

A week or two later, I returned with a pack of spaghetti noodles, a pound of hamburger, a jar of chunky tomato sauce and determination to not fail at my mission.  It is one thing to cook for yourself in your own kitchen, but quite another thing to cook in your grandma’s kitchen as your grandparents wait in expectation.

There were a few tense moments when Grandma attempted to help.  But Grandpa intervened, assuring her that I could handle the task, and ushered her into the other room.

Given a half hour and some ingredients, including my prayers, the meal was ready to serve.  

We again ate spaghetti together at Grandma’s kitchen table.

The Strength of My Grandparents

It seems many think of “strength” as the ability to impose one’s will.  The brute force of a body builder lifting a heavy weight comes to mind.  We might also envision a political movement that sweeps through and brings about dramatic change or at least garners a great amount of attention.

It is easy to believe that you’re strong when young and healthy.  It is not easy to be strong when your body and mind decline.  Nor is it easy to be strong for those watching the decline of a loved one to be strong.  That requires strength of character.

Grandpa, Grandma, and I

I have great admiration for my grandparents and their strength of character.  They worked day in and day out—with a commitment to love that has spanned over sixty years—they raised seven children together, and they did it all without much fanfare.

It has been difficult for me to see this incredible strength of my grandparents put to the test over the past few years.  There is no way to prepare.  No words of comfort or encouragement sufficient to take away the pall of inevitability.  The strong woman we had known, was fading.  There was nothing more to be done besides love her as best we could.

Grandma was provided with the best care possible by her loving husband and children.  She had given them many years of dedicated service, and they returned the favor with meals, medical care and attending to her needs.  Their resolve to repay her love to them mirrored the resolve she had shown in loving them.

Her strength became theirs.

A Loving Goodbye

Friday, three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit my grandparents again.  Grandma had been bedfast for weeks and was increasingly unresponsive.  But she was awake during my visit and still able to answer “yes” or “no” to my aunt’s questions.

She has not been able to recognize me over the past few months.  I wondered what was on her mind as she stared at me.  Maybe there was a vague memory of a familiar face?

I held her hand for a few moments hoping she could feel my love in the warmth of my touch and thought later how that hand that had touched and nurtured so many lives, including mine.

Her life was a life well lived.

A couple of days later, I was again at Grandma’s house.  This time she was surrounded by her children, with my grandpa at her side.  The dreaded hour had arrived.  I wept and prayed for God to take my precious grandma into his loving hands.  

The anguished silence was broken when we sang a verse of an old hymn together:

God be with you till we meet again; 

By His councils guide, uphold you, 

With His sheep securely fold you; 

God be with you till we meet again.

Till we meet, till we meet, 

Till we meet at Jesus’ feet; 

Till we meet, till we meet, 

God be with you till we meet again.

As we sang, Grandma took her last breath and entered into eternity.  The eighty years of her life remains written in the hearts of those gathered together in that moment as clear testimony of Christian love.  

Grandma’s kitchen was still full of love, but Grandma was now in a better place.

Mildred G. Moyer

Oct 8th, 1935 — March 19, 2017

Married May 12th, 1956 to Joseph Laverne Moyer

Are You Too Busy To Read This Blog?


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!

Revelation: Can God Speak To Us Directly?


I was struck the other day by a quote in an article I read about Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, and a conversation about that quote is some of the reason for this blog post.

The quote:

“Was not the death of God, in fact, revealed in a doubly murderous act that, at the same time that it put an end to the absolute, assassinated man himself?  Because man, in his finitude, is inseparable from the infinite, which he both negates and heralds. The death of God is accomplished through the death of man.” (Michel Foucault)

It was a response to the statement “God is dead” used by Nietzsche to describe the crisis those have who reject the established religious morality as he did.  The quote is an acknowledgement of the cost of western rationality, a philosophical perspective that depends solely on revelation through the physical sensory and dismisses spiritual experience.

Western thinking focuses on what can be known through natural or rational means.  The result of this pursuit of knowledge has been greater understanding of the world and technological advancement.  But this has led many to abandon all belief in the supernatural as superstition, it has undeniably come at the cost of moral purpose, and I know because I’ve been there.

The unbelieving believer phenomenon and lack of faith in the church.

Many in Western religious communities, while thinking themselves to be at odds with this western rejection of God, have a very worldly perspective of reality and are simply unaware of the implications of following their own theological ideas to completion.

Many Biblical fundamentalists, with their complete dependency on book-based circular reasoning and human interpretive ability, seem to actually be agnostics who simply have yet to come to the realization of their own real lack of faith.

Yes, the language of these ‘Christian’ religious unbelievers is often the same or similar to those of true faith.  Yes, they will emphatically declare up and down that they believe that the Bible is true, call the book the “word of God” even, and yet these unbelieving believers reject the very means of revelation described in the Bible.  They, like their more reasonable and logically consistent secular neighbors, have made human knowledge gained by natural means their god.

This pathology of unbelieving belief comes in many degrees and in various forms.  But underlying is always a reliance on human perception of physical evidence (inspired books or reliable science) and a partial or complete rejection of direct spiritual means of revelation.

It is actually humanism, disguised or hidden in a cloak of religious devotion and spiritual sounding language, because it depends primarily on human decision rather than something divine.  It is faith based in ones own ability to experience God through means of human effort.

It is what Paul addressed in the early church as foolishness:

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1-3)

The idea that God is primarily revealed through physical media or other intermediary mediums (institutions) is logically incoherent and ultimately a rejection of the teachings in Scripture.  Paul describes the Galatians as foolish because they were reverting to completely human means to know God and rejecting the primacy of the Spirit as the only true agent of spiritual revelation.

When little gods replace a big God there is division rather than unity.

The problem is that many people think God is governed by human rationality and therefore can only communicate through means they can understand.

Protestants too often prefer a little book god and call this “sola scriptura” which is Latin for through Scripture alone.  Catholics, the religious parents of Protestants, make a little god of the institutional church or the man who leads it through an idea of papal supremacy.

Yes, certainly the official story is more complicated than the simple explanation I give.  Both Catholics and Protestants acknowledge special revelation and the power of the Spirit.  And both western traditions are right in their own perspectives to some extent: Acountability to the collective church body, the catholic “universal doctrine” (katholikismos) is a true expression of faith through submission.  Likewise the written tradition of Scripture is obviously important for a believer and should not be abandoned.

However, the problem with both Catholic and Protestant traditions is when the overall emphasis is put somewhere other than the truth revealing Spirit of God.  Both have too often replaced the core of Christian faith, the living spiritual reality of Jesus Christ, with their own religious efforts of traditions, doctrines and dogmas.

In Galatians there was a reverting back to “the works of the law” and “means of the flesh” rather than “means of the Spirit” which caused a schism to form.  We can actually know with certainty when dependency on the Spirit of God is being neglected when there is disunity in the church:

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.  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 4:1-6)

Clearly today, especially in the Western church, there is not unity in the Spirit.  No, instead there is unity only, and quite literally, on our own human terms.  There is a widespread refusal to hear anything that goes contrary to our own personal opinion and perspective.  Few are willing (or able?) to reconsider their own base assumptions about the nature of their reality or the truth of their religious indoctrination.

The fruit of Western thinking is the rule of men rather than God, it eventually leads to everyone being their own Pope and a tragic kind of individualism that wrecks meaningful community.  Now even our marriages do not last because of this growing lack of faith.  It is only through means of the Spirit that we are able to transcend our differences and submit to each other in Christian love.

We need fewer little gods with the spirit of Diotrephes (the early church leader in the third epistle of John who put himself first and judged unilaterally based on his own ideas) and seek after a truth greater than ourselves.  We need to realize our idolatry and flee from our small god perspective.

Dead religion relies on human judgment rather divine nature and their own fleshly instincts rather than intuition of faith.

Dead religion must rely on the work of man.  It must create mood through music and other emotional manipulation.  The focal point is often denominational labels or charismatic leaders, religious commentators, and not Jesus.  Growth comes primarily through by biological means, children are indoctrinated, brainwashed and pushed to commit before they can “count the cost” rather than encouraged to make an adult decision as an adult.  A negative fear-based cold calculus, a cancer, has replaced a true walk of faith, has displaced a positive spiritual vision and agape love.

Those who rely on themselves do not know grace, they cannot trust God to work in the lives of others and must therefore take judgment into their own hands.  They cannot reconcile the radical teachings of Jesus to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48Luke 6:27-36) into their reality.  They must reason around these clear instructions because they do not have faith in God to judge.  They usurp God’s authority because they are not themselves able to live under it:

“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)

One must have the Spirit of God in them to show true grace.  It is work of the Spirit, not our own righteousness, that we can have “fruit of Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) that include “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  It is because people do not have the Spirit of God that they revert back to their own human judgment and graceless application of law.  Without the Spirit we are left with a mind governed by fleshly desires and are spiritually dead:

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.  The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.  Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.”  (Romans 8:5-8)

Elsewhere in Scripture we are told “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6) and therefore we must have faith.  However, we are also told faith is gift from God rather than our own works and something given to us while we were yet dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-10) which is the paradox of faith.  How do we get faith if we do not have it?  Both religious and secular minds do not have an answer for this and for that reason both turn to their own small gods.

Both secular and religious people attempt to kill a big God, but now even science defies them.

Many people in the Western world are trapped in a delusion of a materialistic view of reality, they cannot accept explanation that does not fit their own religious or scientific dogmas and attempt to kill off any possibility of a bigger extra dimensional reality.  Understanding, to them, is only gained through physical eyes and literal ears.  They want a little god that can be understood by a human mind and reject a God bigger than their own abilities to comprehend.

They are like the religious authorities who demanded a rational explanation of how a man’s physical blindness was healed by Jesus (read the account in John 9) and rejected, based in their own understanding of Biblical law, that this was a miracle from God.  These religious hypocrites concluded that the man was a fraud who faked his blindness and they cast him out as a sinner because it went against their own confirmation biases and understanding of reality.  But, truthfully, many reasonable people today (religious or otherwise) would conclude as they did and assume it was trickery.

There is no rational explanation of how a man born blind could be healed through having mud rubbed into his eyes.  Modern medicine does not tell us of any form of blindness that can be healed externally in this way and going by a reasonable standard this is literally a physical impossibility.  There are many scientific laws violated by miracles and this is why many reasonable people reject them as possibility.  The natural world is governed by a time based causality.  In other words, A leads to B which always without exception leads to C and there is no rational way that this causality chain can be broken without disrupting everything known about this universe.

So how could it happen?

It couldn’t happen, not in terms of rational thought or science, at least not without massive energy from a source outside of the closed loop system of our universe.  Any miracle, even the smallest epiphany of revelation inserted from a spiritual dimension into our physical brain to healing the blind or raising the dead, would need to disrupt the entire reality of this universe from the beginning and end of time to happen.  Any true miracle would require a force with power literally beyond the comprehending of a finite mind.

Therefore, everything Jesus did, from turning water into wine to walking on water, defied the idea that this universe is a closed loop system.  The life and witness of Jesus supported the idea that there is a source of power that is available beyond our universe and energy (for good or evil) that can be brought in through acceptance of these spiritual means.

This is the power of the Spirit.

And, believe it or not, that is also part of the huge implications of quantum mechanics.  Physicists, using the double slit experiment, have discovered a phenomenon called wave particle duality.  This, and other scientific evidence, points to a reality that defies rational explanation.  What it shows is that at the smallest level of the universe there is a break down of time based causality and with it possibility of spontaneous events.  What this means is there could be energy leaking into the universe from dimensions beyond it and more that there is only a thin veil between us and this higher dimensional reality.

Quantum computing, still in it’s infancy, promises to reach beyond the bounds of our natural universe and allow calculations impossible otherwise.  Some theorize that our brain is a quantum computer and may have backdoor of consciousness access to the spiritual realm.  This, to me, is the point of access to the realm of good and evil.  Those who have the Spirit can have close communion with God the Father through spiritual rather than physical means.

Living faith that reveals God only comes through spiritual means, not through our own works or understanding.

There is a story of a man described as a “rich young ruler” who asked Jesus what he must do for eternal life.  He was a religious man who faithfully followed all of the commandments from his youth.  But Jesus, instead of telling him “good job and keep up the good work,” yanks the rug out and tells him to sell everything, give all to the poor and follow him.

The disciples, with their little religious minds, are stunned by this and ask: “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus replies: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

The point of the story is that faith is not a product of careful religious practice.  It is not something we earn by our diligent study of Scripture and our good works.  Faith is rather something that is a gift from God and a result of the Spirit working out from within us.

Jesus describes an idea of being “born again” and completely befuddles a religious expert, Nicodemus, who takes him quite literally and asks:

“How can someone be born when they are old?  Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (John 3:4)

Jesus replies with more metaphor from the physical world to explain this spiritual reality:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases.  You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-8)

The Spirit is not literally wind.  This is not something that originates in the physical world at all.  It is instead the breath of God that enters us through mysterious means and brings us to life spiritually.  It is something that transforms our mind and changes us literally from the inside out.  It is something divine, not originating in this sin cursed world, and the only true evidence of another kingdom.  It is a knowledge born of heavenly rather than physical worldly origins:

“Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?  No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.” (John 3:11-13)

Jesus was, as the son of God, conceived by supernatural means of the Spirit, and we must also be.  No one has given physical birth to themselves and likewise nobody is spiritually born of their own efforts.  Understanding of “heavenly things” does not come through physical means.  You cannot find a God bigger than the universe by studying things in universe, that is circular reasoning and will turn a rational person into an agnostic.

Only a blind person who gains their sight can know for certain they were blind and now they see.  Only a person born physically knows they exist in a physical reality and only through spiritual birth can someone know God exists.  Even if they can’t explain it, even if nobody believes them, they know simply because they know.  Our existing in any reality is a self-evident truth.

The West, in trying to kill God, has only killed their own spiritual connection and this is suicidal.

Western thinking has put emphasis on human will, knowledge or reasoning rather than the power of the Spirit and God’s grace to humanity.  People want a God governed by their own human reasoning and logic.  They try to make God subject to their own time based causality and turn spiritual life into some kind of physical process.  They reason things can only be know through natural means, by their physical eyes, ears or touch, and reject direct revelation through supernatural means.

Western thought, using human reasoning and worldly knowledge, attempting to kill the idea of a supernatural God.  But the tragedy in this is that we are blaspheming the true source of life (Mark 3:28-30) and effectively only killing the divine nature in ourselves.  The end result is hedonistic and meaningless life not worth living.  Those who cannot distract themselves in materialistic pursuits are soon left staring into a dark hopeless void of time and empty space.  This is leading many to premature death through drug abuse and suicide.

The Western church still holds on to a delusion of knowing God through their own works of faith and the symptoms of their humanistic pathology are still able to be masked through group hypnosis.  Many are able to maintain appearances through artificial conformity to tradition and are satisfied in their experiencing the ripples of Christian love passed down through the Spirit-led tradition left to them.  But eventually this spiritual momentum will run out and with it the life of the church.

It started with the elevation of one man (the Pope) and now has resulted in an unhealthy every man for himself mentality that first undermined the church, then the local community, then the family unit and is leading to a cultural suicide unless we repent and return to true faith.  We have embraced a rationality that leads us to death rather than life.

We need a return to a reality of faith based in a bigger God than the little god of human rationality, understanding that only comes from the physical world and dogmas both secular or religious.  It is time to see God through the supernatural means Jesus promised to those who truly have faith and follow him.  It is time to remove the veil of falsehood that western thought has put between us and God.

And it is time to take a quantum leap both forward in grace and backward to a faith that truly makes all things possible again.  There is a more abundant life that is only possible through spiritual means, we can know the truth and be set free, so seek direct revelation from God and reject western delusion.

Truth: A Concept Bigger Than Words


A couple Sundays ago I was riding along with a some church friends on our way to a hymn sing (something us conservative Mennonites do) and we came upon a hitchhiker.

The hitchhiker, a young man, was strumming some sort of ukulele.  He had a sign asking for a ride west.  We were going west.  We conferred quickly, decided to make use of our extra seat and soon were on our way with one more passenger.

The young man, a friendly nineteen year old from Raleigh, North Carolina, has spent nearly two years on the road and told us of his nomadic lifestyle.  He relies on the hospitality of others, often sleeps under the stars, and is on his way to California.

Being that we are religious and on our way to a church service, the conversation turned to religion.  He explained that he is uncomfortable with the “Christian” label.  He described himself as “a follower of Jesus” and later that evening mentioned the influence of Taoism.

We invited him to church.  He accepted the invitation and soon he was amongst us Mennonites as we sang acapella music.  To my ears we sounded pretty good.  He stayed until the end of the service and soon enough was being introduced by me to others in attendance.

One of those introduced, after some friendly chat (the usual Mennonite game banter and assessment of pedigree) ended by quoting John 14:6 at the young man, “Jesus is the way and the truth and the life” and emphatically stating this is the only way… 

As we paused with this sort of nonsequitar concluding statement, presented in such a religiously cliché way, I almost asked this ordained Mennonite man if he knew what it meant.  But, fearing he would try to answer if I asked, I restrained the impulse and smiled.

I have no idea what my guest was thinking, he was courteous and didn’t seem too uncomfortable in our midst.  And so the evening went, some polite conversation and some awkwardly presented evangelical dogma, me holding my tongue with slightly annoyed amusement and answering his questions.

Incidentally, nobody offered this young man shelter for the night (one of those asked apparently making excuse for himself because of his wife) and so we took him a few miles further west to ‘civilization’ where he would have more options.  We prayed with him, gave him some cash and bid him farewell before returning east again.

What is truth?

The incident above, especially the quotation of Scripture, seemed like a good basis for a blog and reason to consider the meaning of truth.  Truth, in this case, the idea of truth (alétheia) found in the passage, the truth of Jesus, that was partially quoted at my young hitchhiker friend.

The words “I am the way and the truth and the life” are cherry-picked from the Gospel of John.  It is a part of a discussion Jesus was having with his disciples about imminent events.  The disciples, as usual, were bewildered and asking questions:

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.'” (John 14:6-7)

Philip was still confused.  He goes on to ask Jesus to reveal the Father to them. 

Jesus responds to explain in further detail, stating that he is one with the Father, that his words are spoken by the authority of the Father and telling them that the Father will be revealed to them through obedience to his teaching and by the Holy Spirit.

The truth of Jesus is more than book knowledge.

It is interesting to note that Jesus did not tell his followers to diligently study Scripture.

Instead Jesus told them to obey what they knew and that more would be revealed by the Spirit after their obedience.  It might seem backwards, but faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26) and salvation is a gift from God:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

That is not to say that the Scripture is unprofitable, it most certainly is profitable to a believer.  It is “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 2:3-15) that Scripture is able to make us “wise for salvation” and only through this truth of faith can we ever understand.

Book knowledge is not the same as correct understanding and those who opposed Jesus most vehemently had a great knowledge of Scripture.  In fact, it was because of their own understanding of Scripture (and dogmatic literalism) that they rejected Jesus.

The truth of Jesus is something more than mere book knowledge, it is more than religious devotion to the study a text or a theological proposition.  The truth of Jesus is something more profound and powerful than words on a page.  It is a spiritual reality that goes far deeper than fallible human knowledge or our finite ability to understand.

The truth of Jesus is something beyond description in words.

Truth is a word, but truth itself is not a word.

We use words to paint pictures in the minds of our audience.  Words are symbols used to describe ideas, they are things we use to describe other things and yet words are not themselves the thing being described.  Words are not truth of themselves anymore than a portrait in acrylic color on canvas is the actual person being portrayed.

Words depend on the ability of our audience to understand them.  One could tell their cat to “take out the garbage” and the poor critter would stare at them blankly.  Language, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and depends on the interpreter to understand the word usage correctly.  Communication is an interactive affair requiring both parties to be on the same metaphorical page.

Furthermore, talk is cheap, words can also be used to construct a false image of reality and deceive.  Jesus warns of false teachers, people who profess with their mouths to be faithful, who present themselves as sheep and yet are inwardly wolves—We are told we can know people by their good or bad fruit. (Matthew 7:15-23)

So truth is more than words.  Truth is an abstraction, it is something greater than the sum total of words and language used to describe it.  Truth is something bigger than us and beyond our own concept of reality.  Truth is trancendent and still it is something that can be fleshed out and represented.

The truth of Jesus is God’s word and a living testimony about a greater reality.

Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, a Roman civil authority, to be judged.  The Gospels give slightly different versions of the events.  In summary, the religious leaders accuse Jesus, they say he claims to be their king (a crime amounting to sedition against the established state) and insist that he is evil.

Here’s one account of the beleaguered governor questioning Jesus and trying to get the bottom of the issue:

“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’

‘Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’

‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied. ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’

Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’

‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.

Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’

‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.'” (John 18:33-38)

This conversation is interesting and especially when Jesus claims to have come to “testify to the truth” and says those on the side of truth listen to him.  It is reminiscent of when he told the religious dogmatists that his sheep hear his voice and makes an incredible claim:

“The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’

Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me,  but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.  My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.'” (John 10:24-30)

For this Jesus is accused of blasphemy.  But to that charge he replies by quoting their Scripture to them.  He quotes from Psalms 82:6, where it says “I have said you are ‘gods’,” and uses that to argue against their idea that his claim of divine sonship was blasphemy.

Pilate seems agnostic about truth and exasperated by Jesus.  He is dealing with a contradiction, he sees an innocent man not worthy of punishment and the religious crowd sees a man guilty of blasphemy against God who deserves death.

Pilate ultimately bends to political pressure and, while washing his own hands, complies with the demands of the crowd.  However, both Pilate and Herod (who’s part is described in Luke 23:8-12) seem to see Jesus as a curiosity rather than as a direct threat to the state.

The truth of Jesus is found in our following his example and being a self-sacrificial testimony of God’s grace.

The truth of Jesus is not a reasonable or rational proposition by worldly human standards.  It is only understood through spiritual means, through having the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and a process that starts in the heart (2 Corinthians 3) rather than through outward means.

It is transformative, as Paul explains:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)

The Orthodox Christian tradition would call this theosis or divination.  Unfortunately my own Anabaptist tradition has picked to focus on the other negative end (the “be not conformed” part) and the result is an idea of “non-conformity” that usually amounts to a reactionary worldly effort to control outward appearance. 

The truth of Jesus is about more than our ability to conform to a man-made list of requirements.  It is a truth that transcends all worldly means and is expressed in our unrelenting, unapologetic and uncompromising pursuit of the divine.  The truth is a positive vision.  The truth is God’s grace made manifest in us.

The truth of Jesus is a path we walk that leads us to greater life and the perfection of divine love.

The words “the way” (hodos) refer to a journey.  It is a path to walk and live out.  The trail was blazed by Jesus who died for our sins, but it is lived also by those who truly believe and wish to be disciples.  As Jesus said:

“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.'” (Like 9:23-24)

Jesus is using the cross as a metaphor.  A cross, in human terms, represented suffering and shame.  However, in following after Jesus, for a believer this is not useless suffering, it is not pain for the sake of pain or self-flagellation, it is suffering for the good of others or making a path to something greater.

Jesus promises a more abundant life (John 10:10) to those who follow him.  In this he is not promising material or worldly wealth.  But he does say that we should use our worldly wealth to gain friends and gain true riches (Luke 16) which is to prioritize God through our loving people:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20-21)

Jesus said we can know the truth of a person’s profession of faith by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-23) and that the fruit of the Spirit is described by Paul “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)  Our truth must be more than words.

So what does ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ mean?

To understand this we need to understand the context.  The context is the last supper, it is during the Passover feast, the night Jesus is betrayed and an intimate moment.  In these passages of Scripture (John 13 and 14) the implications are clear. 

Jesus explains that his disciples will be known by their love for each other, he says he must go so they may know the truth more intimately (promising the Spirit to those who obey his instructions and example) and then goes on to demonstrate a truth of love worth dying for.

The truth of Jesus is not a theological proposition, not a religious profession or book knowledge. His truth is not a product of human reasoning and founded on scientific research or evidence. The truth of Jesus is something found in our walking in the Spirit, it is demonstrated in our love for others and bringing the dead to life.

Truth is living a reality greater than our reality, something that transcends worldly knowledge and human understanding. Truth is both known and still yet to be known, it is reality that goes beyond the currently available evidence and is something that can only be experienced through a true walk of faith.

The truth of Jesus transcends religion and is a walk of faith.

In some respects it seems my hitchhiking friend may have a better grasp of faith than his religiously indoctrinated counterparts.  He is more literally taking no thought for tomorrow (Matthew 6:34) and depending on God to provide.  By contrast we too often rely on our own understanding, planning and abilities.

I wish my traveling friend well on his journey and pray that the truth of God’s word (Jesus) is made manifest in him.  May God’s truth of self-sacrificial love and spiritual life be found in us who claim to know Jesus.