Struggle, Meaning of Life and Suicide

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In the early hours of a Sunday morning, I was lying in bed, engaged in a conversation with an old classmate, now living in New Zealand, about the drug overdose death of someone familiar to both of us and what it says about the times we live in.

The dialogue itself, scattered about my morning routine, was an example of the unique pressure of modern life. Our discourse continued, in fragmented text message form, one of us going to bed soon and the other starting their day, past my short nap, beyond my morning shower, on the way to church and ended only as I entered the sanctuary for worship.

My “smartphone” allowed me a level of connection to someone on the opposite side of the world that was impossible a generation ago. And I am glad to be able to maintain this relationship despite the distance and for the electronic tool in my hand that allowed me to do this once unimaginable feat with ease. But this device also deprived me of some extra sleep, it often interrupts my most private moments, distracts me while driving, and does not allow me to be singularly focused. It comes along to work, to the gym, while I’m out dining, and visiting friends, and is almost impossible to control.

My grandpa had morning chores—mundane physical tasks like feeding animals, milking a few cows or shoveling manure. And grandma too—she would, in the wee hours of the day, go about making breakfast for her working man and the family clan. But they likely did not (at least not frequently) get a surprise visit from a former debate partner (geared up for a discussion of weighty matters) while they were in bed and still seeing double.

So, what did we discuss?

The rate of drug overdoses and number of suicides have risen dramatically over the past few decades and for poor middle-aged white men in particular. Several of my former classmates have now become part of this statistical category and, sadly, their stories are being repeated over and over again across the United States and especially in rural areas. The suicide rate for African American men has actually decreased over the same time period, which has led to some speculation as to why this is the case.

My left-leaning friend speculated this is a product of eroding “white male privilege” and yet all the cases that I am familiar with involved men who were, since childhood, as disenfranchised as anyone by the current system. There was never an erosion for them because they never had this imagined privileged status, they grew up in predominately white communities, from working-class homes, they didn’t go to college, they couldn’t seem to get out of their rut of low-paying jobs, relationship drama or financial woes, struggled against addiction and depression.

No, while true that white men are not a protected class and some do endure a significant amount of bullying and are just expected to take it, I do not see this as the real issue. Men in prior generations went into mines, labored hard under the sun, endured the terror of war, worked long-shifts on the assembly line and all without the help of a psychiatrist to tell them how to feel. They were just supposed to suck it up and keep going, against the odds, for the good of their communities and families—which is exactly what they did.

What has changed?

A more likely explanation for the increase in suicide and drug abuse is a combination of factors rather than one—the evaporation of economic opportunity and dissolution of the family unit and communities, along with the hectic pace of modern life, playing primary roles in the epidemic. A couple of decades ago decent paying manufacturing jobs were plentiful, the community was strong (usually with a local church as the nucleus) and the world’s problems were not constantly being shoved in our faces in a 24-7 on cable news, social media, etc. There have been big changes in rural America and some are impacted more than others.

The media deluge…

In the 1990s Ted Turner’s CNN was a novelty, the breathless reporting of alleged atrocities used to sell the American public on the Persian Gulf War, and only a foreshadowing of the media deluge to come. Two decades later there is almost no escape, there is no time anymore to process the information assaulting us from all angles, and the coverage is by and large negative.

Then there is the explosion of social media. It is a world where we primarily see the highlights of the lives of our friends and skews towards a positive presentation—because nobody wants to be that person.

This alone doesn’t drive anyone into depression and despair. But it certainly can help to feed feelings of isolation, it can never replace in-the-flesh social interaction, and could leave a person feeling overwhelmed. I mean, how can we not be influenced by this endless stream of information? It is a far cry from the time of our grandparents when yesterday’s news arrived in print form and the only scandal that really mattered was that juicy bit of gossip overheard on the party line.

Could it be that we aren’t built to take in the world all at once?

Could it be that we are reaching our capacity to handle and that the most vulnerable are first to fall down under this load?

We should consider the increase in suicides and drug overdoses as the “canary in a coal mine” and an indication of something very wrong in the air of our current culture. Where some have been overcome by the noxious fumes there are probably many more who are gasping for breath or in the beginning stages of hypoxia and need to be guided back to fresh air or they will soon also perish. An overdose of bad news and fear-mongering propaganda won’t take a strong person down, but it might be enough to push the vulnerable over the edge.

Working more for less…

Twenty years ago, in the towns around where I grew up in (prior to the NAFTA disaster) the wheels of industry were still turning and a blue-collar worker could easily make $20/hour or more working a factory shift. Yes, the cracks of outsourcing where beginning to show before this, the domestic steel and auto industry collapsed against cheap foreign imports before then, but it was mostly big urban areas like Detroit and Baltimore that felt the pain. We still proudly produced furniture, paper, bread, cable assemblies, and various other products before these businesses were shuttered.

However, since then we have felt the full brunt of trade policies that primarily have benefitted globalist elites. Since the 1990s, dozens of factory doors have closed in my own immediate area and nothing came to replace them. Well, nothing besides more low paying retail jobs—shopping centers springing up in the same lots, literally, where many men and women once made a wage where they had a chance of economic advancement. The idea that everyone could simply get some additional education and become a computer programmer or a professional with a bachelor’s degree has become the out-of-touch “let them eat cake” statement of the modern era.

Wages have stagnated in a time when costs in housing, healthcare, education, and housing have skyrocketed. The cost of college, for example, has gone up at eight times the pace of wages, in 2016, home prices increased at twice the rate of inflation, and we now spend thirty times what we did for healthcare a few decades ago. And again, this is a change the predominantly white working-class men who, unlike many others in the economy, have no control of their wages and, in addition, are often in direct competition with illegal immigrants for the same jobs. There is no professional licensing to protect the jobs of the yard guy or the drywaller—thus they are forced to work more for less.

Only the wealthy elites and beneficiaries of the welfare system have come out on top. For those taught that their value is in their ability to provide for their own, who are unable to compete in the academic or intellectual realm, prospects can indeed be very bleak and especially when coupled with other factors like failed relationships, lack of community and loss of purpose. It is no surprise that in this environment more are turning to the various means of escape available to them—with suicide being the ultimate expression of their deep despair.

Life without purpose…

The one place where rates of suicide are higher is amongst those who are part of the Native American population. This, coupled with substance abuse, has been a tragic outgrowth of the reservation system for many years and underscores the problem of a purposeless existence. There is not much to do on a reservation. The land is rural and very sparsely populated, the opportunities for gainful employment are extremely limited, basic needs are often subsidized by the government, many succumb to feelings of boredom and/or isolation and decide to end what seems (from their perspective) to be a purposeless life.

I believe the circumstances leading to higher suicides on reservations are very similar to that of many non-Natives living in rural areas. We all have an idea of what we are supposed to be, we have religious and cultural expectations to live up to, but not all are able to overcome the obstacles between themselves and these higher aspirations. Perhaps they were born into a dysfunctional home, sexually abused, are less naturally gifted than their peers, born in a time of declining wages and are unable to compete in the market or attain their life goals? Failure early on can lead a person into self-defeating cycles, especially when there is nobody intervening to help overcome them, and the result is depression, substance abuse, etc.

Men, at least in rural America, are expected to be the “breadwinner” for their families. Those who do not provide are disparaged as “deadbeat dads,” he cannot simply abort his bad decisions, and will be on the hook financially long after his fifteen minutes of fun is up. It is a matter of Christian conscience, the Bible says that a man who does not provide for his own “is worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8 KJV), and is a standard that is embedded in our laws. And, truth be told, most men don’t need to be told that their children are their own responsibly either. So, naturally, it is no small thing for men conditioned this way to underperform or fail at their duties.

Men unable to provide adequately (according to cultural norms) for themselves or their families will struggle to find great purpose anywhere else. And while there is the “welfare queen” pejorative to describe a woman who fraudulently games the system, women were traditionally dependent on men to provide financially and there is not nearly the same stigma for a woman who is unable provided financially for her own needs. Things may have changed elsewhere, but in rural America, a man who doesn’t pay child support, even for children he is rarely (if ever) allowed to see is considered to be worthless and a bum.

Relationships are less stable than they were when marital commitment meant something and yet, in a time of wage stagnation, men are still expected to carry the financial burden. The purpose religion once brought men (beyond their work and family) has been under withering assault for many years now, but the yoke of moral responsibility has not faded away and leaves many to struggle in the wilderness alone. So it comes as no surprise when men, surrounded by dysfunction, deprived of their purpose and absent of any real help, could see death by their own hands as something honorable.

From an article about veterans returning to ‘normal’ civilian life:

Now one was looking for work in Wisconsin, one had killed himself, and several had returned to Afghanistan to get back into the fight. Most of them wanted to be back there, in their own ways. Like so many vets, they missed the camaraderie. And as with so many vets, their lives at home were defined less by togetherness than by isolation, which took on many forms. Dodd was in Kansas City making aerospace bolts and smoking weed on his breaks to stave off the stress of “dumb-ass civilian questions.” Simpson was working the phones at a call center for the Department of Veterans Affairs, talking to vets who wanted counseling or benefits or sometimes nothing at all, other than to talk with another combat veteran.

Men would rather be in a literal war than alone and stuck in a purposeless life.

Lack of community…

The collapse of community is one thing my left-leaning friend did seem to strongly agree on as a possible explanation for the epidemic of drug use and despair. His definition of community tended towards civic engagement and mine went in the direction of religious involvement, but we both agreed that this is something essential. And that community, real life “in the flesh” community, has been on a precipitous decline and especially in rural America.

This is the trend even in the conservative Mennonite culture I was born into and spent many years of my life. Guilt-driven church attendance may be holding steady, there is certainly more involvement there than in some other segments of society, but there has definitely been a big change in my lifetime. Sunday evening visits became far less frequent, more parents choose to homeschool their children rather than risk other schooling options and the church community has more or less devolved into a conglomeration of cliques. Of the dozens who called me “brother” over the years, as part of religious ritual, only a couple (primarily one family) have checked in to see how I’ve been doing.

A community is one of those underrated privileges. It is a place where you are missed when you’re gone, where a person can live with far less material wealth and still be happy having their place in the social fabric. Even a slightly dysfunctional community offers protections, a social support network, for those that are a part of it and the individual members are all stronger as a result. Communities take many different forms and can center around many different things. It can be as simple as a group of friends who care about each other and do things together. It can be a military unit that is compelled to do drills together, who eat, sleep and live as a group, and where comradery is encouraged.

In rural America, in the past, the church was often a center of a community, a place where people got together for worship, to make perogies together and share each others’ burdens. Church attendance has been in steady decline, “nones” now constitute the largest religious group affiliation, and with this, there has been a parallel decline in mental health.

And organized religion isn’t the only dwindling expression of rural community, volunteer fire departments are having difficulty filling their ranks—people are too busy with their other obligations and do not have the time.

People also have fewer close friends than they once did according to a recent study, in the time between 1985 and 2004 Americans have gone from an average of three close friends to only two, and this implies a shrinking support network.

The increase in social isolation cannot be good for those already vulnerable.

A profile of a vulnerable person…

When I saw a friend request from “Adam Bartlett” it was a name that I recognized immediately and accepted without hesitation.

Adam was a grade below mine in school. He was one of those anonymous in a crowd people, average height, not particularly athletic or anything, friendly enough, and not too different from me other than my being Mennonite. We both went out for football the same year, he quit the team early (which, in my teenage mind, made me think of him as a quitter) and that is pretty much all I knew about him—there was a gap of twenty years before I heard from him again.

It was not too long after connecting on Facebook that I received a message from Adam. We chatted briefly about a mutual acquaintance, my being off work because of an ACL tear, a shared interest in firearms, how he wanted to reconnect with “old friends” because he had few friends anymore, I offered the next weekend might be a possibility and left it at that—we never did get together the next weekend despite my offer and his interest.

However, a month after that he messaged me about his financial woes. He was upside down in his car payments and was hoping that I could help him out with that. I felt bad about his situation. But, I was not in a position to purchase the vehicle and was not very interested even if I did have the extra cash. It was in the course of that discussion where we ventured a little into his relationship problems, he told me his wife stopped paying bills without telling him and things would soon go from bad to worse.

In our next exchange, he asked me for a place to sleep. His wife had moved back with her parents and he told me he was not welcome to stay there. Of course, being that we had just got reconnected, and also considering that I was on the road all week in the truck, I was leery of having him live in my house alone. Still, he definitely needed help. I decided, rather than have him move in, to pay his security deposit and the first month of rent instead.

He accepted this solution. We met a few days later in the Big Lots parking lot where I handed him a check for his rent.

Then, on the spur of the moment, I asked if we could pray together, he said we could. So I put my hand on his shoulder, prayed that he could get his life turned around and hoped my small contribution would make a difference.

Later on, in many different private conversations online, he complained about the hypocrisy of Christians (including his significant other) and would ask me many questions. Why couldn’t these different denominations agree on anything in the Bible? Which denomination was right? How could his wife be so dogmatic about things like Creationism and then cheat on him over and over again?

Adam had basically given up on religion.

He was rightly skeptical too.

However, it seemed that the prayer had helped. He never did use the check that I gave him, he eventually would start to attend church services again, his social media posts seemed more positive, and last I had known he was back with his wife and daughters.

There were still problems at work and at home. Our last conversation, that he initiated, was on the topic of his drinking habits. He told me that alcohol made him honest, even more spiritual, but was frustrated because his wife disapproved. Perhaps I could have called him out a bit more or been a little more forceful with my opinion, because he definitely sounded like an alcoholic excusing his bad habit—but I figured I would not win an argument and, rather than say too much, simply encouraged him to honor his wife.

A year so after our alcohol discussion, I asked, “How have things been going for you?”

He never did answer.

Adam had confided many things and, both for the sake of those struggling and for those who wish to do something to help, I’ve decided to share his story more openly than I would otherwise. His dysfunctional home life was only made worse by the fact that he had been exploited, as a child, by a sexual predator (a college professor) who was only very recently prosecuted for his serial abuses and given a light prison sentence. He had no real friends in the world, he seemed to try to bury his pain using substance, and this coping strategy, evidently, failed him in the end.

In August, less than a year ago, Adam gunned down a man who had emerged from the apartment where his wife had moved and then, using the same handgun, took his own life.

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Sex Obsession: Pornography and Purity Cultures

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It might seem that pornography and purity cultures are polar opposites. One provides instant gratification for sexual appetites whereas the other promotes abstinence and encourages young people to ‘save’ themselves for marriage. However, while pornography does accomplish its short-term aims, purity cultures often fail at their intended goals.

Purity cultures, a product of Protestant fundamentalism, arose in reaction to the promiscuity of mainstream America in the 1960s and as an effort to protect the next generation. It is fueled by the regrets of some who, like Augustine, indulged in fornication themselves and is also promoted by others who were just plain fearful of outside influence. However, as with most fear-based reactions, purity culture has created as many problems as it has solved. The promise of the ‘right’ one being the reward to those who most carefully adhere to its teaching has often only led to long-term dissatisfaction.

This purity teaching, especially when introduced to the already reserved conservative Mennonite culture, has made the threshold for entering a dating relationship nearly impossible for some. It has led to paralysis for the most conscientious and added unnecessary difficulties for all but the boldest and superficially attractive. Worse, while this reactionary movement has not delivered as promised to those who most fearfully adhered to the expectations, it has done absolutely nothing to stop those said “boldest and superficially attractive” from gratifying themselves outside of a marital commitment. So the net gain is more guilt for those who already have too much guilt and increased the hardness of hearts for those who are already predisposed to do as they please.

Purity culture fails because it does not provide any real help or practical solutions to those who desire a healthy relationship and, sadly, is too often as (or more) carnally focused on carnal pleasures as the carnal-minded are themselves. Purity culture never transcends or brings us closer to holiness and, sadly, ends up often leads many young people right into pornography addiction and a self-defeating cycle of shame. Pornography use is as prevalent in these fundamentalist purity cultures (albeit almost never confessed openly for fear of the social stigma) as anywhere else.

This obsession with physical purity and on female virginity, in particular, paired with the dogmatic emphasis on female modesty, has had some terrible unintended consequences. Consequences which are all but ignored by fundamentalist leaders who think that their doubling down on preaching condemnation will someday change hearts.

Here are some observations about the similarities between pornography and purity cultures:

Two Sides of the Sex Obsession Coin

Sex, in the right context, is a wonderful thing and not something to ever be ashamed about. Unfortunately, sex is also something that can be twisted into a harmful obsession.

It is fairly obvious how pornography is degrading and a destructive habit. However, what is not so understood is how purity culture mirrors this obsession. The first notable similarity between pornography and purity cultures is that both represent an unhealthy fixation with sex and physical bodies. Both undermine us spiritually, objectify women and pervert our interactions:

  • Pornography and purity cultures both objectify women. The biggest irony of purity culture is that it is as obsessed with sex as the mainstream culture it decries as sinful. Yes, purity culture is in opposition to sexual promiscuity, but it is also as objectifying as pornography in that it places a woman’s value in her virginity and also spends an inordinate amount of time in discussion of the female physical form. I can still recall the men’s meetings about things like the so-called “peekaboo effect” pertaining to slit skirts (below the knees) and also hearing how some men claimed a woman’s exposed elbow somehow resembled a nipple and thus needed to be covered. To anyone outside of a purity culture, this sort of talk is perverted and ridiculous. It is little wonder why women in these cultures feel especially objectified and are often extremely distrusting or weirded out by men.
  • Pornography and purity culture pervert interactions between genders. This is the most insidious similarity between the two and the one that is most frustrating to me. There’s a picture of me on the beach, as a toddler, holding hands with a female cousin—our touch was friendly, completely non-sexual and entirely appropriate. But somehow, by the time I reached my teenage years, many young women were convinced that a mere conversation with a young man was a risk of defilement. This fear, sadly, is what became of the coffee date offer made in response to one of my blogs, the young woman who made the offer backtracked, and—while we did meet in the most awkward of settings—it was another bitter reminder of how perverted purity cultures have made male and female interactions. Rather than have a good time getting to know one another, as would be appropriate, we instead waded through topics of defilement and “guarding hearts” and her predetermined lack of interest in getting to know me. I don’t blame her for this nor the dozen other Mennonite girls before her who treated me more like a rabid dog than a Christian brother. It is what she was taught and it is also something she likely caught by seeing men constantly talk about her body as being this irresistible object. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the female form is beautiful to me. But I’ve gone on many friendly dates with non-Mennonite women, even studied alone with them, and never once did we engage in sexual conversation or behavior. A good man sees a woman as more than an object, not all physical interaction is sexual, but both pornography and purity cultures pervert our interactions, make everything about sex and make it much more difficult for healthy relationships to develop between genders.
  • Pornography and purity cultures feed guilt without providing effective long-term solutions. Sin needs to be called out. That said, guilt-tripping a person stuck in a sex addiction is not going to stop them and, if anything, will simply keep them from speaking openly about their struggle with sin for fear of being stigmatized. Those mired in shame do not need more sermons, they need practical solutions. Feeding guilt may provide gratification for purity culture preachers, but does little more than the pornography itself to helping those who already feel shame yet are caught in a vicious cycle and defeated. Rather than obsess on sex and sin, we would be better to focus on holiness and fostering a church environment where those ensnared feel free to confess and find their salvation from the addiction.

We should—at very least—be promoting healthy relationships and providing opportunities for young people who desire relationship to interact without it being assumed to be a sexual encounter or regard every conversation between two unmarried people as a potential defilement. If we believe in a transformation of heart then we need to stop telling young women to fear their brothers in Christ, we need to humanize each other rather than treat ‘sisters’ like objects or treat ‘brothers’ as if they are animals. This means that purity culture leaders need to trust God to work in hearts, stop living in fear of losing control, and love as Christ loves them. If Jesus welcomed prostitutes, we should be fully ready to embrace and restore those who have ‘defiled’ themselves with pornography or other sexual immorality. The long-term solution is to stop promoting fearful reaction and sexual obsession and start with leaders willing to acknowledge this current quagmire and their repentance for creating it.

Both Produce Unrealistic Expectations

There is often a nasty surprise waiting for those who do manage to navigate the dysfunction of purity culture courtship expectations. The high ideal that kept them fearful of talking to the opposite gender for fear of defilement doesn’t guarantee that they will find satisfaction in marriage when they finally find someone superficially attractive enough to give a chance. No, if anything, this will likely lead to their discontentment when this magic person, who checked all the right boxes, turns out to be a sinner like the impure others they’ve rejected merrily along the way and isn’t what they thought he/she was when they married.

Purity culture, like pornography, creates this unrealistic expectation for male and female relationships. Yes, pornography is different than purity culture in that the expectations it creates are solely pertaining to the physical and yet both push for this perfect fantasy ideal. Whereas pornography often centers on perfect bodies having amazing sex, purity cultures paint the right guy as being this courageous knight in shining armor and a young woman as this pristine princess. However, in reality, a real-life relationship often falls well short of these expectations in even the best of circumstances, real people have “bad hair days” and make mistakes.

I’ve heard a purity culture pastor explain that he needs to portray is own marriage in glowing terms as an example for others. But that sort of whitewashing is in direct contradiction to what we see in Scripture where even the heroes of faith are portrayed in their flawed and very unflattering moments. King David, for example, was an adulterer who murdered the husband of the woman who he had sinned with. Elijah was working miracles before he fled like a complete coward when faced down by a female tyrant. Even Peter, the leader of the early church, denied Christ. All of these men would be unqualified by the standards of a purity culture fathers and daughters, yet they are the best examples of faith we have besides the literal son of God!

Pornography and purity cultures both imagine a world where real people do not live and true Christian love is not required. These unrealistic expectations will lead many to great disappointment when they finally get to marriage. It has led to many others giving up on marriage because they can’t get their wish list of expectations with options currently available. This goes completely contrary to a love that transcended our imperfections and died for our salvation while we were yet dead in our sin. No, not saying that we should marry someone unbelieving and unrepentant, certainly not, nor even someone unconcerned with things like hygiene, etc—but we should also show love to others as we want to be loved by God.

Both Have Diminishing Returns

Pornography, like any self-gratifying indulgence of the senses, often requires more and more novelty to have the same effect and can eventually even lead to erectile dysfunction. Likewise, fear-based purity culture preaching, rather than make us more vigilant, often deadens ears. Sure, it might get the heads nodding in agreement, it might even get the commitments to purity from the idealistic youth still trying to navigate their way through their own sexuality, and yet there is nothing in it that will lead to holiness. Just like consuming all the porn in the world won’t produce a meaningful relationship, you can’t actually “scare the hell out of people” and drive them into the kingdom of God through fear. No, salvation depends on a new birth, an encounter with God’s grace, and spiritual transformation.

Salvation isn’t pounded through skulls by screaming fits on Sunday mornings. Sure, we do see where Jesus used the threat of being thrown into a trash pit to try to knock some smug self-righteous religious folks off their high horse, but that certainly isn’t all he did nor is that what drew the crowds. We have no indication that Jesus was overly dramatic or ever raised his voice, in fact that would go against what was prophesied about him in the book of Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.” (verse 42:1,2) What Jesus did do was heal and work miracles, his words were full of truth and love, that is why the religious needed to put him to death—he had something they themselves could not match.

We can preach sexual purity and saving oneself for marriage until the cows come home and it will not save anyone. Even this effort does actually convince some to abstain from sex before marriage, sexual purity is a false hope for winning God’s favor and especially if it comes accompanied by pride. It is very likely that many of those who rejected Jesus never viewed pornography and lived completely righteous lives according to the law and yet lacked the one critical component necessary for salvation. The bigger issue with purity culture is that it keeps us fixated on physical or emotional purity and takes our focus off of what is actually consequential.

We aren’t saved by our ability to live out a high moral standard. No, as Hebrews 11:6 tells us, without faith it is impossible to please God. So, yes, sexual purity before marriage does potentially come with some temporal returns, but eventually, it will be worth nothing unless we repent of our pride and depend fully on Jesus in faith.

Both Render Us Impotent

The most striking similarity between pornography and purity cultures is how both effectively neuter us and keep us from healthy relationships. Prior to writing this blog, I came across a YouTube video, “Porn and You,” from a secular source, talking about the damage to men and culture as a result of porn. In the video he cites an article, “6 Ways to Develop Sexual Integrity,” (a terribly misleading title) that presents this degradation as positive:

“An interesting effect happens as people watch pornography. They become more egalitarian, and more supportive of women and men sharing roles and work, less accepting of gender-based discrimination. They also become more accepting of sexual diversity and less stigmatizing towards homosexuality. They become less religious, and may even experience more crises of faith. Enjoying porn leads to people changing their beliefs about sex and gender, and, in some cases, rejecting the dogmatically rigid sex/gender values they were taught in church.”

That could be fine for a ‘progressive’ social engineer who does not see declining birth-rates and hypofrontality as an issue. But, for the rest of us, that should be the writing on the wall. Pornography addiction is pushing us towards cultural dysfunctionality and a potential demographic disaster. There are many good reasons to stop consuming pornography now, to not wait another day, and that it renders us spiritually and sexually neutered is top of the list. A great video to watch on this topic, “The great porn experiment,” gets into some of the ill-effects and also the benefits for those who quit their pornography addictions. But quitting is enough (or even possible) without filling the void (the answer to addiction is not sobriety, but connection) and that is where the church should be stepping up to the plate.

Purity cultures, likewise, render both men and women impotent. Rather than encourage us to live in faith, to take necessary risks and seek meaningful connections, they keep us fear-bound, on the sidelines and paralyzed. Again, young Christian men are treated by young women and their fathers as threats to purity and not as true brothers. The discernment of a young man is routinely dismissed as irrelevant, he can’t even get a date until he meets a list of expectations that have nothing to do with his faith or good character, and that’s assuming he is not run out completely by jealous and competitive church leaders. Many women too are kept from fully expressing their maternal and nurturing abilities, perpetually saving these complementary strengths for the one who is deserving and never arrives.

In purity cultures, ironically, unmarried men are turned into servile drones, often failing in their frustration to the very things that this focus is supposed to guard against and basically groveling at the feet of women who see them as creepy or weak. An end result is a growing number of older unmarrieds, those with standards that can’t be pleased on one end and others defeated—might as well be eunuchs—on the other. It is not healthy, it is not a model of Christian relationship, and often goes hand and hand with pornography addiction rather than being the cure. Both pornography and purity cultures feed our fantasies in the short-term, but in the long-term, they can destroy our chances at the most meaningful relationship a man and woman can have together.

It Is Time To Get Over Sex Obsession!

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8 NIV)

One tendency of fundamentalists, as reactionaries, is to fixate on the problem so much that their own thinking is perverted in the process. Everyone sincerely seeking after righteousness already should know, at a heart level, that taking advantage of other people for our own sexual pleasure is not Christ-like and sin. But the pushers of purity culture do not seem to trust the Spirit to convict their children and rely instead on isolation from outside influence and their heavy-handed regulations.

Purity cultures are motivated out of fear and a need to feel in control rather than faith. But, while they do force conformity of visible behavior (at least when others are watching) and keep many bound in their shame, they do not lead to a transformation of heart. Faith, not keeping the outside of the cup clean, is what pleases God. And faith will keep us focused on Christ, loving others as he loves, rather than obsessed with securing our own immediate gratification or turning to our own purity in the eyes of our religious peers for salvation.

Purity is not produced in a fearful reaction. It starts in a heart that seeks after goodness, walks in true faith, and is purified in fire. As Jesus said, defilement doesn’t come from the outside in, but from what is inside and comes out. In other words, we need to be pure in heart rather than filled with fear, obsessed with sin and frozen. The idea of guarding your heart, while it will keep us from sin, has nothing to do with avoiding friendly interactions that could lead to more down the road and everything to do with knowing the intentions which come from our heart:

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.” (Proverbs 4:23‭-‬27 NIV)

The NEED For Loving Touch

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A few years ago mom and sister, sensing my need for physical touch, made giving me a hug on Sunday evenings as I left for home and another week out on the road. It was a small gesture, a single suture on a gaping wound of loneliness and years of an unmet need for more intimate human relationship, but—nevertheless—it was something that kept me at least partially sane.

Not everyone is the same in regard to how they handle isolation. However, it is known that solitary confinement is extremely detrimental psychologically and is equivalent to torture for some. It is even worse for children deprived of healthy touch and, according to research, babies in orphanages with inadequate human interaction die at a rate of 30 to 40% and even survivors of the negligence often suffer terrible life-long consequences as a result.

We live in a culture that celebrates connectivity and social media. Unfortunately, those things, seeing words on a screen or having a “friends” list of thousands, do not fill the void or need for real physical interactions and touch. When my hopes of meaningful human connection faded away with another crushing rejection my mind slid back into solipsism—the ultimate aloneness, a disconnect from belief in anything outside of my own mind or imagination—the nightmarish hell put into words by Trent Reznor:

Yes I am alone
But then again I always was
As far back as I can tell
I think maybe it’s because
Because you were never really real
To begin with

I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
And it worked
Yes it did

The reality is that healthy people live for connection and survive periods of aloneness on their hopes of future intimacy and interactions. We were created for relationship, both with each other and with the one who walked with Adam in the garden. It is through relationships that we gain our personhood and purpose. The lack of real community, of physical touch and healthy interaction, has come at a great cost and, sadly, few seem ready to take the necessary action to change this for those most in need.

Some of the reason for this neglect is a misconception about the true meaning of the Gospel message…

“All you need is Jesus”

This is one of those religious clichés that is true in one sense, yet is completely untrue the way some people use it and is often nothing more than an excuse for their real indifference.

People need more than words to thrive.

Yes, we do not live by bread alone and we always depend wholly on God’s grace at all times. However, that doesn’t mean we do not have need of food, clothing, shelter or many other things that make our life complete.

Those who spiritualize and who dismiss the human needs of others should be locked for a week in a box naked, without food or sunlight, and then they can discuss what “all you need is Jesus” means to them as someone who was without anything else.

For those who think their offering mere words about an abstraction of Jesus are an indication of their faith and is doing enough, I will offer the words of James:

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

If I could have a dollar for all the times that people expressed sympathy for my circumstances, and then assured me that things would magically work out for me without doing anything to help, I would probably be a millionaire. The whole book of James tells me that such people who do not offer anything in the form of concrete help, despite what they might profess, do not really know Jesus and are still in need of salvation themselves. Christian faith that does not express itself in meeting needs both spiritual AND PHYSICAL is not real Christian faith.

“The word became flesh…”

One of the deficiencies of the theological indoctrination that I received in the denomination of my birth was a lack of explanation for the full significance of incarnation. Incarnation tends to be explained as a historic event, that Jesus provided an example to follow, and yet very little is said about the what this says about the human condition and need for touch.

The incarnation, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, is the centerpiece of what John says at the start of his Gospel account and is something that has great significance as far as how it relates to church life. Jesus came so that the Spirit, something not physically defined and the same Spirit “hovering” over the waters in the Genesis creation narrative, could be made one with human flesh and so that through that we also (the church together as the “body of Christ”) could become the incarnation of Christ.

This idea that the Gospel is about an abstraction, some kind of spiritual experience or journey and theological/theoretical construct that has little to offer in physical substance, is wrong. It is part of the issue that early Anabaptists would’ve had with Luther and Protestantism. It is also something Orthodox Christians cannot accept. There is no salvation without incarnation. We cannot live the Chrisitan life alone or without real and tangible love for other Christians.

Christianity is something that must be communal, it must involve actual physical interaction with other members of the body and our partaking of the real flesh and blood of Christ together with other believers, or it is not real. Faith is, as James clearly says, something that changes how we interact with each other in the material world, it should remove barriers (like favoritism or separations within the body between higher and lower social/religious/economic tiers) and make us do something about the physical needs of other Christians.

Feeding people with platitudes does not make you Christ-like or spiritually-minded. No, it is only living in denial of the needs of others, profoundly unloving and disobedience. Yes, certainly, the point of Christianity goes well-beyond mere humanism or making the world a better place to live for others. The kingdom is something that cannot be defined in the material world. That said, Christianity without any fleshing out or being an incarnation of the Spirit ourselves, like Christ, in our Communion together and providing for the physical needs of others is truly not Christianity anymore.

Those who spiritualize physical needs really should consider the question of why Jesus came in the first place. Why didn’t God just send his good news message on tablets of gold from heaven?

The answer is that our body is not something bad or that God has given up on. We are not a mind with a body as many seem to perceive themselves. No, the body and mind are as interwoven as soul and spirit. Sure, you may be able to intellectually conceptualize things like love and theorize about salvation. But the reality is that we do have physical needs, what happens to our bodies does have an impact on our minds, and thus we should take care of our own bodies and also be concerned with the physical well-being of our fellow Christians. The incarnation is important because we are creatures of flesh and with real physical needs. We need other Christians to flesh out Christ today for the same reason Thomas needed to touch the wounds of Jesus to know that he had truly conquered death.

Not just talk, touch…

There is no shortage of advice in the world and much of it unsolicited. Tell a person about your needs and you are bound to get an earful of their opinions. They, like those who claimed faith without works, think that they can talk away your problems and/or need a way to dismiss your needs when you do not take their bad advice. They can say, “Well, he should just listen to me and then things might go better.”

Jesus condemns this sort of aloofness:

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

That is not to say that we should never give any weighty advice. However, when our advice is not accompanied by helpful action, then it will simply be adding another burden to someone already struggling under the weight of life. Having real faith, embodying Christ, means offering real substantive help to those who ask. Again, there might be a place for speaking against sin, there is also a good case to be made for teaching people how to help themselves, yet we also need to get our own hands dirty sometimes and help to dig people out of the mire they are in or at least lift their load until they can get their feet under them again.

Jesus said, “Give to those who ask” (Matthew 5:42) And, given that he does offer himself to anyone who asks, it is very likely meant those words take be taken literally. He didn’t say only to give what rationally makes sense to you at the time, he doesn’t say to give only money or time, he tells us to give and our willingness to give is the true measure of our faith. It is our job, as Christians, to give of ourselves for the salvation of others, that is what marriage is about and why we should attend church—and be all the more involved when those in the church need Jesus more than we do.

The point of Christianity is to be part of the body of Christ, to do what he did for others and the “greater things” he promised would come as a result of his leaving. We are to touch and heal the wounded like he did.

The need for non-sexual physical touch…

In many parts of the world, it is not unusual for men to hold hands with other men nor a scandal for men and women to exchange a familial kiss. But somehow here, in the United States, we have managed to sexualize everything and this is especially true fundamentalist Mennonite/Protestant sects. In fact, I have had a young woman from such a setting, in her early twenties as I recall, worried about somehow defiling herself just to be in my physical presence and unsupervised. And that, needless to say, made the conversation extremely awkward.

This aversion to touch does not seem to be found in Scripture. Jesus healed using physical touch, he allowed a woman to wash his feet with her hair and there is (at least according to less sanitized translations) a description of a disciple “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13:23) while they ate in a reclined posture. There is no indication in Paul’s letters that the “holy kiss” was a gendered practice, he mentions both men and women in his list of those to greet, nor that it was only for their time. It certainly doesn’t seem like physical touch was such a big deal for Jesus and early Christians.

Consider the following:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. (Matthew 9:27‭-‬30b NIV)

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12‭-‬13 NIV)

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:15‭-‬16 NIV)

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. (Matthew 17:5‭-‬8 NIV)

And did I mention that Jesus touched?

That last passage, in particular, may give us some of the reason why the incarnation matters. We need more than an abstraction, more than a book or voice from heaven, we need touch. The church, as the hands and feet of Jesus, needs to be physically intimate in the same way that Jesus was to those he loved. There is healing in touch, it is healthy to touch, and Jesus touched.

Touch is good and right.

The need for good old-fashioned sex…

The person, responding to my prior blog about a failure in faith and relationship, had mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (something that I alluded to in an early blog) and how people, to reach their full potential, need food, water, shelter, clothes, and sex. They put special emphasis on sex because it is something that the spiritualizers (aka modern-day gnostics) would say sex doesn’t matter much and/or is something almost bad even in the context of marriage.

I recall being upset with a psychiatrist for describing my interest in a young woman as being sexual attraction. It was jarring to me at the time. How dare they describe my pure and lofty intentions in such a base manner? I’m not an animal! As obvious as sexual motives are now, looking back in retrospect, I truly was in complete denial then and still have difficulty now being honest about my strong desire for sex.

In fact, I had to be reminded recently that sex, within the marriage context, is something scared and thus my desire for that is not something to be ashamed of or hide.

So why did I hate and conceal this desire to the point that I didn’t even consciously recognize my motivations anymore?

Talk to anyone outside of a religious purity culture and they will be dead honest about their sexual desires. I too would never say that sex is a bad thing even while in denial of my own motivations. But, because sexuality is often discussed in negative terms, and because there was no healthy outlet for my sexual urges for all these years and also knowing that many conservative Mennonite girls share this same shameful view of sex, burying these desires seemed the only option. I mean what kind of God-fearing woman would marry a guy who openly admitted his mixed sexual and spiritual motives?

Unfortunately, this view of sex as being bad (or a shameful compromise) is completely unhealthy and needs to be addressed.

Scripture tells us “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22) and, it is important to realize, marriage is a sexual union. The idea of “two will become one flesh” includes sex and part of that “good” a man finds in a wife. The apostle Paul, while encouraging celibacy for some, says (in 1 Corinthians 7) that those who “burn with passion” should marry rather than fall into sin. He also said that married couples should not deprive each other of sexual relations for an indefinite period of time. So maybe it is time for a more affirming and positive presentation of sexual desire?

Dividing sexual touch from the sacred is unhealthy and wrong. The marital bed is sacred. Sex, in the right context, is not shameful. Most people need this kind of physical intimacy to reach their full potential and thrive. It is not lustful or a sin to want sex. Sex is something we are made for, it is part of God’s original design and something good—we might as well be open and honest about it!

True connection is a human need…

Not everyone has the same need for intimacy and touch. However, a person doesn’t really know their need of something until it is taken away along with any hope of it. Those who minimize the importance or need for real physical connection with other people probably aren’t those who have been without it for long periods of time.

I believe, as a nearly forty-year-old virgin and one who has experienced years of physical isolation, that this is a big problem that is not being addressed. I believe it is especially a problem for men who have no healthy outlet for physical touch. It is not as culturally taboo for women to touch or at least it is not unusual to see teenage girls hanging all over each other. However unmarried men, who need touch to be healthy just like a woman does, are often left to their own devices—alone, unneeded and unappreciated.

But I digress, both men and women need physical touch and to feel loved.

For those with their own physical needs met, even just keeping singles/widows/widowers involved and regularly invited to dinner with your family is a good start. I know that this, even as a token gesture, helped me have a more positive outlook on life as much as it happened. In fact, my being welcomed into homes in this way by a Charity-ish church every time I visited was nearly enough for me to overlook my differences with their perspectives of theology and application. Something real and tangible is better than nothing at all. And love—genuine, self-sacrificial and materially real love—truly does cover a multitude of sins:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:8-10)

It is not enough to wish a brother or sister well who is starving or naked. Likewise, it is not enough to tell those who desire to be needed and appreciated that all they need is an abstraction of Jesus. Jesus came in the flesh so that he could physically interact with and touch people. We too need to incarnate the intimacy that we desire with God through our willingness to be physically connected and intimate with those whom God loves. We need to love others and not with empty words or in religious forms. We need to love them in a way that meets their real physical human needs and in the same way as we want our own spiritual needs to be met by God.

The real need is for meaningful connection. We need adequate relationships to keep our minds from falling into dark and dangerous places. Studies show a correlation between addiction and lack of adequate social connection. We are not self-sufficient, we are not mere minds in a body, we need each other, to be loved and to feel the love of others.

This is why the word became flesh and why we must flesh out the Gospel with healing and healthy touch. It is on us to be the hands and feet of Jesus—faithful love requires that we do more than talk about abstractions of love.

Collectivism, Individualism, and the Alternative…

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There was nothing more irritating to the middle-school version of me than collective punishment of a class.  It was totally unfair, from the perspective of a well-behaved individual, for the teacher to punish the entire class because of the few who misbehaved and seemed a gross injustice.

However, from a teacher’s perspective, punishing classes as a collective whole was 1) easier than finding the individual culprits and 2) might convince students to police themselves.  And, while it is debatable whether or not this technique accomplishes the desired ends, it is something used in military training and for the purpose of teaching that the collective unit will rise and fall together in a combat situation.

We thrive in groups.  There is a reason why you buy your car from a manufacturer rather than build it yourself and that reason is they can do it more efficiently than you can.  It is something called “comparative advantage” (which basically means that some people are better at doing some tasks than we are) and is one of the reasons why trade is almost always mutually beneficial.  For the most ideal result (for both individuals and the collective) it is usually better that we specialize and cooperate.

In real-life we do depend on each other for survival.   Yes, you might be strong, independent, well-disciplined and as prepared as one can be for a crisis.  However, if your neighbors are not, when a crisis does arise it will likely be you against the group and you will probably lose that fight no matter how prepared you are.  And, at very least, even if you were to somehow escape, you would not thrive as an individual like you do in a developed economy where there is cooperation and trade.

So, whether we like it or not, regardless if it is just or not to introduce artificial group responsibility for the actions of others, even if there was no moral obligation to be our brother’s keeper, there is group accountability that arises naturally because of our interdependence and also an economic argument to make for some collective effort (or collectivism) and denial of the individual.  In other words, we are individually better when we take some concern for other individuals who make up our own collective group.

Where Collectivism Goes Wrong…

In the first part of my life most of my effort has been to fight back against collectivism.  In life, as in the classroom, I was usually well-behaved, worked hard, lived within my means, always paid my own bills on time, and expected others to do the same.  It has always seemed terribly unfair that others would expect me to pick up the tab for their irresponsible lifestyle.

What is worse is that many collectivists are not content to subsidize those who they deem to be deserving of help out of their own pockets and instead support the use of use of government to enforce their ideals—taxes are used for income redistribution and affirmative action laws created in an effort to promote equality of outcomes.  To me that is trying to solve one injustice by means of another injustice.  There is no virtue in forcing other people to give to others against their will.

Furthermore, at some point, forcing a responsible person to subsidize another person’s lifestyle is to punish their behavior and promote irresponsible behavior.  The problem with artificial collective responsibility is that it can remove the incentive for the individual to be responsible for themselves and leads to a downward spiral.

For example, poverty has not been eliminated since the “war on poverty” began in 1964.  In fact, the percentage of single parent homes—one of the significant predictors of poverty—has increased dramatically over the same period.  It is often very difficult, for those already in the welfare system, to escape their dependence when the benefits of not working are almost equal to the income they could earn otherwise.

And then there is this awful thing called “identity politics” where people are put into competitive groups according to their race, gender or economic status and then pitted against each other.  Basically the idea is to promote conflict (rather than cooperation) between various identity groups.  People, according to this kind of thinking, should be judged as a part of their collective groups rather than as individuals and unique.

What identity politics amounts to, in practical terms, is that there are those who are collectively punished for the sins of their collective identity (past or present) and then those who, as a collective group, are deemed to be victims and therefore entitled to a protected status.  Identity politics is to blame for terms like “white privilege” and also for the resurgence of white nationalism.  It should be no surprise to anyone that those who are collectively punished will, in turn, circle the wagons and start to collectively protect their own identity group.

Teachers who punish the whole class for the actions of a few individuals assume that the group will push back against those who misbehave.  Unfortunately, it could also promote the opposite and cause the well-behaved students to give up and even join in the misbehavior because they will be punished regardless.  Likewise, when labels like “racist” or “sexist” are applied to an entire identity group they often become counterproductive.  People who are categorizing and castigated as a group regardless of their individual role might as well misbehave a little.

Collectivism ultimately fails when it is disrespectful of individual rights and disregarding of differences between individuals.  The potential for abuse is severe when it is the collective group versus some individuals or even when collective groups fights against other groups.  It is what leads to pogroms and purges.  Collectivism is extremely dangerous ideology when it becomes an excuse to privilege some ethnic, national, racial, religious, social or political groups at the expense of others.

Where Individualism Goes Wrong…

Individualism, to many people, seems like the perfect alternative to collectivism.  It is part of the ideological DNA of the United States of America.  Truly one of the things that made America great was the special consideration for the individual and their “inalienable” rights.

These rights, purportedly “endowed by our creator” according the nation’s founding documents, have been enshrined into law and a government system designed as a bulwark against abuse of individuals.  Progress, at least in American terms, has been a matter of extending the umbrella of these individual rights to those previously disenfranchised and considered less than equal because of their gender, racial or ethnic group.  While we can never agree on the particulars, the general idea that “all men are created equal” and have rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is something most do agree on.

Respect for individual rights has made this nation great because it freed individuals to do what they wanted to do.  Yes, the nation was imperfect in it’s founding and remains imperfect.  However, the American ideal seems to be right in many regards, it is something that likely contributed to the current prosperity this nation and is something that has likely helped to shape a better world.  It is hard to imagine the world being better under the totalitarianism represented by men like Stalin, Hitler and other dictators claiming to represent a collective good.

Unfortunately, respect for the individual turns into a bad thing when it becomes individualism.  It is true that many are able to provide food, clothing and shelter for themselves as an individual.  However, nobody can provide for their own social needs and many in the world today are socially starved.  The problem is particularly acute in the developed world where people are materially prosperous and can live under a delusion of their independence.  But the truth is that it is not healthy for most people to be free from meaningful human connections or to have no purpose bigger than themselves.

The deficiencies of individualistic American culture have became clearer to me after I left home.  Being single, out on the road, a completely free individual, often made me feel profoundly lonely and unfulfilled.  I felt imprisoned in my own mind.  My siblings had their own lives, my friends all seemed to marry then disappear, the local church was unable/unwilling to pick up the slack, and depression set in.   No man is an island—positive social interactions and having a place to belong is what keeps us sane.

My recent trip to the Philippines punctuated this point.  The people there generally have less material wealth than their American counterparts.  As a result people depend on each other—family members expected to provide for each other, children help their parents, and is more or less an organic form of collectivism.  I felt happier there, as one participating in family activities, than I did with all the possessions and properties I’ve aquired over the past few decades.

As if to provide contrast, on my way way back from the Philippines I was put up in a Marriott (when my flight to JFK was diverted to Atlanta because of weather) and was basically alone despite being one of the hundred passengers and crew in the motel.  My accommodations were luxurious, my stomach full of quality grub courtesy of Korean Air food vouchers, my unlimited data plan connected me back to social media and all the entertainment in the world, and still it felt like a time devoid of purpose.

People do not need to be a part of an identity group.  However, we do seem to find our own identity in our interactions with other people and within a group.  Solitude, while therapeutic and a chance for reflection as a choice, is a punishment when imposed upon us by circumstances beyond our control.  Individualism, at an extreme, results in solipsism and anti-social behavior—it is easy to imagine that the world is against you when too disconnected from other people.

Where Community Gets it Right…

“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy–in fact, the opposite.” (Jean Vanier)

Community can mean many things.  However, the word itself is a fusion of “common” with “unity” and most often describes a group individuals with a shared identity or interest.  In this context community is a collection of individuals who love and take an active role in each other’s lives.

I believe community is something that transcends the ideological extremes (and false dichotomy) of individualism and collectivism.  It is not a balance or tension between individual rights and the collective needs of a group.  It is rather a fusion of individual and collective concerns that is not a product of coercion or imposed as a legal obligation.  It is a place where differences become a strength rather than a point of contention and were grievances are addressed without becoming the group’s central theme.

A healthy community is focused on the highest common denominator of the group rather than on the lowest.  In other words, the goals of the individuals in the group are bigger than what is merely good for them or those who are most like them.  Those who make up the group are not forced to give up their personal autonomy to tyrannical collective process either.  Instead they are free to voluntarily use their individual strengths to the betterment of the group, willing to work towards the goal they share in common with the group, and without their personal needs being neglected.

Community is a Christian ideal.  It is centered on sharing an identity with Jesus and is following after his example.  It means being willing to suffer temporary personal loss for the external good of others.  It means loving social outcasts, reaching out to those marginalized in society and being a helping hand to those in need.  It means having an identity (both individually and collectively) greater than race, gender, economic status, nation, or religious affiliation.  It means a community formed by all those (past, present and future) united in a mystical common-union:

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. “ (Colossians 3:11‭-‬14 NIV)

Community is where individuals take responsibility for the collective group and the collective group takes responsibility for the individual.  Not because they have to, not because they fear punishment, but because they want to, they have an identity bigger than themselves and love each other as Jesus first loved them.

Mennonite Values and Love That Transcends Difference

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The other day it occurred to me that many of my most faithful Mennonite friends married across divisions of ethnicity and race.  In fact, three out of the three friends I was with yesterday are married to women who were born in foreign countries and later became US citizens.

Interracial marriage is not unusual in modern America anymore.  A full 17% of newlyweds in the United States married across racial or ethnic lines according to Pew Research Center.  This has been a steady trend for many decades and with this increase in interracial marriages the stigma has decreased—only a small percentage of Americans remain opposed to marriages across racial lines.

Mildred and Richard Loving who, in 1967, refused to be separated even when facing prison time.

Mennonites have tended to lag behind the general population in many regards and this is one of those areas.  It was only a few years ago that my Mennonite pastor (educated at Bob Jones University where interracial relationships were banned until the 1990’s) cautioned me against this kind of relationship citing cultural differences.  It is probably safe to assume that his views are not unusual in the conservative end of the Mennonite denomination.

Have Mennonites have began to catch up with the mainstream?

I know that interracial dating was unusual and even discouraged in the Mennonite church of my youth.  That is why my realization about so many of my friends being married interracially was astonishing to me.  I’m not sure if it is only a local anomaly or a general across-the-board trend.  However, I do know that there were very few others in the conservative Mennonite church when I was in a romantic relationship with a black woman just over a decade ago.

Some of it could be explained by inner-city outreach projects.  Typically Mennonites have been raised in rural parts of the country and sheltered from non-Mennonites.  My own experience was slightly different due to my public school education, which likely made me more open to relationships outside of my own ethnic group (my first real crush was not a Mennonite or white girl) and yet many of my religious peers caught up with a bit of exposure to the world outside their ethnic enclaves.  Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church (in Brooklyn, New York) accounts for many of the relationships across racial lines that I know about in the more traditional end of the denomination.

But, before anyone gets too excited, this does not mean attitudes have changed much with most conservative Mennonites.  I have heard many young men (who likely have not met too many girls besides their sisters or cousins) state that they would not be interested in dating a girl of a different race.  It is probably even less acceptable for a Mennonite female to marry outside her ethnic fold, and many of the couples in interracial relationships do not remain Mennonite.

Generally one cannot deviate too far from the Mennonite cultural norm and expect to be embraced.  It was hard enough for me, a Mennonite guy with some unorthodox views, to find a girl born in a Mennonite home that would give me the time of day.  I could not imagine being a convert from outside trying to get a date with someone of a popular family with an established Mennonite pedigree.

Mennonites barely have the faith to ask or date anyone—let alone someone who doesn’t meet a long list of qualifications, race and ethnicity likely included.

Why do some Mennonites marry across racial or ethnic lines?

One thing my friends have in common is that they married older.  I do not see them as purposefully trying to find girls from a different ethnic group or race either.  Most of them are down to earth and practical guys who found a girl who gave them a chance and connected with them.  It seems that girls from non-Mennonite background are more willing to be friends first, are less driven by impossible purity culture ideals, and much more appreciative of a guy who treats them with respect—even if he is not tall, smug or otherwise full of himself…

By all appearances, those Mennonites marrying across racial lines are not trying to make a political statement.  Ironically, the virtue-signaling types (the most outspoken cradle Mennonites about racial issues) seem to marry the whitest and then preach to everyone else about about being more accepting of immigrants, etc.  Those actually marrying across racial lines, on the other hand, are doing it for pragmatic reasons and real love for the person they married rather than to be superior to anyone else or prove anything about themselves.  And that’s not to say my friends will not defend their wives and children from racists—they might not be vocal or making a show of it, but are solid men and their loved ones not to be trifled with.

Those who married across racial lines seemed motivated truly by love.  They would have likely also married someone of their own ethnicity or race had the right circumstances come along.  But, that said, they are extraordinary, they married out of a love that could transcend superficial differences and therefore their relationships have a potential others do not.  They were willing to go outside of the conventional ideals of their parent’s generation, even of their religious peers, and may have even faced some extra resistance along the way.  That may be why they are some of the most loyal, caring and mature people that I know—they are simply willing to go in love where others have not.

My recommendation to those on the fence…

Those advising against interracial dating often don’t have a clue what they are talking about.  Yes, there are differences to overcome, but that is also true of any committed relationship and it certainly is not reason to quit before you started.  Go on some dates, find out if your personalities compliment or collide and then decide your next step—is that really too difficult or complicated?

It does not seem that my friends who married interracially regret their choice.  I do know there are a number of those who married ethnic Mennonites who have had second thoughts.  Indeed, sometimes those seemingly perfect candidates (according to Mennonite cultural ideals) are not what they appear to be at first glance and pleasing their near-impossible standards can be a real headache.  So, if it is a choice between being taken for granted by some entitled brat or more fully appreciated by someone who has seen real struggle in their lives, isn’t the right choice obvious enough?

Take my advice guys.  Stop pining for that girl that snubbed your first inquiry.  If she didn’t see your interest in her as reason enough to go on a date or two, then she isn’t worth any more of your time.  Quit being a pathetic lapdog.  That will only feed her sense that you have nothing to offer her (that she can’t already have) and further convince her that she is out of your league.  Be a man, go where you are needed in the world, be a real leader, move on.

For those girls who have never been asked, same deal.  Broaden your horizons, stop trying to please people who don’t lift a finger on your behalf, and you might soon find there are many faithful Christians who don’t have a familiar Mennonite surname.

Godly character, not skin color or religious pedigree, is what makes a marriage work.

When Love Remains — A Guest Blog By Linda Stoltzfus

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This is my first guest post.  It is written by my mom (a person who encouraged my writing) and resonated deeply with me.  It is something my mother shared recently about her own mother’s decline in health and I asked permission to share here.  I felt it was something relevant and worthwhile for those who have faced or are facing similar circumstances.  A story about memory loss and love…

Sitting on the couch my mom reaches for her phone. She snaps it open and stares at the face that greets her. The man who has been at her side for over sixty years stares back.  Her fingers haltingly push the button that calls him.  It rings and I hear his voice answering.

She pauses; words no longer come easily for her.  But I know what she will say.  She will ask him to come back into the house.

As I reach for the phone I reassure her that Dad has just gone out for a walk and he will be back in time for supper.  She seems to understand, but I know that as soon as I leave the room she will be trying to call him again.  Her mind can no longer retain anything that was said a minute or two ago.  She wants her husband, my dad, to be by her side night and day.  He has become her memory and her security in this foggy world of hers.

My mother has been given the diagnosis of dementia likely caused by Alzheimer’s.  At the age of eighty this isn’t really that unusual.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in nine people over 65 has Alzheimer’s disease.  One of three senior citizens will die with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia.

My Mom has beautiful eyes: big, bright and blue.  She had lovely long hair which never turned gray and kept its blonde streaks into her seventies.  She would faithfully wash it once a week, often using whipped egg whites as conditioner.  It was her pride and glory.  When she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgins Lymphoma, I believe the most severe blow was that treatment would cause her to lose her hair.  But to live she had no choice.  The cancer was stage four and her swollen lymph nodes were giving her a lot of pain.

Except for her hair loss, she tolerated the heavy duty cocktail of chemo drugs rather well.  It was with much relief that after her last treatment she was pronounced cancer free.  However, she seemed to becoming more and more confused.  Her once sharp memory wasn’t there and she constantly wanted pain pills for some ache somewhere.

Instead of getting her strength back she wanted to do nothing but curl up on the couch. She began refusing to shower, or even comb the hair which had begun to grow back.  Having to leave the house and attend any activity with people made her extremely anxious.  My dad desperately held on to the hope that she was still recovering from the cancer.  He insisted that once her strength came back things would get better.  But after cognitive memory testing by the doctor, it became obvious that she was showing signs of dementia.

I was aware of symptoms of dementia and saw the effects it had on my grandmother and the toil it took on my aunt as her caretaker, but they lived several hours away and our contact was minimal.  The reality is much harder when you deal with it day to day.

Dementia is often misunderstood as being something all old people have; however it is actually a part of different diseases.  Alzheimer’s is the one that often comes first to mind but mini strokes, vascular issues, Lewy’s disease, Parkinson’s and even brain trauma can lead to the diagnosis of dementia.   My mother has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s but the doctors seem to think the cause of her dementia is Alzheimer’s.

Today when I look into my mother’s eyes they look back at me empty of emotion.  Occasionally she surprises us with a smile, and for a brief moment I see them light up.  But most of the time, they remain dead to her surroundings.  Her face seems fixed into some sort of mask of confusion.  During her calm times her eyes stare blankly into the distance.  When agitated she has the look of a distressed child.

It is now supper time and my mother makes her slow trek to the kitchen gripping her walker for support.  I pull out her chair and she sits down.  I hand her some napkins which she seems to enjoy folding. It is one of the few things she still can do.

My dad comes into the house, and with his usual style, asks Mom how she is feeling.  Although he hasn’t had a positive answer from her concerning her health for months, he seems to retain some sort of illusive idea that it may yet happen.

He deeply misses his soulmate.  They were unusual by today’s standards.  There was no independence in their relationship: they did everything together and it seemed to work for them.  Dad enjoyed driving and Mom did the navigating.  Dad liked watching people while Mom did the grocery shopping.  They both enjoyed going out for fast food, Burger King was a favorite, and they preferred eating in the car together rather than inside.

Mom always made sure Dad had three meals a day and that his needs were well taken care of.  However, that all changed with her cancer diagnosis.  She hasn’t cooked since.  Today we all take turns making sure they have a cooked meal each day.

At the supper table, I try to bring back some sort of connection by talking about my birth fifty some years ago. Mom is still able to recall my date of birth but she isn’t sure how old she is or even what day or year it is.

One of the frustrating things about dementia is the way it plays with your emotions.  One minute the person can be reciting a date or event in perfect order but then a moment later have no idea who they just talked to or what was said.  A person with dementia has good and bad days just as any normal person does.  This puts caretakers on an emotional seesaw, since the good days make you want to believe that the person is getting better.

The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word dementia is loss of memory.  Of course this is true but we all experience some loss of memories throughout the years.  The disease or injury that causes dementia is much more complicated than simply forgetting something.  It takes many cranial connections to make a decision, to recall how to turn on a stove, know the steps in taking a shower.  Once this processing is damaged, or gone, a person becomes more and more limited.  They need someone to give them step by step directions for each and every process of the day.

Today is one of Mom’s good days.  She seems relaxed, when several of her younger grandchildren show up, she smiles.  Instead of lying on her couch she remains sitting watching the activity.   She motions to me.  I can see that she wants to say something but her voice is subdued, and hard to hear.  I move next to her.

“Do we have any smarties?” she asks me.  It is her favorite treat for the children.

I check the dish she keeps next to her bedside.  It has several pieces and I give her the dish.  Her face lights up as she hands them to the children, and for a short time I see my mom back.

My mom’s biggest goal in life was to take care of her husband and family. She faithfully raised seven children and celebrated the birth of each 30 grandchildren and 20 some great-grandchildren.

My mom enjoyed listening to music, reading and going to church and social activities.  Now she no longer wants to attend any type of social activity and refuses to have any music playing around her.  She can’t focus to read.  Although still able to read the words the comprehension is no longer there.  She has always been a follower of Christ with strong convictions but now no longer prays before a meal unless my Dad reminds her.

One of the cruelest things of dementia is the loss of the personality of the person you love. The disease has robbed her and us of some of the most precious parts of the human relationship.

In exception of one thing:  unending love. My mom is surrounded by agape love.  For sixty years my dad has been with her and is committed to being there until the end.  Although he has taken on the role of caretaker, his love for her remains the same.

Each of her four daughters is involved in her care, making sure her daily needs are being met.  Her daughters in laws have faithfully been making meals for several years with even some of her grandchildren helping out.  We all play different roles motivated by love.

One evening as I sat next to my mom who was lying on the couch with her eyes closed, seemingly sleeping, she reached out her hand and put it in mine.  She then took her other hand and laid it on top.  A wave of warmth spread over me. I haven’t felt that kind of emotional connection from her in a long time.

In that simple gesture, I knew that in spite of her confused state Mom was feeling loved.  In return she was offering the one thing she could still give back: affirmation of her love.  No disease can ever take that away.

Courting Disaster: Why Mennonites Are Afraid To Date

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

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

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

Too Guarded, Too Superficial…

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Our Balance Between Extremes

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

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

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

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

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