Redemption In An Age Of Unjust Outrage—Should People Be Given Second Chances?

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President Trump’s State of the Union address was very well received and perhaps some of the reason for that being his call for redemption. Two of the special guests had been incarcerated during the Clinton administration (when things like “mandatory minimums” and “three strikes,” often disproportionately impacting minorities, became Federal law) and have been recently given their freedom.

The first mentioned was Alice Johnson who had been convicted in 1996 for her involvement in a cocaine trafficking organization (apparently not the CIA), sentenced to life in prison, and having their sentence commuted by the Trump administration:

Inspired by stories like Alice’s, my Administration worked closely with members of both parties to sign the First Step Act into law. This legislation reformed sentencing laws that have wrongly and disproportionately harmed the African-American community. The First Step Act gives non-violent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. Now, States across the country are following our lead. America is a Nation that believes in redemption.

The second guest mentioned, in relation to this redemption theme, was a man named Matthew Charles. Charles, with a face that beamed with gratitude, had been sentenced to 35 years in 1996 for selling crack cocaine in 1996 and became the first prisoner released under the “First Step Act” signed into law recently by Trump.

Like the President or not, this kind of criminal justice reform—after decades of excessive punishments—is something worthy of our praise. It is a first step back towards what once made America great and that being the opportunity to move on from our past failures, both individual or collective, and pursue a better tomorrow together.

Grievance Culture Never Forgives

Unfortunately, while legislative reforms are important, the President can’t undo a cultural progression away from Christian ideas of redemption and towards that of eternal grievance. Those sentenced by an outrage mob in the “court of public opinion” cannot face their accusers, they are denied any form of due process and are rarely, if ever, pardoned.

Media fueled public shaming campaigns, often at the behest of social justice warriors or their sympathizers, have destroyed careers mid-flight over a bad joke on Twitter—who can forget Justine Sacco’s sardonic quip about Africa, AIDS and race? One moment she was an anonymous leftist speaking cryptically about her white privilege to a small circle of friends and the next she is an international pariah for an allegedly racist remark.

Then there is Austen Heinz, the socially awkward genetic researcher and entrepreneur, who was driven to suicide by a bullying campaign led by Huffington Post, Daily Mail, BuzzFeed and other clickbait media sources.

His crime? He mentioned, off-the-cuff, some potential to change feminine scents, which was characterized as being “misogynistic” and “sexist” in one sensational story after another. Who knows what amazing breakthroughs someone as brilliant as Heinz could’ve produced in his lifetime had it not been cut tragically short by those who profit by pushing identity politics and division?

That’s not to say that there is no pushback against this sort of abuse. The wrongly accused boys from Covington Catholic High School are being represented in defamation lawsuits after suffering harassment and threats as a result of a media campaign, involving celebrities and other public figures, to shame them. One of the vicious commentators, Kathy Griffen, who called for their identities to be revealed and falsely accused them of using Nazis signs.

To Forgive Or Not To Forgive?

Of course who can forget the Brett Kavanaugh hearings or ignore the current uproar in Virginia over a photo in Democrat Governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook showing a man in blackface with a Klansman?

And that’s not to mention the two sexual assault allegations that surfaced since then against Virginia’s Lt Governor, Justin Fairfax, and a Duke basketball player. Reportedly Fairfax used his knowledge of a young woman’s prior rape allegation being quashed by university officials as a means to victimize her again since he believed she would be unlikely to report as a result of her prior experience.

In all of these cases the evidence and allegations are different. They all should be addressed on their individual merits and in the correct venues. But all are also in the realm of politics and from many years ago, which really does significantly complicate matters. Who or what many believe seems to become more of a matter of whose ideological team you are on or the potential political fallout more than the actual veracity of the claims being made.

Political campaigns have long relied on digging up comments, years old, served up out of context, is simply how the game has been played. That said, that doesn’t take away from the seriousness of the more serious allegations, it is one thing to accuse someone of being a racist, sexist, or liar (largely subjective judgements) and quite another to be accuse them of rape. The latter accusation is either objective reality or it is not, potentially criminal behavior, and definitely reflective of a serious character flaw if true.

Still, with the lessor offenses or with unsubstantiated allegations, at what point do we forgive “human frailty” (as the Wall Street Journal puts it), remember that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 2:10), “judge not lest ye be judged” (Matthew 7:2), and move on? Should we ever treat human failure (real or alleged) like a permanent stain, a reason to always be suspicious of a person, or an irredeemable blemish? I would say no, based on the references provided above, but then…

Maybe Forgiveness Is Only For Some…?

One of the problems with how forgiveness is often used is that is used as a license for our friends and political/religious/tribal peers while simultaneously denying the same privilege to others. This is why a perceived smirk can become a national outrage while actual violence in malls is dismissed as “teenage boredom” and largely ignored.

I’ve long been against collective punishment for individual sins. I’m part of that generation who had Martin Luther King’s “content of character” rather than “color of skin” speech drilled into them and have always made a sincere effort to put that axiom urging judgment based on individual merit to practice. But I’ve found that this steadfast conclusion makes me a relic in the time of intersectionality, group shaming, unforgivable guilt for some and permanent victim status for others.

Perhaps this current generation is a correction to the overly optimistic outlook of my own?

Stereotypes are not entirely baseless, statistics do bear out differences in attitudes, behavior, and outcomes of groups, which could be proof of systemic oppression or simply our own cultural and biological inheritance. There is a reason why many professional athletes are typically of one demographic and chess players are of another, it has to do with discrimination and yet is discrimination based on ability despite coinciding with differences in race or gender. So it is conceivable, as well, that some groups are more likely to become school shooters and for others to me more generally violent as well.

There is a time for generalization…

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. (Titus 1:10‭-‬14 NIV)

There may indeed be tendencies of groups that should be called out. That said, I doubt very much that St Paul, in the passage above, is making a case for unforgivingness or collective punishment. No, I’m quite certain that he, as one who once persecuted and killed Christians before his dramatic conversion, understood very much the need for redemption or he himself would forever be condemned. Had he been held to the same standard of today he would likely be completely disqualified from leadership and certainly never embraced as a brother by those whom he harmed.

Forgiveness Is For Those Who Repent.

One of those other problematic teachings that I’ve frequently encountered (particularly in my Mennonite religious culture) is this idea that forgiveness should be bestowed upon all people regardless of what they do or how often. This is based in a misapplication of Christian examples in a way that too often provides shelter for repeat sexual abusers and others who have learned how to game the system.

This idea that forgiveness removes any sort of accountability for sin is dead wrong. Sure, Zaccheaus needed to be forgiven for his taking advantage of people as a tax collector, but he also needed to repent of his sin and repentance required taking responsibility (financial or otherwise) for the wrong he had done.

In other words, had Zaccheaus been a child-molester simply admitting the sin or even an “I’m so sorry” speech is not enough, he would need to also face the civil penalties for his actions and also the social consequences as well.

The plea of Jesus on the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” was not permission for those in the crowd chanting “crucify him” to go on murdering innocent people or an escape from need for repentance. Those in that outraged mob who called for his death would eventually need to repent and face the consequences of their sins like everyone else.

Forgiveness does not absolve a person from need to repent. Yes, there are times when we need to forgive those who have offended us without them repenting, we should always give a second chance (even 70 x 7 chances) to those who do truly repent (ie: have confessed and also paid the penalties for their sin), but this idea that forgiveness means complete freedom from consequences or removes the need to repent fully is not at all Christian—repentance is a requirement.

So, yes, we must forgive as we want to be forgiven and we should also not hold a grudge against those who have wronged us, but there is no indication that those who do not repent will be forgiven by God and we owe it to them to tell them the truth. Furthermore, according to 1 Corinthians 5:1-12, we should not even associate with a person who calls themselves a Christian and continues to live in unrepentant sin.

So, returning to the question initially asked…

Should People Be Given Second Chances?

The answer is both yes and no.

Forgiveness is something conditional. Jesus called for repentance, saying “go and sin no more” to a woman whom he forgave, and using a parable of a man forgiven a great debt who did not forgive to illustrate the point that forgiveness can be revoked for the unrepentant.

Second chances are for those who acknowledge their error (and repent) or can’t be found guilty of wrongdoing after the matter has been addressed in the appropriate manner.

There should also be allowance for growth—people do mature and change. There should also be some tolerance given to all people, because nobody is perfect, we all have our flaws, and would probably look pretty bad if our lives were put under the microscope of the outrage mobs. However, this tolerance and allowance should not only be for those who are on our team.

For example, we cannot say that blackface is the unpardonable sin of racism in one case and then play it off as a “coming of age ritual” (it certainly wasn’t for me) because our own guy got caught. We can’t treat a boy’s expression as a “facecrime” (thank you, George Orwell) worthy of national contempt while totally ignoring the grown men yelling homophobic and bigoted things (or worse, describe their hateful and intentionally provocative slurs as “preaching about the Bible and oppression” (*ahem* CNN) while simultaneously heaping condemnation on a boy for wearing a MAGA hat and an awkward smile.

That said, I would expect more from a fellow Christian, raised in a good home and under good instruction, than I would from some random dude on the street. Jesus did say that more will be expected from those who are given more (Luke 12:48) and that may mean we hold some to a higher standard. And yet we should also be aware that our own judgment is clouded by prejudice, that we don’t see everything a person is going through or the disadvantages they’ve faced in their lives, and therefore should err on the side of forbearance in all cases.

So there is no simple answers.

I do believe that our culture, due to social media, click-bait stories and a progressive decline in moral values, has veered dangerously away from forgiveness and redemption. We should definitely think twice before joining an outrage mob, we also need to do whatever it takes to keep partisan politics and tribal identities from perverting our judgment, and we should always give as many second chances to others as we would want for ourselves.

No matter your politics, you very well could be the next less-than-perfect person turned into an unforgivable villain by the mob, so keep that in mind next time you see a sensational headline, read a poorly concieved Tweet or watch a video clip without context.

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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.

Taking on Matthew 23 and the Uncomfortable Topic of Hypocrisy

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Several years ago, my church designated the fifth Sunday of the month as an opportunity for laymen to preach.  I passed on the invitation when my name came up.  I did not feel qualified to speak and therefore decided not to embarrass myself or bore an audience with my scattered thoughts.

Much has changed since then.  A couple years ago (upon realizing that I could no longer use the excuse of being younger than Jesus when he started his ministry) I decided to start saying “yes” when called upon.  And, surprisingly enough, I did survive my attempts at teaching and giving devotions.  In fact, I did well-enough that I started to think about what I would preach, given the chance.

What sermon would I preach?

I’ve heard dozens of sermons parsing 1 Corinthians 11.  Modesty (the word “modest” only found once in Scripture) has been a frequently preached on topic as well.  Biblical proof-texts pertaining to our doctrinal hobbyhorses make their regular appearances—I’m pretty sure my Mennonite readership is quite familiar with the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew.

I’ve heard many “fire and brimstone” messages about the danger of television, rock music, sports and “worldly” entertainment.  Where I come from there is no shortage of sensational stories and titillating tales included in the message.  Even the occasional myths about wells to hell and erroneous silver dollar arguments get mixed in to spice things up a bit when the pulpit-pounding theatrics aren’t good enough.

However, amongst those numerous messages I’ve heard from across many pulpits, there is one particular Biblical text that I cannot recall a sermon being preached on.

That text being Matthew 23, the chapter where Jesus levels seven accusations against the religious elites of that time, a sermon full of unpleasant words and bitter reproach that culminates into prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction and the ending of that age.

I have long pondered why this significant portion of Scripture (mirrored in the six woes of Luke 11:37-54) is so often neglected.

It could be confirmation bias.  It is very easy to only see evidence that confirms our existing worldview (or “cherry picking“) and ignore evidence to the contrary.  Perhaps it is preoccupation with defending the current tradition that distracts us from a sermon about the hypocrisy of other religious people?  We’d rather dismiss that as irrelevant to our own time and unimportant.

Or…does it hit too close to home?

In a denomination known to split over religious minutia a discussion of personal hypocrisy might be a sore subject.  When I read it, the parallels between the attitudes of those Jesus called out and some I’ve witnessed in our circles today are clearly recognizable.  So the passage might simply be avoided as an uncomfortable topic.

Anyhow, as one not striving to follow the path of least resistance, and as one who believes that faithfulness includes challenging the complacent, I would choose Matthew 23 for a sermon text and explain how the message Jesus gave then still applies to us today.

Blogging—today’s medium for delivering a message to a broader audience.

I felt called to be a minister of the gospel at a young age.  Back then, I had thought that meant being ordained or or serving as a missionary overseas.  Both of those things have become more and more unlikely as I’ve aged.  I do not tow the denominational line, so to speak, therefore my chances of ordaination or being sent to represent a Mennonite organization are about nil.

I may never have the opportunity to preach in a Mennonite church given my current trajectory.  But life is strange.  This thing called blogging did not exist until the mid 90s nor did social media and now it does.  My writing here reaches a larger audience than ordained Mennonite men do on Sunday mornings and that’s something I could not have imagined as a child.

So, I’ve decided to do a series of blogs on Matthew 23.  I want to be faithful with the platform I’ve been given, and I believe that you are here reading because the message is relevant to you.  My hope is that this encouragement to go beyond our own religious comfort zones is received as intended.

Part 1: Jesus Assails Unhelpful Religious Elites (Matthew 23:1-4)

Part 2: What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:6-12)

Part 3: Missionaries From Hell? (Matthew 23:13-15)

Part 4: Too Focused To Be Faithful (Matthew 23:16-24)

Part 5: Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

Part 6: Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

Part 7: Jesus Longs for His People (Matthew 23:37-39)

Nuclear Fusion and a Positive Vision of Love

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

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

The impossible love meets human reality…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Sarah, my sister from Congo-Brazzaville…

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

My initial thought was to ignore it.

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

I clicked “accept” not knowing what to expect.

I was not kept in suspense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what remains to be seen and impossible?

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

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

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

So what is my positive vision for love?

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

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

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

A Tempest in a Coffee Cup?

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One may think from the news coverage that Christians are out, torches and pitchforks in hand, looking for coffee shops to burn.  The story is that Starbucks isn’t exploiting Christmas enough and this lack of proper capitalization for a profit of holiday has offended the sentiments of the unwashed religionist hoards.

This fury seems to have originated with a humorous poke at a bland Starbucks holiday cup design.  It was escalated by a fuddy-duddy blowhard extraordinaire (aka Joshua Feuerstein) who, apparently not seeing the joke, posted a video that urged a movement to trick hapless minions of secularism (aka Starbucks employees) into saying Merry Christmas.

And, since then—like that bar fight where nobody knows which drunken idiot started it or why they are fighting to begin with—the story of angry Christians has exploded into a media fiasco.  But strangely the two main characters in this brawl do not seem to exist as much more than mythological creatures and that has led some to wonder if the whole ordeal is a fabrication.

Where are these offended Christians?

In my cadre of conservative Christian social media commentating friends, I have yet to see one who is offended by the Starbucks design.  In fact, of my coreligionist friends voicing an opinion, I have observed two main camps:

1) The Apologists, or those annoyed by other Christians who are offended by Starbucks cups and have taken to social media to scold these theoretical entitlement-minded embarrassments to the Christian cause.

2) The Sanctimonious, or those who are suspicious that this controversy is created by the liberal irreligious media and take their high horse to condemn those annoyed as being pawns in this imagined nefarious plot.

Then there’s one last group made of non-religious friends:

3) The Amused, or those who watch with a little gleefulness, are not overly suspicious of the media and have little trouble imagining Christians that feel they are entitled to special treatment or would become outraged over something as silly as Starbucks cup.

My own opinion is that the whole thing has gotten blown out of proportion.  It has likely only gained traction because we are already accustomed to the cultural wars that take place over issues similar to this.  There is usually a skirmish or two this time of year (whether arguing for and against nativity scenes or some other cultural expressions of Christianity) and this has primed our pumps to expect it.

I also do contend, again, that Joshua Feuerstein represents a small segment of the general Christian population.  There’s always those who are perpetually offended on behalf of their own tribe (look at the Halloween costume controversy at Yale and the chaos at Mizzou as examples) and yet whether or not these outspoken activists represent much more than themselves is an open question.  My own anecdotal evidence suggests that those outraged by the cups are, at the most, a fringe element even amongst fundamentalists.

What’s with the media coverage, anyhow?

If one wants to study the interplay of the media echo chamber and social media viral phenomena they should start here.  There seems to be a positive feedback loop at work in this where a one-man movement on YouTube, picked up by the mainstream media, was then sifted through the amplifier of social media and each step promoting more to add their own opinions.  This has gone through several cycles of growing in magnitude.  Even Donald Trump weighed in suggesting a boycott of the mermaid logo brand.

I do not think this is a media reporting this ‘controversy’ is a coordinated attempt to discredit Christians.  Professional journalists are not any different from the rest of us and will report on what is the latest buzz as we do.  In the age of social media the feedback loop is faster and the amplification quicker than ever.  By the time people start breathing again, we all feel a bit duped and start to wonder how the insanity got started.

Newsflash: All news is manufactured!

And, furthermore, we all participate in manufacturing news when we share about events that interest us.  We present a product of our own perspective whenever we tell other people about anything.  As a professional news reporter, we also select the facts we believe are relevant and omit those that seem inconsequential.  We carefully craft our words to reach our target audience and create a narrative based in our own worldview.

The adage “if it bleeds it leads” holds generally true.  We are drawn to controversy and this latest fracas over Starbucks cups has struck a cord or we wouldn’t be talking about it.  There are evidently enough perpetually outraged Christians like Feuerstein to make a premise of widespread butthurt believable.  He may be a crude caricature of us, but there’s a reason that he’s not taken as parody and that’s likely because he’s representative of a type of person we know does exist.

My decaffeinated analysis of the issue…

Yet, the bigger story is that most people (Christian and secular alike) are seemingly more offended by the controversy itself than the plain red cups that started it.  So maybe we should be careful not to get too carried away in our own outrage over the outrage that may or may not be an outrage at all.  There are plenty of people sharing dumb opinions (Bill Nye on abortion for example) and this is probably a good reason to reserve judgment until the facts are spoken.

Anyhow, for the record, the only problem I have with Starbucks is the inferior quality of their brackish liquid.  I prefer my coffee with milk, sugar, in a Dunkin Donuts cup and agnostic.  If that offends you, then please, by all means, do complain and start a movement or something—I will sip away amused as my blog views climb.

“…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)

Disturbing the Status Quo: “And who is my neighbor?”

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The one thing I did not cover in my recent post on the Good Samaritan story (and came up in a discussion with a friend afterwards) is that Jesus never did answer the question of who.  The man asked who his neighbor was, but Jesus answered the question of how to be a good neighbor and told him to “go and do likewise.”

Not my neighbor, not my problem…

I was reminded of that again when discussing my frustration with social media.  I’ve noticed how cute pictures and funny stories get dozens of likes or shares.   However, when I posted a link to a woman with a real need and asked people who couldn’t give to like or share it the response was astonishing.  It was zilch, nada, nothing…

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I was lamenting that lack of response to another friend.  They defended it saying that people get many requests for help and that I could sympathize with.  But what was said next disturbed me coming from a person familiar with the story Jesus told about how to be a good neighbor.  They suggested the “Biblical method” is that this woman’s family or local church should provide.

“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:46-48 NIV)

That doesn’t seem like the ethic Jesus was describing.  I don’t think the Samaritan cared much about jurisdiction or if it was his turn to give.  I believe he saw a need, saw a person who needed help and simply gave it.  That’s what it means to love your neighbor.  That’s the example Jesus told the legal expert to follow.

On the other hand, I assume those men who passed by the battered man along the road were in good standing in their own communities, provided for their own families and gave tithe.  But doesn’t everyone do that?  We take care of our own because it is natural to do so, it is reciprocal altruism and a way to ensure our own survive. 

Loving beyond the tribe of race, gender or denomination…

Yet Jesus was describing something far more radical.  Jesus went as far as to tell his followers to hate their own families (Luke 14:26) and give all they had to the needy.  This goes beyond the normal religious obligation of his day.  This goes beyond defending our own biological progeny.  It is a love bigger than nation, denomination and tribe.

Jesus preached (and those who continued to carry his message) against tribalism.  They forsook their own wealth and families to preach a revolutionary message about a kingdom made up of all tribes and nations.  They spoke of a kingdom where allegiances didn’t fall around race, gender or economic status.  A kingdom of good neighbors.

Disturbed by visions too superficial, self-interested and small…

“Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.”
(Francis Drake)

Anyhow, it does disturb me when social media prefers a political cause (showers attention both for and against a pizza shop owner caught in an artificial controversy) and then ignores a real need.  Our priorities are messed up when we are more concerned with scoring political points and fighting culture wars.

It disturbs me when millions will be poured into political campaigns rather than used to meet real needs. Frankly, if you conservatives don’t think we need socialized medicine or if you liberals truly have a heart of compassion, then prove it with more than talk.  Help somebody you can help rather than wait for others to take the lead for you.

It disturbs me when churches spend thousands on missions of questionable value to give young people an experience.  If you are truly zealous and motivated by love (not self-interested like a kid on spring break trip justified by a thin veneer of religion) then be a good neighbor.

It disturbs me when our love is superficial.  Our love is only superficial when we like cute pictures, comment on funny stories, advocate for political ideologies, seek donations so we can go on an adventure around the world and then aren’t disturbed by unfilled needs well within our reach.

As it stands, the account for this nurse and young mother with severe neck issues stands at $360 and only a fraction of the need.  Does that disturb you?