Fundamentalist Anti-fragility Training

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Years ago my mom decided to stop in at the local public elementary school.  Impressed, after talking to the staff, my parents sent my older sister there and soon I would follow—along with the rest of my siblings.

This might not seem strange to most.  But, for a conservative Mennonite child this was highly unusual—or at least in the past few decades.  It bucked the trend of religious parents, afraid of secular influence, pulling their children out.  Private schools and home schooling becoming the preferred ‘safe’ options.

Anyhow, maybe as a result of my positive experience, or from inheriting my mom’s genetics, I have always thought differently than my peers.  That is to say, for better or worse, I stood apart from both my public school and Mennonite peers, basically a third culture kid or non-conformed in both settings.  So, when I had to consider where to send my own children, public school was not something I feared.

This post is not saying that everyone should follow in my footsteps nor suggesting that every child should go to public schools.  No other situation is exactly the same as mine, some schools are better or worse and every student different.  My intent in this blog is simply to give an explanation of what is now unthinkable to most fundamentalist Christians.

A Stranger in a Strange Land

Public school did not mean assimilation for me.  My religious identity was always visible enough for me to be given nicknames like “Micro Mennonite” or basically any Amish sounding name my classmates could come up with.  The small things, like wearing pants in the hot weather or the side part of my hair were enough for some to take notice.

I was sometimes subjected to what could be called microaggressions.  As in I had one or two classmates who would inform me what I should or should not do, as a Mennonite, and this often included the idea that we did not pay taxes or the assumption that we needed a horse and buggy for transportation.  This kind of banter was mostly benign, or at least taken that way, but still served as a continual reminder of my outsider status.

The end result is that I seemed to have a stronger Mennonite identity than many of my religious peers.  I learned, at a young age, that I was different and it was okay to be my own person.  I was never ashamed to be Mennonite nor stopped from following my own conscience so far as things like pledge of allegiance (I always stood respectfully) or abstaining from other activities that went against my cultural standards.  

A child private or homeschooled does not truly know, first hand, the alternative to their own community and home.  It is easier for them to believe that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence and many of my religious peers did jettison the indoctrination they received in a pursuit of the prevailing culture.  But, being the witness of single parent homes, the chaos of the world and consequences suffered, it made me more thankful for what I had.

Exposure made my home more desirable, it also made the failures of parents my community feature less prominently in my mind.  There were many who, raised in the  religious cloister, became disillusioned with Christianity as a result of their overbearing dad or as the result of school administrators showing extreme favoritism.  Had the same thing happened to them in public school, had they been bullied or abused there instead, at least it would not come in direct conflict with their walk of faith.

No, certainly we don’t want to put children in a harsh environment so that our own home or community contrasts favorably, but some healthy perspective is good.  Not taking for granted the food or shelter over our heads by being a little exposed and feeling some hunger pains for home is not a bad thing at all.  A big benefit of my public schooling was appreciation for my heritage and a strong desire to preserve the Mennonite culture.  I could not afford to be myopic or ignorant, throwing out tradition recklessly because it didn’t suit me.

I had to weigh things more carefully rather than react and throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Many of my religious peers have this feeling of having missed out and some had to learn the hard way from their own experiences.  

Walk In Faith, Not Fragility!

Conservatives love to laugh about the ‘woke’ and their safe spaces.  They are very quick to ridicule those families still wearing face masks and call people snowflakes for their sensitivity.  The great irony is that many of these same people withdrew their children from public schools, decades ago, because they “took God out of the schools” by ending prayer led by state employees.  The reality is that it isn’t just the fringe far-left that tries to hide themselves and their children from all contrary opinions.

You may work where your employer doesn’t lead prayer, can you handle it?

The problem is that without challenge there is no growth.  Yes, part of the job of a parent is to protect and yet it is equally important to prepare a child for the real world.  I know, I know, someone out there is saying right now, “he’s saying to throw my precious darling to the wolves!”  And then we wonder why, with that kind of attitude, when we assume all of our neighbors are dangerous predators, we are not more successful reaching them with the Gospel?

Jesus, our Lord and Savior, and example to follow, had no problem detouring into the Samaritan lands nor with standing on his own two feet with elders as a child.  And I, likewise, had no difficulty standing toe to toe with my high school biology teacher or with seeing through leftist propaganda even back in elementary school.  I remember scoffing, even then, at the blatant manipulation on Earth day or that faulty “haves vs have nots” construction of my fresh out of university social studies teacher.

Hint to the homeschoolers: Your neighbors aren’t demons and your children aren’t little saints either.  In fact, many of my younger home or privately schooled religious cousins were doing drugs, drinking hard and partying, even sleeping around, long before I had so much as a sip of alcohol.  As Jesus said to a prior generation of contamination obsessed religious people, according to Mark 7:14–23:

"Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them."  

We can’t save our children by sheltering them.

I know, but what about the “groomers’ and the brainwashing?  No, I’m not going to say it is all hysteria.  Indeed, the far-left is targeting children, they’re making no secret of their agenda and it is cause for concern.  We see all of those sensational headlines of abuse and it is easy to be full of anxiety and fear about this.  But, for perspective, there are over 3,800,000 teachers in the United States and the vast majority are simply doing their job.  Some extreme example, from an urban hellhole or California, is not representative of the whole.  Yes, your child going to a public school will be exposed to other perspectives and yet why would they choose lies over the truth?

It is no coincidence that the greatest Biblical examples of faith are those, who as children, faced pagan influence.  Moses, trained as an Egyptian, was bolder than his other Israelites and faced down Pharaoh.  Daniel refused to bend to social pressure, a Jewish child in the Babylonian court, and stands as an example of faith.  And who can forget that trial by fire of three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who would not bow to the statue of the powerful Nebuchadnezzar II?

It is so strange that fundamentalists can read these stories to their children in their Sunday school classes and then be terrified by the thought little Johnny being away from them for a few hours a day.  It makes me wonder if they truly believe these stories are true.  Maybe they do not think that the God who called Samuel as a child or emboldened young David to slay a giant is still capable of the same today?  Apparently they think God is getting weak in old age and only they are able to save their children from the world? 

In the World, Not of the World

Part of the problem with the fundamentalist “purity culture” mindset is that they believe that Holiness is achieved through means of physical separation.  Many parents think that they will keep their children safe from harm by keeping them in their protective enclave and away from all other influence.  But, the truth is, if Adam and Eve could fall even in the garden of Eden, why would we believe that the serpent can’t find it’s way into our own homes and communities?

For as much as my religious peers would try to keep evil out, pulling their children out of even the church school to guard them from the influence of other Mennonite children, it is no defense from the most dangerous sin of all which is pride and this accompanying idea that we can be fully righteous by our own efforts.  But, in the economy of Jesus, it is better to be the woman caught in adultery or thief on the cross who repents than the rich young ruler who kept the law perfectly yet isn’t able to live in faith.

They say more is caught than taught.  We can say we believe “greater is He that is in me than He that is in the world” (1 John 4:4) and that God is our strength, but our actions betray us.  The conservative Christian retreat from the public sphere is pretending that if they ignore the deterioration somehow the problem will go away.  They are training their children to be cowards, afraid to effectively confront the culture or fully contend with the reality that they’re losing ground.

It is true, a Christian is not to be of this world and yet this is all about the spirit in which we are approaching life.  The exact phrase “in the world but not of it” is not in Scripture, but we also see where Jesus didn’t avoid people simply because they were Samaritans, tax collectors or others that his religious peers carefully avoided.  Unlike the parachute in ‘missionary’ compassion of today, he spent his time amongst his own people, rubbing shoulders with the unwashed masses and even being touched by a woman made into an outcast for her illness.

If we go out in strength, trusting that God is still able to protect us and our children from the teeth of lions, we would possibly see the change of culture that will make the world a place liveable for a Christian.  But right now we’re teaching our children to be weak and, when the world finally does come to snatch them from the safety of their homes, many will be fragile and unprepared to stand.  This is why so many get caught in the false social justice Gospel, they weren’t properly trained to identify the counterfeit.

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

(Proverbs 22:6 KJV)

Why would I send my son into the lion’s den?

Because Daniel continued to pray, despite the risk of severe punishment, and precisely as a result of his childhood faith and learning to resist peer pressure at a young age. 

Contrast that with the religious experts who had rejected Jesus for the unclean who he mingled with. Or with Israelites who prospered in their own promised land, absent of persecution, and only went through the religious motions of faith in God. They voluntarily brought idols into their homes and folded before their enemies. 

Complacency is a bigger threat to a Christian’s child than lions. 

We should not teach our children to run from the giants of our time or they’ll become king Saul.

Instead we should be helping them polish those giant slaying stones and trust God.

What Mennonites Could Learn From Brandon Smith

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His name was unknown.

He is a walk on linebacker on a college football team who started this season as a backup to a backup.  But, undaunted, he practiced and committed to being ready for that moment.

That moment came last Saturday when this unknown finally had his number called.  Brandon Smith, a number 47 on his iconic ‘no name’ blue and white jersey, finally got his chance. 

After yet another injury in a season plagued with injuries he was called upon and took the field.  He used the opportunity to lead a bruised and battered defensive unit and preserve a win for the team.

Smith, despite only having a few snaps at a college level until last week, was no bench warmer.  

Smith, a humble soft-spoken leader, was on the most successful high school football team in Lewisburg Green Dragons history, a team that advanced all the way to the state quarterfinals in 2010, and the backbone of an outstanding defense.

But more significantly than all of that, Smith was active in the local church and is by all accounts a young man fully committed to using his talents for the honor and glory of God.  He even turned down two scholarships to prestigious universities to walk on and suit up for Penn State because that is where he believed God wanted him.  

The reason why Mennonites do not show up to play ball.

The Mennonite tradition I was born into has a long list of activities that are not encouraged.  And, of those activities restricted or outright banned, one being participation in organized competitive sports and football was considered especially intolerable.

The reason for this is an idea called ‘non-conformity’ that is common to Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups.  It is based on a statement “be not conformed to this world” found in the book of Romans and in other Scriptural teaching about separation from the world.

This idea of non-conformity usually amounts (ironically enough) to conformity to a religious standard that is enforced primarily by church leaders.  The standards are different from group to group, but generally apply to technology usage, clothing style and entertainment.  Through their idea of non-conformity various Anabaptist groups have maintained their cultural distinctiveness in an ever changing world.

Unfortunately too often it seems the focus is on preserving a religious heritage and an ‘Anabaptist identity’ rather than a radical pursuit of God.  Wearing black socks or using a horse named Fred as transportation rather than a Ford does not change a person’s heart.

The problem is when non-conformity is nothing more than a human effort to please cultural expectations.

Conformity without transformation misses the point entirely and will keep us spiritually sidelined.

The bigger problem with Mennonite non-conformity and separation teaching is that it puts the emphasis in the wrong place.

Read the context:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

The ‘be not conformed’ above is not a standalone statement.  Paul doesn’t leave us to guess his meaning and quickly follows with “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and is basically describing the need for something transformative to happen within us.

The word “transformed” is translated from a word “metamorphóō” (μεταμορφόω) that looks like metamorphosis and basically means the same thing.  It is a word used four times in the New Testament, twice it is translated “transfiguration” in reference to Jesus and twice (including Romans 12:2 above) to describe the change that takes place in a believer.

Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) is a very significant event, the “greatest miracle” according to Thomas Aquinas, thought of as a bridge come between heaven and earth or perhaps what modern science would describe as a portal between dimensions.  It is where Jesus is seen by his disciples talking to Moses and Elijah and a voice proclaims Jesus as son.

The other time this significant word is used is in this passage:

“Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:15-18)

It is quite clear in contextual usage that this word “transformed” is something spiritual, something God does, and not a matter of human effort.  In the passage from 2 Corinthians above it is about having a “veil” removed by the Spirit that allows us to be able to understand Scripture that leads to transformation.  In Romans 12:2 it is about a transformation that leads to renewal of mind.

What is renewal?

The word “renewal” as in “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” is translated from a word “anakainósis” (ἀνακαίνωσις) and describes a process.  In Romans 12:2 it is about the mind being changed through this transformative thing.  It is also a word used one other time in Scripture:

“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7)

Again we see a process in which God intervened on our behalf while we were still lost, hopelessly blind to spiritual reality, and did something to change us.  It is not something we do for ourselves or a list of do’s and don’t’s passed down from generation to generation, it is something spiritual done in us by God’s grace.

Why Mennonites should stop playing for fun only and need to get serious about using their all for God’s glory.

Should I be brutally honest?

Our idea of non-conformity is more often a path to complacency rather than spiritual renewal.

We are doing it wrong…

We have become as the Pharisees who were obsessed with details, considered themselves to be the experts on all things Biblical, yet despite their diligent study of the book they rejected Jesus as savior (John 5:39-40) and totally missed the point.  They were “blind guides” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24) and we are there with them.

Instead of seeking after true transformation, and using everything in our life to bring glory and honor to God, we attempt to carefully divide up our activities into categories of “worldly” and spiritual.  Instead of integrate all areas of our life into our witness, we compartmentalize and become ineffective.

When we do participate sports, rather than see it as a way to a witness, we play for fun only.  In similar fashion, when we work we do it for money only, when use social media we use it exclusively for recreation only.  We think missions is only something that happens when we join our earnest religious peers on an airplane ride to Africa and otherwise arrange our lives in such a way that we miss opportunities staring us right in the face.

Instead of seeing athletic pursuits as a means a greater end, a chance to display Christian character to others, we see only the frivolity of sports.  Instead of seeing business as a mission to our customers and employees, we take a worldly approach by make profits a higher priority than people—then excuse it because it will give us more spices to tithe on Sunday or an opportunity to “travel over land and sea” as Jesus said (Mathew 23:15) the Pharisees did while calling them hypocrites and blind.

It is a problem called functional fixedness. In problem solving functional fixedness is when a person can only see things one way and therefore miss better solutions.

Could it be possible that this is because we got our poles reversed and have put our effort to achieve righteousness before real faith in God?

Could it be because we are non-conformed in outward appearance through artificial religious means, but have the same ‘worldly’ attitudes in our hearts and are not truly transformed through a renewal of our mind?

If so, we should stand up against our own hypocrisy like Jesus…

Jesus defied the religious expectations that he was supposed to conform to and so should we.

Jesus infuriated the adherents to the Bible-based religious tradition of his time.  He broke their rules of do’s and don’t’s as a way to point out their hypocrisy and true lack of faith.  Jesus, while they were busy arguing the theological minutia and details of application, was out healing and showing love.

Mennonites, like many other Christian denominations, are often so distracted by their own doctrines and dogmas that they fail at being actually faithful.  We are so concerned with preserving our own fundamentals that we neglect the larger matters of following after God’s way and the largest being genuine love for the world.

The truth is that we are never told by Jesus to physically separate ourselves from the world.

We should be in the world and not of the world, set apart in our attitude and approach to life rather than in outward appearance only. To truly follow after Jesus we need to be in the world, in places where the real people are and in the places that religiously self-righteous people avoid.

We need to consider the example of Paul:

“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)

It is interesting to note that Paul, directly after telling us that for sake of the Gospel he has “become all things to all people” in the quote above, uses an analogy of an athlete preparing for competition.  It reminds me of the dedicated preparation of a faithful young man named Brandon Smith.

Smith was not only ready to take the field in terms of physical preparation either.  This week, after his debut on Saturday, his wife, Andrea, posted a status update on social media from her personal prayer journal.  It was an entry from exactly a year before and asking that her husband would have the opportunity to take the field:

That, my friends, is where it gets real.

We do not battle against flesh and blood, our battle is spiritual.  We do not win victory by artificial conformity and meaningless arbitrary rules either, we are fighting an unconventional war using asymmetrical tactics, we need the mind of Christ:

“The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’  But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:15-16)

Do you have the mind of Christ?  Have you been transformed by supernatural means of the Spirit?  Or are you just outwardly and artificially non-conformed through human efforts?  Whatever the case, do not bury the talents God has given you for fear of what others may think.

Smith is expected to get his first college start on Saturday afternoon against Michigan.  And, win or lose, I know #47 is playing for the right reasons.  I pray God blesses him and his wife as they serve.  I hope we all are prepared to serve wherever and whenever our own number is called.