There was a time, many years ago, when I had a particularly severe struggle with insecurities, it was likely related to a recent romantic rejection and this mess of anxieties being part of the aftermath. I had walked into a youth volleyball event and, observed, a couple of girls across the room laughing.
I had known how cruel young women could be about guys who didn’t meet their standards, overheard their giggles and comments related to that slightly awkward and unfashionable older guy who was the constant butt of their jokes. So my fears of this sort of ridicule were not entirely unfounded.
But, after a quick self-assessment, making sure I wasn’t wearing my underwear on the outside or anything too obviously wrong, I did my best to ignore that nagging voice and find another explanation. They could have been laughing about anything, there was absolutely no reason to conclude it related to me and yet the unpleasant knot remained in my stomach.
Had I run with this conclusion, based upon my hallucination of their reason for laughing and not reality, this incident would be added to my existing grievance with the female gender. I was already aware that many girls have a 5′-10″ cutoff for guys they will date, the guy that did end up dating the one I had asked was a six-footer, it could be that they were laughing at my expense?
However, had I went with that, even if I didn’t match across the room and command them, “do better!” Something that most definitely would have branded me as a weirdo even if they were guilty and did apologize. Even if I had simply allowed my own explanation of their actions to metastasize, it would be the root of a very toxic attitude which would further marginalize me.
My initial interpretation, born of my anxieties, not their laughter across the room, was the real problem. Even if we banned all laughter or every snickering teenager girl were reprimanded for their feeding of male insecurities, had a plan been devised to force all girls to date short men as reparations for discrimination and height privilege be excoriated by leaders, the actual issue would never be solved.
No, I’m not saying that genuine acceptance doesn’t go a long way towards healing old wounds. Becoming part of the Orthodox world, where I didn’t have a reputation to proceed (and limit) me, where it was possible to talk to the opposite gender comfortably, did certainly help. And there’s no denying that my being in a relationship has lowered the stakes and helped me to relax around other women.
Still, all that only happened once I stopped caring what other people thought and subsequently became comfortable in my own skin. Today, unless it was a really bad day, I would be more likely to laugh with those laughing and then ask them what they were laughing about. Slinking around, making accusations, might gain you a following on social media and earn the meaningless sympathies of those only hearing one side. But it will do nothing to improve self-image.
Painful as it was, I’m glad that things didn’t work out for me because someone swooped in for the rescue. Had this happened I may never have found my internal spiritual footing and, after briefly appreciating the charitable effort, remained as lacking in confidence. Pity the woman who marries a man looking for her to bolster his self-image and mend his brokenness, that relationship is probably going to be hell in a few years.
My physical stature hasn’t changed since my days of paralyzing approach anxieties and there remains plenty of reason that one may laugh in my direction. But my life improved vastly when those voices of self-pity and doubt were muted. At this point it would not matter if those girls had been truly laughing at me, I wouldn’t take them so seriously anymore. I’m a different man.
Being raised in a fundamentalist sect meant taking the Genesis accounts as being a historical narrative. I had been taught, and had for many years accepted without question, the idea that the veracity of the Gospel message hinged on the most ‘literal’ interpretation of the first book of the Biblical canon.
This understanding of this book had worked fine to get me through my school years. I gave my high school biology teacher, Mr. Toohey, an atheist who had once considered the priesthood, a headache debating the textbook claims about mutations, millions of years, and Macro Evolution. At this age, I thought this style of apologetics, debating science using the words of Scripture, was a key to securing the faithful against doubts and winning unbelievers.
Unfortunately, while this understanding may serve well those who do not venture too far from the Young-Earth Creationism intellectual ghetto, against what amounts to strawman versions of secularist arguments, it doesn’t hold up as nicely against a serious challenge and has left many religiously indoctrinated high and dry in their years in a university-level science program. There is a reason why many in my former religious tradition are terrified of higher education.
Even seminary was a synonym for cemetery to one of my childhood Bible-thumping pastors. It should make one wonder. If the foundation of faith is so flimsy that it can’t be tested, that it can only be sustained by ignorance, then what’s the point?
Sadly, it was a false choice, this dichotomy between science and religion, education and faith.
Getting the Cart Ahead of the Horse
The Biblical fundamentalists got everything exactly backward. The truth of Christ does not depend on proving the Scripture, word for word, is completely 100% historically accurate and scientifically verifiable. It is nice when those things do align, sure. And yet, no matter how many mundane parts of the Biblical narrative are established this way, the fantastic claims are never proven.
If a politician lists off ten facts and nine of them turn up true according to the fact-checkers, does that make the final most grandiose claim true?
No, no it does not.
One of the most persuasive tricks of liars is to hide their one falsehood amongst a long list of facts and true statements. And likewise, someone could prove 99.9% of Biblical claims and still not have touched anything of the miracles. The Bible is true because it says it is true might work for idiots and the indoctrinated, but it is always circular reasoning and there being a town of Bethlehem doesn’t mean Jesus walked on water nor establish His divinity and conquering of death.
No rational person believes that a prophet flew from Jerusalem to Mecca, on a half woman half horse with a tail of a peacock, because they read it in a book. I’m certainly not going to wear magical underwear because some dude, a few hundred years ago, claims he received golden tablets from the angel Gabriel. So why would any reasonable person expect someone to believe a book written thousands of years ago? Sorry, Ken Ham, I don’t care how many replica Arks you build, you’re not winning skeptical minds or hearts with this effort.
Human efforts fail.
When Sarai reasoned with Abram to produce an heir through her maidservant, how did that go for them?
We know it didn’t go too well and have the commentary of St. Paul:
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.” Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
(Galatians 4:21-31 NIV)
Here we see the contrast of human efforts “according to the flesh” and those of a spiritual and Divine origin. St. Paul emphasizes the “son” which is “born by the power of the Spirit” as an alternative to the “son” human reasoning that produced conflict and heartache.
It is amazing how many times St. Paul, and Jesus before him, encountered those who believed Scripture word for word and rejected Jesus as Lord. They, in many ways, had a stricter interpretation of the text than many of us do and did not face the strong headwind of modern science and philosophy either. And yet, even meeting Jesus in the flesh, seeing him with their own eyes, taking Scripture as literally as anyone, they saw Jesus as the imposter and rejected Him. So, how then can we be saved?
Fortunately, that question is answered many times over and over again, by St. Paul, and has next to nothing to do with the book of Genesis. The truth of Scripture is established on Christ, and His church, which established the canon of Scripture and does those “greater things” that Jesus promised would come through the power of the Spirit. Yes, we preach and teach, but only God can bring the increase. So, the apologetics industry starts us out on the wrong foot and doesn’t produce true faith in Christ.
Our salvation does not depend on our own understanding of a book. St. Paul, in Romans 9:16, states clearly, that our sonship depends on God’s mercy, not human desire or effort. Scripture is the cart, not the horse. We accept that the Bible is true because we believe in Christ, and His Church, not because we can establish it through our human reasoning or effort. Faith is a work of the Spirit, a gift from God, not a product of our knowledge or works. Those trying to ‘prove’ the Bible are on a fool’s errand. trying to save themselves, slaves to human reasoning, lost and confused.
What Does That Have to Do with Babel?
Hopefully, the Noah rode on a T-Rex crowd is too triggered with that intro, because now we shift to something they may find more agreeable and that being the even greater monument to human reasoning and effort.
But, first, the tower of Babel narrative:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
(Genesis 11:1-9 NIV)
This story is likely the origin of the phrase, “men plan, God laughs.” Actual historical event, ancient myth or both, does not matter, the tower of Babel narrative is so much more. The account speaks to human limits and hubris, a true story told over and over again in history and a lesson repeated in different ways with each passing generation. The moment humans forget their place, begin to rely on their own cleverness and start to see themselves equal to their own Creator, the clock to destruction begins to tick.
These people, in the Biblical account, had somehow overcome the odds, they evidently were a resource-rich civilization, more powerful than external threats, and ready to cement their name in history. But just when heaven seemed within their grasp, the very thing that they had sought to avoid, being scattered, brought the entire endeavor grinding to a halt. Now Babel, the name a play on words that meant “to confuse,” is a synonym for colossal human failure. Sure, maybe it is an origin story for the diversity of language. But, undeniably, it is also a cautionary tale.
Other accounts tell us that this confusion of languages, by God, was to save humanity from the total destruction of another flood. In other words, it was an act of mercy to prevent an even greater calamity to end this project and scatter the people. But, more than that, it is a lesson about not leaving God out of the equation. What does that mean? Well, that means that we can’t see everything and, without humility to reign in our ambitions, we are an existential threat to ourselves. The proud fall because they cannot imagine the factors that they, in their overblown confidence, have missed.
Our Modern Towers of Human Arrogance
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
(Isaiah 29:14 NIV)
History is replete with examples of bold declarations followed by catastrophe. Neville Chamberlain’s quip of having secured “peace in our time,” through a treaty with Adolf Hitler, comes to mind. Hillary Clinton was, according to the experts, most definitely going to win over Donald Trump.
But now it is time to tie all these threads together. The same thing that brought about the Protestant schism, also led to the Enlightenment, spread of Democracy, and, ultimately, the rejection of God.
This “age of reason” got off to a relatively good start, scientific discovery, development of technology, and representive government has enabled us to be more free and prosperous that many prior generations. However, as the tower of our knowledge and independent spirit rose, as we have made leaps in medicine, even landed a man on the moon, when American exceptionalism (the ultimate expression of Protestantism) finally conquered all, and our hegemony was nearly unchallenged, suddenly a day of reckoning seems to be upon us and this colossus, this oversized imagine of human endeavor, seems in danger of collapse.
A couple of decades ago it felt as if we were on the cusp of a new epoch. Racism vanquished, our old enemies irrelevant, the world connected as never before, the internet ready to put all knowledge at our fingertips and the stars seemingly within our reach. Secularism and science had triumphed over superstition and myth, we imagined no religion, nothing to kill or die for, as Coca-cola taught the world to sing. Former seminaries, our universities, forgetting God, became temples of human reason. “We didn’t need church or religion to be good people,” the atheists cried, while standing on the shoulders of theologians whom they dismissed, “in fact, we’ll go further without it!”
However, my own optimism has unravelled over the past decade or two.
Star Trek and the Jetsons still remains, firmly, in the realm of science fiction. The internet is a cesspool, filled with crackpot opinions, censored by billionaires bullies who pretend to be gatekeepers of truth while they spread misinformation, and nothing like a child of the 90s would’ve imagined. As church attendance slips, depression and drug usage has steadily increased—along with suicides and mass shootings.
Our universities, rather than continue to value free thought and expression, now have strict speech codes and safe spaces. The minds that once sought to improve the human experience, now only deconstruct tradition and erode the very ground that their institutional ivory towers were constructed upon, too drunk with nihilism to care. Even Coke brand, that once celebrated human diversity, has joined the graceless cult of woke in attacking “whiteness” and civilization itself—as if they have forgotten what has made their own comfortable ‘privileged’ life possible.
The government, “for the people,” that at least gestured towards the needs of the citizenry, now only serves global corporations, the powerful elites and special interests. The US flag, once a symbol of hope, the American ideal, and our unity as diverse people, something black athletes proudly wrapped themselves in less than a generation ago, has now been reimagined as a representation of oppression and hate. Our faith in our institutions is failing, the left decrying systemic racism, the right suspecting election fraud, nearly everyone feeling unheard.
We’re a civilization consuming itself and maybe it is because we’ve forgotten this:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
(Galatians 5:13-15 NIV)
We don’t go to church anymore, a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated, and “love your neighbor” is now used as a guilt trip rather than a reason to change our own toxic attitudes or be involved on behalf of others. John Kennedy’s call to service, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Those words, spoken today, would likely be derided as some kind of dangerous “ism” in today’s me-first, my tribe, my way or the highway, divisive identity driven, you’re literally a Nazi if you disagree, political environment.
Have we reached new heights only to implode?
What is really going on here?
Pride Cometh Before the Fall
Satan, we’re told, was the very best of the angels. His magnificent greatness eventually led him to believe that he was a rival to God. Jesus warned his disciples, having returned exuberant from working miracles, that he had seen Satan “fall like lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18) and reminded them of their place before the Almighty.
Hubris is the downfall of many and the idea that we can find all of the answers for ourselves is that. With each success, with every innovation and breakthrough, there is a danger and risk of overconfidence.
In the past few centuries have seen our knowledge and abilities increase like no other time in recorded human history. The West threw off the authority of Rome, with the reasoning that every man was able to comprehend Scripture outside of the tradition of the church. Not long after, the authority of Scripture itself was called into question. Why do we need a book of myths written by those who lack our sophistication and understanding of the world? God was erased from our institutions, prayers only a ceremonial and many imagine themselves to be self-made or little gods. It is the height of ignorance:
You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me” Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?
(Isaiah 29:16 NIV)
But it isn’t only the cultural elites, the atheists, the politicians who only pay lip service or liberal theologians whittling away at morality until there’s nothing left. This spirit of self-reliance, and arrogance, permeates through the whole civilization. We are blinded by information, buried in jargon, tangled in complexity, yet think we’re englightened.
We should be pumping the brakes, as technology advances faster than our ability to comprehend the consequences, I see it even (or especially) in those emerging from sheltered religious cloisters. Sure, the are the reactionaries, afraid of all change or improvement, but then there are those who have a little education and embrace it all nof realizing the potential. Our brightest minds are working on things much more dangerous than nuclear weapons, creating biological agents, developing artificial intelligence, considering climate altering measures, all potentially having the possibility of irreversible side-effects, and truly playing with fire.
We believe we are in control but are most definitely not and, with our new power, are one or two mistakes from an unmitigated disaster.
Like the tower of Babel, which likely took years of planning and building layer upon layer, our modern civilization was built. Our confidence has grown and exponentially along with our accomplishments. We’re clever, we found cures for disease, invented means to travel to the ends of the earth and beyond. But the higher we ascend the easier it is to forget what we are and where we came from. We didn’t create ourselves nor do we know as much as we think we know and this should always keep us humble.
Thinking we are God or next thing to God will, inevitability, lead to chaos, confusion and ultimate collapse into disorder. The bigger our collective endeavor gets, the more we live on our own reasoning and strength rather than depend on faith, the less able we are to cooperate, we erode the very foundations of civilization and the destruction will be swift. God, in His mercy, will scatter us before we become too foolish, with our great knowledge, to be saved. Human reasoning is a dead end, we cannot transcend ourselves outside of God’s help. If we reject that help we will fall.
As a child, because of my father’s work in construction, my family would travel. My mother, someone as inquisitive and interested in learning as I am, would take us children to the various historic sites and museums near the areas we visited. A significant part of our time in the South was spent surveying Civil War battlefields, exploring plantation homes built in the Antebellum era, and pondering it all from the perspective of a proud Yankee.
At the time the devastation and destruction of the war were justified by the righteousness of the victors. Slavery was an affront to the notion that “all men are created equal” and thus this institution of human ownership remains an indelible stain on that founding ideal of this nation. This perspective made Abraham Lincoln a heroic figure, it made the Union soldiers honorable men, the North was morally superior to the South and that was that.
However, that was actually simplistic.
First, many of the casualties of war are innocent, the wrongs of our enemies not justify our own, and the reasons for a conflict are far more complex than the victor’s narrative, Second, slavery had been an institution since the beginning of human history and a subject of debate for the founders who ultimately decided that the constitutional federation of independent states against the British colonial power required some compromise. Third, the aggression of the North may have resulted in emancipation for slaves in the South, yet it did not improve the conditions of those treated like rented mules in Northern industries and mines nor did come without a cost. Furthermore, both sides in the Civil War relied on conscripts (poor men forced to risk life and limb to further the agenda of the powerful) and in the North disenfranchised whites (mostly Irish immigrants) rioted in New York City against the draft and taking their anger out on black city residents.
The human and economic costs of the Civil War were staggering. It is estimated that 620,000 men died in combat or from disease related to the horrid conditions and that’s not to mention the many more ‘casualties’ who returned physically or psychologically maimed. The direct impact was full 1.5 times the GDP of the time, for comparison, the 2017 GDP distributed per capita (19,485,400/325.7×1.5) is $89,739.33, and the indirect costs were far far greater. The total economic price tag of the conflict is conservatively estimated to be 10,360 million in 1860 dollars or an incomprehensible 315 billion dollars in today’s money and at a time when the US population (and GDP) was a fraction of today’s. Every man, woman, and child in the South lost the equivalent of $11,456 during the war and continued to lose long after the war due to the destruction—the vast majority of them never owned a slave.
Poor whites in America, especially in the South, had the double whammy (or maybe triple whammy?) of being forced to fight on behalf of the rich, of working for very little compensation themselves and then still being called privileged by their actually privileged counterparts. It wasn’t the moralizing Northern abolitionists who freed the slaves nor the Southern slave owners who felt the greatest pain of the brutal conflict. The people who paid the real price were the working class, they were the ones who lost the most in the war, a war over an institution no fault of their own, and are now held as responsible as the slave owners themselves. It is a path to resentment. People who feel powerless often take their feelings out on those with less power than they do. Sadly black Americans have historically been the recipients of this frustration while the true beneficiaries of their exploitation are never held accountable.
Slavery, at its peak, only accounted for a fraction of the nation’s GDP:
In the 1850s, the zenith of the cotton economy, it came to between 1 and 1.5 percent of the nation’s GDP, not a trivial sum. By this period, however, the United States was already the second-largest economy in the world and was investing every year between 13 and 15 percent of GDP in new capital. Even if the entire “slave surplus” were saved (which it wasn’t, because there were mansions to build and ball gowns to buy), it would have made a respectable contribution to growth, but it just wasn’t large enough to be the basis of an empire. (“Was America Built By Slaves?“)
As the quote above suggests, most of that gain likely went to the slave owners themselves, spent on their lavish lifestyles then, on those plantation mansions that still exist in the South, and was not invested back into the economy in general. A significant portion of that wealth evaporated as a result of the war and emancipation. The value of a slave went from being $12,500 to $205,000 (in 2016 dollars) to effectively zero. So, in other words, if the 1860 census were correct that there were 3,953,761 slaves and the average price was around $800 in their dollars (or around $140,000 in our own) then slave owners lost around 554 billion dollars. Slaves, on the other hand, gained something priceless, that being their own freedom, and yet the cost of slavery to black Americans is truly incalculable.
The Incalculable Cost of Slavery…
The cost of slavery to black Americans is incalculable and not in terms of economic impact. It is incalculable because of the lasting social consequences that can’t be assigned a number value. The suffering of black Americans did not end with the Civil War, they faced the lingering resentment of their white neighbors, all forms of discrimination, intimidation tactics and terrorism. Even with Constitutional amendments prohibiting slavery, recognizing their citizenship and granting voting rights, conditions did not improve dramatically for black Americans in the “Jim Crow” South. It took a further effort in the 1960s, the civil rights movement, to finally see some of these Constitutional rights fully realized and not before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was murdered by an assassin’s bullet.
But, perhaps worse than the lynchings and segregation, one time events that can be adjudicated or something that can be addressed through legislation, is the immeasurable impact on the dignity of those who know that their ancestors were once treated as property and sub-human. I can’t really imagine how it would feel to have my own race being counted as 3/5ths of a person in my own country’s founding documents. There is no way to compensate for that psychologically and especially not when the widespread mistreatment was still in full force a mere generation ago. In such a context, it would be hard not to see any misfortune or measurable difference in outcome as somehow related to prior generations being robbed of their dignity and right to self-determination.
However, making matters astronomically worse is the fact that even many of those claiming to want to help often treat black people as their lessor and do more harm than good in their efforts to restore. A prime example of this is the so-called “War on Poverty” and how since then black marriage rates have plummeted and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed. First, intact families are a greater predictor of future success than race. Second, making a person dependent on government handouts does nothing to restore their human dignity and, in fact, keeps them trapped. The welfare state has more or less enslaved the black community (and many others) to politicians who stoke fear of losing ‘benefits’ as a means to gain votes and maintain their own power.
Affirmative action programs do nothing to help confidence. No, if anything, they only further reinforce feelings of inferiority and, worse, feeds a notion that black accomplishments may deserve an asterisk. I can recall very well the conversation I had with a young man in the Midwest whom I confronted over his racism. He made no apologies, he embraced the description and then blamed his own lack of success in college on his not being given the same opportunities as minorities. Whether true in his case or not, it takes an extra dose of grace for a poor white person to not feel slighted and very easy to take out the frustration on the beneficiaries. I’ve had to fight this myself as someone who never finished college for mostly for financial reasons.
A few years ago I had hope, with the election of Barack Obama, that this would heal some of the wounds, bolster feelings of self-worth, and help us turn the page as a nation. Sadly, it has seemed to do the opposite. My opposition to increased government spending, as a lifelong conservative who doesn’t see more government control as the solution to every problem, was characterized in terms of race as was any opposition to his policies. Rather than be seized upon a moment of reconciliation, Obama’s race was used as political leverage, as a means to ostracized political opponents and advance a leftist policy agenda. The specter of racism is used to control, both to frighten some voters and also to smear others.
A decade ago I had believed that we were on our way to colorblind society, one like that Dr. King had envisioned where people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Today I’m not even sure that is possible, the current political establishment benefits too much from identity politics and tribalism to allow that kind of society to form. It is hard not to feel cynical in a time when white vs black narratives dominate the headlines. And, while I believe this too shall pass, that the current racial tensions are an aftershock rather than a repeat of the past, there is also the reality that slavery is an unpayable debt.
The Unpayable Debt…
Some have suggested an idea of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves to right this historic wrong and would finally, once and for all, reconcile the injustice. There are those who have gone as far as to suggest a number, between $5.9 and 14 trillion dollars, as being suitable compensation or at least as a “meaningful” symbolic gesture and something that could improve race relations.
Those selling the idea of reparations say is that this is similar to payments made by Germany to those who suffered through the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.
However, those promoting the idea fail to mention the significant differences. The first difference being there are actual Holocaust survivors still alive today to receive the compensation for their loss, but there is not one former slave or slave owner still alive. A second big difference is that the abuses against the Jews in Germany were perpetrated directly by the government itself, whereas slavery was a private institution that existed long before the United States was a nation and was eventually ended by the government and at a very great cost. Hitler’s Germany didn’t stop themselves, the government stole directly from people and sent millions to slave labor camps or gas chambers to be killed—it was literal genocide.
But the bigger problem with reparations is who pays, who gets paid and how much?
It is not justice to make one generation pay for the sins of another. There are many in the United States who did not benefit from slave ownership. My own ancestors, for instance, did not own any slaves and the own possible way they might have benefitted is in slightly cheaper cotton. However, I didn’t receive any inheritance of money nor of cotton clothes from my grandparents. In other words, my savings is my own, from my own work, do I owe anyone (besides my cousin who just helped install flooring in my rental and the bank) nor do I feel any guilt for anything I’ve done. So why should the innocent be forced to pay any more than another person should be forced to work? Do two wrongs make a right? It would only be right to target those who actually did benefit directly from slavery and the complexities of that would be enormous. Would we go after the descendants of European and African slave traders as well?
And then there is the matter of determining who gets paid what. The reparations advocates come up with their dollar figure based on a calculation of hours worked, wages at the time, and interest that would be accrued. But that’s not how things really work. Again, the wages of my grandfathers and great-grandfathers were spent in their generation, dispersed into the economy, and there is nothing left for me. The reality is that the modern ancestors of slaves benefit from the economy in the same way that we all do, thus paying them with interest would not make any sense and especially when that money would be taken from their innocent fellow citizens. Then there’s the reality that not all American black people are ancestors of slaves, some of them are recent immigrants from Africa, some have mixed ancestry and others may actually be the ancestors of black slave owners. Yes, there were slave-owning black people in the American South—should their ancestors pay or be paid?
So, what do we do, start compensating based in DNA tests, as in, “You’re 1/5th black and thus entitled to X…”?
Do we prorate based on how much someone benefited from affirmative action?
Will multi-millionaires, those who obviously have done well, be paid?
Do we deduct welfare payments, etc?
Grading everyone based on their ancestors reinforces all the wrong ideas. It is measuring a person’s worth based on their ancestors rather than their own individual merits and exactly the thing we should be getting away from. Besides that, it is severely undervaluing the worth of a US citizenship, there are people fighting for the opportunity to be here, and our economy is much better here than it is in Africa. Yes, certainly a black person born into an urban environment may face unique difficulties. But then there are many immigrants who come here with nothing, who settle in the same neighborhoods and do advance. And where does it end, do we owe the followers of Joseph Smith for the systematic oppression of them and their religion? Do we owe the Republican party for the attacks against them by the KKK and lynchings of party members? It is just not a good direction to go, it is divisive, it will hurt the wrong people, and we are already deep in debt as a nation. Why should our grandchildren (black, white and other) pay interest to the Federal Reserve and other wealthy people for what is only a symbolic gesture and, if we are honest, won’t remove the stain of the past anyway?
The truth is that money won’t change anything as far as the past. Sure, I’m guessing many who would receive reparations like the idea, who wouldn’t take a windfall? But the reality is that all the compensation in the world cannot erase the legacy of slavery and all the wrong people would end up paying the price. A professional sports contract doesn’t make anyone forget injustice, many lottery winners often end up as poor as they were before, and money can’t be used to solve the problems created by money, to begin with. There are times when a financial settlement is the answer, when both parties directly involved (the aggrieved and the accused) are properly adjudicated. But billing the current generation for the sins of the past, especially without due process, is theft no better than slavery at worse and mere revenge at best.
The true legacy of slavery is that some are owed a debt that cannot be paid.
Wake Up, the Matrix isn’t Real!
A matrix, according to Merriam Webster, is “something within or from which something else originates, develops, or takes form.” And we do live in a matrix where our ideas about race, history, advantage and disadvantage matter more than the actual facts. In other words, the matrix is the way we individually or collectively interpret the facts and use them to form our ideas. Our thought matrix, our assumptions based on our own interpretation of facts, plays a significant role in our outcomes. Overcoming the mental processes that keep us bound is key to success in life.
The other week I was driving to a job site and notice some nice new houses with their well-manicured lawns, spiffy two-car garages, and paved drives. I was overcome momentarily with a tinge of envy, a little regret, and mostly befuddlement at how some people could afford such things. The question immediately came to mind, “What did I do wrong?” I thought of my life, my disadvantages, the opportunities missed, and all those things that held me back from reaching my full potential. However, before I went too far along in that thought process, another question countered the first, “What did I do right?” My mind went first to all the thing I did right, but then to all my advantages compared to most people in the world and the things I did not choose.
Did I do anything right, say compared to that Haitian man I saw in Port Au Prince hauling a car body on his back or a woman born in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc?
Our mental construct, our prejudices, and preconceived ideas, a product of our culture and choices, can make a real difference in our outcomes. Sure, positive thinking cannot change the circumstances of where we are born, a good attitude does not mean that there will be fewer obstacles to our success in life, yet why not make the best of the opportunity we are given and live in gratitude for what we do have rather than envy of others or frustration because of what we lack?
Part of the problem is that there is a system of control, it helps to create our expectations, it feeds our insecurities and can keep us bound. The real systemic oppression is the idea that politics (or more money in our hands and power over others) is the answer to our problems. Money can’t fix what it created, money itself binds us to the system and the things that money buys rarely deliver the happiness that we think they will. Again, look into lottery winners, many people end up as unhappy as they were before their winnings and some worse off. So why do we measure success in terms of things that will not and cannot make us happy?
What we really need to do is reorient ourselves. We must reject the unhelpful categories and classifications that keep us bound and change the way we think. Grievance culture, tribal score keeping and trying to rank people by their outward appearance is a backward-facing, small-minded and, frankly, racist orientation. There is no group guilt for slavery any more than there is for inner-city crime, we need to stop seeing people as white, black, orange or whatever, building our own identities around those superficial things, and aim for something greater—aim for the future that we want, yet hasn’t fully arrived, where all people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
It Is Time to Think and Act Differently…
If I had my own life to do over I may have dithered less (convinced that higher education was the key to success in life because of what my teachers told me) and started driving truck earlier. It was my own pride (and anxieties) that kept me from taking the better options available to me and I suspect there are many who, like me, prevent their own success because of their aim. And I’m not at all saying that we should sell ourselves short or settle for less than our abilities can afford us. However, many do set themselves up for failure because they keep waiting for the big break, the breakthrough when everything they dream of finally comes to them and refuse to take full advantage of the actual opportunities they have.
Another thing I would do differently is stop worrying that other people had it in for me and believing that I was helpless when the reality was that I was unwilling to make the right sacrifices. Part of my difficulty in life was due to my refusal to act differently or accept that my own behavior was part of the problem. Sure, there is something to be said for authenticity and being true to ourselves, but sometimes overcoming requires us to act differently and accept what is truly reality over our own individual construct. To find success in the religious context where I was born I would need to accept their rules and my fighting with that reality, my “kicking against the pricks” or resisting the flow rather than harnessing it, had some undesirable consequences.
Cutting to the chase, we have agency and we do not. There are well-worn paths to success with risks worth taking, call them cultural conventions, and then there are the low-probability high-risk paths that lead many to ruin. For example, finding a profession like teaching, law enforcement, construction or accounting (as opposed to seeking to be a career actor, model, musician or professional athlete) is more likely to produce desirable results for most people. Feeding our insecurities, dwelling on slights (real or perceived), demanding others conform to our wishes or that they respect us for who we are, expecting too much, is a path to long-term disappointment.
Overcoming the matrix means we need to stop seeing things in black and white terms. Sure, things like “black culture” or “white privilege” do exist in some form, at very least as a construct in our minds, but they really are only terms that obscure a far more complex picture and keep us trapped in the problem rather than working towards the solution. The reality is not as simple as the narratives pushed by academics and advocacy groups. There is no one group with all the advantages nor another with all the disadvantages. There is a reason why the suicide rates for middle-aged white people have skyrocketed while black rates have declined and are considerably lower—something (like connections and community) that might be missed in the commonly touted measures of success?
Recently I read the story of a naval aviator, an officer name Thomas J Hudner Jr, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his actions in the Korean War. His act? He intentionally crash-landed his Corsair to protect and attempt to rescue a comrade, Ensign Jesse L. Brown, whose airplane had been hit by ground fire and was behind enemy lines. Brown, who happened to be the first black naval aviator, did not survive despite the efforts of Hudner, however, what does survive is an example of brotherly love that transcends artificial racial divides and presents a reality worth building upon. That is the legacy that, if built upon, will free us all from the sins of the past.
Loving dangerously, that is my idea of real success in life.
It is also neat, in these hyper-partisan times, to see George Bush Jr and Michelle Obama share some moments of common humanity together and continue this friendly exchange even at his father’s funeral. That is the symbolism that matters, that is the positive interaction we should aim for and the kind that can make a real difference in the world. If we love all people rather than prefer only those who look or act like us and orient ourselves to the hope of a better future rather than cling to our past and present suffering, we may well have a chance to build a better identity for ourselves as a nation. We may not be able to choose our inheritance, but we can work to create a better legacy for the next generation.
We, like Bush and Obama, have far too much in common to be at odds with each other.
Those who have faced hardship past or present should be heard and forgiven of their current insecurities. Those who have been indifferent to the suffering of others, out of ignorance or hardness of heart, should also be forgiven. And those two groups are all of us and have nothing to do with race. We are all victims, enslaved to a past that we didn’t create for ourselves, and all guilty of perpetuating the legacy to some degree. We can’t know what a person has been through by how they look on the outside and therefore we should love all people as we wish to be loved rather than by what we think they deserve. It is time to be courageously human, committed to true Christian love, rather than tribal, fearful and small.
When I prayed, a few years ago, for the impossible to be made possible, I could not have imagined where that simple statement of faith would take me.
My problem in life has never been lack of ideals or absence of ambition; I have long had a vision for life, a heart for people around the world and desire to serve God’s kingdom. However, knowing how to get from point A (my ideals) to point B (actualization) was always the problem.
The Servant Who Buried His Talent
Some can accomplish their goals, they are able to be very directional and focused. That was my older sister. She was top of her class, all-state in violin, followed through on her vision to be a doctor, is published for her research and has her own clinic. She married while in medical school and has four wonderful children
Me, on the other hand, I quit violin lessons in frustration after a month, struggled immensely trying to concentrate in school, and felt like an underachiever. I wanted to be an engineer. However, I lacked my own ideas where to go. So, I decided to apply to the same college my sister picked from her list.
But, after being accepted, ended up deferring rather than start classes in the fall. And, other than attend my sister’s graduation, I never did go to Elizabethtown College. I continued to work. My jobs (before truck driving) really did not really pay enough for me to get ahead. My dreams had been meput on hold. I felt like the servant who buried his talents and hated it—there seemed to be no answer as to how to rectify my situation.
Spiritual Awakening and New Hope Discovered
Finally, I had an epiphany, I discovered the Holy Spirit. Scripture, the writings of the apostle Paul in particular, became alive. This new understanding made me bolder. My guilt for underachieving dissipated. I now rested in God’s grace. I had worked through the death of Saniyah and found a new hope. I also paid off my house and was now financially secure. There was momentum in my life and it felt good.
Still, with my chronic dithering and endless indecision, I also felt as if I had lost a decade of my life. I was in my thirties and somehow missed my calling in the church, didn’t have a career that felt long-term and was unmarried. To fail at one out of those things was bad enough. But all three? It was unthinkable. Sure, I had life experience, I didn’t feel bound to my past failures either, and yet I still felt held back by an invisible wall.
It was in this midst of my trying that I cried out to be “made right” and began my journey of these past several years. I knew my limitations. My desire was to be taken beyond what held me back and be fully what I was supposed to be. I told God I would crawl across a wilderness of broken glass if need be. I asked for the impossible to be made possible.
These are the things that have transpired since then…
1) I rehabbed a torn ACL. One of the problems with truck driving is that it sedentary and I had gained some weight. I was trying to start an exercise program. But it is really difficult to establish a new habit when you are out on the road and your weekly schedule is always in flux.
Well, the same day I prayed for the impossible, I tore my ACL and was off work for six months so I could do physical therapy.
An answer to prayer?
Tearing my ACL, while terribly painful and a setback, was an opportunity for a change of lifestyle. I came out of physical therapy stronger than ever and made it a priority to continue the exercise routine. I can jump higher than I could at twenty and even after reinjuring that knee.
It seemed that God had answered. That gave confidence to further pursue impossibility and go further to find my missing piece…
2) I asked an ethnic Mennonite girl, in person. Part of the reason I’ve remained single so long is because of my crippling social anxieties. It is difficult to get a date if you are unable to approach the women whom you are most interested in getting to know better and attractive unmarried Mennonite women terrified me.
But I was determined not to make the mistake of not asking in person this time. And, after a conversation with her father (in which he gave me permission to ask, but told me flat out that a relationship with her was an “impossibility” in a follow-up message) I waited for that right time. It came one day when she told me she was going to be cleaning at the church.
I was shaking like a leaf when I got to the church door. I prayed she wouldn’t be startled. She was vacuuming in the sanctuary, she turned, spotted me outside, and smiled. It was a great relief that the conversation went as well as it did. I had expressed myself clumsily and still clearly enough. She was smiling and stepping in. Amazingly enough, she did not run, she said we could talk when things settled down for her and things had gone as well as one could expect.
Ultimately her Mennonite ideals made it impossible for her to love me enough to even have some ice cream and talk with me. But I had triumphed over my fears, I had pursued the impossibility and, in faith, rejecting human understanding and calculations. I was willing to be foolish in faith in a way that those who best embodied my Mennonite ideals could not (or were unwilling to) reciprocate.
3) I wrote a book. In the throes of her rejection a few weeks later, which included the words “You’re thirty years old in Milton,” I began writing. I began writing and eventually ended up with a letter fourteen pages long which explained my thoughts on faith, the development of romantic thoughts, and how, with faith to bind us in unity, our differences would actually make us stronger together.
After weeks and weeks of effort, of writing, rewriting and fine tuning, that letter was never sent. As hostile as she was acting towards me since our talk it seemed an act of futility and the letter still sits on my desk unsent. It wasn’t the right time, I decided, and would only drive her further away. No argument I could make, no matter how sincere or reasonable, would win her heart.
However, the writing of that letter convinced me of something and that is my ability to write. Armed with a new found confidence (and a new found ability to focus thanks to the miracle of an Adderall prescription) I began to write a book. The final product was over 17,000 words long, a book about faith, “Paradox of Faith” and remains unpublished in need of a final edit that has not been completed.
4) I started a blog. The book project led to the blog. It seemed like a good idea to refine my writing and articulation of thoughts. Interestingly enough, my first blogs seemed to attract more atheist and thinkers than my Mennonite religious peers. However, as I began to open up and be more honest about my own struggles, my Mennonite audience grew. The blogs hardest to share, because of the vulnerability they required, had the most significant response.
The most amazing part is that my message went viral amongst Mennonites *after* I left the denomination. It seems quite absurd, the whole time I had held my tongue about my deeper struggles (for fear of being rejected) and my moment of greatest acceptance came with my brutal honesty and with my letting go of my fears.
5) I bought my dream car. When I had asked the ethnic Mennonite, the impossibility, I was driving a mid-90’s Ford Contour that I had pieced together. It’s a long story why, I could certainly have afforded a better vehicle, cars had always been a passion of mine, but my mode of daily transportation really didn’t matter to me at this point and I had bigger things on my mind.
But, after her rejection, and on the advice of my mom, I decided to find a newer car. I started to search the used car lots and ended up with a brand new, 2014, Ford Focus. There truly is something special about being the first owner. This car was a quantum leap over the 90’s model trade-in. Practically speaking, this might have been my best purchase ever because it gets 40mpg and I got it for the same price as two year old used cars of the same model.
That wasn’t my dream car.
Years before this the current deacon of my former church, a youth advisor then, had given me a hard time about my modified (and R-title) 1992 Mercury Cougar. A conservative Mennonite can own farms and businesses worth well over a million dollars, a fleet of trucks, an airplane, a boat, without anyone raising an eyebrow. Yet, buy anything resembling a sports car and there will be disapproval.
My entire life I had curtailed my passions to please my Mennonite peers and live by their culturally conditioned ideals. I had believed that by playing by their rules they would have my back, they would lovingly help me to bear my burdens, and would truly treat me as a brother. As the betrayal became clear, upon realizing that my fears of their disapproval didn’t matter anymore, I was free and ordered a brand new 2016 Shelby GT350.
Still, I had some second thoughts after committing to the purchase. Like Judas, the money corrupted betrayer of Jesus, I questioned the excess, “Wouldn’t that be better spent on the poor?” But decided to follow through and to dedicate this ridiculous car to God, to hold it openly as we should all our possessions, to give rides to those who ask, and sell it as soon as that is required.
You would be amazed at the friendships and opportunities that opened up as a result of my buying that car and not caring so much what a small number of religious hypocrites thought. And, truth be told, not many Mennonites actually cared one way or another anyways, I was merely a prisoner of my own people-pleasing tendencies, and my conscience is clear before God.
6) I finally got the ‘right’ job. One of those things I begged of my Mennonite peers was a chance to be off the road. Some are cut out for solitude, those long hours alone in a truck cab, far away from home, but for me it was like solitary confinement, detrimental to my mental health, and started to lead to some bizarre thoughts. You really cannot know how much you need other people, even as background noise, until they are absent.
Perhaps my nagging paid off, perhaps as a consolation prize for pursuing the impossibility, or just chalk it up to God’s provision; but it was the father of the impossibility who mentioned my name to Titus (Titus, at the time, a Facebook friend, probably the result of my blogging, and not some I had met in person) who was seeking a replacement for himself as a truss designer.
Titus contacted me and the rest is history. So I owe my current job, in part, to the man who refused to recommend me to his daughter and must always give him credit for that. And, a bit over a year in, it truly is a great fit for my natural abilities. My work environment is wonderful and I couldn’t be happier. Finally my passion for engineering has found a place where it is useful.
7) I bought a rental. I really only wanted to live a small and safe life. That was my ideal as a Mennonite. And figured that once I paid my house off I would just build some savings as cushion and kick back a bit. However, a strange thing happened when I finally reached that point where I could just relax.
I owned my home outright. I owed not a dime on that unattainable dream car purchased a year before. I had given up on the Mennonite ideals (and delusions) that had kept me captivated. I could have done nothing besides maintain a lifestyle that had seemed ideal for most of my life. But somehow I ended up buying a cute little house and decided to be a landlord.
I’m not sure where that will lead. But, for the benefit of others, I hope some day to own some land and establish a business somewhere else.
Where, you might ask?
Well, that’s next…
8) I lived entirely for someone else’s good. Ecclesiastes does contain some timeless wisdom. One of them being that everything under the sun is, of itself, vanity and meaningless. I had everything I’ve ever wanted in life. I even had some ridiculous things besides. But lacked that one thing that mattered and that being the love that would last forever.
My vision of a composite of too different individuals in faith and love seemed to have failed. The Mennonite impossibility was engaged (actually, had just started dating, but that is essentially the same as engaged in the conservative Mennonite realm) and deep despair engulfed what had remained of my hopes in the denomination of my youth. I thought to end my miserable life.
Yet, while my faith internally had been extinguished, the purest part of it had survived externally in that seed of hope I planted in someone on the complete opposite side of the world. As I sank under the waves of doubt, she grabbed hold of my hand and refused to let me slip away into oblivion. I had no reason left in myself to live. However, I could not bear to see my precious bhest—the one who had been a little lost sheep when I found her—suffer on account of me.
She asked me to be strong for her and I decided then and there that I would live if only for her good. My intentions had not been romantic when we first started talking a year before and my Mennonite ideals would have prevented a relationship with her before then. But the true impossibility was being made possible in my heart. God had provided as promised.
9) I went around the world. I don’t have the millennial urge for experience. Yes, I wanted to help those in need around the world and was extremely attracted to the missionary zeal of the Mennonite ideal. But I lacked the impetus to do it on my own and hoped that this impossibility would be made possible through a Mennonite who, like my eldest sister, did have the ability to set her objectives and reach them.
There is much that needs to be worked through. It is not easy to connect two lives on the literal opposite ends of the globe. My relationship with her means a permanent divorce with my Mennonite ideals. But, with God and faith, all things are possible and that was the promise that had set me on my way a few years ago.
I had my own ideas of what impossibility was and my version required other people to change. But God’s impossibility required me to change, it required me to sacrifice my own Mennonite ideals and seek what is greater faith and love. I had to choose between my Mennonite identity and what is truly Christian ideals.
10) I’ve gone beyond Mennonite. It wasn’t my own choice. I very much understand why many remain Mennonite. Who would leave their own version of Hobbiton in the Shire and second breakfasts for a true journey of faith and self-sacrificial love, right? But circumstances beyond my control have forced me to go beyond what I know, beyond my ethnic group, and find the Jesus beyond the Mennonite tomb.
Mennonite Ideals Had Entombed My Faith
Last Sunday, the Sunday of myrrh bearing women, was about the women who went the tomb to find Jesus. These women, unlike the male disciples that had fled, had remained faithful to Jesus even in his death and had gone to his grave to find him:
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:1-5 NIV)
My Mennonite ideals were built around my own understanding. Like those faithful women, I had entombed Jesus within my own assumptions about what is and is not possible. Even in my seeking after the impossibility I had been imprisoned by my own concepts of possibility and became extremely confused when my own limited understanding of faith died.
Many Mennonites are, likewise, prisoners to their own cultural ideals and confirmation bias. They, like Mary Magdelene, who initially didn’t recognize the resurrected Jesus, are so focused in on their own forms of devotion and so bound to their own cultural expectations, that they miss the obvious. They toil away, so faithful to their ideals, and are in denial of the greater things God has established for them by His grace.
I have traveled from point A to point B. It may not have been a straight path. I’ve spent too many years wandering the wilderness due to the limits of my own understanding and my anxieties. But the impossible becomes possible as soon we are willing to step out in faith and the promised land awaits those who do.
When is the last time you have aimed for the impossible, the truly impossible, and found God faithful in way you could not expected?
I’ve been going to my parent’s house more often since I’ve been off the road. It sure beats spending time by myself in an empty little house or eating alone in a restaurant. And, besides that, my mom’s cooking is unmatched in the world. The usual routine was to have a meal during the week and also come home for Sunday dinner.
My plans to “leave and cleave” never came to fruition. All of my closest friends eventually married and disappeared from my life. My siblings (especially the married ones) are very independent and not usually available. Thus there is little other choice for meaningful social interaction during the week besides home. And, since my dad isn’t much for talking about much besides work, the bulk of my time talking is with my mother—who is quite similar to me in personality and temperament.
Going back a step…
Apparently, as a child, I was the only one who would cry when my mom would step out for a minute with the garbage. This separation anxiety never fully went away either. Even as an adult I’ve had a terrible fear of losing my mom. That could simply be because I’ve remained single and (besides a few online mothers who have been there for me) have really only had one significant nurturing person in my life.
In the past couple years, in particular, as my only opportunities for regular meaningful social interaction at church dried up and marriage remained unattainable, my mother was all I had. My mother is the one who has always been there for me through thick and thin. I love her despite our getting under each other’s skin sometimes.
Too much of a good thing?
As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. That is suggested in Scripture where too frequently visiting neighbors is advised against: “Too much of you, and they will hate you.” (Proverbs 25:17) It does seem too much of even a good thing is bad. And, at very least, the law of diminishing returns may eventually apply to any activity and one would be better doing something else with their time.
Anyhow, with the thoughts of my over-dependency in mind, and my own terror over the thought losing this person who has been in my life longer than anyone else, and considering that Lenten season is about sacrifice, it became clear what to do:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26 NIV)
It is easy for those born into Christian homes to treated this teaching of Jesus as hyperbole or a command only necessary for new converts, but what if Jesus did mean it to be taken literally?
Would you literally give up your mother and father to follow after Jesus?
My mother, while imperfect as I am, was never the smothering type. Late into middle school (possibly the start of my 8th grade year) things weren’t going very well and I begged my mom to homeschool me. She denied the request. And, despite my discomfort with her decision not to give me what I wanted, she made the right call. Because, even though it is impossible to know where I would have ended up otherwise, I did eventually break past some of my shyness and am glad for that experience rare for a conservative Mennonite.
Mary and the sacrifice of motherhood…
I’ve been listening to a lot of Jordan Peterson lately and his contrast of the “devouring mom” with Mary (the mother of Jesus) caught my attention. Interestingly enough, both feminists and patriarchal men do not give Mary her due because both undervalue female contribution—both see masculine roles as superior and therefore discredit the importance of motherhood.
Mary, as a mother, was willing to sacrifice her son to the world. In fact, the first miracle of Jesus recordes in Scripture, was at the prompting of his mother:
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so… […] What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1-8, 11 NIV)
That is an extremely interesting exchange between a mother and son. Based in his initial response, the miracle was out of the timeline that Jesus had in mind. Mary, for her part, totally ignores his “my hour has not yet come” protest and, without further comment, moves on to tell the servants to do what her son tells them to do.
It is important to note that the choice of “woman” by translators could give an incorrect sound of rudeness. According to various sources, the word he used was more similar to “ma’am” and might suggest he was distancing himself a bit from his mom or asserting some independence. But, despite being pushed outside of his comfort zone, he complied readily with his mother’s request.
Mary did what a good mother does for her son. She gave him a little nudge, she showed her confidence in him—first in ignoring his initial response and then by her instruction to the servants to follow his lead. And because of that we have this wonderful example of motherhood.
Before Jesus could become the ultimate sacrifice to the world he first needed a human mother willing to nurture him and then give him up. In some ways Mary shared equally in the sacrifice made by God. She, like God, sacrificed her own son—the child who grew in her womb—to be tortured and killed.
My mom, like Mary, has always been my biggest encourager. Yes, like all good moms, there was always a push and pull. She would probably be happier if her other children not moved so far away and I may have happier to stay in her home until married. But without her push I’m not sure how much I would’ve accomplished with my life. It because of my mother that I opened a savings account as a child, it is because of her that I bought my house a decade ago, she has encouraged my writing, and her overall push has always been for my independence. She has empowered rather than enslaved me.
My mom had a good balance of empathy and necessary toughness. Unlike some parents, both she and my dad always tried to be fair (perhaps too fair) in how they presented me to the world. For better worse, we aren’t a family that is much for overselling ourselves. If asked, I would probably say that my parents are average and not without their flaws. Yet, in true fairness, saying my parents are average is a vast understatement—they are extraordinary people and I’m very grateful for them both.
So, anyhow, I have given up many things dear to me in the past year and, Lord willing, I will be completing the transition from Mennonite to Orthodox this year.
However, for all the once important things I’ve sacrificed in an unbending quest for the truth, I’ve not yet broken my dependency on my mother. My mom said goodbye to her mom last spring and, with my budding romance, it is bound to happen sooner or later—that is why I gave up my mom for Lent.
Two words and some of the most unhelpful advice ever given.
Telling someone to be confident is like telling a depressed person to be happy or a short person to be tall. A person who lacks in confidence does not know how to be confident or else they would already be confident. Building confidence takes more effort than making a bold pronouncement upon someone.
People do not simply choose to be shy, unsure, uncertain, doubtful, confused, hesitant, timid, anxious or fearful. No, those things are a product of life experiences and emotions that are all very real. A confident person making a perfunctory statement does nothing to change the reality of a person who lacks confidence.
That said, confidence is desirable and something to be shared.
Unfortunately, people who are confident often do not have reason to be introspective about it. When you feel good about life there is not much need to know why or question it, there is only reason to be what you already are and enjoy the benefits.
Confidence is both a natural disposition and also something gained through positive experience. Parents instill confidence in children through example or by helping them to overcome their fears and learn from failures rather than dwell in them. Confident and successful parents seem to produce confident and successful children.
Confidence goes hand in hand with success, it frees a person to take the plunge rather than waste time in needless deliberation and makes them more attractive. But, there is a sort of causality dilemma, in that confidence often leads to success while success builds confidence and without one the other becomes more difficult to maintain.
When confidence doesn’t produce success, it leads an intelligent person to doubt. And with doubt comes less desire to risk effort and that results in even less opportunity for success, which often leads to even less success and even less confidence. Pretty soon things can spiral downward into the pit of despair without a clear way out.
So, how do we help someone who lacks confidence gain it?
If you want a person to be confident then you must give them reason to be confident and good enough reason to overcome whatever reasons they have to lack confidence. To be helpful one must directly address root causes and not dismiss the realities that created the condition as silly or irrelevant.
What people need is T.IM.E.
Help must be practical. Encouraging words don’t cut it. Words, no matter how confident you are in saying them, are only words and do nothing to counteract the real life experience or emotional baggage of someone who has only known failure. What is helpful, perhaps the only thing that does help in some cases, is meaningful long-term investment in the other person.
Loss of confidence happens over a lifetime, it comes as a result of traumatic experience or neglectful treatment, thus expecting a person to “snap out of it” because you say so is delusional at best and an excuse to be indifferent at worse. There is more to be done than simple encouragement and that means an investment of time.
Here are three simple steps…
1) Take time to listen. Confidence goes hand in hand with success, but success can lead to arrogance and unwillingness to hear first. Many people want to “fix” another person without taking time to actually listen and assess the need. This could mean many months or only a moment depending on the need. It takes relating to the other person at their own level, earning their trust, without being in a rush or speaking in judgment of their situation. Half the problem could be the lack of someone who will actually hear them out and care. So listen empathically and try to identify with the other person emotionally. Weep with them, laugh with them, eat with them and imagine with them.
2) IMagine a solution. Without confidence, our ability to envision a better future dwindles and dies. A successful person can easily take their ability to see a bright future for granted and yet a person who has continually failed does not share their rosy vision. The first step towards any solution, therefore, is to think about it, to break the problem down into steps and help the other person mentally develop their path towards success. After that comes execution of the plan.
3) Empower them. This is where the rubber meets the road and is probably what is most lacking in our age of dog-eat-dog individualism. Sure, there are many willing to spew their unhelpful advice and unasked-for judgments, but there are very few willing to partner in the success of another person and by this I mean make a substantive investment. No, this does not mean a handout done in pity or religious obligation either, but an investment that physically and materially shows our confidence in the person who needs it. Your willingness to partner together with them in a solution will, by itself, help build their confidence.
Anyhow, some final notes…
This is not a method or formula. Each person and every situation is different. Sometimes all that is needed is encouragement (more than saying “be confident”) which could mean something as little as a phone call. While other times a lifelong commitment may be required. It will likely require creativity, facilitating the right connections, and making recommendations.
The goal is to get the person what they need to get on their feet and going in the right direction. It also means getting out of the way and not being controlling or expecting anything in return besides enjoying their success with them.
Nobody is self-made. If you are confident and successful, there are reasons why that go beyond your own abilities. We did not pick our own home, communities, height, intelligence, personalities or luck. We cannot take full credit for anything we have accomplished in our life. This is reason to be humble and helpful.
If you are confident then share what you have been given with those who have little or less than you do. Show your hope in their future with truth of action and not only your confidently spoken (but empty) words, be their heart…
A couple years ago, upon realizing my life was going nowhere in a hurry and not wanting to settle for mediocrity, I called out for God’s help. I wanted a truly abundant life, I knew that I was wholly inadequate to bring about the necessary changes to make that reality (God knows I’ve tried) so I begged for the impossible be done.
I have seen many dreams die in my life because of fear of failure, inexplicably poor timing, etc. I was well-aware of the cliché definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result) but could not seem to break from the patterns of life that limited my potential. I was what I was and deeply dissatisfied with that.
There was an undefined something that always seemed to crush my higher ambitions.
I could not beat an enemy that could not be defined. So I told God in no uncertain terms that I would literally crawl on hands and knees across a wilderness of broken glass to be made right. Throwing every bit of faith I could muster, like a gambler going all in with a desperate last gasp effort, I prayed “make the impossible possible for me” and then concluded my morning prayer.
It was an hour or two after that when I hopped out of my truck and went down writhing in pain. My knee buckled under me. In that moment what had been diagnosed as an MCL sprain became a full ACL tear and I knew that the implications were huge. I would be unable to perform the duties of my job and with that was facing financial uncertainty.
Still, despite excruciating pain, I was serene and confident.
God had answered.
Or so I hoped.
“It is what it is…”
My faith crumbled against that awful reality.
“You are thirty years old living in Milton.”
It was true and the implications clear enough.
I was a stick in the mud, already past my prime by the standards of some, and certainly not the adventure her heart was set upon. I simultaneously loved her brutal honesty and hated the harshness of judgment. My worst fear realized.
I had no defense.
When we finally parted ways I was lost in a haze. The rug yanked out from under me. My sputtering attempts to articulate my own heart had no effect on her whatsoever. Blissful hopes were mercilessly cut down by an otherwise nurturing soul.
My conversation with her end with my mouth involuntarily echoing her “it is what it is” plea and with that accepting the rationality of fatalism that had long dogged me.
A continuing cruel loneliness now seemed inevitable. I had tried many times before, taken my hits, always got back up again by believing next time would be better—that something greater would come from my suffering rejection. But this time I could not delude myself with hope.
My faith had lost the day—my hope against hope had failed—and now a terrible fate of a despairingly cold and isolated life was upon me.
My mind, a place normally full of noise and activity, went totally blank as if unable to comprehend any of it. I was in shock about what had transpired and numb.
I wandered off aimlessly.
Into the wilderness of South Dakota.
Into the dark of night.
The storm brewing in overhead seemed to perfectly mirror the log-jam of conflicted thoughts and swirl of deep emotions.
My delusion of hope that a young ambitious woman might find me desirable enough to consider a romantic relationship was shattered into a million fragments. My failure to achieve now clung to me like an unforgivable sin. Very soon I awoke from my stupor into an inescapable nightmare of reality.
The uneasy calm broke when Johnny and Brian somehow found me. The rain, which had coincidentally held to precisely the moment they carried me to the shelter of an awaiting truck cab, began to pour down in torrents and so did my tears.
Escaping reality was impossible.
Doing battle with the it…
Most people nowadays pursue career first and romance second. But I had these things in reverse order. I prioritized relationship and postponed all else.
My reasoning was that it would be better to form life ambitions and goals together as a couple rather than apart. And I might have pulled it off had I been a bit less socially awkward. Unfortunately I had this vexing tendency to freeze up as soon as my interest was piqued and thus my early romantic pursuits failed miserably.
Years were frittered away with unfulfilled dreams, chasing one false hope after another and waiting for opportunities that never came.
Not to say that I did nothing of value in that time either. I gained life experience, slowly built confidence in my abilities, learned to live independently, and gained perspective.
However, it was hard not to feel a failure.
There seemed to be this mysterious “it” that always kept my best efforts from panning out and nobody had the answers for this that I craved.
I’ve heard all the cliché advice I could ever stomach. One person says try harder and the next will say you’re trying too hard. One tells you “you’re intimidating” and the next says you lack confidence. You’re basically wrong no matter what you do.
The same one who says they want someone “mature” rejects your offer and then dates a teenager whom she later marries. It is incredibly confusing when the same person who says you’ll make a “great husband” refuses to even consider a date.
It is impossible to define exactly what the “it” is. It was a ball of anxieties, that inexplicably poor timing, a curse of a jealous enemy, the lack of true community and help.
It was many things and yet nothing at all.
It was an invisible monster that chased me throughout my life. It was the glass wall that seperated me from those who were more able to conquer the obstacles in their way and achieve their goals. It was my doing too little too late or too much too early. It was my always being close to the mark and yet never hitting it.
The “it” is not something external to be vanquished. It is everything from my formative years up until the present moment that I’ve experienced or thought. It is my home, my genetic and cultural inheritance, the good and bad together intertwined and inseparable as part of my own character.
The “it” is a sum total of what defines me as a person.
It was inescapable.
It is me.
It is what we make it…
Her certainty about her own direction was why she was so attractive to me. It was never my plan to grow old in Milton.
However, she seemed to believe that her personal ambitions were something that made us incompatible. To me our lack of similar résumé was not a disqualification, I saw our differences as an asset, considering her strengths as being complimentary rather than contradictory to mine, but she disagreed.
She was my last remaining escape plan.
I did not eat in the days after because I had no desire to continue as I had and seemingly had no escape. I wanted to die and would rather starve than keep feeding myself with more false hopes.
I cried, “I have no vision!”
I so desperately wanted free of a mind seemingly incapable of focus. I had seemed to do fine in a structure. I was a diligent worker, a loyal friend, responsible and dedicated. But leave me too free to choose my own path and I would dither indefinitely in indecision.
God provided just enough reason to get me out of bed. I cleaned up, composed myself a bit, ate the cup of yogurt and glass of water mom provided. I faced her again, my elusive hope against hope, and then in the weeks following I went under the knife to have the torn ligament replaced with a graft and after that began the months of rehabilitation. My goal to come back stronger than before and physically I did.
What also happened in my time off of work was a book (written but shelved pending further review) and this blog. I’ve found some answers in blogging. Writing my experiences and recording some of my thoughts has seemed to help provide some direction. The more vulnerable I’ve become the more friends and opportunities to serve I’ve seemed to gain.
Why am I Mennonite?
I have never been the Mennonite golden boy.
I’ve never had the swooning attention of the favorites who better represent the ideals of Mennonite culture. I’ve always done things a little different. I was who I was and gave up on being anything besides that. But still, I longed to gain acceptance in the Mennonite culture.
In Mennonite culture marriage is acceptance and not all are. Yes, sure, we’ll let most anyone be a member so long as they complete the required steps, but marriage is where the reality of a two tiered system becomes very evident. There are the kids born in the right homes, the ones able to do all the things that make them popular within their cultural context and marriageable, and then there are those of us who don’t fit the mold.
She represents a direction that I thought my life should go in. Her Mennonite idealism, her simplicity of role or purpose in life, represented something deep within my own heart and desirable.
However, many who have read my blogs question this and ask… “why are you still Mennonite?”
It is question that I dislike.
I’m Mennonite because I like being Mennonite.
We have such a neat and tidy cloistered existence. We have beautiful families. We are the happy Hobbits living in the Shire of Middle-earth. Everything we do is safe. Even our missionaries typically go out to all the corners of the world yet never leave the protection of their religious confines.
It has been suggested to me recently that I have “out grown” the tradition. That is the question that I have wrestled with as of late.
Can one actually out grow their home?
I’m running out of arguments why to stay in a denomination that is more about conforming to cultural expectations than transformation of mind and living a life of true faith.
It is hard not to notice that most of the help on my journey came from those leaving the Mennonite tradition or outside of it. The support I’ve gotten from those within has been grudgingly or something that needed extracted and done as mere religious duty. I hear brotherly love spoke of by Mennonites, but it seems more relic or ritual than actually reality. The real brotherhood I’ve experienced, the genuine Christian love, comes from beyond my own Mennonite tradition.
Does a man of faith belong with those who shrug “it is what it is” rather than risk a small step into unfamiliar territory?
Should I have any part with those who eagerly travel over land and sea to win a single convert and yet would never go in a direction they don’t understand?
Still there is a strong urge to remain a part.
I’ve always thought all voices were needed in the conversation and the including mine. If everyone capable of challenging the cultural status quo leaves it would create even more tunnel vision and further imbalance. My strengths, rejected or not, would be of benefit to those who think they have all the answers and are confident about the tradition they received.
Composites make a stronger material than their component parts—shouldn’t the bond of love be able to do the same with two dissimilar people?
There is a time to wait and there is a time to take decisive action. I have given up many opportunities for placing my hopes within the context of my Mennonite culture and gone many years without seriously considering the alternatives.
Mennonite is my cultural identity. Despite my many idiosyncrasies, I’ve always been Mennonite at heart and somewhat proud of my ethnic and religious heritage. How does one unbind and divorce themselves from their cherished past?
It is not like I haven’t ventured out before in search of what I might find only to return again as if drawn by an invisible force that grew stronger the further away I got from whoopie pies and covering strings. But things do change and there could be a force stronger than that which always pulled me back.
When I asked God to make the impossible possible for me, I had a personal vision that included remaining Mennonite and the young woman that I knew was an impossibility as far as worldly logic is concerned. But it now seems possible that my vision then was too narrow and that I should look beyond to the other options available.
Being Mennonite is not the be all end all. God calls us to go beyond the limits we set for ourselves or those set for us by our cultures and that is my intention. It doesn’t matter what my religious peers or even my blood relatives think—Jesus called us to follow Him and leave our fears, insecurities and inadequacies behind us.
Maybe impossibility made possible for me is something I never anticipated?
That is what have I learned since that day tearing my ACL, in recovery from yet another slap of rejection, and from the battle with the “it” which drove me to extremes in search of answers. I learned that I do not have all the answers and don’t need all the answers before I am able to step out in faith.
There are many things that will soon come to a head for me and most I am unable to talk openly about at this time. Many of these things being pivotal life changing decisions that must be made. What happens in the next couple months will determine many things.
Your prayers to help me through this transitional time are very appreciated. Pray that the impossible is made possible.
I’ve been listening to a motivational video since a friend posted a link to it. It is advice of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who rose to prominence through body building, with an unlikely accent began a career as an actor and then later was elected governor of California.
What he said resonates with me. I know enough of his story to appreciate the ethic of hard work, confidence, need to overcome fear of failure, to break rules, to ignore naysayers and pursue visions. We limit ourselves. The truth is that I limit myself and it is because I doubt my chances for success.
Had Schwarzenegger thought like I do sometimes could he have accomplished what he has?
No, probably not…
I am a driven and determined guy. I dream of the impossible. I hope for the impossible and I believe the impossible is possible by the grace of God. For some faith is an excuse for them to sit on their hands and do nothing. But for me faith means full investment in the visions that God has put on my heart. There can be no compromise with those who tempt you to quit.
I have encountered the naysayers, they are many, and they will try to turn you from what is best. For your good, they claim, you should settle for less and seek the compromise. They will recount their own failure as reason, cite facts and present logics, but do not let their faithless words take away your courage. Fight for what is right and good because you trust that God is right and good and is on the side of those who pursue righteousness and goodness. Do not listen to the naysayers.
I have my own anxieties. I too often have made excuses for myself and can too easily withhold my best effort with a fatalistic attitude. Yet, when we do not put forward our best efforts because of fear, can we blame anyone other than ourselves for our own failure? It is a lie to blame God or fate for our own failure unless we have truly invested our all. Those who have done their part and still come up short have still won.
Another thing I have done too often is view failure as defeat. Failure should instead be viewed as a learning experience. As the saying goes: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” If you give up at the first sign of trouble or after facing some tough opposition, then the goal must not be all that important to you. To stay focused on the prize, despite the pain, the scars and torments of past failure, that is victory.
I am not afraid to think outside the box. Sometimes success requires being alone and setting the trend yourself rather than wait on others. Yes, I would rather the comforts and company of the group, but when the group is limiting God’s purpose for them or encouraging complacency, then one must lead. A true leader does not wait to be sure others are following, they do not pay attention to rules that come between them and doing what God has for them.
Now, there are components I believe are missing from Schwarzenegger’s perspective, namely God’s providence and grace, nevertheless there is much true in his advice. Those who have faith can overcome pain, failure, naysayers, fear, worldly rules and be willing to work their butts off for what they believe.
So find your motivation, do not be content to live mediocre and safe, go out and change the world with the fullness of your God given abilities. To do less than your best, less than you are able to do, that is failure and faithlessness.