A Rose By Any Other Name

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It is hard to feel unique in a world of 7.75 billion people.  Due to mass media we are also more aware of this and also now have all of the best in the world there to compare ourselves to.  We see the best athletes, the most beautiful bodies, those with wealth and power day in and day out.

I am insignificant

At the same time, many young people did not have siblings to share the attention of their parents, only were given affirmation in their formative years, a participation trophy for showing up and—special as they are—don’t need to follow rules or ever answer to anyone.  

In other words, we have a generation with deep insecurities, worried about their place in the vast sea of humanity, and then also raised to be self-absorbed narcissists.  

Unlike the past generations, where you could be a big fish in a small pond, yet also needed to learn respect for boundaries and how to share or negotiate with others. 

Unlike the meritocracy of the past, where you needed real accomplishments to earn privileges or praise, we have conditioned young people to believe that their satisfaction should come without sacrifice or effort.

It is very little wonder why so many of them are unfulfilled, dissatisfied with life, and out there seeking cheap distinction.

Distinction—Cheap or Valuable

We all know names like Elon Musk, Serena Williams, or Ron DeSantis.  They are leaders in their realms of popular culture and sport, business or politics.  And we can probably agree that some of their success is an inheritance of genetics, good fortune or the opportunities granted them.

However, what they are doing, like them or not, is producing results and with this are being rewarded for the things they do.  They have outcompeted many, they distinguished themselves by showing up for work and by putting the time in.  It is for that reason their recognition is earned.  They do the things we care about and we make them famous for this unique resume.

Earlier this week I saw a story about Rose Namajunas, a diminutive female UFC fighter with a very big attitude that earned her the nickname “Thug Rose” in school, and how she’s being featured in a Victoria’s Secret ad campaign.  The message “all expressions, no definitions,” with the word “undefinable,” do certainly fit her outsized personality and the mean head kicks she can deliver, all the while being very emotional.

The point a marketing strategy is cynical, it is to tickle ears and encourage more consumption of a particular good or service.  Those who produced this advertising campaign did it trying to target a certain demographic in the hope of profit.  And that target is probably not those who will ever have the same work ethic and skills as Rose, but is those who crave the same notoriety and ‘undefinable’ uniqueness.

We all wish to be significant, to distinguish ourselves from the pack, to be appreciated and loved.  There are many who are looking for a shortcut or feel entitled to these things, they want the same acceptance, recognition and rewards as those at the top.  They buy expensive clothes, the latest smart phones or cars beyond their budget, all trying to gain attention through their appearance rather than actual character.  

There is hard-earned distinction and there is the cheap kind.  There is the content creator who shares of their substance and then the one who destroys things for clicks.  There is the pleasing gift of Abel and that unworthy offering of Cain.  There is that real fulfillment which comes from making contribution and then the imitation that is outwardly prideful, expresses itself loudly, while truly being an envious, bitter and impoverished soul.

Personal Pronouns and No-name Jerseys

Penn State football has a long tradition of not putting the names of players on jerseys and this is to reinforce the notion of selfless team effort over a bunch of individuals only in it for themselves.  

No name, all game

Success on the field and in life depends on our plugging in and sometimes putting aside our own preferences for the good of others.  We can get more done by working together, respecting the established system, rather than demand that everyone makes special accomodations for us.

Yes, there is a time for grievances.  We also should be a reasonable give and take so far as how individuals and the members of the group interact with each other.

And yet this idea that we should rewrite cultural conventions, negotiated over many centuries, simply so some ‘woke’ Karens can have power over others, is not a grievance I can ever honor.  It is not reasonable for a person to decide the pronouns that apply to them or force us to go along with their newly invented categories.  

We don’t need to be Amish, severely limiting individual expression to maintain community cohesion, but we also don’t want to keep on this path of total atomization either.  There’s a reason why the barn raising religion is able to flourish while the rest of us are headed for Babal, confusion and collapse.

Rose By Any Other Name

This morning, pondering how the categories of mental illness are a bit arbitrary and how much I dislike how these labels pigeonhole  people, there was the thought that my given name was the best possible diagnosis of me.  I mean, I’m Joel.  I don’t need a personal pronoun when I already have my own name and identity completely my own.  

Ironically, the same people who want to have new pronouns for themselves also seem to revel in their mental illness as well.  Anything to be different.  It is a sort of humble-brag, a title of distinction of our era, to talk about your PTSD or bi-polar disorder.  If you are the right person, if you can make yourself a part of the right identity group, then your self-declared victimhood will be treated as a virtue.

It goes beyond moral inversion.  People think that you can slap the right label on a person and it will make up for their deficiencies.  If only they were described right, if we would see their pink hair as an accomplishment, then they would love themselves.  Of course, this is a lie, people so into themselves are always a black hole and no amount of love given will fill their deep void.

It is the spirit of those who are content to remain nameless, who get their numbers called for what they do for the whole, that actually matters.  People will know what is great and what is not no matter what label is applied.  I can never forget what W.E.B Du Bois wrote to a student:

Do not at the outset of your career make the all too common error of mistaking names for things. Names are only conventional signs for identifying things. Things are the reality that counts. If a thing is despised, either because of ignorance or because it is despicable, you will not alter matters by changing its name.

The Name “Negro”

We can manipulate and massage language all we want, give people all the fancy titles they wish for, but in the end none of this word play can take away or lend to their value. If you want recognition contribute to the whole and your name will be known. Not to the whole world, but to those helped by your deeds. A rose called by any other name is still a rose.

What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:5-12)

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The world loves distinctive dress and titles.

If I wear an expensive suit and fancy tie to an event, that will probably result in my being treated differently than if I show up in street clothes.  Having “PhD” behind my name would earn me more respect in some circles.

The world judges by outward appearance.

People rank and categorize other people based on what clothing they wear and what positions they hold.  Wear the wrong dress to an occasion and expect to be shamed in the gossip columns.  The climb up the social ladder can be brutal.

The church, unfortunately, is not much different.  The expectations and dress standards might vary, but the harmful focus on distinction of title or outward appearance is the same.

What did Jesus say about obsession with dress and titles?

Jesus, continuing his rebuke of unhelpful religious elites, said…

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called “Rabbi” by others. ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:5‭-‬12)

The religious elites were obsessed with what other people thought and how they appeared.

Jesus mentions the “phylacteries” and “tassels” they wore, meant as symbolic reminders of their devotion to God, became about drawing attention to themselves.  They pranced to the front benches, loved to be noticed when out in public, and sought titles to impress their religious peers.

Jesus was unimpressed.  It is apparent that their religious devotion was not about God’s glory and honor as they would claim, it was all to draw attention to themselves and prideful.  Jesus again alludes to the tables being turned and roles being reversed—a time when the first shall be last and last shall be first.

But how is this applicable today?

Nobody I know wears phylacteries or tassels.

However, I believe the warnings against obsession with appearance still apply as much to religious people today as it did then.  We have different versions of the same prideful behavior in our churches today.

Here’s what we are doing:

1) Seeking the important seats:  I sit anywhere in the church because it does not matter.  There is nothing wrong with sitting in the back benches in an age of microphones and amplifiers.  Socially awkward people do not enjoy parading up to the front of the church; they don’t want the attention.  And so what if the rebels sit in the back, at least they are at church, right?

Funny how some Mennonite leaders have apparently not gotten the memo about those who love the “place of honor” and “most important seats” in a religious setting.  From the way they commend people who sit in the front benches you might be led to think that Jesus said that makes a person special or better.

Yes, there is something to be said for accommodating visitors and mothers with young children.  There’s also something to be said for not creating a distraction by yukking it up with your buddies.  We should always be considerate of others.

That said, seating position is no indication of spiritual condition.

2) Loving important titles: There are some people who use the letter of what Jesus said as a means to bash Catholics for their use of “father” in reference to church leaders past and present.

Unfortunately they entirely miss the point being made and in their arrogance are potentially slandering those who appropriately use these terms.  The admonition against calling anyone “teacher” or “father” is not about the specific words used, but about how and why they are used.

How do I know this?

Well, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as “father” (1 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:22) and I’m doubtful he did it in ignorance of or contradiction to what Jesus said.  I believe he used it as a description of his true fatherly love and affection for the children of the faith and not vainly as a means to secure unearned respect from others—which is what Jesus was speaking about.

Sadly, those who turn the words of Jesus into a legal code miss the spirit of what he is saying.  Sure, they might never use the words he mentioned to describe themselves, but they do use words like “reverend” or “evangelist” in the same way as a Pharisee.  With different words they embody the same self-seeking spirit of the religious elites condemned by Jesus.

And we do this too.  We may not seek fancy titles outright.  However, I was turned down by a young woman who wanted someone who used “missionary” or “pastor” to flaunt their ambitions and I was uncomfortable describing my calling in those terms.  Love of religious importance is not unusual amongst Mennonites even if not as openly stated.

There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to spiritual pitfalls.  As my sister would say: Same manure, different piles.  Except she doesn’t use the word “manure” when she says it…

3) Dressing distinctly: It blows my mind how far off the mark people can be when it comes to matters of dress.  There are some churches where people will frown on those who do not wear a suit and tie (while some conservative Mennonites will frown on those who do) and for some reason carrying a big leather-bound Bible is important too.

It makes me wonder what these proper religious people would do if a man like John the Baptist showed up in camel’s hair.  They might be suffering from the same ailment as Saul’s daughter; Michal, when she saw David dancing in a “linen ephod” and called him a “vulgar person” for it (2 Samuel 6:14-23).  Apparently God was not impressed with her judgment of propriety according to what I read.

That is not to say we should intentionally draw attention to ourselves and dress in a provocative or ostentatious manner.

Which leads to my next point…

Many conservative Mennonites look to distinctive dress as a means to be a witness.  They claim this is an act of “non-conformity” and taking a stand against “worldly” fad and fashion.  And I do appreciate the idea of not being jerked around by every whim and fancy of the mainstream culture.

Unfortunately, this non-conformity of outward appearance does not always reflect change at a heart level.  We might not look like our “worldly” neighbors in the way we dress and yet many of us are even more obsessed with fashion than they are.  The smallest differences (the number of pleats in a dress or the collar of a suit coat) can lead to venomous accusations and division.

Distinctive dress has become a stumbling block for conservative Mennonites.  We judge each other based on our differences, we shut people out for not meeting our own dress standards, and forget to love each other as Christ commanded.  We have taken Scripture that instructs Christians to be focused on inner change rather than outward adoring (1 Peter 3-4, 1 Timothy 2:9-10) and turned it into a fixation about outward appearance.

Perhaps we forget what Scripture tells us about pride and clothing?

Peter describes the true distinctiveness of being “clothed” with sincere faith:

All of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourself, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6)

We are told to be distinctively dressed.  However, that distinction of dress means to “clothe yourself with humility” and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:27, Romans 13:14) rather than with our own religious works–that is a far deeper distinction than mere outward appearance.  Our distinctiveness should be less about what we wear on the outside and more about being a manifestation of this:

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34,35)

Distinguished titles and distinctive outward appearance is vanity when it causes strife or leads to a pecking order.  We must embody the character of Christ by loving each other as he commanded.  It is not about looking different or having a fancy title, it is about being different in heart.

If a person professes faith in Jesus, then accept them as a brother or sister and don’t be a religiously pretentious snob.  Jesus, as far as I know, did not dress like a Mennonite, Amish man or Baptist.  I’m doubtful he was much concerned about solids or stripes and the size of floral prints.