Redefining Our Scarlet Letters

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Many of us are defined by the hurts we have experienced.  Truly, how we interact today, the anxieties we have, are often a product of something in our past, injustice or injury, that has warped our perceptions.  

For many years of my life, I felt unloveable.  

I had gotten off to a bad start in the romantic realm.  After some failed efforts, stinging rejections, my confidence fell off a cliff, I would self-sabotage even when I had chances and spiraled even further into fear and doubt.  With every “not interested” answer came increased feelings of shame and the stigma of being someone not good enough for even a first date. 

I still apologize, sometimes, or actually more all the time, when asking to have dinner with a woman.

Why?

Well, not because I’m a terrible person.  I’ve always been a good friend and respectful of boundaries.  I have much to offer even in terms of platonic relationships and have proven myself in this regard over and over again.  But still, because of the value others have assigned to me, I look at myself as possibly being a burden to the person I’m asking and that hesitancy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because it makes the person being asked uncomfortable.

If you see yourself as being worthless it shouldn’t be a big surprise when other people agree.

Breaking free of these cycles can feel impossible when stuck in them.  The most frustrating advice I’ve ever received was “be confident” as if I was simply choosing to see myself as garbage for no reason whatsoever.  I mean, I had been confident enough to express interest, even overcome the oppression of my social anxieties, only to be swatted down one more time by young women who had their eyes set on 5′-10″ or over.

Of course my plight, as a shy person on the shorter end of male stature, was not at all helped by the conservative Mennonite culture that had been overcome by purity culture teachings.  Young people had it drilled into them that dating that didn’t lead to marriage equated to defilement.  So, if you didn’t have the superficial tools, there was really no means of building a relationship or mutual respect that could lead to a deeper commitment.

The Letters We Are Forced To Wear

The Scarlet Letter, a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, is set in the 1600s, in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, and follows a woman, named Hester Prynne, who—through an out of wedlock pregnancy—was found guilty of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for her sin.  It contrasts her plight to that of the child’s father, the town’s minister, whom she protects with her silence and lives in constant fear of being exposed for his concealed sin.

Like Hester, some of us wear our shortcomings more visibly than others.  Those who obviously lack something according to the prevailing social standard, whether exposed to public scorn and ridicule or simply excluded from institutions and driven to the margins, are forced to deal with feelings of humiliation.  Of course, that’s not to say that those who appear to be outwardly pure and undefiled are free of pain, those with less visible faults often live with a tremendous fear of being discovered and guilt. 

We all want to be accepted and yet have those letters to wear.  It could be that we’re typecasted, “oh, that’s George, always big talker!”  We have heard the labels, the declarations, “she’s a flirt” or “he’s desperate,” and sometimes it is hard to know if it is that person or the group making that reality what it is.  It is not all completely negative, it could be “they’re meant to be” or any statement that builds an expectation, but it certainly can keep a person confined and limits potential. 

Once you fill a particular role, in the minds of the group, it is often difficult to break beyond it. 

For example, my biggest fear, when I took a job driving truck, was that I would be branded a “truck driver” and thus not eligible for other work.  My concerns were fulfilled, years later, when I talked to a business owner friend about my desire to get off the road and they offered that maybe I could drive a truck for them.  

These kinds of things aren’t necessarily even spoken.  But we know there are those individuals or that don’t quite live up to the ideal of the group, who have a blemish visible or invisible, and are tolerated more than embraced.  In some ways, it would be better if our chests could be emblazoned with these symbols of shame, that we could be told exactly you get told by an eligible young woman “you’ll make a great husband someday” and yet nobody (including her) seems to want that greatness.

However, not all of this is imposed.  Some of this punishment, if not most of it, is self-inflicted.

Shamed No More

The most brilliant theme of The Scarlet Letter is that that this symbol of shame is transformed over the course of the novel.  This letter intended to stigmatize eventually becomes a badge of honor for the protagonist and something she wears willingly rather than because she must.  The letter “A” because of Hester’s diligent work, her charity, and listening to those lower social status, comes to mean “able” or “angel” as the story progresses.  She, for her proven virtue, becomes well-respected as humble and wise.

My own life journey, with the investment of love and care of a few, has begun to take that turn as well.  

I have begun to realize that my romantic failures were a reflection of a broken courtship culture and not my own lacking.  Because of the drip drip drip of Charlotte’s confidence in me, I have become stronger.  Not only that, but as a result of my struggle, I also have deep compassion for those who suffer and a desire to free them from the bonds of their insecurities.  Now, even when snubbed, because I know who I am and don’t depend on this external definition of what I am for security, I barely care.  It is on them, not me.  I know I’m a good friend and focus my effort on those who appreciate what I offer.

The reality is that I’ve become a different person.  I behave differently than I did when ruled by my anxieties and thus have become more attractive.

No, that doesn’t make what others did to push a person down a dead-end road any more right.  The love of Christ should compel us to invest in the salvation of others and especially to help those who want to be helped.  Things like slavery and denial of rights to people on the basis of outward appearance certainly do hurt and hinder.  And yet, there’s also a way to live beyond our typecasting. to not be confined by the expectations of others, and transcend our circumstances.

For me, there was never that final triumph nor day of reckoning with those who hurt me.  My hopes were shattered.  My identity crushed.  Those who caused my torment continued along their merry way and probably not with a second thought of how their attitudes impacted me.  They never did listen to me when I tried to escape from the box they had put me in.  But, nonetheless, I did emerge.  

The Scarlet Letters others forced us to wear may remain emblazoned on our chest.  However, we do not need to accept the meaning others have created for the symbol.  In the novel, Hester’s daughter, Pearl, became upset when her mother didn’t wear the letter.  For Pearl, the letter represented something other than shame.  It represented her loving mother, not sin.  That was a seed and very likely helped Hester to see her value beyond the opinions of the judgmental townsfolk.  And, eventually, what Hester became changed the meaning of the symbol even for those around her.

Our Perfection Is Not Purity

One of the inspirations for writing this blog was a conversation about matters of sexuality and shame.  My contention that the suffering of sexual abuse victims is a product of social expectations, as much as it is about the violation itself, and would be far less painful if we put less weight on perfection in terms of being ‘pure’ in a physical manner.

That’s where the shame comes in.  It comes from this idea that by being physically violated, or even touched consentingly by another person, we have somehow become worth less as a person than we were prior.  Of course, this is nonsense.  Our value does not come from physical purity, a person who was raped is no less beautiful or virtuous even if she does now feel differently about themselves as result.  It is this, this change in belief about oneself, that lingers long after the assault and is the real cause of suffering.  We are conditioned to see those who have been through this as damaged or defiled.

And that’s not to say that the assault does not do real lasting harm beyond what is physical either. No, rather that a rape survivor is going to be re-traumatized hearing a sermon about saving yourself for marriage. It is going to add to their fears of being disadvantaged and may actually stigmatize them when they really should be loved and treasured. That’s what purity culture does, it heaps shame on those who themselves may have done nothing wrong and often forgives those who should be held accountable.

While holding sexual abusers accountable, like we would anyone who takes what isn’t theirs to take, maybe we should also take on this idea that someone is forever tainted because of sexual intercourse and therefore a perpetual victim?

It isn’t the abusers that define the worth of a person as being their virginity nor is it the abuser who assigns the value to what happened.  No, we do that.  And one of the reasons why sexual abuse is so painful for those who were raised in a purity culture is because they are convinced that their own value is somehow decreased because of something that happened to them.

Jesus, even in dealing with those who had willfully sinned sexually, was completely gentle. 

Why? 

Well, it is because Jesus valued the individual for more than their physical ‘purity’ and past behavior.  Yes, he told the woman at the well, “go and sin no more,” but he did that for her sake.  Her lifestyle was not good for her and, unlike the proud religious elites who can admit no wrong, she was already humble enough to know her own shortcomings and want the change.

So, if Jesus could forgive those who sinned of their own volition, why should those who were violated by the sin of another feel as if they are somehow damaged goods?

If we actually believe that our righteousness comes from being clothed in Christ, made perfect in him, then why do we place so much value on the physical and the past?

To be clothed in Christ means that our negative experiences can be redefined.  No longer should the sins of the past (our own or by others) define who we are.  Instead, we are new creatures.  No, these things we have gone through are not removed, yet they can be redeemed and no longer a burden of shame that we carry, no longer a cause for self-pity or self-loathing, because our perfection does not come from our own abilities.  Our purity comes from the inside, through spiritual transformation, and no longer by the reputation others give us or regrets we have.

The Symbolism of the Cross

When Jesus was stripped naked, his flesh cruelly shredded by scourgings, battered and bruised, finally mocked under a sign “king of the Jews” while he suffered unimaginable anguish, the whole process was intended to humiliate and shame. 

He did not deserve the mistreatment nor was it a pleasant experience.  It was the sin of others that put him there.  It was a cross and a horrendous image of despair and death.  There nothing worthy of celebration in that.  But even this, intended to destroy him, could not.

Most of us, put through similar abuse, may curse God or at the very least we would not be in the mood to forgive those who torment us. 

Jesus, by contrast, did not let the circumstances define his character.  What they did to him was not a reflection of him nor could it be to his shame.  And, most importantly, they could not keep him in the grave as much as they tried.

As a result, the cross, this symbol of their hatred and abuse, has now become something we can look to for healing.  It is in the cross of Christ that we can see our worth as being more than what the crowd yells, more even than our broken physical body, and to have faith in God’s perfect justice.

Those ensnared in the world of sin and death, whether victims of abuse, self-declared advocates for victims or the abuser, cannot accept the message of the cross.  It is foolishness to them.  They are slaves of their twisted passions, prisoners of the past and bound to their own reasonings. And, for the victims who harbor grievance, their answer to being mistreated is always the same as what they feel was done to them. They want to take the marker of shame off of themselves and place it on those who harmed them.

But the message of the cross is that even shame itself can be defeated by the grace of God. Those clothed in His righteousness no longer have need to rank above their peers, no longer live for the acceptance of other people, and live for something altogether different from what many others strive for. No, rather than shrink in fear or fall into self-pity, they see their cross as something that is purifying, as the proving ground of their faith, and opportunity to serve.

If something as awful as the cross can be redefined to become a story of salvation, those letters we wear can also be changed in meaning and redeemed. We can be the Hester, in our own story, the one who proved that her character was about more than that one act those many years ago. In the end she was the better person, for what she went through, than those who had looked at her in judgment.

Going From Point A To Point B — Ten Big Steps In the Right Direction

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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.

Bhest, my precious bhest, gave me that clear direction of where I needed to go. I purchased my ticket in the spring of last year, brushed off my dusty passport, and planned this trip that would take me a full twelve timezones from home. And it was an amazing trip. It was absolutely wonderful to be embedded with her family during their holiday celebration a few months ago.

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)

Wow.

How profound.

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?

A Conservative Mennonite and Feminist Perspective…

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A conservative Mennonite friend of mine (female) asked me to read this letter and after reading it I asked her if I could publish it on my blog. Her perspective seemed worthwhile to share because she certainly is not the only one who sees some of the incongruity of expectations. I’m sympathetic for conservative women who grew up routinely lectured about protecting men from their impure thoughts and regularly reminded (albeit usually in more gentle manner) of an appropriate role of women that serves male interests. I know conservative parents who still discourage their daughters from receiving a useful education because they are apparently supposed to always be at home cooking, cleaning and caring for children. I recall a pastor who only seemed able to come up with picking the drapes as a decision his wife could make unaided by him. It is surprising that more women raised in such a setting aren’t saying “enough is enough” and finding a more hospitable environment, but just because many do not choose to leave doesn’t mean that they are unaware and these are the kinds of cultural concerns that should be addressed by those concerned about the future of the church. I used to wonder why some conservative Mennonite girls would completely drop all of the cultural standards overnight and leave never to return again. But I understand now that many Mennonite homes weren’t like the one that I was raised in…

______________________________ ,

Greetings! Your scheduled topic “Christian response to Feminism” really piqued my interest as issues surrounding female perception have been a great concern for me for the last nearly 2 years. I confess I am still struggling to find a resting place on this. It’s a deeply sensitive topic for some women, and addressing it has the potential to be either deeply refreshing, or to further solidify in a woman’s mind her reasons for her feminist views, especially when coming from a male.

May I be as bold as to say that there’s a reason for any heartfelt feminist tendencies a conservative Anabaptist woman may have, as she likely doesn’t have much feminist influence from friends, media, or literature. For myself, I began developing my own observations about the inconsistencies and ultimately dangerous effects of patriarchy in conservative culture. As I began grasping for answers, (tearfully, desperately) I was nearly horrified to discover I had so many marks of a true feminist! I was asking the same questions as these secular, assertive women! I had no prior influence of feminism, and certainly never aspired to be “one of those.” I always deemed them annoying, brash women who need to sit down and get back in their place. But I GET them. I understand why they have put their foot down and said “enough!” And to tell them to “stop being Feminist” would be completely ineffective at best. A true feminist doesn’t wake up one morning and decide to be one. It develops over years of feeling like she’s getting kicked around by the word, men in particular. Feminism is a defense mechanism. Not to say their reactions are without fault. Justified or not, All human beings have a tendency to defend themselves when hurt.

At times, I wonder where this burden for women developed for me because I didn’t have an abusive father, and my husband has been absolutely amazing in his efforts to understand my feelings. And that has meant so much to me! His humble, selfless leadership makes me want to be that vulnerable Prov. 31 woman. My father, however, was not so interested in listening to any “feely” stuff from a woman. I resented the way he expected my mother to serve him at every turn and had no regard for her schedule, etc. I saw how she cheerfully obliged. (She’s a saint!) I saw it as enabling him to be selfish. He wanted a huge family, but he wasn’t home much. I rarely ever saw him give back to my mom. But he’s a good guy because he goes to church, didn’t leave his wife, and provides (in excess) for his family. I’m sure he never meant to come off as self-centered…he’s simply a product of his culture.

Some women are perfectly content to have no significance besides wife and mother. Content to get up early Sunday mornings to make food, get the children dressed for church, then miss out on church because she’s feeding the baby. (while he drinks in spiritual nourishment) After church, the women scurry around to set out a beautiful lunch which the men enjoy and then retreat to the living room. The women then clean up the dishes, some with a child on her hip, all whilst the men enjoy a day of rest.

Me? I’m not ok with that. Not because I mind the work, but because of the existing mindset and the message it sends to our boys…“Women exist to serve men.” Can you imagine if your entire lifelong purpose as a man was to serve women, and any ambition beyond that was to take a back seat?

There are so many issues that could be discussed on roles and the way men perceive women. At times, I am frightened by what I see in our churches. We would agree that the Amish and Muslim cultures tend to suppress women with very high standards of modesty and conduct that don’t necessarily have a male equivalent. (Amish pants are not modest, and smoking is common!) And yet, they are known to have alarmingly high rates of rape and abuse. They clip the wings of their women and children so there is little contact with the outside world. It’s a ripe environment for every kind of abuse. Sometimes I fear we’re not too far behind.

We need to be very careful what messages we are conveying when we put a greater burden of responsibility on women than we do on men. For instance, why are some things more unacceptable for a woman to do than a man? Such as forsaking parental responsibility to go on leisure trips? One “upstanding” man’s response, when challenged about his hunting obsession, was “Well…at least I’m not visiting bars.” How low have our expectations fallen!? Can you imagine if his wife had given the same reply for neglecting her family responsibility? A woman must submit to her authority at all times, yet power struggles among men are common in the church. (Men are called to submit as well.) Why does it seem 95% of the time, in the case of marital infidelity in our circles, a man leaves his wife rather than a wife leaving her husband for another lover? And then she’s told it’s her fault for not being _________ enough. Answers!

If women are to be feminine, then let’s celebrate that! A friend of mine told me that her well-meaning husband wants all sons because girls just grow up and get married, and sons go out as warriors to make an impact on the world. That’s great, but how does that translate for females? Another friend told me that her (very conservative) Father-in-Law boldly declared that he wants all grandsons. Way to encourage femininity! Our church holds events where only males are expected to participate, and women spectate and watch the children. There are no events where men are to sit as spectators of exclusive women’s events. Honestly, as an ambitious, active, self-thinking woman, I feel as though I’m dying inside when it feels every outlet for expression (hobbies, ministry, using my gifts in business) is either frowned upon or stomped to death. It feels women are “set on a shelf” until needed, stuffed back in the kitchen so the “real world” can carry on, enjoying the fruits of our labors. It really is a man’s world.

I realize I run the risk of sounding whiney and downright awful “as becometh a godly Christian woman,” because Christian women should have no opinions, no passion, no voice, and no life besides wife and mother. But these are the themes I am hearing from many women who think they don’t have a voice, and feel powerless to change anything, “so we might as well grin and bear it.” You would never know because we do those Sunday duties with a smile and don’t complain. But I am sharing my honest feelings with you only to shed light on the issue of feminism as it pertains to a growing number of Anabaptist women.

We’ve come a long way since the dark ages where a man could leave the house and be gone for hours without having to say a word to his wife. We also find the Patriarchal model in the Old Testament, but it was so far from ideal. And when Jesus came, He elevated the status of women! Yes, world events have gotten worse since the 60s but they are better than Old Testament times!

I want to be clear that I fully adhere to the Biblical model for male/female relationship. I’ve always been fascinated by the “way of a man with a maiden” and longed for my prince charming even as a young girl. But it’s when those dreams of male chivalry turn to male chauvinism in reality that we begin asking questions about whether our system is God-honoring, or man-honoring. I am not advocating we do an overhaul on gender roles. The biggest concern is perception. How are females perceived by males, and what are we taught to believe about ourselves?

There are many wonderful men out there who are not out to conquer and subdue their women, but because of what they’ve come to believe about women, they assume that the patriarchal arrangement is just dandy, and I can’t blame them. They will never know differently if women don’t believe they have a right to lovingly tell them how they really feel. The Prov. 31 woman is actually much different than who we often make her out to be! She is buying and selling. She is ministering to others. Her arms are strong. She brings her food from afar. She doesn’t remind me of someone who stays within the 4 walls of her home, except for grocery trips. 🙂

The only cure for Feminism I can see is for women to feel safe under male servant leadership, to feel protected and valued as a human being…valued not for what she can offer a man (attractiveness, domestic talent, making babies…etc) but for who God created her to be…her unique purpose. Men who give to the marriage relationship by taking equal responsibility as a parent when present and valuing female perspective on important issues by asking her opinion. It takes a community of intentional, humble, sacrificial men to make women feel validated, secure, and significant in what God has called them to do as “fellow heirs together of the grace of life!”

I hope this is helpful information as you prepare your messages on the topic. This letter was approved by my husband. 🙂 If you have questions, we would be more than happy to talk! Also, feel free to share this letter with those who may benefit by it, but please omit my name. Thanks 🙂 Blessings as you serve the church!

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

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I’ve always respected my father as a leader.  I consider it a privilege to have his example of Christian leadership in my life.  He’s a man who leads by example.  He does his best to get the job done right and always treats those under him with respect.

We all interact with leaders.  Many direct from behind by telling others what to do rather than leading by example.  We know of the parents who demand that their children do as they say and then do not live up to their own standards.  We know about politicians and celebrities who lecture about social responsibility while living in mansions.

Jesus is a man who led by example.

Jesus never asked anyone to do anything for him that he would not do for them.  He asked only, “Follow me” and then provided his example as a means to lead those he called to salvation.

For this, Jesus was also a threat to the established religious and social order.  There are always those who are privileged by the established regimes and governing institutions.

A hierarchical system serves those at the top.

And yet Jesus (after sending a rich young ruler away disappointed) promises his followers in his kingdom that the current roles would be reversed:

Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:28‭-‬30)

Jesus repeats this maxim, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” at the end a parable in the next chapter.  In the parable, there are workers in the vineyard show up early and then cry “unfair” when those who show up later receive the same compensation.

That is not a message the religious elites and privileged classes want to hear.

I mean, they (and their ancestors) put their time in, and therefore they deserve the place of recognition and respect.  Follow the rules, earn the prize.  God was obviously blessing them for their careful religious devotion… right?

Then here comes this agitator, this Jesus, who dares to challenge and rebuke them.  Not only that, this provoker, he tells them the tables will be turned, roles will be reversed and their kingdom will be left desolate.

Jesus begins his sermon in Matthew 23 by taking direct aim at the unhelpful religious elites.

The text…

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:1‭-‬4)

There is a derisive tone to those words.  In one line Jesus tells his audience that they must respect those in the position of power and then in the next, he describes those who hold those positions of power in a way that could be considered disrespectful.

I do not take the advice Jesus gave to, “be careful to do everything they tell you,” as an endorsement of the rules.  I believe it is simply an acknowledgment of the real power they held.  To “sit in Moses’ seat” meant they could have you killed and that is pretty good reason to pay attention.

These religious elites, who saw themselves as better than everyone else, did not “practice what they preach”, according to Jesus.  They heaped on a “cumbersome loads” of standards and yet were not living up to what they preached.

This could mean a simple double standard: one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other people.  It might also indicate that they loved the “letter of the law” more than the Author of the law.

I believe it is the latter.

The “experts of the law and Pharisees,” we are told, “diligently” studied the Scriptures, thinking that in their to devotion to them they had eternal life (John 5:39) and the rich young ruler also claimed to have kept the commandments from boyhood.  There is every indication that these were devout and sincere people.

However, where the Pharisees went wrong was in what they prioritized.

Jesus prioritized people over the letter of the law.

Read Mark 2:3-283:1-6.

When a man was forgiven and healed, the Pharisees were more concerned with their interpretation of blasphemy laws than they were in the miracle.

The Pharisees were more concerned with looking righteous in the eyes of their religious peers than they were in the well-being of those of lower position who needed healing and salvation.

In questioning why the disciples of Jesus did not fast along with everyone else, there was a lack of understanding that unique circumstances can demand a departure from the normal religious routine.

Regarding the Sabbath they saw a rigid true-for-all-time black and white standard, but Jesus reminds them of when David’s servants violated the Sabbath and points to the humanitarian intent behind the law.

Jesus, in his anger against the legalistic thinking of the religious elites, heals a man on the Sabbath.  For this defiance of their tradition they began to plot how to kill him.

The law of the Pharisees is described as a “heavy” and “cumbersome load” by Jesus.  But, in describing his own way, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

While the religious elites would not risk contamination (as depicted in the story of the Good Samaritan) and were “not willing to lift a finger” to move the burdens they put on others, those who followed after Jesus were instructed:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

The self-righteous elites were about preserving their status and image by following a religious code and demanding others live up to it, while Jesus led by his example self-sacrifice and urged his followers to prioritize love for others over their tradition.

The letter of the law is indifferent to the real needs of people.  The law is uncompromising and cruel.  It does not care about the impossible burdens it placed on those less privileged and powerful.  The law condemns all people to death.

The Spirit, on the other hand, is a comfort and helper in our time of need; he brings grace to those who will receive it.  A true follower of Jesus walks according to the Spirit (Romans 8, Galatians 5) and will help to carry burdens and bring newness of life.

Jesus speaks against the attitudes of Mennonite religious elites today.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve been spared the worst that the Mennonite religious culture has to offer.  Yet, a lighter dose of the same wrong attitudes does surface from time to time.

My own experience with the uglier side of the denomination is pretty tame compared to what others have experienced.  In the conference I’m a part of (Keystone), we didn’t have the control-freak bishops playing “religious policeman” and constantly adding to the rules or micromanaging and excommunicating people who don’t fit the mold.

However, we do have the complacent unhelpful attitudes of those Jesus rebuked and the same resistance to change.  Many will only help in their religiously prescribed ways (words of encouragement, offered prayers, etc) but do not offer much burden-carrying outside the range of our established protocol.

Mennonite employers will often use their position to privilege themselves, nobly willing to move heaven and earth for their own families, but too often at the expense of employees and their families.  I know first-hand accounts of men who work less than bankers hours (for good pay) while expecting those under them to pick up the slack.

There can also be the attitude that those who aren’t as successful as we are did not try hard enough or otherwise “deserve” it.  We too often hold those raised outside of our communities to a standard we are only able to achieve because of our home and heritage.  We expect others to rise to our own level when we should be bringing ourselves down to theirs.

To follow Jesus means to give up our special privileges for the good and welfare of others.  It means to humble ourselves and lead the way he did in when he left heavenly glory to live and die for us.  We too must step down to meet people where they are and help them to carry their burdens.

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

That is how to be a Christian leader.