A Man Under Authority

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At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns transportation in the Philippines ground to a halt and left Charlotte with a dilemma. She had started a new job and didn’t want to lose her spot in this highly competitive market where the position would soon be filled. But how would she safely get there from her apartment?

A world away, and definitely sympathetic to her plight, I did not want my ‘bhest’ to throw away the time that she had spent training. She has studied for this new job diligently, had made me proud, and it was not an effort that I wanted her to sacrifice. However, I was also very much concerned about her well-being. Baguio City is not like small-town Pennsylvania, her uncle Roland had been murdered a little over a year ago, and it isn’t recommended to walk in the dark all alone.

How was I supposed to advise her?

In the absence of a firm understanding of all of the dynamics of her circumstances, not wanting to impose too much on her autonomy and push her one way or another, I equivocated. My answer was a meandering non-answer where I expressed my thought that she should do what she could, within reason, to keep her new job. But then, I also restated the risk of her attempting to go try to find a way, in the early morning hours, with the uncertainty of the shutdowns.

She would do what she knew was appropriate, all things considered, right?

Then, in the early evening, her morning, I received her call and was greeted by Charlotte’s harried voice. She had decided, interpreting my indecisive words as an encouragement to go, to set off for work by foot, in the darkness, and was now a little spooked. And, obviously, in no position to offer any form of physical protection.

Now I was both worried and feeling guilty, I had failed in leadership, she had sought my direction and my non-committal tendencies had seriously endangered her.

Anyhow, we were debating, should she continue on or go back when the call abruptly dropped. I tried to call and nobody picked up. She did not respond to messages either. Now, service is spotty in some parts of the city, all of those steep inclines and valleys, and we will routinely need to call again. But this time around there was silence. No message, no nothing. What happened? Something horrible, unthinkable? I tried to keep those thoughts minimized, and prayed, as the minutes became an hour.

As it turns out, she had made her way to work, after the cell service had got spotty, and went right to her duties having arrived a bit late.

All is well that ends well?

But that whole episode made me think very seriously about my role in Charlotte’s life. Had something gone terribly wrong that day, wouldn’t I bear some of the responsibility? She wanted my input, invited me to help her to decide and I refused to offer the clear guidance she needed. That is not a mistake that I wish to repeat. Leaders are called upon to make decisions and should not be neglectful of their duties.

What Does It Mean to Be a Man Under Authority?

The blog title phrase, “a man under authority,” comes from this Gospel account:

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.” Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

(Matthew 8:5‭-‬13 NIV)

There is so much going on in that passage that it is very easy to miss the commentary on what makes this man’s faith, a pagan soldier, greater than that of an entire religious nation. This detail, while overshadowed by the response of Jesus, seems to be an extremely significant and is context completely necessary for understanding the statement about “great faith” that follows directly after it. What was it about this man that made him such an extraordinary and commendable example of faith?

The answer, of course, is that he was “a man under authority,” a soldier able to both give orders and also to take orders. He, a good soldier, understood his place, that he was a part of something bigger than himself and was, therefore, able to submit to those in positions of authority greater than his own. He, unlike the faithless Israelites who rejected the authority of Jesus, saw someone who was doing extraordinary things, had a need, had faith, and went to him for help. He realized that the word of Jesus had authority, like that of a military commander, and trusted.

So a pagan soldier knew more about faith than all of the unruly religious snobs who thought of themselves as God’s chosen people and yet rejected that same divine authority come in human flesh when they should have believed. Unlike the Roman centurion, who submitted to something bigger than himself as a way of life, as a soldier, they were too arrogant, elitist, and pig-headed. These sanctimonious religious zealots claimed to have faith in God, but really only believed in their own authority and supposed right to rule.

It is, incidentally, why these unbelieving rebellious hypocrites would eventually get crushed by Rome despite having the fortification of Jerusalem. They, rather than unite against their common enemy, even fought for supremacy amongst themselves, within the walls of the city, rather than submit to each other and do what needed to be done. Sure, they all may have claimed God as their authority, but they truly lacked faith and, for this reason, were routed by the well-disciplined Roman soldiers who did know how to fall into rank and fight together as a unit. A Roman soldier understood that falling under authority was necessary to win battles. They could overcome superior numbers because of their discipline.

Abuse, Neglect and the Leadership Gap

A man unwilling to submit to those whom God ordained is unfit to lead. There are many who fall on this side of the spectrum in the Protestant church, men who demand that their own wives and families submit to their own “headship” in the home while absolutely refusing to fall under the greater authority of the church. It is very little wonder that women and children, raised under such hypocrisy, end up following in this example of rebellion rather than submit. A true leader is someone who leads by example, is someone willing to sacrifice their own privilege, even their life, both for the greater authority and those under their protection. A man who cannot submit to those above or before him and also demands the respect of others below or after him is in it for his own personal gain. They are not leading as Christ led. Period.

However, there’s another type of man, equally unfaithful, possibly in overreaction to the controlling hypocrites, who neglects his duties. He, in his passive approach, also disobeys the authority of God and leaves those under his roof vulnerable. In reality, this kind of leader is as much (or more) in rebellion against his own head (Christ) than the abusive hypocrites. Sure, he may claim that his easy-going and tolerant approach is to demonstrate Christian love. However, that is a lie. Men who refuse to lead, as commanded, force others into chaotic and dangerous situations.

My reluctance to offer clear direction could be some of my own natural disposition and a tendency to be indecisive. It also could be in reaction to patriarchal abuse. I did not want to be one of those domineering and controlling men. I would rather empower others to make their own decisions. But, that is the positive spin, my equivocating was also a product of not wanting to take responsibility for the decision. Instead of putting someone at ease who was looking for advice, by offering them something concrete, a clear “I think you should stay home to avoid the risk,” I forced Charlotte to guess what I truly wanted and made her vulnerable. It was neglectful, weak, and not any better than the patriarchal abuse on the other end of the spectrum.

Yes, a good leader empowers those under them. But this empowerment comes from their offering a hedge of protection, through loving guidance, rather than throw them to the wolves of anxiety, doubt, and indecision.

This running joke about a man asking his wife, “where do you want to eat?” and getting an ambiguous non-committal answer, demonstrates this. This is supposed to highlight a tendency of women, but also perfectly describes a male weakness. It is actually both a symptom of a faithless people pleaser (ie: Adam disobeyed God to eat the apple because Eve handed it to him) and plain old laziness. It takes effort to lead. Sure, the man could’ve taken some time to contemplate what restaurant options there were, came up with his own preference, and then presented the list to his significant other. But it was far easier for him to put her in the hot seat and then pretend that the indecision was her problem.

Male lack of leadership, at least when leadership requires sacrifice, is a chronic issue. Many men need a good hard elbowing in the ribs, like Mary urging Jesus “do something” when the wine ran low at the wedding of Cana, or they will never step up to the plate. Ironically, it does often take a woman to bring out a man’s strength. And yet the chances of a linguini-spined sad excuse of a man getting married or landing a date is in the negative. Most women want to be heard. However, if they wanted a faithful companion and follower, a creature that waited attentively on their every whim or never offered any kind of loving direction, they would get a dog.

Weak Non-commital Men Need Not Apply…

There is this misconception, in this democratic age of female ’empowerment’ and feminism, that sameness of roles will lead to happiness. Many have confused equality of rights or opportunity with the sameness of roles, responsibilities, and outcomes. Both men and women, in this paradigm, have been done a great disservice.

As a reformed “nice guy” who refused to lead for fear of stepping on toes, then complained how women would choose those arrogant self-serving jerks instead, I’ve learned that there is a third and better option.

Women don’t actually want a “yes man” and will, in fact, run from men with insecurities. Sure, they may complain about the opposite extreme, of an overconfident and domineering male specimen, some of those abused by men will decry “toxic masculinity” and find a pushover excuse for a man to feel safe. But most women long for the security of a man that both listens to them and knows who he is enough to kindly tell them when they are wrong. It is sad, this composite of strength and gentleness, of meekness, is a rarity in this world of feminized men and overcompensating fools, but a man who gets it right is irresistible.

There is nothing in this world more pathetic than a man devoid of passion and, rather than take the risk of responsibility, waits on others to make decisions for him. A man who speaks with authoritative power is attractive. Nobody wants that milquetoast, weasel-worded, and non-committal “nice guy,” and too often this display is little more than a lame attempt to curry favor with the female gender anyway. Women want, and frankly need, a man who can say what he means and mean what he says. No, not an authoritarian, not a man lacking in the humility to be wrong either, but someone with the wisdom and discernment that comes from life experience. The man without passion never goes outside of what is familiar and comfortable, is afraid to fail, and has nothing to offer that is uniquely masculine.

I can most certainly understand the frustration of single men. The world is full of mixed media. On one hand, women are demanding power and control for themselves, on the other hand, they are showing up in the millions to watch movies like “50 Shades of Grey” about the perverse and abusive sexual domination of a woman. Secular women fantasize about a “Handmaid’s Tale,” even wear this weird costume as a protest of the patriarchy, and yet these same women apparently long for a government that can exercise absolute control and will keep them safe. It is contradictory and exasperating. Men are told things like “must be 5′-10″ or taller to ride” and then also told not to objectify women. It is a hot mess.

I ran into a different version of this impossible expectation in conservative Mennonite women. They are reminded, ad nauseam, about women needing to submit to men. They are deathly afraid of being stuck with some dude who will stifle their dreams, is unworthy of their respect, and holds the trump card of submission over them. This pushes normal female choosiness to a whole different level. The only control they have is the veto before a relationship even begins. Like the young woman who lamented not being able to pick her own clothes after marriage. Insane! Is it any wonder that many are terrified to date and some flee to leave this nonsense behind?

Here’s a hint: If your religious culture needs to continually pound instruction to women to submit, then you’re 100% without-a-doubt doing it wrong.

In the end, most women do not thrive with a man who isn’t a man. Sure, some women who suffered abuse may gravitate to weak and ineffectual men, as to be in control. But most men value a man who is strong, who is able to protect them from threats (both physical and emotional); one that both listens intently and speaks with a comforting authority that is rare in this tumultuous time. I mean, not every man is cut out to be Keanu Reeves. We can’t all be six feet tall and appear to be chiseled from rock either. However, a man should learn to be reliable and committed, unselfish, and protective.

Christ the Paradox…

Leadership is not about calling the shots, being the boss, or the big man in charge. It does not stifle or rob others of their autonomy and ability to speak to things that matter to them either. No, rather it is being Christ-like, being the strength, and an example of self-sacrificial love, to those more vulnerable. The kingship of Christ is not tyrannical nor passive, firm or gentle depending on the need, he both knew how to submit unto death and also how to speak in an authority unrivaled. He’s both lamb and lion, teacher of the faithful and protector of the flock, merciful to the sinner, and a judge of all.

One of the most interesting icons portraying Jesus is called the “Pantocrator” (Greek for Almighty) shows his face with two different halves. One half shows the compassionate Good Shepherd, giving a blessing, the other shows a stern expression of a mighty ruler. It is very interesting when you cover one half of his face and see the contrast. Many today seem to follow after their own hippy-Jesus, a “you do you” bro dude, but that is not the man we see in Scripture who confronted and will judge the world. He’s Lord of all. That teacher and judge is the image below:

Pantocrator

That in mind, Jesus, while sometimes giving a sharp rebuke, also did not simply bark orders at the disciples while refusing to fall under authority. No, he was also in submission to his own head, the God the Father. One of the most profound statements in Scripture, given the divinity of Christ, is this, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

I’m not sure how all of that works, how someone can be both fully human and fully God. But we do know that Jesus, the man, had to submit to God the Father and with that led by example.

Ultimately, the example of leadership Jesus showed is one of self-sacrificial love. Jesus was a man with divine authority, but also a man under authority and willing to suffer for the good of others. He did not lead in a spirit of entitlement nor use his authority to privilege himself at the expense of those under his leadership. He protects his flock, he is their advocate and defender. He prayed alone while his disciples slept. He suffered and died for our salvation rather than take the easy way out. A man following in the example of Christ steps up to the plate. He does his job without complaining. Taking full responsibility for those under his care. He commands respect due to his character, not because he demands it and, like a good soldier, is a man under authority.

Charlotte needs me to man up, take responsibility and not be a pathetic mess of excuses and equivocation. But I can’t expext her to respect me if I’m simply doing everything for myself, addicted to substances or even just my own selfish ambitions. She should have a man who is confident, in his place, and offers her security rather than leave her feeling uncertain. A good man, a true Christian leader, gives others a place to thrive.

As a final thought, men must be allowed to grow into their leadership role, a man never given a chance can’t show his potential. And sometimes those men who appear to have it all together in their teens and twenties aren’t all that they seem. Look at Judas compared to Peter. Judas had his act together, he was trusted with the money, had all the answers, yet betrayed Jesus at the end and took his own life rather than accept his failure. Peter also denied Christ three times. But, unlike Judas, he repented and became the leader of the church. So, don’t lose hope simply because you are not where you want to be and don’t try to do things on your own strength either. We are not worthless nor are we gods, but we are soldiers of faith and only as ever as worthy as the authority we are under.

Missing Mennonites and Misallocation of Care

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I recall my tears shed after the Nickel Mines school massacre, an incident where a man decided to take his disgruntlement out on some Amish girls, shooting them in the head one by one, before taking his own life. They were targeted, no doubt, for their innocence and vulnerability, what normal person would not be deeply troubled by such horrendous thing?

My emotion was wholly appropriate, especially for someone living in Lancaster County at the time, and yet was quite a bit different from my response to other very similar incidents. For example, when a deranged individual slaughtered dozens at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I did not shed a tear. I can’t tell you exactly why that is, it was very similar to the public school that I had attended and a child is a child, but somehow I was simply more removed from the tragedy and had to contemplate why I would value the Amish girls higher than those other children.

20061002_115450_ND03_amish2

Of course, the key to understanding this is my identity: 1) I was born and raised Mennonite, 2) the Amish are the slightly more peculiar religious cousins of Mennonites and, 3) as someone with an Amish surname, they are actual (albeit distant) cousins in my case. Sure, I had never met those girls nor did I know their particular families, but I could certainly identify with their culture. I could see something of my own childhood, of my family and of my religious identity in them, I mourned my own loss of innocence as much as their suffering a terrible evil.

Sandy Hook, by contrast, while tragic and as terrible, involved people who were less connected to me and thus my reaction was more muted. It just was not as personal to me and therefore I did not feel the same depth of pain. Had I known a child in the school my reaction would have been quite a bit different and perhaps a bit more like the day the child of a close friend died—that is simply the reality of our limited human perspective: One death, if it is made personal to us, will overrule the millions worldwide who have died in similar circumstances.

“A single death is a tragedy; A million deaths is a statistic.”

For Better Or Worse, Nobody Loves Everyone

Many Americans, back in the days when bumper stickers were more common, had “God bless America” message stuck to the backs of their automobile. It was one of those ways a person could show their care for all of their American neighbors and regardless of party affiliation, religious identity, country of origin or gender. Nearly all reading that message (given that it was displayed on American soil and not shared worldwide) shared that same identity and thus should have felt equally blessed by the message.

However, there is that small, but hyper-competitive segment of the population, who (like Topper in the Dilbert cartoon above) simply can’t appreciate what other people appreciate and are determined to outdo their neighbors with their superior virtue. It is that spirit that seems to be behind the bumper stickers in retort to the “God bless America” variety, and proclaiming with great piety: “God bless the whole world, no exceptions!”

Of course, that “no exceptions” part at the end is necessary in case their less sophisticated neighbors, who only expressed love for those actually present and able to read the message, wouldn’t catch the drift.

It has made me wonder, does that same person never tell their spouse or significant other that they love them specifically?

Wife: “I love you, Barry!”

Husband: “I love all women, including you!”

Nothing smug or sanctimonious about that, nope, nothing at all demeaning of the other person either, it is simply a man with a far bigger love than that which can be exclusively reserved for one particular woman and is therefore extended to all women in the world.

Right…

Anyhow, I question if someone who claims to love everyone actually loves anyone.

Yes, certainly, the “God so loved the world” of John 3:16 doesn’t exclude anyone. We are also told that following after Jesus means that our loyalties to our family are secondary (Luke 14:26) to our calling to bring God’s love to the world. Still, we are also told that a man who doesn’t provide for his own family is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8) and also see love expressed for particular groups and individuals. So God loving the world doesn’t mean that our own love is not especially for some. In fact, while we are instructed to do good to all people, there is also special emphasis given:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Galatians 6:9‭-‬10 NIV)

Love starts locally. Loving our neighbors means caring about those who cross our paths, preferring those right in front of us over some theoretical duty to all of humanity that is never made manifest in real life. In the story of the good Samaritan, remember, it was those who were too important or thinking of responsibilities down the road, who didn’t attend to the suffering soul beside the path of their greater ambitions. In other words, it is the simpleton, with heart, who stops to help you jump start your car and not the self-important pretentious snob, with a global vision and yet can’t see what is right in front of them.

Bottom line: It is good to love those who are close to us and even to prefer investing in those who, like us, are members of the household of faith. If a person cannot especially love their neighbors across the street, whom they have met, then how could they possibly love those whom they have never met around the world?

For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20‭ NIV)

Of Igorot and Mennonite Tribes…

When uncle Roland, a man I had met during my stay in the Philippines, disappeared and was later found murdered in an empty lot, the call for justice went out across social media. It spread like wildfire amongst a certain part of the Filipino population and that being the members of his Igorot tribe. The amazing part is that this collective effort very quickly located the stolen van and only potential lead for this vicious crime. The people who located the van? They were Igorots too, they happened to be on holiday in the “low lands” and spotted the abandoned vehicle.

Mennonites, like Igorots, also take notice when one of their own is missing or harmed. There have been several cases over the past few years that have exploded across the Mennonite online community and made a few individuals into household names. I mean who, in the Menno-sphere, can forget that young married couple, Marco and Mary Ann Kauffman, his life cut tragically short by home invader? Or the disappearance, and later reappearance, of Rodney Sweigart? When a Mennonite is in trouble it is natural that others of their religious tribe, even those who have moved on, respond with extra care and concern.

I was reminded of this once again when I could not resist sharing the story of a young woman, Sasha Krause, who vanished from a Mennonite outpost in Farmington, New Mexico.

Dozens of similar posts about missing persons have crossed my newsfeed, there is likely very little that my sharing (as someone on the other end of the country) will do to help, and yet there is this sort of tribal solidarity that compels me to take an interest, to be somehow involved and share. This young woman could as easily be my sister, my cousin, or any of the number of young Mennonite women whom I know and care about.

Tribal identities, like family identities, are a good thing in that they provide individuals with the protection of a group. The world we live in can be a very rough place and not a place that is very easily navigated alone. We, in the developed world, have a wide range of social programs that attempt to fill individual needs, but the best efforts that government put forward rarely come close to what can be offered by a community of those who share a religious, cultural or tribal identity in common. We have finite resources and prefer to distribute them amongst those who share our common biological heritage or cause.

The Two-edged Sword of Tribally Allocated Care…

Both Jesus and St Paul showed a heightened concern for those who shared their religio-cultural background. They certainly did not hold back in terms of criticism. In fact, their commentary on their Jewish people could be very easily misconstrued into anti-Semitism and very soon was quickly used that way once the Scripture became a subject of individual interpretation in the wake of the Protestant movement in Europe.

Likewise, when a concern goes viral on social media, especially when it involves a particular religious minority group, the feedback can quickly turn very negative. Prejudice can rear its ugly head, those with an ax to grind see an opportunity to promote their own grievances. There are always those who had an unfortunate encounter with that particular tribal group and it was the only bad thing that ever happened to them. So, in the minds of these offended folks, that tribe has become the root of all evil and representative of everything bad in the world. Those full of toxic bitterness will, in the guise of empathy and concern, sow their seeds of destruction.

Very rarely does publicly broadcast dirty laundry do much good when it comes from a tribal outsider without a real or personal connection to those involved. When you leave a tribe you pretty much lose any credibility within the tribe, you have made yourself an outsider by rejecting the group identity and therefore your opinion does not need to be taken seriously by the in-group anymore. To those in that in-group you will be viewed with suspicion, as an external threat to their group cohesion, and summarily dismissed. I’m not saying that is how it should be, that’s just how it is, people do not like judgments coming in from the outside and react defensively in most cases.

Tribal identities very often come with tribal obligations. Those who are showered with concern from within the tribe, even those who did not ask for it, in many cases are expected to give something back in return. Tribes have a sort of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” arrangement that can go terribly wrong when the devotion to an individual from the tribe does not match the commitment that is reciprocated or vice versa. Feeling betrayed by your own is some of the deepest pain a person can feel. Indeed the world is a very lonely place for those who have been neglected or abandoned by those whom they expected would love them.

But, worse than that, tribes, while easily able to spot sin in all other tribes, too often shelter their own abusers or never see their own shortcomings as a group. Some tribes will, too often, send into exile those who dare to confront or challenge their status quo of the group. This is one thing Mennonites and motorcycle gangs have in common, albeit in different forms, the criminals enforce a “snitches get stitches” code” and too often Christian denominations misallocate forgiveness (for only those who have learned how to exploit their system) rather than follow the order of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:13: “Expel the wicked person from among you!”

There is also something more insidious when tribes become too insular or only concerned with protecting their own and that being their lack of care for those that are outside of their identity group. This misallocation of care is up last on my list, but it is certainly not the least as far as things that should concern a Christian.

Tribal Misallocation of Care…

I understand why people prefer their own families and tribes. It is something we are biologically hardwired to do. Religions are forced to hijack familial language, like “brother” and “sister,” in reference to fellow members in hopes of capturing that level of relationship within their ranks.

I’ve observed (and years before a book with Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria in the title) that my high school cafeteria would segregate along racial lines.

Tribalism has long frustrated me as a force of division and strife. What side of the OJ Simpson case someone came out on, for example, had much to do with a person’s race. The evidence available was the same, yet 67% of black Americans (polled in 1995) thought Simpson was innocent while a vast majority of whites saw him as guilty, that gap has since narrowed. But what that shows is how our perspectives are skewed by our tribal identities and the potential for terrible injustice this presents. The same is true of other identity divisions, such as gender or political affiliation, we tend to see only what is good for our tribe.

Over the past few years wished that I could somehow harness some of the tribal love that is on display in the various GoFundMe campaigns involving one identity group or another. An American, with the right group connections, can easily raise thousands or even hundreds of thousands and despite having insurance, government programs, etc. Meanwhile, a far greater need overseas will often only get a mediocre response because the people don’t look like us, we don’t know them, or simply cannot identify with their struggles being too far removed. That and, given the number of scams out there, we can’t trust outsiders.

Still, we should consider those less fortunate, those less fortunate than the unfortunate members of our own tribes, and love them too. That is the greater implications of Christian love, that our love will erase some of those disparities in care. If we truly believe Galatians 3:28, that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female,” and that we (as a church) “are all one in Christ Jesus,” then will we ever be satisfied with misappropriation of care based in those listed identities? Can a person be a feminist, a nationalist or an activist for lessor identity groups and a Christian?

When a Mennonite goes missing or is harmed it is easy to understand why other Mennonites take special notice. The idea of having equal love for all of humanity, even those whom you never met, is silliness. That said, when our tribal identities mean indifference or lack of equal empathy for other people whom we encounter who are outside of our group, then we are also putting our Christian identity second. It means we have made an idol of ourselves, our own identity, and should consider the words of Jesus:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. (Luke 6:32‭-‬34 NIV)

Tribal Expansion…

Love starts locally, it means loving our own tribes. We must learn to love our own, those close to us are sometimes the most difficult to love or hardest to hold accountable. We should love our Trump-supporting neighbors as much as we love the Congolese refugee, the Democrat party loyalist as much as we do the unborn. Christian love has a global reach, it must reach across partisan lines, and should always make us wish to expand the borders of our tribe.

I believe Jesus would weep as much for Muslim children killed by a drone strike as I did for those Amish girls. God loves the missing or exploited Filipino worker overseas, who is only known by their family, as much as the Mennonite online community hopes for the safe return of Sasha Krause. We have our favorites, but God does not.

Christian love, in purest form, turns a world full of misfits and outsiders into one family where everyone belongs and nobody is left behind.

The NEED For Loving Touch

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A few years ago mom and sister, sensing my need for physical touch, made giving me a hug on Sunday evenings as I left for home and another week out on the road. It was a small gesture, a single suture on a gaping wound of loneliness and years of an unmet need for more intimate human relationship, but—nevertheless—it was something that kept me at least partially sane.

Not everyone is the same in regard to how they handle isolation. However, it is known that solitary confinement is extremely detrimental psychologically and is equivalent to torture for some. It is even worse for children deprived of healthy touch and, according to research, babies in orphanages with inadequate human interaction die at a rate of 30 to 40% and even survivors of the negligence often suffer terrible life-long consequences as a result.

We live in a culture that celebrates connectivity and social media. Unfortunately, those things, seeing words on a screen or having a “friends” list of thousands, do not fill the void or need for real physical interactions and touch. When my hopes of meaningful human connection faded away with another crushing rejection my mind slid back into solipsism—the ultimate aloneness, a disconnect from belief in anything outside of my own mind or imagination—the nightmarish hell put into words by Trent Reznor:

Yes I am alone
But then again I always was
As far back as I can tell
I think maybe it’s because
Because you were never really real
To begin with

I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
And it worked
Yes it did

The reality is that healthy people live for connection and survive periods of aloneness on their hopes of future intimacy and interactions. We were created for relationship, both with each other and with the one who walked with Adam in the garden. It is through relationships that we gain our personhood and purpose. The lack of real community, of physical touch and healthy interaction, has come at a great cost and, sadly, few seem ready to take the necessary action to change this for those most in need.

Some of the reason for this neglect is a misconception about the true meaning of the Gospel message…

“All you need is Jesus”

This is one of those religious clichés that is true in one sense, yet is completely untrue the way some people use it and is often nothing more than an excuse for their real indifference.

People need more than words to thrive.

Yes, we do not live by bread alone and we always depend wholly on God’s grace at all times. However, that doesn’t mean we do not have need of food, clothing, shelter or many other things that make our life complete.

Those who spiritualize and who dismiss the human needs of others should be locked for a week in a box naked, without food or sunlight, and then they can discuss what “all you need is Jesus” means to them as someone who was without anything else.

For those who think their offering mere words about an abstraction of Jesus are an indication of their faith and is doing enough, I will offer the words of James:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

If I could have a dollar for all the times that people expressed sympathy for my circumstances, and then assured me that things would magically work out for me without doing anything to help, I would probably be a millionaire. The whole book of James tells me that such people who do not offer anything in the form of concrete help, despite what they might profess, do not really know Jesus and are still in need of salvation themselves. Christian faith that does not express itself in meeting needs both spiritual AND PHYSICAL is not real Christian faith.

“The word became flesh…”

One of the deficiencies of the theological indoctrination that I received in the denomination of my birth was a lack of explanation for the full significance of incarnation. Incarnation tends to be explained as a historic event, that Jesus provided an example to follow, and yet very little is said about the what this says about the human condition and need for touch.

The incarnation, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, is the centerpiece of what John says at the start of his Gospel account and is something that has great significance as far as how it relates to church life. Jesus came so that the Spirit, something not physically defined and the same Spirit “hovering” over the waters in the Genesis creation narrative, could be made one with human flesh and so that through that we also (the church together as the “body of Christ”) could become the incarnation of Christ.

This idea that the Gospel is about an abstraction, some kind of spiritual experience or journey and theological/theoretical construct that has little to offer in physical substance, is wrong. It is part of the issue that early Anabaptists would’ve had with Luther and Protestantism. It is also something Orthodox Christians cannot accept. There is no salvation without incarnation. We cannot live the Chrisitan life alone or without real and tangible love for other Christians.

Christianity is something that must be communal, it must involve actual physical interaction with other members of the body and our partaking of the real flesh and blood of Christ together with other believers, or it is not real. Faith is, as James clearly says, something that changes how we interact with each other in the material world, it should remove barriers (like favoritism or separations within the body between higher and lower social/religious/economic tiers) and make us do something about the physical needs of other Christians.

Feeding people with platitudes does not make you Christ-like or spiritually-minded. No, it is only living in denial of the needs of others, profoundly unloving and disobedience. Yes, certainly, the point of Christianity goes well-beyond mere humanism or making the world a better place to live for others. The kingdom is something that cannot be defined in the material world. That said, Christianity without any fleshing out or being an incarnation of the Spirit ourselves, like Christ, in our Communion together and providing for the physical needs of others is truly not Christianity anymore.

Those who spiritualize physical needs really should consider the question of why Jesus came in the first place. Why didn’t God just send his good news message on tablets of gold from heaven?

The answer is that our body is not something bad or that God has given up on. We are not a mind with a body as many seem to perceive themselves. No, the body and mind are as interwoven as soul and spirit. Sure, you may be able to intellectually conceptualize things like love and theorize about salvation. But the reality is that we do have physical needs, what happens to our bodies does have an impact on our minds, and thus we should take care of our own bodies and also be concerned with the physical well-being of our fellow Christians. The incarnation is important because we are creatures of flesh and with real physical needs. We need other Christians to flesh out Christ today for the same reason Thomas needed to touch the wounds of Jesus to know that he had truly conquered death.

Not just talk, touch…

There is no shortage of advice in the world and much of it unsolicited. Tell a person about your needs and you are bound to get an earful of their opinions. They, like those who claimed faith without works, think that they can talk away your problems and/or need a way to dismiss your needs when you do not take their bad advice. They can say, “Well, he should just listen to me and then things might go better.”

Jesus condemns this sort of aloofness:

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

That is not to say that we should never give any weighty advice. However, when our advice is not accompanied by helpful action, then it will simply be adding another burden to someone already struggling under the weight of life. Having real faith, embodying Christ, means offering real substantive help to those who ask. Again, there might be a place for speaking against sin, there is also a good case to be made for teaching people how to help themselves, yet we also need to get our own hands dirty sometimes and help to dig people out of the mire they are in or at least lift their load until they can get their feet under them again.

Jesus said, “Give to those who ask” (Matthew 5:42) And, given that he does offer himself to anyone who asks, it is very likely meant those words take be taken literally. He didn’t say only to give what rationally makes sense to you at the time, he doesn’t say to give only money or time, he tells us to give and our willingness to give is the true measure of our faith. It is our job, as Christians, to give of ourselves for the salvation of others, that is what marriage is about and why we should attend church—and be all the more involved when those in the church need Jesus more than we do.

The point of Christianity is to be part of the body of Christ, to do what he did for others and the “greater things” he promised would come as a result of his leaving. We are to touch and heal the wounded like he did.

The need for non-sexual physical touch…

In many parts of the world, it is not unusual for men to hold hands with other men nor a scandal for men and women to exchange a familial kiss. But somehow here, in the United States, we have managed to sexualize everything and this is especially true fundamentalist Mennonite/Protestant sects. In fact, I have had a young woman from such a setting, in her early twenties as I recall, worried about somehow defiling herself just to be in my physical presence and unsupervised. And that, needless to say, made the conversation extremely awkward.

This aversion to touch does not seem to be found in Scripture. Jesus healed using physical touch, he allowed a woman to wash his feet with her hair and there is (at least according to less sanitized translations) a description of a disciple “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13:23) while they ate in a reclined posture. There is no indication in Paul’s letters that the “holy kiss” was a gendered practice, he mentions both men and women in his list of those to greet, nor that it was only for their time. It certainly doesn’t seem like physical touch was such a big deal for Jesus and early Christians.

Consider the following:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. (Matthew 9:27‭-‬30b NIV)

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12‭-‬13 NIV)

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:15‭-‬16 NIV)

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. (Matthew 17:5‭-‬8 NIV)

And did I mention that Jesus touched?

That last passage, in particular, may give us some of the reason why the incarnation matters. We need more than an abstraction, more than a book or voice from heaven, we need touch. The church, as the hands and feet of Jesus, needs to be physically intimate in the same way that Jesus was to those he loved. There is healing in touch, it is healthy to touch, and Jesus touched.

Touch is good and right.

The need for good old-fashioned sex…

The person, responding to my prior blog about a failure in faith and relationship, had mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (something that I alluded to in an early blog) and how people, to reach their full potential, need food, water, shelter, clothes, and sex. They put special emphasis on sex because it is something that the spiritualizers (aka modern-day gnostics) would say sex doesn’t matter much and/or is something almost bad even in the context of marriage.

I recall being upset with a psychiatrist for describing my interest in a young woman as being sexual attraction. It was jarring to me at the time. How dare they describe my pure and lofty intentions in such a base manner? I’m not an animal! As obvious as sexual motives are now, looking back in retrospect, I truly was in complete denial then and still have difficulty now being honest about my strong desire for sex.

In fact, I had to be reminded recently that sex, within the marriage context, is something scared and thus my desire for that is not something to be ashamed of or hide.

So why did I hate and conceal this desire to the point that I didn’t even consciously recognize my motivations anymore?

Talk to anyone outside of a religious purity culture and they will be dead honest about their sexual desires. I too would never say that sex is a bad thing even while in denial of my own motivations. But, because sexuality is often discussed in negative terms, and because there was no healthy outlet for my sexual urges for all these years and also knowing that many conservative Mennonite girls share this same shameful view of sex, burying these desires seemed the only option. I mean what kind of God-fearing woman would marry a guy who openly admitted his mixed sexual and spiritual motives?

Unfortunately, this view of sex as being bad (or a shameful compromise) is completely unhealthy and needs to be addressed.

Scripture tells us “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22) and, it is important to realize, marriage is a sexual union. The idea of “two will become one flesh” includes sex and part of that “good” a man finds in a wife. The apostle Paul, while encouraging celibacy for some, says (in 1 Corinthians 7) that those who “burn with passion” should marry rather than fall into sin. He also said that married couples should not deprive each other of sexual relations for an indefinite period of time. So maybe it is time for a more affirming and positive presentation of sexual desire?

Dividing sexual touch from the sacred is unhealthy and wrong. The marital bed is sacred. Sex, in the right context, is not shameful. Most people need this kind of physical intimacy to reach their full potential and thrive. It is not lustful or a sin to want sex. Sex is something we are made for, it is part of God’s original design and something good—we might as well be open and honest about it!

True connection is a human need…

Not everyone has the same need for intimacy and touch. However, a person doesn’t really know their need of something until it is taken away along with any hope of it. Those who minimize the importance or need for real physical connection with other people probably aren’t those who have been without it for long periods of time.

I believe, as a nearly forty-year-old virgin and one who has experienced years of physical isolation, that this is a big problem that is not being addressed. I believe it is especially a problem for men who have no healthy outlet for physical touch. It is not as culturally taboo for women to touch or at least it is not unusual to see teenage girls hanging all over each other. However unmarried men, who need touch to be healthy just like a woman does, are often left to their own devices—alone, unneeded and unappreciated.

But I digress, both men and women need physical touch and to feel loved.

For those with their own physical needs met, even just keeping singles/widows/widowers involved and regularly invited to dinner with your family is a good start. I know that this, even as a token gesture, helped me have a more positive outlook on life as much as it happened. In fact, my being welcomed into homes in this way by a Charity-ish church every time I visited was nearly enough for me to overlook my differences with their perspectives of theology and application. Something real and tangible is better than nothing at all. And love—genuine, self-sacrificial and materially real love—truly does cover a multitude of sins:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:8-10)

It is not enough to wish a brother or sister well who is starving or naked. Likewise, it is not enough to tell those who desire to be needed and appreciated that all they need is an abstraction of Jesus. Jesus came in the flesh so that he could physically interact with and touch people. We too need to incarnate the intimacy that we desire with God through our willingness to be physically connected and intimate with those whom God loves. We need to love others and not with empty words or in religious forms. We need to love them in a way that meets their real physical human needs and in the same way as we want our own spiritual needs to be met by God.

The real need is for meaningful connection. We need adequate relationships to keep our minds from falling into dark and dangerous places. Studies show a correlation between addiction and lack of adequate social connection. We are not self-sufficient, we are not mere minds in a body, we need each other, to be loved and to feel the love of others.

This is why the word became flesh and why we must flesh out the Gospel with healing and healthy touch. It is on us to be the hands and feet of Jesus—faithful love requires that we do more than talk about abstractions of love.

When exception rules…

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My boss and I generally get along well.  He has his preferences, I have my own preferences and usually we are able to find an agreement.  But occasionally there are times of conflict as well.

Most of the conflicts are caused by abuse of exceptions.  Exceptions are those times when my usual ‘rules’ are stretched to allow something I otherwise do not tolerate.  Surprises, working weekends or working too late on a Friday are some of my understood (but unwritten) terms.

It is reasonable in the industry I am in that some flexibility is required.  Delays often arise that are no fault of my employer and are the surprises I must tolerate to be reasonable.  Then there are favors or the times I am flexible just because my boss is my friend and I want a good relationship.  I will sometimes break my rules voluntarily as a matter of good will.

However, there seems to be a limit to how many exceptions can be made before the exceptions begin to become the rule.  If I do too many favors soon they become expected entitlements rather than appreciated exceptions. 

When I feel the balance of our mutual self-interests has been violated too far I will respond with protests.  I suppose if my boss would not respond appropriately there would be further reaching consequences.

Broader Application and Implications

Individuals make arrangements between themselves my boss and I do.  Groups of people also make arrangements with their individual parts that allow exceptions to the general rules for representatives of the group or to benefit exceptions within the group.

For example, there is an expectation that if one wants to eat they should work, but we do make exceptions for children and the disabled.  But that list of beneficiaries can eventually grow to include irresponsible adults and those less truly disabled.  It can also morph from being a special exception into an entitlement that is eventually is unfair to those paying the cost and abuse.

If the group never considers the needs of exceptions that is also a failure and negligence.  It may not be at a noticeable cost to the group right away when the weak and minorities are unprotected or considered only an afterthought, but there is a cost even if it isn’t measured in financial losses.  Lack of compassion is a moral loss.

Keeping a Balance of All Factors

This complex mobile of competing interests must constantly be fine tuned to maintain an appropriate balance.  Part of balance is order of priority.  It is recommended in an airliner cabin depressurization emergency that adults put their own masks on first so they aren’t incapacitated and unable to help others. 

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Rules must always define the exceptions in the same way the gravity that defines the order of a mobile must be respected or chaos will be the result.  The picture of the Liebherr crane mobile above (watch this video) is a prime example.  It is an exceptional display of engineering and some flexibility in weight bearing capacity, yet there are underlying rules that must be followed or the whole system will collapse.

The results of miscalculation, ignoring factors that influence stability and over stressing various structures (social, physical or otherwise) can result in catastrophic failures.  Failure like that of “Big Blue” which fell into a tangled heap on a gusty day:

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Prevent disasters by finding a balance that puts rules and exceptions in proper order and plans for the winds of life.