There was this elegant old structure, in the countryside, a tall pointy steeple beckoning the passers-by to gaze upward at the blue skies. It had been around at least a century, the doors still open to all.
One day a tradesman moved into this rural community and admired this building. He loved the sturdy timbers holding beneath the slightly weathered clapboard siding, and then that ever-reliable stone foundation keeping it all square.
But one concern, as he did his inspection, was the missing roof shingles. The wind and storms having taken their toll. It would be a shame, he thought, to have the contents all get ruined and eventually see the church itself destroyed by this neglect.
So he thought to get involved. He showed up one Sunday morning and met the pastor and congregation. Good people.
The building inside was as beautiful as it was outwardly. Fine craftsmanship at a level rare to non-existent anymore. The stained glass in the sanctuary gave an ethereal feel and the beauty of the whole experience was breathtaking at times. And yet, he could see the signs of a leaking roof, the water spots in the ceiling, and his concerns grew.
It was a few months later, after becoming a regular and joining the church, that there was a members’ meeting. Taking the chance to raise the issue of the roof, he stood up, described the problem, and offered to help coordinate the repairs.
There was a hush that came over the room. An elder thanked him kindly for the suggestion and yet seemed slightly bothered.
A week or two later the minister, a stately yet friendly man, took the tradesman aside, putting an arm on his shoulder, “Hey, brother, we’re glad you come here. We love that you participate in all we do.” He paused, trying to search for the right words. “There has been some concern, umm or rather, I appreciate your perspective, as a man who works with his hands and I don’t want to discourage that.” Stopping again. “However, the church is a spiritual place and, no offense, I know you meant well, but you need to have more faith. If you see a problem, rather than be consumed by doubt or despair, looking for man-made solutions, pray about it, okay?”
Now a bit stunned, but still respectful, the tradesman did not argue. He instead agreed to pray and did.
More time passed, things continued as usual, the roof continuing its deterioration, until one day the congregation was having a service and a chunk of the ceiling fell and squarely on the tradesman’s head. Adding insult to the injury, as he began to brush the debris from his suit jacket, a stream of water from the rain shower outside completely drenched him.
He was now upset. Enough is enough! We really need to do something about the roof, he decided, and approach the pastor again, after some small talk he announced, “You saw what happened today, right?” And then continued, “I know a Christian must remain committed to prayer and that God is always in control, but we have the means to fix that roof and should!”
Disappointment swept over the pastor’s face as he considered this statement. But, rather than lash out, he tried to be diplomatic, “I can hear your frustration. And nobody likes to be humiliated.” Smiling warmly to lighten the mood before getting serious, “Have you ever considered that the roof isn’t the real issue here? I noticed you only wear a suit coat, it is okay and yet a bit underdressed for services. Have you considered wearing a tie?”
The tradesman wore a tie from then on. And, after a few more awkward encounters, where he was eventually forbidden from trying to throw a tarp over the growing holes and told to tithe more instead, he would do his best to keep his exasperation from showing. It was none of his business, he was told, that we come to church to worship God together and prayer would provide all of our needs.
Eventually, the congregation of country folk would be left standing on top of the rubble. They would spend the winters shivering in the cold and wind-driven snow, summers in the blazing heat, wondering why God had taken their wonderful building, yet serenely sure this was just a test of their faith and devotion to Providence.
‘Tis the season for conservative Mennonites to preen on social media about their apolitical “kingdom Christian” stance. These Biblical fundamentalists, with an Anabaptisty twist, talk about worldly politics more than many in the voting public do and never miss an opportunity to distinguish themselves with their rude apologetics.
Any more I try to ignore this noxious grandstanding display of religious elitism. But then I saw a video post, with a title proclaiming a change of mind about voting and featuring someone that I’ve run into on various occasions in my travels and as part of an online Mennonite discussion forum. I’m quite familiar with his long-held positions and this claim of transformation astonished me.
Perhaps he had voted in a mock election in grade school or something?
Anyhow, starting in general…
The Utterly Non-Revolutionary Act of Not Voting
Mennonites, like other Anabaptists, have built entire religious doctrines around cherry-picked Biblical phrases. The words “be not conformed to this world,” lifted from Romans 12:2, is used to justify everything from not driving motorized vehicles and dressing like it is still the 1800s to condemning military service and not voting in elections. That is standard fare for all traditional or Old Order Anabaptists.
But Fundamentalized Mennonites, unlike their Amish and Old Order Mennonite cousins, feel this unquenchable need to broadcast and announce all that they do. Ignoring the not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing advice that Jesus gave, while slamming hypocrites. Mennonite fundamentalists, taking their cues from Protestant fundamentalists, are all about political influence and religious apologetics.
The disdainful retort of a Mennonite gentleman to those who dared to talk about voting in his presence, “I vote on my knees!” This sanctimonious announcement, alluding to prayer rather than direct involvement in the political process, was met appropriately with humorous remark to the effect that crawling to the ballot box being an odd way to vote. But it does also describe the strange dichotomy, or rather the inconsistent application, of non-conformity rules.
The grand irony is that this kind of political non-participation does not make someone unique from ‘the world’ as religious separatists claim.
Well, voting or not voting is a habit, they do not believe that their vote matters, or simply do not care about the outcome one way or another. So this idea that not participating in elections is some sort of notable stand or great sacrifice is pure delusion. Not voting is literally as much like ‘the world’ as you can get. It is not revolutionary. It is a nihilistic cultural default, a bit Gnostic, and requires doing nothing. However, unlike most non-voters who have no need to explain their apathy for the democracitic process, conservative Mennonite fundamentalists have a great need to spiritualize and broadcast their decisions.
Sure, unlike other fundamentalists, who do vote and promote political involvement, the conservative Mennonite variety proudly distinguishes themselves in other ways. But they still go to universities like Bob Jones or Liberty University, fundamentalist bastions, and pick up the Evangelical attitude to apply to their Anabaptist doctrinal defaults. So, rather than simply live out their faith, like their forbearers, they must be “in your face” about their views, constantly propagandizing and promoting their supposedly ‘Anabaptist’ or purportedly ‘kingdom’ perspectives, and otherwise making sure that you notice them. If it seems self-aggrandizing and obnoxious, then it most certainly is. Worse, they are completely arbitrary and inconsistent in how they apply these supposed “Biblical principles” that justify positions they’ve inherited, never seriously reconsidered, and want to ram down your throat.
How do I know?
I was one of them. I would argue my Mennonite fundamentalism confidently with my teachers in high school. In college, I wrote a position paper to explain my inherited non-resistance dogma, thinking that my take would be fresh. But, for my efforts, ended up with a classroom more fully unconvinced of non-resistence than they would be had I said nothing at all.
Anyhow, while most from my own religious communities lean towards conservative politics. A few got out of this Mennonite intellectual ghetto long enough to read a little Karl Marx, meet some Socialists. And, now, armed with this new knowledge, come back to their conservative peers with a superior attitude and a whole new set of empty platitudes, borrowed from ‘the world’ they claim to stand apart from, that require nothing of them. They proclaim themselves to be different, imagine themselves to be the revolutionary thinkers, yet are really nothing but a new blend of the same old political ideologies, tired religious dogmas, and general nonsense.
It was one such story of a ‘transformation’ that caught my eye because I actually knew the guy and know him too well to be bamboozled by his slickly packaged testimonial.
The Completely Non-Transformative Transformation
I’m not going to reveal the source. More clicks will only encourage them. But it did not take long into the apologetics video to reveal that the title a bit deceptive, when this conservative Mennonite apologist confessed, “the truth is I’ve never actually voted.”
So, I guess a more upfront and honest title, such as “Mennonite-born Confirms His Confirmation Bias,” isn’t propaganda-ish enough to sell the point?
Anyhow, to be clear, he never changed his mind, he might have momentarily been slightly more open to the idea of political involvement before reverting back to the Mennonite default position. And, sure, his political positions may have evolved slightly from right-wing anarchist and anti-government to being slightly more left-wing anarchist, definitely anti-conservative and even more anti-government. But, in the decades that I’ve known him, he’s always had this smug sounding “voting only encourages them” signature line.
What is truly interesting is that this particular individual?
Simultaneous to his decrying the violent and coercive means of the state, he had also worked as a government employee and profited by these means for many years. That’s right. This man who claims that voting is some big moral quandary, because government uses force and threats, had no issues with taking money obtained by those means for years.
And yet, somehow, to merely cast a ballot is too much for them to stomach?
If voting is wrong, if political solutions are wrong, then how isn’t his taking through this system is extremely wrong?
If he really believes that the government is illegitimate, that we should not participate so much as to cast a ballot, then he ought to do as Zacchaeus did. He should return all of his ill-gotten gains, he should pay it all back with interest to us who paid his salary, and put his money where his fundamentalist Mennonite mouth is.
But what is, by far, the most disturbing thing about this video is the shameless promotional for progressive politics it contained. While claiming to be apolitical. He pushed the far-left social justice agenda as if this is what Jesus taught. Confusing what we should do as individuals, as a church, with the obligations of a nation. How disengious an argument. How heretical a theological position. How contradictory with his own religious tradition.
In short, the kingdom of heaven, especially their conservative Mennonite version, does not have open borders and will turn people away for falling short of requirements. Scripture lists whole long lists of who will and will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (false teachers one of them) and this studious fellow would certainly be aware. And, no, it is not cruelty or indifference that keeps some out. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Kingdom has borders to keep unrepentant murderers, rapists and other abusers away from those whom they exploited. So this criticism of nations for enforcement of reasonable border policies, for the protection of the nation and those trying to escape horrendous conditions, is asinine.
Imagine that, a conservative Mennonite, part of a denomination known for their strict standards for entry (oftentimes over the slightest minutia of application) taking issue with a nation for taking some precaution and vetting immigrants.
I mean, as one practically engaged to a woman who needs to navigate our immigration system, I have every reason in the world to want the current system to be made easier. And, despite that, despite my own personal struggle waiting on the cumbersome process, I still completely understand and appreciate that we have civil authorities to protect citizens and promote peace. I love her, and my neighbors, enough to want to keep evildoers out. Her uncle was murdered in her home country, as was her grandpa, both good men, it would be absolutely immoral for me to open the flood gates so that their murderers could follow her in.
Ultimately, had this fundamentalist Mennonite commentator stayed politically neutral (rather than parrot a leftist ideological position while falsely claiming to be apolitical) I may have let the duplicitous transformation claim slide.
I’m completely okay with someone being apolitical and not voting if they believe that is what their religious beliefs require of them. But I am completely not okay with? I’m completely not okay with misleading testimonials and phony claims of being apolitical while promoting a political position. I’m especially not okay with the hypocrisy of saying the government is violent, therefore we must not cooperate so much as to vote, while also being on the take end and unrepentant about it.
This one was a little more personal because I knew the character making the claim and it was so typical of the fundamentalist tainted brand of Mennonitism that I came from. Mennonite Evangelicals love to distinguish themselves from other Evangelicals, both products of Fundamentalism, by pointing to their Anabaptist doctrines (namely non-resistance and non-conformity) as if it is something revolutionary when, in fact, they are often religious promoters of progressive politics who oddly also decide they are also above voting.
Voting bad, taxes good…
Drinking the Kool-Aid of Evangelical Humanism
It started so wonderfully, a charismatic young leader blended concern for the poor and racial inequality with a Gospel message. Eventually this “Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ” moved from Indiana to sunny California where this social justice preacher, James Warren Jones, found a more receptive and racially diverse audience. He grew his following to a few thousand members, enough to gain the attention of left-wing political leaders, and hired an African-American preacher to further the social justice message.
Jones and his so-called “Peoples Temple” moved progressively in the direction of openly displaying their true Marxist intentions. Their home for senior citizens directly quoted Karl Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” and drew parallels between this political ideology and Christian teachings. Jones became increasingly divisive, increasingly open with his far-left rhetoric, and increasingly controlling as time went on. Jones, the cult leader, preying on the urban poor and minorities, now pushed an idea of “religious communalism” and used various passages of Scripture to justify this aggressive push towards Socialism.
Of course, maybe some of you already know how this story ends, at Jonestown, where Jim Jones, the leader of this nasty narcissistic polygamous mess, ordered his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. The infamous Jonestown Massacre, in the Socialist paradise (or rather a hellhole) in Guyana, totaled 909 dead, either by suicide or murdered outright, including a Congressman sent to investigate allegations of abuse. Jones was always only a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he was merely using a twisted version of Biblical texts for his political and personal ends. He was able, with this heretical blend, to lead hundreds of people to their deaths. And sadly, despite this sobering example, many still “drink the Kool-Aid” of social justice and end up spiritually dead having jettisoned the true Gospel.
Those who fall for the social justice ‘Gospel’ have indeed traded their birthright for a bowl of pottage. They, like Judas, have interpreted the words of Jesus through the lens of their worldly aims. They, like the betrayer of Christ, take the instruction of Christ, “sell all and give to the poor” as some kind of end in itself and not in the context of divine pursuit. It is not because they are far from Jesus. No, in fact, there is only a subtle difference. Judas may well have been the best of the disciples, trusted with the common purse, and able to quote the words of Jesus concerning the poor right back at him. And he was not alone in his confusion about the words of Jesus either. All of the disciples seemed to have worldly power and prestige in mind. They did not anticipate the life of suffering and sacrifice.
The close counterfeit is the most dangerous. Many warn of the crude caricatures and obviously flawed copies of the truth. However, when they encounter something that appears, on the surface, to be the genuine article, what do they do? They let down their guard, may even praise the effort, and never realize the missing substance behind the effort. The substance, of course, being that the purpose of everything a Christian does is worship. True, following after the instruction to give to the poor, in the context of Christian faith, will create a better world. However, when turned into some legalistic prescription and for the intention of political end, like social justice, it very quickly becomes abusive.
But Jim Jones wasn’t the first to start to push a brand of Socialism and defiance against ordained authority, there was an Anabaptist cult with similar views. The Münster Anabaptists were the true radicals of the so-called “radical reformation” and are the likely cause of the eventual crackdown on all Anabaptists. They too promised ‘the kingdom’ siding with the poor and the peasants, but their “new Jerusalem” very quickly ended up a polygamous nightmare. This disaster is why the “non-resistent” theology won out. This is why conservative Mennonites and Amish have remained relatively apolitical.
Returning to the Vomit of Münster
Modern Mennonites, of all stripes, share a similar antipathy towards authority. Those on the ‘conservative’ end of the spectrum are defiant towards things like Covid-19 restrictions or anything that interferes with their own agenda, while those on the ‘progressive’ side stand against everything from the punishment of evildoers and even national borders. The only significant difference is that the conservatives, like most other conservatives, mostly want to be left alone to practice their religion. While the progressives would be happy to use government to enforce social obligations on their neighbors. Where the conservatives can be neglectful of their neighbors, the progressives (like their worldly counterparts) are enthusiastically abusive.
I’ve noticed many privileged Mennonites, raised in conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist churches, in reaction to their own former ignorance, veer hard to the left.
They were raised in Mennonite homes, lived in Mennonite communities, went to Mennonite schools and a few finished their education in fundamentalist institutions. Most of their lives, unlike my own, they spent in this Mennonite cloister, then they go to the big city somewhere and find out other people see a different perspective from the only one that they knew existed. But rather than apply a grain of salt, or show any spiritual discernment whatsoever, they swallow the newly discovered grievance narratives lock, stock and barrel. They cheer on, from their ivory towers, the “people power” of those disrupting their neighbors, ignore or justify the violence of those destroying cities, and think their support for Barrabus is doing the Lord’s work.
They are blind guides, more misguided than the Mennonite traditionalists whom they frequently condemn, condescend and criticize, and yet imagine themselves to be the true standard-bearers for Anabaptism. And they are, but Anabaptist in the same way as Münsterites and of the same spirit as those religious elites whom Jesus taunted in this passage:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
(Matthew 23:29-32 NIV)
I mean, woe…
Leftward aligned, and “kingdom Christians” are less committed than their Anabaptist predecessors and yet making the same mistakes. They claim to be above the politics of this age, apolitical even, and pose as the enlightened minds, but are really lacking in introspection and this:
These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.” If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”
(2 Peter 2:17-22 NIV)
Few Mennonites actually read the writings of Menno Simons, but many are familiar with his poem, “True Evangelical Faith,” a presentation that orients the reader towards the earthy and practical ministries of the church, and some of the reason he is described as an “evangelical humanist” by various sources. No, he would certainly not support the leftist policies of our day nor was he completely aligned with the Anabaptist comrades in Münster. But this understanding of the words of Jesus too easily transforms into left-wing anarchist politics and is very often misconstrued as an endorsement of Socialism.
Couple this with the Zwinglian denial of spiritual and mystical aspects of what Jesus taught, common to all Anabaptists, along with the political ambitions of the historical Anabaptist leftists, who in their zealousness, overthrew the ordained government of a German city named Münster, and you can know where this ‘kingdom’ is headed.
The contempt for authority is already there, the loss of a truly divine orientation is already there as well, and now they align themselves with those rebellious against all authority and acting out in violence.
This turn towards left-wing politics, those doing apologetics for grievance culture, are urging the faithful to take a big gulp of the same Kool-Aid that was passed around Jonestown. It is the same spirit that led to the horrendous violence of the Münster Rebellion. It is not remotely Christian even if it uses the words of Christ as justification.
Judas too used the words of Jesus. He deceptively used the words of Jesus, “sell all and give to the poor,” as a means to admonished a faithful woman for her impracticality worship of pouring out perfume on the feet of the Lord. He, like a Marx-inspired fundamentalist calling ornate houses of worship a waste, told this woman that she should have sold the perfume to give to the poor. He used his position, as follower of Jesus and disciple, an advocate of the ‘kingdom’ as he understood it, to hide his actual political ambitions. For this smug comment he earned the sharp rebuke of Jesus.
Those lapping up the radical leftist vomit of Münster Anabaptists, in modern forms, will be worse off than their more-traditional Mennonite counterparts. Marxist philosophy is not compatible with the message of the cross nor is this ‘kingdom’ opposition to the established government Christian. They might be sincere. Many are misled by them. But there is no reason for me to suspect that Judas, or others like him who betrayed Christ and the church, were insincere. Had Judas been only a fraud, why would he have despairingly taken his own life?
Oh proud Anabaptist. Oh fundamentalist with all of the answers and no actual wisdom. Oh you Evangelicals who are all talk and very little understanding, who flail to the right or to the left every time, desperate to be relevant. Oh you closeted Marxists, with worldly ambitions, posing as agents of the kingdom. Repent now, before it is too late!
Turn Not to the Right or the Left
Every so often a quote pops up, at the right exact time, so poignant, that it appears to be a gift from God. And such was the case when this quote was shared on my news feed while contemplating politics and examining my own stance as far as ideological positions. I tend to be right-wing. I do believe that the role of government is to set some basic boundaries, look out for the “common good,” and stay completely out of my personal business. But I also see the folly of individualism, the need of communities and voluntary cooperation between people.
I see both right and left-wing extremes, both totalitarianism and anarchism, as unChristian and dangerous. But never had succinct words to describe why this is, at least not before reading this quote:
There are two kinds of ‘atheism’: the atheism of the right, which professes to love God and ignores neighbor; and the atheism of the left, which professes to love neighbor and ignores God.
This quote hits the problems of both sides squarely on the head. The ‘right’ frequently takes their independence too far, they become neglectful in regards to loving their neighbors and in this have rejected God. The ‘left’ on the other hand, professes their compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden, but this often is nothing but human effort that neglects worship. Both the right and left are motivated by selfishness. Both, at different levels, are looking for freedom or control. However, the left is much better at hiding their lust for power and true atheism under a veil of altruism.
It is interesting that frequently, in Scripture, we see passages warning against veering right or left, like this one:
Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.
(Joshua 1:7 NIV)
My guess is that partisan alignments, rightward or leftwards, take our focus off of the divine. Instead of being focused on Jesus, and theosis, we become mired in political controversy and tribes. It is true, we cannot serve two masters. And political ideologies, on a horizontal plane, will distract us from the vertical alignment. No, we do not stop eating worldly food or drinking physical water as ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven. Nor do we cease to choose McDonald’s rather than Burger King. But, as the Divine Liturgy reminds the faithful, “put not your trust in princess and sons of man in whom there is no salvation.”
A Christian Perspective of Government
There is a vast difference between the glutton, who looks to food as an end unto itself, and the traveler on the path of repentance who eats to be nourished enough for the days work. Political involvement, preferring candidate A over candidate B, is not sinful anymore than eating or any other choice. We are in the world, even if not of the world, and it is silly to pretend to be aloof from it all. But when politics becomes an obsession, when ideologies become idols, when we veer too much the right or the left, the look out. We imperil our own salvation when we turn to the political philosophy and economic systems of men for our help rather than God.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not a rival to any earthly kingdom. No, it is on an entirely different plane from any worldly government and those saying otherwise are false teachers. Sure, yes, the political and religious leaders of the time saw Jesus as a threat to their power, they were confused about the Kingdom as much as the disciples. But never did Jesus show any interest in overthrowing them. Instead, he acknowledged the authority of those who “sit in the seat of Moses” (Matthew 23:21) and told his followers to do what they instructed.
Jesus and those who followed him never once questioned the legitimately applied authority of Rome. St. Paul, even despite enduring brutal mistreatment at the hands of Roman authorities, having every reason to be scornful of them, instructed thusly:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
(Romans 13:1-7 NIV)
It cannot be spelled out any more clear than that. The authorities, in their capacity to punish evildoers, are divinely ordained, acting on behalf of God, and not to be resisted. To rebel against them, we are told, is to rebel against God.
Of course, this is where some smarmy Anabaptist ‘kingdom’ pusher will interject, to excuse their own topic and rebellious spirit, by saying “Well, America was started by a rebellion,” or “occupies stolen land” and go on to suggest this excuses or exempts them from applying St. Paul’s instruction. They, in their woeful arrogance, have appointed themselves to be the judge of nations rather than simply pray for their leaders and obey Jesus as they ought. And this is because they, like Judas before them, are duplicitous and truly more obsessed with worldly power than they let on. For them, the ‘kingdom’ is merely a front for political ambitions, it is so they can feel righteous in their contempt for what is ordained by God.
The idea of “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NIV) and the refusal of Jesus to even stand up to the miscarriage of justice, should put to rest this notion that there should be a rivalry between the Christians and civil authorities. If Jesus even refused to stand up to their abuses, how much more should we be willing to respect and submit to what is truly part of their God-ordained mission?
Both the church, and government, are ordained authorities. One is established for our own good as those traveling through this world and the other is a Kingdom that transcends everything in the world. I have no problem with those who do not vote because they do not believe worldly governance is the right place for a Christian. But it is incredible hypocrisy that those won’t so much as vote will turn the teachings of Jesus into a political message and use this in confrontation with civil authorities. Who are we to judge another man’s servants?
Instead of competition with God’s ordained authorities, snide remarks or violent protests, try this instead:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
(1 Timothy 2:1-4 NIV)
In conclusion, those so delusional that they can’t fathom God using imperfect men probably should not vote. In their arrogance and delusion of their own righteousness they would be incapable of making a sound decision. Again, I have absolutely no problem with anyone who chooses to abstain from political involvement. The further along we are in our faith the more we will trust the means of prayer and leave our worldly concerns behind. But, that said, I likewise do not stand in condemnation of those who, out of love for their own families and neighbors, appreciation for their nation, participate in the most peaceable manner possible.
There are many things largely forgotten to history, one of them a horrendous tragedy that took place on June 15th, 1904, near “Hell’s Gates” on the East River, which would forever change one ethnic community in New York City, and that being the General Slocum ferry disaster.
What had started as an annual church excursion of German-Americans, mostly women and children, from their community in the city’s East Village to Long Island, ended with terror and over 1000 deaths. The poorly maintained boat caught fire, while underway, fire fighting equipment failed and the wooden craft quickly became an inferno.
Helpless mothers, unable to swim themselves, especially not in the heavy clothing of the time, put life preservers on their children only to see them sink like rocks into the river as the cork in the flotation devices had degraded. The Captain, likely trying to avoid causing a more devastating fire on shore, decided to head for some islands, into the wind, which only made the wooden ferry into a blow torch before it felt apart.
The result of this hell on earth was the eventual dissolution of the German-American community in New York City and one can only imagine the personal torment this left for the survivors and the fathers and husbands left behind.
My worse nightmare is not being able to help those whom I love. I had, in casual conversation with a psychiatrist, been told that I showed symptoms of PTSD after the unexpected death of Saniyah and judging from my current awful feelings and tears right now, from writing this, I would guess that they were right in their analysis.
If only seeing someone I loved deeply wail the loss of their daughter could rip the fabric of my being to such an extent, I can’t even begin to imagine what seeing them roasted alive would do. Lord have mercy!
My Covid-19 Mini-Crisis
Being raised in an American culture that too often confuses health and prosperity with God’s favor, the idea that someone that I love could be felled by a virus seems obscene. But, faith, right? Shouldn’t faith prevent my family members and loved ones from dying prematurely from a virus?
But it seems that the truly Orthodox have no such delusion. True, Fr. Seraphim expressed his belief that one cannot become sick through their participation in the body of Christ. However, even still, that does not preclude the possibility of our becoming sick during the fellowship and interactions afterward, does it?
It is was in the contemplation of father’s words that I ran across the story of early Christians who, unlike their pagan neighbors who fled, deliberately went into harm’s way to attend to their plague suffering neighbors. They attended to the sick, taking the illness upon themselves in many cases and succumbing in as much agony as anyone else.
How could this be?
Did their faith mean anything at all?
My own thoughts continued an ongoing internal discussion about the evidence (or lack thereof) for a God that actually cares. In my American-tinted perspective, they should have been protected from disease to prove God’s sovereignty over all of creation and show the truth of their Christian testimony, that’s only logical, right?
I can’t claim to understand. All I know is that many of them died, yet the stories of their extraordinary faith spread throughout the Roman world and you can still read of their testimony even in Foreign Policy articles published in our time. They died and yet they also demonstrated an example of love that has lived on to this very day and have defied my own logic in that.
We have but one life to live, all people die eventually, yet it is said that all people have two deaths: The first death being their physical death, when their body is put into the grave. Then a second ‘death’ at some point in the future when their name is said for the last time. And, I would argue that, in that light, those who, in faith, sacrificed their lives for their neighbor’s sake have actually outlived those who fled in fear.
It turns out that the Christ of Christianity only ever promised a life of suffering for others to those who would follow him. The ‘faith’ of those seeking health and wealth is shallow and will fall apart in times of crisis. But true faith lives for the good of others, despite uncertainty and fear, the proof is not in their own health so much as their faithful and lasting impact on the world.
No, your faith will not spare you, but if you live in love you will find God waiting on the other side of your suffering.
How I Have Seen God At Work
This may be a strange way to make an announcement of sorts, but I’ve never professed to be anything other than strange. I mean, I’ve tried to act normal, yet it never seems to work out for me. And so I guess I work with what I’m given, right?
Anyhow, I mentioned a bhest in past blogs, including my last blog, and haven’t really explained what bhest really means.
Right now, on the opposite of the world from where I am currently writing, lives a beautiful flower, her name is Charlotte. I found her in a moment of great faith, when my life remained consumed in my Mennonite identity and struggle with the father of a young woman, and had agreed to participate in her life as only an encouragement. She had moved to Taiwan, from her mountain home in the Philippines, as a means to support her son and secure an annulment from the father of her son.
Given her marital situation (along with my Mennonite and purity culture priorities) and my continued faithful pursuit of the impossibility, I told her that our relationship would have to remain platonic (which is something she allowed without any protest) and offered to be her encouragement. My commitment was to show her that someone still cared about her life, despite her being separated from family and not having anyone else to turn to at the time. At the time I was also on the road, away from home, so I understood the loneliness that comes with separation from family and friends.
There was a bit of a pattern that developed. I would be her faithful wake up call, to wish her a wonderful day, but later (with the stress of a high-pressure work environment and conflicts with coworkers) she would come back online with the crying puppy emoticon, which was my signal to get to work, and I would make it my mission to cheer her up again. Soon, by whatever miracle, I would have her laughing and smiling again.
At some point, pretty early on, she asked me if it was okay if she would call me “bhest” and (after a momentary hesitation to consider the potential damage of letting her use a term of endearment in our context) I decided to give her permission. It is a term that I had no idea what it meant really then and still am not entirely sure. But, eventually, it felt dumb to let her be alone in using that term, there was no term and thus she too became my bhest.
Bhest, according to Charlotte, meant this: “the very best best person, who is my friend, who is always beside me, to pray for me, advise me, cheer me up and who really shows care for me.”
Bhest, best explained, is a word mystical in meaning, has become a sort of joint identity and not something my words can easily explain. But I do know that it stands for a commitment to care. And, when my own road reached an end in the Mennonite church, like hitting a brick wall, it was the hand of my bhest reaching through, telling me in a moment of suicidal darkness, “if you go, take me with you,” and demonstrated a level of commitment to me even greater than my mother. It was then that I decided to stay to serve this lost sheep that I had found and if only for her good.
Charlotte’s happiness, I decided, was worth my suffering through another day of this life. The seed of faith that I gave to her months before, in my pure concern for her, grew into a limb that I could hold onto until my own feet again. She was the one who told me to “be strong for her” and gave me the courage to walk through the doors of Holy Cross, in Williamsport, on the road to my Orthodox conversion. And it was Charlotte who finally gave me that reason to no longer be “thirty years old living in Milton” (as the faithless alternative explained) and compelled me, months later, to board a Boeing 747 headed for the other side of the world.
Bringing This to the Present
There is so much I could say about Charlotte and her son. So many moments, from profound moments of sadness together (after the murder of her uncle Roland) to those of our greatest joy and many others somewhere in between. Her family has embraced me, reposed uncle Roland especially, welcomed me with open arms, and made me feel right at home twelve timezones from my current residence. I honestly felt like I had experienced a taste of heaven in Baguio City and in our various excursions.
Now that country, like my own, is experiencing the same Covid-19 lockdown (albeit stricter than my own) and our hopes for the future are overshadowed with even greater uncertainty than before. But at least Charlotte is stranded, for once, with her son Y-dran, whom she loves deeply despite being separated from him for years. He’s a real handful, a biter when I met him (who learned quickly that, unlike his grandma and aunts, I bite back), and has since matured to a bright (while still completely energetic) eight-year-old. His wide smile always welcomed me and I’ve missed him since our first meeting.
More recently, due to his history of illness, and a recent bout with pneumonia (he’s still coughing), along with the spread of Covid-19 worldwide, along with my own struggles due to some history of my own mentioned earlier, it has been exceedingly difficult for me to rest easy and trust God in this moment of chaos.
In one of my silly, more romantic moments, after Charlotte watched one of my favorite movie classics, “The Last of the Mohicans,” I recited to her the words of Hawkeye, “You be strong, you survive! You stay alive, no matter what occurs, I will find you! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!” Which was a promise said with a little smile and laughter, nevertheless pretty accurately represents the commitment that I’ve made to her. I’ve nearly had to make real on that once when she called me after almost being abducted by two men, while in Taiwan, and our current situation has left me wondering what extreme measures might be necessary to bring her here to my side, with her son, our son, Y-dran?
As of today, upon the request of Y-dran (a shortened version of his full name, pronounced yid-run) himself, that I will begin to call Y-dran my son. I had worried a few months ago whether or not a young Igorot boy, with his own biological father, would ever accept this goofy overwrought religious refugee American. But we hardly even speak the same language yet (although he was actually using sign language today and will likely learn English far quicker than I learn Tagalog and his tribal tongue) and yet he has asked me if I could be his father. *gulp* I really didn’t know how to express all my excitement, he had completely pre-empted all of my preparations for the future where I would need to explain this, where I would have to walk gingerly to avoid undermining the man that is his biological father, and now I do not have to worry about that.
And, speaking of prayer, unprompted, Y-dran, after all that, requested that I lead the prayers before he went to bed. So, being as Orthodox Christian as I know to be, I gathered myself and my phone, we went to the prayer corner of my house and led in the Lord’s prayer before praying for our future together, that it may come quickly and that he can remain healthy until then.
Dreams and Prayers
I have big dreams of what to do as a father with his son. But I also have a fear that hangs over me. My own life has been full of hopes ripped away from me right at the time when I thought things were in the clear. Now, before I can have my happy and simple life, with a little broken and repaired family, there is this monster called Covid-19 lurking in the darkness. I have full awareness of the terrible tragedies that have cut down the faithful and heathen alike, sometimes on a bright sunny day, like that day those German-Americans boarded General Slocum before their final hellish terror.
However, come hell or high water, I am determined, as determined as I am to pursue impossibility in faith, to not live my life in fear. I believe that God exists and that God is good because I have not alternative. I believe in God because without God there is no good. Logic and reason cannot explain away the feelings I have for my precious bhest and her livewire son. Even if we are cruelly kept apart for many more years, due to legal nonsense or plague, I know we will be together again and someday soon.
May God have mercy on us!
Only will tell if my dreams for this life will ever come true. It is easier for me to predict a global pandemic than to know if my next few days, weeks, or years on this planet will be happy or harrowing. Maybe my battered faith will finally meet it’s match, in something awful yet to come, and my hopes finally drown in a seas of despair. Nevertheless, as long as I’m alive, let my hymn be this: “Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have set our hope in Thee.” And, in the perilous days ahead, may I cling all the more to the words of St Paul:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39 NIV)
P.s., Y-dran, like his father, is also a fan of Dunkin donuts, which they do have in the Philippines, so the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree!
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (Revelation 12:1-2, 4-5a NIV)
Mary is described in splendid terms in the account above. She is wearing a crown with twelve stars symbolizing the tribes of Israel, clothed with divinity and standing above creation. As she gives birth the dragon stands ready to “devour her child the moment he was born,” an allusion to Herod who ordered male children to be killed after Jesus was born to prevent a potential challenge to his throne, yet she prevails. It takes a queen to give birth to a king and Mary is described in precisely those terms.
Growing up in a Protestant fundamentalist church the role of Mary was almost always dismissed or downplayed. While nobody in these churches would argue against the significance of Abraham, Elijah, King David, John the Baptist or the Apostle Paul, many do brush off the significance of Mary in the Biblical narrative and, despite claiming that Jesus is their king, would scoff at the idea that Mary should be regarded as Queen Mother. In this view, Mary is basically interchangeable with any other woman and nobody special or worthy of the veneration given to faithful men.
The disregard for the example of womanhood that Mary embodies is not without consequence. In fact, it is a disrespect that I would argue leads to male abuses, abuses that lead to female reactions and greater dysfunction. In other words, feminism is a response to traditional female roles being dismissed and downplayed in the same way that Mary’s role is disregarded. Many women feel that the only way they can be recognized is by thriving in what has historically been a male domain and it is no wonder that they do. Why pursue womanhood when only male roles are worth celebrating?
Mary, the answer to Eve…
One Biblical character Protestant fundamentalists have no problem talking about is Eve. They have no problem talking about how Eve was the one first deceived or quoting verses about male authority over women. I know many men who spend an awful lot of time discussing bad female characters, like Jezebel, or any woman who would dare challenge their authority, and continually attempting to blame women for their own failures.
For example, I recall a morbidly obese man who faulted his wife’s cooking for his condition and I know many more men who try to use female immodesty as a means to offload responsibility for their own lusts and abuses. And so it goes. These men are imposters rather than Christian leaders. They want to claim authority for themselves and yet, at every turn, blame women for their failures. They resemble Adam who blamed Eve more than Jesus who took up the cross despite being blameless.
To solve this age-old problem we should go back to the beginning and right after the fall of mankind:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15 NIV)
This was what God told the serpent who deceived Eve. It is a prophecy about “the woman” and also specifically a woman. This woman would produce a child that would crush the head of this serpent and this is exactly what we read happened in the book of Revelation:
The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Revelation 12: 9 NIV)
The woman with “enmity” towards the serpent triumphed over the dragon through her offspring and that woman is the answer to those still deceived and stuck with Eve. The parallels between Eve and Mary, the antidote, are too great to ignore and were well-understood by the faithful in the early church:
As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve. (St Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies” [A.D. 175-185])
His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. (Galatians 4:23 NIV)
The comparison above is between Abraham’s two sons, one born by human effort to the slave woman and another by divine origin to his wife Sarah, but the greater context Paul speaks of is of our own divine sonship and salvation. The sons of Eve lives in bondage, they are subject to the law and perpetually trying to escape the condemnation of the law through their own efforts. But he writes of another son “born of a woman” who provides an opportunity for us to be an heir of God and a son of the free woman.
Jesus is understood to be the new Adam. Or the Adam who brought the “life-giving spirit” rather than death like his predecessor (1 Corinthians 5:45) and salvation from sin. And, his mother, in the same way, is understood to be the woman whose obedience overcame the curse of Eve’s disobedience and undoes the curse upon women. It is through the man Jesus, born of a woman, Mary, that we are saved. But it was not any woman, it was not a woman under the bondage of sin—it was a free woman.
“Behold your mother!”
There are those who use references to brothers and sisters of Jesus as proof that Mary, after giving birth to Jesus, conceived to Joseph and didn’t remain a virgin. This is another subtle way to belittle her and the significance of her role in the story of our salvation. It is also something routinely used by men to undermine the authority of the church. The perpetual virginity of Mary, for that reason, is important as a theological point and a misunderstanding of Scripture that is easily cleared up.
First of all, because it was not uncommon for older men to marry younger women in Biblical times, Ruth and Boaz for example, and it is widely accepted that there was an age differential between Mary and Joseph. It is quite possible, even probable, that Joseph was an older widower and had other children to another woman. So, in other words, the references to the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus could be step-brothers and step-sisters rather than other sons and daughters of Mary his mother.
Second, it is possible that we are misunderstanding the words used. Indeed, the same words translated as “brothers” and “sisters” could denote a close relative as Aramaic, the language being spoken, didn’t distinguish between brother or sister and a cousin. It seems similar to how Filipinos use the word “Tito” (literally uncle) and “Tita” (literally aunt) to also refer to a cousin or respected elder. So we may be dealing with a language translation issue.
Whatever the case, it is definitely not advisable to take our cues from those who were in doubt of Jesus, who identified him as “the carpenter’s son” and didn’t accept him as God’s son:
Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. (Matthew 13:55-57 NIV)
Note, the passage does not say that Mary is the mother of the other “brothers” and “sisters” mentioned.
If we should not be offended when Jesus claims to be God’s son rather than that of Joseph, then we should not be apt to resist the idea that his brothers and sisters could be from another woman and the real possibility Mary remained a virgin. This is the view of early church writers:
The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word […] might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity. (Origen, “Commentary on Matthew 2:17” [A.D. 248]).
And the doubt of this answered emphatically by St Jerome:
[Helvidius] produces Tertullian as a witness [to his view] and quotes Victorinus, bishop of Petavium. Of Tertullian, I say no more than that he did not belong to the Church. But as regards Victorinus, I assert what has already been proven from the gospel—that he [Victorinus] spoke of the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship, not by nature. [By discussing such things we] are […] following the tiny streams of opinion. Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against [the heretics] Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man. (Jerome, Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary 19 [A.D. 383]).
We believe that God was born of a virgin, because we read it. We do not believe that Mary was married after she brought forth her Son, because we do not read it. […] You [Helvidius] say that Mary did not remain a virgin. As for myself, I claim that Joseph himself was a virgin, through Mary, so that a virgin Son might be born of a virginal wedlock. (ibid., 21).
If that isn’t enough to clear up the issue, the emphasis that even Joseph became purified through Mary’s virginity (similar to what Paul says about believing spouse “sanctifying” their unbelieving partner and children in 1 Corinthians 7:14), then we should consider again what Jesus did on the cross:
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-29 NIV)
Jesus, in agony on the cross, soon to say “it is finished” and give up his spirit, and his concern is who would care for his mother. Not only does this highlight how important Mary is to Jesus, but it would also be completely unnecessary for Jesus to assign someone to care for his mother if she had other sons and daughters. What we do know is that Jesus had to assign someone to care for his mother, to a disciple, and that would be odd if she actually had many children.
But there’s a twist…
Mary, in the same way, we have become sons of Abraham through faith (Galatians 3:29) and similar to how Jesus became a son of Joseph through adoption, has also become our mother. If we are coheirs of Christ, sharing in his divinity through our adoption, then we are, likewise, are sons and daughters of Mary his mother. So, rejoice, our inheritance through Eve (sin and death) has been overcome through the Blessed Virgin and by her Son!
“From now on all generations will call me blessed…”
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55 NIV)
It is sad that those words above do not carry much weight in some quarters who claim a ‘literal’ understanding of Scripture. I suppose they may think that Mary, a young woman, should not be taken seriously and her words are merely the product of unchecked female exuberance?
In that case, these doubters should look at a declaration made by Elizabeth, full of the Spirit, in the verses right before Mary’s exclamation:
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:41-43 NIV)
If the witness of two women and the Spirit isn’t enough, what will be?
Mary is most certainly blessed among women. If we should believe anything else said in Luke, then we must accept this is the reality, that it is something spoken through Elizabeth by the Spirit, and should join the generations of the faithful who call Mary blessed.
Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant!
Mary is blessed because she, set apart by her parents, allowed herself to be a vessel. Mary is referred to as the “Ark of the New Covenant” and that is because of the direct parallels in Scripture made between her and the holiest of vessels in Israel…
Mary is overshadowed and filled:
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called b the Son of God. (Luke 1:35)
As the ark of the Lord (in the tabernacle) was overshadowed and filled:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34,35 NIV)
David, a man after God’s own heart, revered the ark:
David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9)
Likewise, righteous Elizabeth says the same thing about Mary:
But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:43)
David, to the scorn of his wife, celebrated the ark of the Lord:
Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets. (2 Samuel 6:14,15)
Likewise, unborn John the Baptist, in defiance of those who do not honor the mother of our Lord, also leaped at the sound of Mary’s voice:
As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:44)
Finally, the ark of the Lord took a detour:
He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household. (2 Samuel 6:10,11 NIV)
And that parallels this:
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, […] Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. (Luke 1:39,56 NIV)
So, given these clear parallels, it is only right Mary is called the “Ark of the New Covenant” and Theotokis (“Bearer of God”) and to say otherwise is to be ignorant of Scripture.
And, yes, all those filled with the Spirit do, in a way, parallel Mary in this regard. Christians are told, by St Paul, that they are the “temple of the Holy Spirit” and to “glorify God in your body” by remaining free of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 19:18-20) and this is following the example of Mary in being a vessel. However, Mary literally carried our Lord and Savior in her womb, we are told she is blessed among women and for that she is worthy of our honor and veneration—in the same way as the Ark of the Covenant.
Mary, like that Ark, is also set apart as holy and not to be touched.
“Do whatever he tells you.”
Mary was also an example of motherhood. She did not keep her son for herself by refusing to let him go or holding him back and enabled him to fulfill his purpose instead.
Peterson says Mary is the archetype of a good mother for offering her son to the service of God and as a sacrifice to the world. That is what good mothers do, rather than hoard (or, heaven forbid, destroy) the blessings of their womanhood, they give their children for sake of the world.
Anyhow, let’s take a look at the events leading up to the first miracle attributed to Jesus in Scripture:
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:1-5 NIV)
Some Protestant commentators take the inflection of the English translation (when Jesus says “woman, why do you involve me?” in response to Mary) as evidence that Jesus didn’t have any special regard for his mother. This is to suggest that Jesus would blatantly disregard the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:1–21, Deuteronomy 5:1–23) and go against his own words rebuking those who defied God’s command (Matthew 15:3-9) and basically make him a hypocrite.
This word “woman,” according to what I’ve read, is more to the effect of “madam” than the English translation suggests and is also the same word used to denote a man’s wife elsewhere in Scripture. There is no reason to suspect that Jesus would be disrespectful of his mother and those who suggest that this is the case should probably consider the actions that accompanied his words.
We know what Jesus did immediately thereafter. He, like a good son, does and honors his mother by doing what she requests of him. Mary, for her part, does what a good mother does, she prompts her son to action and encourages others to give her son the respect he is due. We should not forget that Mary, in the same way as God the Father (yet as a human mother), also willingly gave her only son.
More on sons and their mothers…
Mary, mother of the King?
When Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah, the king stood up to meet her, bowed down to her and sat down on his throne. He had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat down at his right hand. “I have one small request to make of you,” she said. “Do not refuse me.” The king replied, “Make it, my mother; I will not refuse you.” (1 Kings 2:19-20 NIV)
It is interesting how good mothers intercede and especially on behalf of their sons. We see how Bathsheba (treated with reverence by Solomon) brought a petition to him and his response. There are also many stories of faithful mothers who prayed, with tears, every day for their wayward sons and I do believe that God hears their prayers. We also see this in the story of a mother who made a request to Jesus on behalf of her sons:
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:20-21 NIV)
This account is told differently in Mark 10, where the sons of Zebedee, James, and John, to the indignation of the other disciples, make this request themselves rather than through their mother. I’m not sure how to reconcile the two accounts, but I do see the role of mothers as significant. Let’s not forget that it was Bathsheba who prompted King David to name her son, Solomon, as his successor:
Then Nathan asked Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, “Have you not heard that Adonijah, the son of Haggith, has become king, and our Lord David knows nothing about it? Now then, let me advise you how you can save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. Go in to King David and say to him, ‘My Lord the king, did you not swear to me your servant: “Surely Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne”? Why then has Adonijah become king?’ (1 Kings 1:11-13 NIV)
Now, clearly the prophet Nathan could’ve gone directly to the king himself and made this request on behalf of Solomon. But it seems Nathan, as a man of God, knew a little about the persuasive power that a woman has over a man and therefore makes his request to Bathsheba instead. Good men, like good Kings who listen to their Queen Mother, listen to women, especially their wives and even more especially their own mothers.
Honor goes to the humble…
Going back to the question of who sits at the right and left hand of Jesus. We read the answer Jesus gave:
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:22-23 NIV)
Unlike worldly leaders who privilege themselves, in God’s kingdom “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16) or, in other words, those who have suffered most in this life will hold the highest places of honor in the kingdom.
My own thought is that there is one person who fits this description of suffering more than any other and that being the mother forced to watch her precious child, literally the perfect son, be falsely accused, brutally tortured, viciously ridiculed, and murdered in the most horrible method.
Can you imagine how Mary, a mother, would’ve felt as Jesus hung there dying?
I’ve heard that women, due to their giving birth, have a higher threshold for physical pain than men. Since pain is subjective, I’m not sure if that is true. But I do know, from personal experience, the sound of a mother’s wail upon the loss of her only and most beloved child. It was something that cut me to my soul.
It would be quite ironic, given that men argued for the honor to bestowed upon them, if the humble mother of our Lord and Savior was given that seat of honor beside her son. We can recall Peter boldly saying to Jesus, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you,” (Mark 14:31) and how the other disciples quickly agreed. But this male bravado quickly faded away as Jesus was taken away to be killed. It was Mary, not Peter, who remained beside Jesus until the end.
Can you think of anyone more worthy of sitting at the right hand of Jesus than his mother?
Anyhow, regardless of where Mary sits in the minds of some, she is the Queen Mother and worthy of our honor or Jesus is not King. Because if we deny this we are basically joining those who used “king of the Jews” as a mocking description. But, if Jesus is Lord, and the lineage to David coming through his mother, then we ought to show due respect to the queenship of his mother. And, given that Jesus listens to his mother and since we already do ask others to pray for is all the time, it doesn’t like a bad thing to follow the lead of Nathan.
Mary, the prayerful mother…
Had anyone a few years ago asked me about the importance of Mary I would’ve probably said she was a good woman and shrugged. I would not have understood why Orthodox Christians venerate her (with all the saints) and would say that all we need is Jesus.
However, I was ignorant. Of course, Jesus is the center of our faith, he is our Lord and Savior, we worship only the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But that doesn’t mean the other examples in Scripture (and in the history of the church) are worth nothing for us. No, their unique stories of faith are there for our benefit, to encourage us, and as examples that we can emulate.
Mary stands out as one of these faithful examples. Her contemplation, how she “treasured” things and “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19,2:51), and her strength in remaining with her son, her willing response to the angel (“I am the Lord’s servant” Luke 1:38), the proper honor she is given by the faithful, provides a restored vision for womanhood.
Certainly, there are many good women. Many have even seen their children martyred for the sake of the Gospel. But Mary was the mother of our Lord and Savior, the vessel God chose for his son, and (like Eve) not just any woman. She should be honored, her true feminine strength should be praised, and it is through her womb that salvation came to the world.
The past few years have been monumental for me. This blog has followed my own personal journey from the initial ideation about love, faith and spiritual life to some major transitions. I’ve changed careers, departed from the denomination that had been the identity I most cherished, and basically had my life turned upside down.
This blog had started as a result of a prayer, as an act of faith, and was to chronicle a fight to overcome the odds. I had realized my own limitations. I was single, in my mid-thirties, working a job that didn’t suit me very well, and worried about being the unfaithful servant who buried his talents. Unfortunately, for myself, I didn’t know a way out of the predicament.
But, instead of wallow in my self-pity, I decided to actually believe what Jesus said, “everything is possible for one who believes,” and with complete reckless abandon, prayed to God asking that the impossible be made possible for me.
I had committed to believing beyond human reason or my own rationality, to believe without adding the qualifications so often used by the religious to excuse their own lack of faith and as a means of preserve their self-serving status quo. My aim was to overcome whatever, the bad luck, personal failures or cultural prejudices, that kept me from living out the potential that seemed to be locked away somewhere and yet was still unrealized.
Of course a big part of that prayer, given the importance of marriage in a conservative Mennonite setting, was in hope of finally getting beyond the invisible barrier to my romantic success and finding the “right one” who could love me despite my imperfection.
My deepest fear had always been that love is little more than a post hoc explanation of something determined at a far baser level. In other words, that love was decided by attributes mostly biologically predetermined or based in performance. If a person lacking the right inborn characteristics is essentially unlovable, then the whole mythology we build around love as something pristine or pure is a delusion and love itself becomes a justification of our selfish or carnal ambitions.
I was determined to disprove that hypothesis. I intentionally sought out a girl theoretically “out of my league” for a variety of those lesser reasons. Before this, I had always picked pragmatically based in who I thought would say “yes” (although they often didn’t) and not with any real faith. This time I picked on what I believed God wanted me to be and because she seemed to be the one who could get me past those limitations. She wasn’t someone who seemed frozen in indecision, she shared my own cultural ideal and would compliment my strengths and weaknesses.
Alas, her sanity won out over my irrational faith-fueled hopes.
However, in telling my story of faith and struggle this blog gained popularity. Over the time my hopes ran into the brick wall of her reasons she couldn’t love me (very much like those I had feared) this blog rose to prominence in the Mennonite blogosphere. Suddenly, in my moment of deep despair and disappointment with my Mennonite ideal, I had an audience of thousands. In a matter of hours a sardonic post assigning points for marriageability, something I wrote one morning while stewing over the reality of the depressing situation I found myself in, was a viral sensation and had obviously resonated with a great swath of people.
After that, I wrote a string of posts about some of those issues I’ve had with the church I was born into and previously didn’t know how to express. It was during this time that a blog post about fundamental flaws in the current conservative Mennonite thinking was picked up by Mennonite World Review. It later made rounds in a conservative email group posted by none other than Peter Hoover who had, by writing Secret of the Strength, inspired my Anabaptist perspective many years before and put me at odds with the creeping influence of fundamentalism.
The great irony in it all was that I reached the pinnacle of my own influence in the Mennonite world *after* I had attended my last service.
Since then, in a greater irony, I’ve seen a romance blossom that would’ve been impossible had I remained Mennonite and evidence of that kind of love of the faithful variety that I did not find where I had most expected to find it. There is a real story of the impossible being made possible developing, not the story of love triumphing over the odds that I had thought I would tell and yet every bit as powerful. However, too much is in limbo right now regarding that circumstance to write about it.
Beyond that, there is also my being immersed into Orthodoxy and the difficulty of putting that experience into words. I mean I could argue for Orthodox Christian practices and perspectives, I have written a couple blogs trying to explain such things to my Mennonite audience, yet Orthodoxy is something better to be experienced. Like Jesus said “follow me,” they make an appeal that is not strictly emotional nor intellectual, but experiential. Faith is something that must be walked to be understood. The Orthodox don’t proselytize in a Protestant manner. No, instead, they invite others to “come and see” like Philip did in urging Nathanael to join him and rely on the mysterious work of God:
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-50)
Can anyone rival that with eloquent words or elaborate arguments?
I know I can’t rival that sort of mysterious work in my own words and worry that my words will actually take away from the beauty of the ancient faith. I mean, what could I possibly add to something so wonderful and profound with my clumsy and simplistic explanations?
So this all leaves me with a dilemma as a writer. Am I more than a one-trick pony? Even as I’ve progressed over the past few months, I feel my blogs have started to become a bit repetitive, as if I only really have one story to tell, and that has bothered me. My area of expertise, at this point, is how to fail miserably trying to find love in the Mennonite context. My painful past is something that I would rather transition away from, something to be discarded along with “former delusions” that I renounced at my Chrismation, to make way for a brighter future.
But the question remains, what will be written in the next chapter?
I’ve been following the career of Kanye West since hearing “Jesus Walks” for the first time in 2004. His lyrics then spoke about the struggle of finding his way in life:
Yo, we at war We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all we at war with ourselves
God show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’ to break me down
I could identify with that much of the controversial rapper’s message. And, throughout the song, the memorable hook, “Jesus walks with me” was another point of our shared perspective. He seemed a man much like me in many ways.
Like Kanye, while successful in so many ways in comparison to most people in the world, I’ve also felt marginalized and mistreated. In fact, much of my blogging over the past few years has been to share my frustrations. No doubt many reading my thoughts and perspectives feel I’ve spoken out of turn for daring to share my grievances.
My writing was, in a sense, a prayer “God show me a way because the Devil’s trying to break me down.” I wanted answers. I wanted my readers to tell me that part that was missing from my life and present a solution that worked for me. I did all I could and still was not completely healed.
A story of being paralyzed and so close to the healing pool.
I’ve found parallels between my own spiritual journey (of thirty-eight years) and that of a paralyzed man finally healed by Jesus:
Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” (John 5:3, 5-10 NIV )
Imagine that. Thirty-eight years of waiting for someone who cared enough to lift him into the pool to be healed. I’m guessing many did notice this man, they might have felt a little compassion, and yet for whatever reason they did not make an effort to help him into the healing waters. Perhaps they lacked the faith he had and didn’t think putting him in would make a difference? Perhaps they were too busy with their own problems?
I do not know why this man had to wait thirty-eight years—so close to healing and yet at a distance impossible for him to cover without help. But we do know about the encounter he had with Jesus. We also know that after he was healed and began to walk he soon encountered critics who seemed to care more that he wasn’t following their rules (by walking on the Sabbath) than the miracle of his new found freedom.
Kanye finds freedom to love as Jesus loves.
Kanye has again found himself in the middle of a firestorm and this time for a comment on Twitter expressing his love for President Trump:
You don’t have to agree with [T]rump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.
Given his own brash personality and the Christian themes in his music, it is no surprise that Kanye can find some common ground with Trump—and desires to love him despite their differences. He, like Jesus taught, has decided to truly love all people (including his enemies) and this includes Trump.
West, going a step further, in a recent TMZ interview, shared how he felt bad about a previous attack on another unpopular president:
Even with George Bush, people said don’t apologize. I’m like, wait a second, I just saw George Bush pushing George Bush senior in a wheelchair, and he just lost his wife. Do you know how bad I would want to go to George Bush and say, ‘I’m sorry for hurting you. I was an artist, I was hurting when I went up to the telethon, I said something in the moment but when I look at you as a dad and a family member, I’m sorry for hurting you.
Instead of seeing Bush as the face of the enemy as he one did, as a racist (for being a conservative) and someone beyond redemption, he saw him as a dad, as family member and as being a human like him.
Perhaps Kanye, having lost his own mom in tragic circumstances, could more readily identify with the beleaguered and bereaved Bush?
Whatever the case, the motive for his change of heart is clear:
Does God want you to love everyone? … If you start thinking about love and start feeling love and thinking about forgiveness, then you can overcome things…
That is the Gospel in a nutshell. We are to love as God first loved us and forgive others so we will be forgiven. Christians were told to honor each other, other people and even the emperor. Honor does not mean agree. Honor does not mean we do not speak the truth in love and risk losing our heads like John the Baptist did in speaking out against sin either. But it does mean that we see our enemies as people to be loved rather than demons to hate.
Today we must choose not to be bound to our past.
As if telling people to love Trump wasn’t already bad enough, Kanye also made this comment:
When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You were there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.
West later explained that he understood that slaves did not come of their own free-will:
[T]o make myself clear. Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will. My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved.
His point wasn’t that slavery never happened nor to take away from the wrong that had been done to his ancestors. But explains that eventually their slavery became a mental prison and that people should not continue to choose to be enslaved years after the institution of slavery has been abolished.
[T]he reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years.
It is interesting that he uses the 400 years.
Slavery, as an institution in the United States, started in 1619, was legal in all thirteen colonies when they declared their independence from British rule in 1776, and ended formally with the 13th amendment in 1865.
For those of you bad at math, that is 246 years and not 400 years. It seems the suggestion being made is that some are still mentally enslaved despite being legally free.
Kanye’s point resonates with me as one trying to escape my own mental prison. It is difficult to live beyond our past experience. All my expectations were built around being a Mennonite and, despite my free-spiritedness, it was impossible for me to see beyond this past—I was enslaved.
But I didn’t want to spend my next 40 years repeating the same failures. I wanted to overcome, I called on Jesus to heal me and was willing to do whatever it took to be made whole—even let go of the Mennonite identity that meant everything to me.
It is interesting that the paralytic, Kanye West, and myself are so close in age. I guess there just comes a point when the longing for freedom from our enslavement becomes greater than our fears and we are finally willing to break the rules that keep us bound. And, when you do, when you find your freedom, those who choose to remain in bonds will come for you.
Speaking of “mental prisons” comes at risk of being killed by the victims.
I worked in a factory years ago. It was a sort of dead end job with low pay and certainly not where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. However, when I expressed my dreams of life beyond that place my coworkers would laugh it off and tell me that I would always be there with them. They were serious, from all appearances, and their ridicule only gave me more motivation to leave.
It reminds me of Dr. Jordan Peterson’s advice to those who wish to change the world. He says, “clean your room.” But Peterson also warns that, when you do this, there will be those who prefer their disorder and will resist. They will react negativity rather than with happiness. The critics will question: “Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re better than us?”
Those who are in mental prisons prefer to believe that they have no choice and therefore will hate anyone who tries to show them otherwise. The religious hypocrites, seeing the miracles of Jesus, were more concerned that he had broke their rules and eventually killed him. I’m sure there are many who would rather I stopped speaking my thoughts as well. And, likewise, Kanye West will likely face the consequences of breaking ranks with those still imprisoned.
Victims of racism, other multi-millionaire celebrities, have accused West of being a traitor to his race and have made threats against him. One radio station has already stopped playing his music and I’m guessing there will be many other costs. My own popularity as a blogger will probably never recover from my taking a walk with Jesus away from the Mennonite plantation. Many will never understand and will simply cut you out of their life. There are real repercussions for choosing to be free.
If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. (John 15:18-21 NIV)
I’ve had many conversations in my life. I have always tried to speak the truth in love and have generally been well-received even by those who disagree. But, my own experience trying to talk about race have almost always left me disappointed—sometimes even resigned to the notion that we will always be ruled by our baser instincts. Some of the nastiest words spoken to me came as a result of my taking a stand for truth as it pertains to race.
Apparently as a white man, to the victims of racism, I can’t possibly have anything to offer besides an apology for my own gender and skin color. No, I could not possibly be a person who, like them, has experienced the pain of prejudice, discrimination and rejection, right?
Ironically or perhaps inevitably, it is often the victims of abuse who become the next generation of abusers. And that is because they are still bound to the abuse, the abuse has become their identity, and they’ve never known freedom.
I choose not to build an identity around my skin color and fears. I choose against being bound to my past failures and present anxieties. I refuse to be a mental prisoner to injuries and injustices. I refuse to live as a victim. I choose to transcend. I choose to love.
Jesus means freedom from our past. Jesus means peace of mind, a secure future, even when presently mocked and persecuted.
In a non-zero-sum game everyone can be a winner. It is a non-competitive or competitive circumstance where all participants can achieve optimal results and be successful. In an abundance of resources and opportunities and assuming equality of abilities this is the case.
A zero-sum-game is a circumstance where when someone gains another loses. This is true of sports where there is a score kept and a winner and loser at the end. It can be true of the marketplace when two people desire the same property but only one can possess it. It is true of any limited resource.
The right-wing or conservatives prefer the non-zero-sum explanation. They assume that all things are equal besides effort then they are free to look the other way at those who have not achieved what they have. This is not always uncaring or completely cold-hearted either—these people have worked hard, often have overcome obstacles (while playing by the rules) and believe others can as well.
However, the left-wing or progressives tell us, and rightfully so, that it is not that simple. We can certainly say “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” and yet what does one do when life gives you rocks? I suppose then you throw the rocks at those telling you to make lemonade?
Those who argue that life is largely a non-zero-sum experience and that those who put forward an adequate effort are too quick to dismiss differences in circumstances—they often do not appreciate providence of their own advantages enough. Sure, people reap what they sow, but can we assume that everyone has the same soil, seeds and weather to work with?
Do people get what they deserve?
We like the idea of karma, that people get what they deserve and everything we have was somehow earned. This absolves us of responsibility to those with less and allows us to enjoy our advantages in life without guilt. This is an explanation of things that works for those who are relatively successful and have basically gotten what they want.
Many religious people, to cover for their lack of compassion, go a step further and assume that disability and disaster is a result of sin.
That is why Job’s friends added insult to injury and accused him of having some hidden sin because of all awful things that happened to him. They were wrong for their assumption that he deserved what he got.
People getting what they deserve is not the reality that Jesus describes. When asked who’s sin caused a man’s blindness he answered that it was nobodies sin and used the opportunity to bring glory to God by healing the man. He also used a couple events as a basis for a rhetorical question and answer:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
His answer seems to go directly against those who try to attribute calamity to God’s judgment and see success as a sign of God’s favor. He muddies the water for the sanctimious religious elites with their simple (and often self-congratulatory) black and white explanation. He defies their people should get what they deserve logic:
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)
It is interesting that the parallel account in the book of Luke uses “merciful” rather than perfect. Assuming that they are both a paraphrase of the actual words of Jesus and accurate (as opposed to one being unreliable) we can probably combine the two ideas to approximate the correct message. I believe we are to be perfect in our mercy or perfectly merciful like God.
The message that seems clear in the teachings of Jesus is that nobody gets what they deserve. He says that unless people repent they too will perish—that neither sunshine nor rain is distributed by who deserves or does not—and with this undermines those who want to put all blame for failure on the individual.
Furthermore, there is no excuse for indifference. Even our enemies, people who deserve our contempt for things they have done, we are told to treat as we do those who are deserving of our love. We are to be perfectly merciful because we can do nothing to deserve God’s love and yet are loved despite that.
That is the essence of the Gospel, to do unto others, not as they deserve, but we want God to do to us. We will be shown mercy we we show mercy and judged as we judge. If we live by the sword then we can expect to die by it as well. If we forgive others then we will be forgiven by God.
If nobody gets what they deserve, then what?
Truly believing in the goodness of God is not about crowing on social media when things go right. No, that is only triumphalism covered in religion and brings no glory to God whatsoever. Again, some good people suffer terribly for their righteousness while many evil people in the world are both materially and socially successful.
A big bank account or beautiful girlfriend is not proof God’s goodness or else Job’s friends would have been right to torment him further trying to find a hidden sin. Success is only proof that circumstances tilted in favor of the outcome you desired and attributing it to God’s favor is only to dance on the backs of the bruised.
True thankfulness to God is using the means we are given to help others. Those with loaves and fishes didn’t thank God loudly then gorge themselves in the presence of the hungry crowd. No, they responded to the call of Jesus, gave up what many would argue they were entitled to through their foresight and by their sacrifice we have the miracle of five thousand being fed.
It is on us to be an answer to prayer using the means provided to us, being an answer to prayer—that is our thankfulness to God. Your success or failure in an endeavor says nothing about God’s plan. Only your willingness to step out in real faith, the faith of going outside of comfort zone and sacrificing for those who deserve judgement, is evidence of God’s goodness.
True repentance is realizing that you deserve nothing and treating others as if they deserve all of your love. If we truly appreciate God’s grace we will show it in humble actions of service rather than pompous claims of God’s goodness to us. It was the Pharisee who stood on the corner thankful to God at the expense of others and was condemned for his pride—he knew nothing of God’s goodness:
The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)
Sadly many conservative Mennonites and other religious fundamentalists are like that Pharisee. Even in their thanking God they are self-congratulatory and can barely hide their self-righteous pride under the pretense of praise—evidently they forget pride is the first sin. In context of the passage above it was the man who prayed “God have mercy on me, a sinner” who left justified before God.
Those who know they are undeserving do not boast in God’s goodness towards them. No, they share it with others by helping carry the burdens of others who were less fortunate than themselves. True faith is not about bragging about things we do not deserve—it is about our self-sacrificially serving those who do not deserve.
Perhaps God is not multiplying our effort today, like he did in the Acts church, because we pretend to be thankful for His goodness in our words and yet withhold grace from those whom we feel do not deserve?
Maybe God could turn our zero-sum game into an over-abundance when we let go of our own calculations and plans to trust Him?
Shut up about your good life—people already know! Instead, thank God by being an answer to prayer to someone who didn’t have your advantages.
A couple years ago, upon realizing my life was going nowhere in a hurry and not wanting to settle for mediocrity, I called out for God’s help. I wanted a truly abundant life, I knew that I was wholly inadequate to bring about the necessary changes to make that reality (God knows I’ve tried) so I begged for the impossible be done.
I have seen many dreams die in my life because of fear of failure, inexplicably poor timing, etc. I was well-aware of the cliché definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result) but could not seem to break from the patterns of life that limited my potential. I was what I was and deeply dissatisfied with that.
There was an undefined something that always seemed to crush my higher ambitions.
I could not beat an enemy that could not be defined. So I told God in no uncertain terms that I would literally crawl on hands and knees across a wilderness of broken glass to be made right. Throwing every bit of faith I could muster, like a gambler going all in with a desperate last gasp effort, I prayed “make the impossible possible for me” and then concluded my morning prayer.
It was an hour or two after that when I hopped out of my truck and went down writhing in pain. My knee buckled under me. In that moment what had been diagnosed as an MCL sprain became a full ACL tear and I knew that the implications were huge. I would be unable to perform the duties of my job and with that was facing financial uncertainty.
Still, despite excruciating pain, I was serene and confident.
God had answered.
Or so I hoped.
“It is what it is…”
My faith crumbled against that awful reality.
“You are thirty years old living in Milton.”
It was true and the implications clear enough.
I was a stick in the mud, already past my prime by the standards of some, and certainly not the adventure her heart was set upon. I simultaneously loved her brutal honesty and hated the harshness of judgment. My worst fear realized.
I had no defense.
When we finally parted ways I was lost in a haze. The rug yanked out from under me. My sputtering attempts to articulate my own heart had no effect on her whatsoever. Blissful hopes were mercilessly cut down by an otherwise nurturing soul.
My conversation with her end with my mouth involuntarily echoing her “it is what it is” plea and with that accepting the rationality of fatalism that had long dogged me.
A continuing cruel loneliness now seemed inevitable. I had tried many times before, taken my hits, always got back up again by believing next time would be better—that something greater would come from my suffering rejection. But this time I could not delude myself with hope.
My faith had lost the day—my hope against hope had failed—and now a terrible fate of a despairingly cold and isolated life was upon me.
My mind, a place normally full of noise and activity, went totally blank as if unable to comprehend any of it. I was in shock about what had transpired and numb.
I wandered off aimlessly.
Into the wilderness of South Dakota.
Into the dark of night.
The storm brewing in overhead seemed to perfectly mirror the log-jam of conflicted thoughts and swirl of deep emotions.
My delusion of hope that a young ambitious woman might find me desirable enough to consider a romantic relationship was shattered into a million fragments. My failure to achieve now clung to me like an unforgivable sin. Very soon I awoke from my stupor into an inescapable nightmare of reality.
The uneasy calm broke when Johnny and Brian somehow found me. The rain, which had coincidentally held to precisely the moment they carried me to the shelter of an awaiting truck cab, began to pour down in torrents and so did my tears.
Escaping reality was impossible.
Doing battle with the it…
Most people nowadays pursue career first and romance second. But I had these things in reverse order. I prioritized relationship and postponed all else.
My reasoning was that it would be better to form life ambitions and goals together as a couple rather than apart. And I might have pulled it off had I been a bit less socially awkward. Unfortunately I had this vexing tendency to freeze up as soon as my interest was piqued and thus my early romantic pursuits failed miserably.
Years were frittered away with unfulfilled dreams, chasing one false hope after another and waiting for opportunities that never came.
Not to say that I did nothing of value in that time either. I gained life experience, slowly built confidence in my abilities, learned to live independently, and gained perspective.
However, it was hard not to feel a failure.
There seemed to be this mysterious “it” that always kept my best efforts from panning out and nobody had the answers for this that I craved.
I’ve heard all the cliché advice I could ever stomach. One person says try harder and the next will say you’re trying too hard. One tells you “you’re intimidating” and the next says you lack confidence. You’re basically wrong no matter what you do.
The same one who says they want someone “mature” rejects your offer and then dates a teenager whom she later marries. It is incredibly confusing when the same person who says you’ll make a “great husband” refuses to even consider a date.
It is impossible to define exactly what the “it” is. It was a ball of anxieties, that inexplicably poor timing, a curse of a jealous enemy, the lack of true community and help.
It was many things and yet nothing at all.
It was an invisible monster that chased me throughout my life. It was the glass wall that seperated me from those who were more able to conquer the obstacles in their way and achieve their goals. It was my doing too little too late or too much too early. It was my always being close to the mark and yet never hitting it.
The “it” is not something external to be vanquished. It is everything from my formative years up until the present moment that I’ve experienced or thought. It is my home, my genetic and cultural inheritance, the good and bad together intertwined and inseparable as part of my own character.
The “it” is a sum total of what defines me as a person.
It was inescapable.
It is me.
It is what we make it…
Her certainty about her own direction was why she was so attractive to me. It was never my plan to grow old in Milton.
However, she seemed to believe that her personal ambitions were something that made us incompatible. To me our lack of similar résumé was not a disqualification, I saw our differences as an asset, considering her strengths as being complimentary rather than contradictory to mine, but she disagreed.
She was my last remaining escape plan.
I did not eat in the days after because I had no desire to continue as I had and seemingly had no escape. I wanted to die and would rather starve than keep feeding myself with more false hopes.
I cried, “I have no vision!”
I so desperately wanted free of a mind seemingly incapable of focus. I had seemed to do fine in a structure. I was a diligent worker, a loyal friend, responsible and dedicated. But leave me too free to choose my own path and I would dither indefinitely in indecision.
God provided just enough reason to get me out of bed. I cleaned up, composed myself a bit, ate the cup of yogurt and glass of water mom provided. I faced her again, my elusive hope against hope, and then in the weeks following I went under the knife to have the torn ligament replaced with a graft and after that began the months of rehabilitation. My goal to come back stronger than before and physically I did.
What also happened in my time off of work was a book (written but shelved pending further review) and this blog. I’ve found some answers in blogging. Writing my experiences and recording some of my thoughts has seemed to help provide some direction. The more vulnerable I’ve become the more friends and opportunities to serve I’ve seemed to gain.
Why am I Mennonite?
I have never been the Mennonite golden boy.
I’ve never had the swooning attention of the favorites who better represent the ideals of Mennonite culture. I’ve always done things a little different. I was who I was and gave up on being anything besides that. But still, I longed to gain acceptance in the Mennonite culture.
In Mennonite culture marriage is acceptance and not all are. Yes, sure, we’ll let most anyone be a member so long as they complete the required steps, but marriage is where the reality of a two tiered system becomes very evident. There are the kids born in the right homes, the ones able to do all the things that make them popular within their cultural context and marriageable, and then there are those of us who don’t fit the mold.
She represents a direction that I thought my life should go in. Her Mennonite idealism, her simplicity of role or purpose in life, represented something deep within my own heart and desirable.
However, many who have read my blogs question this and ask… “why are you still Mennonite?”
It is question that I dislike.
I’m Mennonite because I like being Mennonite.
We have such a neat and tidy cloistered existence. We have beautiful families. We are the happy Hobbits living in the Shire of Middle-earth. Everything we do is safe. Even our missionaries typically go out to all the corners of the world yet never leave the protection of their religious confines.
It has been suggested to me recently that I have “out grown” the tradition. That is the question that I have wrestled with as of late.
Can one actually out grow their home?
I’m running out of arguments why to stay in a denomination that is more about conforming to cultural expectations than transformation of mind and living a life of true faith.
It is hard not to notice that most of the help on my journey came from those leaving the Mennonite tradition or outside of it. The support I’ve gotten from those within has been grudgingly or something that needed extracted and done as mere religious duty. I hear brotherly love spoke of by Mennonites, but it seems more relic or ritual than actually reality. The real brotherhood I’ve experienced, the genuine Christian love, comes from beyond my own Mennonite tradition.
Does a man of faith belong with those who shrug “it is what it is” rather than risk a small step into unfamiliar territory?
Should I have any part with those who eagerly travel over land and sea to win a single convert and yet would never go in a direction they don’t understand?
Still there is a strong urge to remain a part.
I’ve always thought all voices were needed in the conversation and the including mine. If everyone capable of challenging the cultural status quo leaves it would create even more tunnel vision and further imbalance. My strengths, rejected or not, would be of benefit to those who think they have all the answers and are confident about the tradition they received.
Composites make a stronger material than their component parts—shouldn’t the bond of love be able to do the same with two dissimilar people?
There is a time to wait and there is a time to take decisive action. I have given up many opportunities for placing my hopes within the context of my Mennonite culture and gone many years without seriously considering the alternatives.
Mennonite is my cultural identity. Despite my many idiosyncrasies, I’ve always been Mennonite at heart and somewhat proud of my ethnic and religious heritage. How does one unbind and divorce themselves from their cherished past?
It is not like I haven’t ventured out before in search of what I might find only to return again as if drawn by an invisible force that grew stronger the further away I got from whoopie pies and covering strings. But things do change and there could be a force stronger than that which always pulled me back.
When I asked God to make the impossible possible for me, I had a personal vision that included remaining Mennonite and the young woman that I knew was an impossibility as far as worldly logic is concerned. But it now seems possible that my vision then was too narrow and that I should look beyond to the other options available.
Being Mennonite is not the be all end all. God calls us to go beyond the limits we set for ourselves or those set for us by our cultures and that is my intention. It doesn’t matter what my religious peers or even my blood relatives think—Jesus called us to follow Him and leave our fears, insecurities and inadequacies behind us.
Maybe impossibility made possible for me is something I never anticipated?
That is what have I learned since that day tearing my ACL, in recovery from yet another slap of rejection, and from the battle with the “it” which drove me to extremes in search of answers. I learned that I do not have all the answers and don’t need all the answers before I am able to step out in faith.
There are many things that will soon come to a head for me and most I am unable to talk openly about at this time. Many of these things being pivotal life changing decisions that must be made. What happens in the next couple months will determine many things.
Your prayers to help me through this transitional time are very appreciated. Pray that the impossible is made possible.
Smith, despite only having a few snaps at a college level until last week, was no bench warmer.
Smith, a humble soft-spoken leader, was on the most successful high school football team in Lewisburg Green Dragons history, a team that advanced all the way to the state quarterfinals in 2010, and the backbone of an outstanding defense.
But more significantly than all of that, Smith was active in the local church and is by all accounts a young man fully committed to using his talents for the honor and glory of God. He even turned down two scholarships to prestigious universities to walk on and suit up for Penn State because that is where he believed God wanted him.
The reason why Mennonites do not show up to play ball.
The Mennonite tradition I was born into has a long list of activities that are not encouraged. And, of those activities restricted or outright banned, one being participation in organized competitive sports and football was considered especially intolerable.
The reason for this is an idea called ‘non-conformity’ that is common to Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups. It is based on a statement “be not conformed to this world” found in the book of Romans and in other Scriptural teaching about separation from the world.
This idea of non-conformity usually amounts (ironically enough) to conformity to a religious standard that is enforced primarily by church leaders. The standards are different from group to group, but generally apply to technology usage, clothing style and entertainment. Through their idea of non-conformity various Anabaptist groups have maintained their cultural distinctiveness in an ever changing world.
Unfortunately too often it seems the focus is on preserving a religious heritage and an ‘Anabaptist identity’ rather than a radical pursuit of God. Wearing black socks or using a horse named Fred as transportation rather than a Ford does not change a person’s heart.
The problem is when non-conformity is nothing more than a human effort to please cultural expectations.
Conformity without transformation misses the point entirely and will keep us spiritually sidelined.
The bigger problem with Mennonite non-conformity and separation teaching is that it puts the emphasis in the wrong place.
Read the context:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)
The ‘be not conformed’ above is not a standalone statement. Paul doesn’t leave us to guess his meaning and quickly follows with “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and is basically describing the need for something transformative to happen within us.
The word “transformed” is translated from a word “metamorphóō” (μεταμορφόω) that looks like metamorphosis and basically means the same thing. It is a word used four times in the New Testament, twice it is translated “transfiguration” in reference to Jesus and twice (including Romans 12:2 above) to describe the change that takes place in a believer.
Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) is a very significant event, the “greatest miracle” according to Thomas Aquinas, thought of as a bridge come between heaven and earth or perhaps what modern science would describe as a portal between dimensions. It is where Jesus is seen by his disciples talking to Moses and Elijah and a voice proclaims Jesus as son.
The other time this significant word is used is in this passage:
“Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:15-18)
It is quite clear in contextual usage that this word “transformed” is something spiritual, something God does, and not a matter of human effort. In the passage from 2 Corinthians above it is about having a “veil” removed by the Spirit that allows us to be able to understand Scripture that leads to transformation. In Romans 12:2 it is about a transformation that leads to renewal of mind.
What is renewal?
The word “renewal” as in “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” is translated from a word “anakainósis” (ἀνακαίνωσις) and describes a process. In Romans 12:2 it is about the mind being changed through this transformative thing. It is also a word used one other time in Scripture:
“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7)
Again we see a process in which God intervened on our behalf while we were still lost, hopelessly blind to spiritual reality, and did something to change us. It is not something we do for ourselves or a list of do’s and don’t’s passed down from generation to generation, it is something spiritual done in us by God’s grace.
Why Mennonites should stop playing for fun only and need to get serious about using their all for God’s glory.
Should I be brutally honest?
Our idea of non-conformity is more often a path to complacency rather than spiritual renewal.
We are doing it wrong…
We have become as the Pharisees who were obsessed with details, considered themselves to be the experts on all things Biblical, yet despite their diligent study of the book they rejected Jesus as savior (John 5:39-40) and totally missed the point. They were “blind guides” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24) and we are there with them.
Instead of seeking after true transformation, and using everything in our life to bring glory and honor to God, we attempt to carefully divide up our activities into categories of “worldly” and spiritual. Instead of integrate all areas of our life into our witness, we compartmentalize and become ineffective.
When we do participate sports, rather than see it as a way to a witness, we play for fun only. In similar fashion, when we work we do it for money only, when use social media we use it exclusively for recreation only. We think missions is only something that happens when we join our earnest religious peers on an airplane ride to Africa and otherwise arrange our lives in such a way that we miss opportunities staring us right in the face.
Instead of seeing athletic pursuits as a means a greater end, a chance to display Christian character to others, we see only the frivolity of sports. Instead of seeing business as a mission to our customers and employees, we take a worldly approach by make profits a higher priority than people—then excuse it because it will give us more spices to tithe on Sunday or an opportunity to “travel over land and sea” as Jesus said (Mathew 23:15) the Pharisees did while calling them hypocrites and blind.
It is a problem called functional fixedness. In problem solving functional fixedness is when a person can only see things one way and therefore miss better solutions.
Could it be possible that this is because we got our poles reversed and have put our effort to achieve righteousness before real faith in God?
Could it be because we are non-conformed in outward appearance through artificial religious means, but have the same ‘worldly’ attitudes in our hearts and are not truly transformed through a renewal of our mind?
If so, we should stand up against our own hypocrisy like Jesus…
Jesus defied the religious expectations that he was supposed to conform to and so should we.
Jesus infuriated the adherents to the Bible-based religious tradition of his time. He broke their rules of do’s and don’t’s as a way to point out their hypocrisy and true lack of faith. Jesus, while they were busy arguing the theological minutia and details of application, was out healing and showing love.
Mennonites, like many other Christian denominations, are often so distracted by their own doctrines and dogmas that they fail at being actually faithful. We are so concerned with preserving our own fundamentals that we neglect the larger matters of following after God’s way and the largest being genuine love for the world.
The truth is that we are never told by Jesus to physically separate ourselves from the world.
We should be in the world and not of the world, set apart in our attitude and approach to life rather than in outward appearance only. To truly follow after Jesus we need to be in the world, in places where the real people are and in the places that religiously self-righteous people avoid.
We need to consider the example of Paul:
“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)
It is interesting to note that Paul, directly after telling us that for sake of the Gospel he has “become all things to all people” in the quote above, uses an analogy of an athlete preparing for competition. It reminds me of the dedicated preparation of a faithful young man named Brandon Smith.
Smith was not only ready to take the field in terms of physical preparation either. This week, after his debut on Saturday, his wife, Andrea, posted a status update on social media from her personal prayer journal. It was an entry from exactly a year before and asking that her husband would have the opportunity to take the field:
That, my friends, is where it gets real.
We do not battle against flesh and blood, our battle is spiritual. We do not win victory by artificial conformity and meaningless arbitrary rules either, we are fighting an unconventional war using asymmetrical tactics, we need the mind of Christ:
“The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:15-16)
Do you have the mind of Christ? Have you been transformed by supernatural means of the Spirit? Or are you just outwardly and artificially non-conformed through human efforts? Whatever the case, do not bury the talents God has given you for fear of what others may think.
Smith is expected to get his first college start on Saturday afternoon against Michigan. And, win or lose, I know #47 is playing for the right reasons. I pray God blesses him and his wife as they serve. I hope we all are prepared to serve wherever and whenever our own number is called.
Life can leave us feeling dry. As one of deep emotions I have felt distressed lately and yet seemingly too exhausted for tears. It is the feeling of being crushed under a heavy weight unable to move it.
Sunday morning a brother shared his own struggle coping with all the broken lives around him. He spoke of children who appear to be given no chance in life and are neglected. I thought of the countless masses of humanity, the millions hurting, the millions helpless and those still looking for a day of salvation, where will they find God’s love?
I came home to my beautiful family. I shared dinner with my parents and sister. I was sad, struggling and thinking over the lyrics of a hymn sung at the end of the service. The final stanza on my mind:
“Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”
After the meal mom and I discussed her mother’s mental health since undergoing multiple chemotherapy treatments. Her mom was always a strong and sharp woman, but now is having difficulty with simple routine tasks.
Alzheimer’s took my great-grandma. It is an undignifying end for a loved one who was once independent and strong. I pondered the loss of my grandma that way, then I thought about my own mother who I love so deeply, who is always there for me, and wondered if I would see her thinking and abilities fade too.
Was this the fate that would befall me as well?
I only wanted one thing in that moment and that was to hold onto mom never letting go. I gave mom a hug then the floodgates opened. I wept for my weakness, I wept for mom’s mortality, I wept for grandpa’s fears and grandma’s confusion, I wept for all those in this sick and dying world.
Faith is not impervious to emotion. Our sorrow is as much of an expression of faith as our joy. Men of faith weep because they love deeply and share the pain of those hurting. Tears soften the hard ground of cruelty and judgment of this world.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)
Tears are the waters of spiritual healing. Tears lift and carry away burdens too heavy for our own strength to bear. May we fulfill the law of Christ and share our tears of joy, sorrow and love. May our love be poured out to all people.