What Mennonites Could Learn From Brandon Smith

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His name was unknown.

He is a walk on linebacker on a college football team who started this season as a backup to a backup.  But, undaunted, he practiced and committed to being ready for that moment.

That moment came last Saturday when this unknown finally had his number called.  Brandon Smith, a number 47 on his iconic ‘no name’ blue and white jersey, finally got his chance. 

After yet another injury in a season plagued with injuries he was called upon and took the field.  He used the opportunity to lead a bruised and battered defensive unit and preserve a win for the team.

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.

Discipleship: One Size Fits (Not) All

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Genetic research is a burgeoning field of study.  It reveals the complexity of our physical form in a new way and also my own unique DME genotype. 

For years medication was designed as a one size fits all solution.  However, how my body responds to a medication and how your body responds to the same dosage could be vastly different.  Not all people are created equal when it comes to their genetics. 

One of those differences is DME genotype.  DME is an abbreviation that stands for drug metabolism enzyme.  Most drugs are designed to be metabolized through by a certain set of enzymes. 

There are now labs that test genotype for drug compatibility.  Some of us are “poor metabolizers,” others are “intermediate metabolizers,” and on the far end of the scale are the “ultra-rapid metabolizers.” 

The implications are huge and there might be a day when drugs will be tailor made to suit our own unique individual body chemistry.  Unfortunately, until that day, we are stuck using drugs that are like misfitting hand-me-downs.

Are people created as spiritual clones?

People are genetically diverse and different.  We understand that and it is a reason to test before assigning drug prescriptions to treat people.  But do we apply that same idea spiritually?

One thing I have noticed in my reading the Bible is that no two people were the same.  The similarity of Biblical characters was not one of having the exact same spiritual journey or experience.  Their strengths varied, as did their weaknesses, they also had a wide range of spiritual experiences, life challenges and gifts.  The unifying factor of all was simply faith in God.

Take Abraham, for example, he was an old nomad wandering without an heir until God made him a promise.  His transformative spiritual experience came late in life.  He messed up in his attempt to reconcile the reality of his situation with what God told him and tried to do things his own way by impregnating a woman not his wife.  But ultimately, despite his mistakes, he served the purpose God had designated for him and was blessed richly for it.

David was a young man, he was looked over as a leader for his age and sidelined to tend the sheep.  But later he become symbolic of courageous faith to a nation for his slaying of Goliath.  He went on to live a life full of missteps, he endured personal tragedy (as a result of his own corrupt deeds) and still ended up a hero of faith at the end of his story.  He was described as a man after God’s own heart in the book of Acts.

Women, from prostitutes like Rehab to queens like Esther, from Deborah the warrior-judge to deaconesses to desperate widows, played their own unique roles in the Biblical faith narrative.  They were all faithful in different ways, some were courageous women who shouldered tremendous tasks, some hospitable to prophets in keeping their homes and others were mothers who were favored by God.

Some of the strongest examples of faith were from those who were raised in captivity.  They were exposed at a young age to the best of what a worldly king could offer and yet chose faith in God over the pleasures of princely wealth.  Daniel, those three guys with long weird names who survived unscathed after being thrown in a furnace, and Moses who later led his people, are all examples of extraordinary faith. 

Some of the worse cases of unbelief were found in those steeped in Biblical tradition who rejected Jesus.  Their religious devotion and diligent study of Scripture did not save them.  They were outwardly images of righteousness, they had all the knowledge of theology they knew to have and still missed the truth badly.  Allegiance to rules and roles produced hypocrites.

What does this mean for established rules and roles?

The idea that spiritual journeys must follow a set pattern or time frame does not fit with the Biblical pattern.  Yes, the Bible probably does make more mention of the exceptional characters and there were many faithful besides who were less the exception.  There certainty are statistical averages of people too, but there is no average person and that is the lie of statistics.

Men, on average, are physically stronger and also born with other strengths over women.  Women, on the other hand, also have their own unique strengths and abilities that make them generally superior to men in some areas.  That is what makes men and women a natural pair—they are complimentary (or stronger together) because they are different rather than the same.

People of the same gender also, while having some obvious similarities, are very different.  Paul alludes to this diversity often in his letters to the church.  In 1 Corinthians 12 he draws a vivid analogy between the church and a human body.  He compares people with different parts of the body that are reserved for unique purposes.  He was illustrating that their could be unity (and strength) in our differences when we are connected together by a same love.

It reminds me of the “united we stand” attitude of post 9/11 or the “unite or die” flag of the American Revolution:
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We understand nations do not survive if they are too divided.  We also understand that an economy without diversity of talents and diversity of contributions is probably not going to be very strong.  Thriving depends on cooperation between different parts rather than strict legalistic conformity.  But is that logic applied to the church as a collection of its individual parts?

The unity of the church was supposed to be built around common love and faith, not on absolute monochromatic sameness of personality and perspectives.  The church has unfortunately segregated by ethnicity, economic status, education, extremes of liberalism or conservativism, and along many other dividing lines of application.  In our division we miss an opportunity to see our full potential as a body.  Sadly, many seem to prefer images of themselves and doing things their own way over a commitment to love as Jesus loved.

Too often we create rules (or roles) to serve our own preferences rather than our fellows.  Many complex religious rationales have been created to justify hierarchies of men in fancy array.  Whole Biblical hermeneutics built around dominionism (in the model of the first Adam and Old Testament patriarchs) that serves the needs of selfish men rather than the cause of Christ. 

It is an anathema, it is a horrible distortion of Scriptural narrative, when the example of Christ (the better Adam) who turned down worldly dominion (Matthew 4:8-9) and instead bent low to wash the feet of his disciples.  It is tragic when the better way of Jesus is discarded for worldly dominion, it is selling a heavenly birthright for a bit of porridge.

There are spiritual constants, like love…

God’s love does not change.  I believe one unifying theme of Scripture is God’s constant love for humanity.  It is certainly the main message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ which is summed up eloquently:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)

Belief is love:

“Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.  On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.  Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.  (John 14:19-21)

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.  This is my command: Love each other.  (John 15:12-17)

When asked what is the “greatest commandment” Jesus answered:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22:36-40)

Paul expounded on what Christian love means practically:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.   Love never fails…”  (1 Corinthians 13:1-8)

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.  (Colossians 3:12-14)

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace… speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”  (Ephesians 4:2-3, 15)

Love is a spiritual concept, not a mere code of conduct, not a blind allegiance to doctrinal statements nor a slavery to traditional application or religious dogmas.  Love is death to selfish ambition, dedication to an eternal goal and lives to serve the good of others.  Love comforts, love encourages, love provides tangibly for needs and rebukes immorality.

Love disciples.

If there is anything most lacking in the church today (and world in general) it is love.  Sure, many love selectively, they love their own family, their own tribe (of race, gender, cultural group, religious denomination, social class, etc) and yet that is not the love of Christian faith.  The love of Jesus transcends tribal difference, it extends beyond biological offspring, and returns multiplied.

One place our love is most lacking is in commitment to true discipleship.  As part of his parting words, Jesus told his followers, “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) but it seems that is a concept often lost.  Discipleship is supposed to be something personal, interactive and ongoing.  But it also requires sacrifice of time, energy and our own pursuits.  Discipleship takes loads of patience and it is too easily replaced by a cheap imitation or neglected entirely.

It is easy to designate the difficult task of discipleship to a few in an effort to absolve ourselves of responsibility.  It is easy for tailored and flexible discipleship to be displaced by one-size-fits-all cookie cutter solutions.  However, having people sign on to a book of regulations enforced rigidly (without love) is not true discipleship and not the example Jesus gave for us to follow.

Ironically, by not disciplining as we ought, we are not only shortchanging those who need an example of love and grace to follow, we are also robbing ourselves of the full experience of Christian faith.  Everything worth doing requires hard work and a dedicated effort.  Loving others enough to disciple them in a way tailored to their individual needs is no exception to the rule.  Real love takes effort. 

People are unique and “fearfully and wonderfully made” according to Psalms.  Programs with simplistic algorithms are not sufficient.  People do not need more generic prescriptions or clunky twelve step programs.  People need genuine authentic self-sacrificial living breathing Christian love and a real investment of faith.  So don’t give what is second rate if you want first rate results.

God bless.

When exception rules…

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

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

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

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

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

Broader Application and Implications

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

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

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

Keeping a Balance of All Factors

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

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

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

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