Why the Princess Had to Kiss a Frog

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Those who had early success in the romantic realm can be excused for thinking of it as some sort of magic. For them the “right one” comes along, his awkward introduction goes well enough, then very soon they are entering that world of “meant to be” and marriage.

That was the world of my own teenage fantasies and remained a hope resilient enough to carry me through a decade of disappointment. Reality would slap me in the face over and over again. But, after some moments of despair, I would always refuse to believe the evidence and go with my heart instead: Eventually that mythical creature would come along, the one who loved me for my heart rather than my status or stature, and finally prove my hopes.

Hope, even hope at the level of magical thinking, serves an important role in our survival. Too much concern about the chances and a man might never get out of bed (or leave the cave) and confront the challenges ahead of him. Life requires faith and courage or the ability to overcome fears (based in our previous experience and/or a reasonable assessment of outcomes) and plunge blindly forward into the unknown. It was a bit of foolish hope that enabled our ancestors to continue the species.

Hope Is Not a Strategy

Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy and a positive attitude, while often attractive, is not a guarantee of success. For every miraculous rescue, there have been countless others who likely clung to their hopes until the last hour. Like those students on the ill-fated MV Sewol, desperately clawing for a chance to save themselves to the point of broken fingers as the ferry boat capsized, many have fought hard to survive against the odds and died cold and alone. The lucky ones didn’t spend their last moments in sheer terror and desperation.

Fortune may favor the bold, but if you are a man, in America, standing 5′-2″ tall, and you want to experience happily ever after, then you better be rich or dripping with charisma. Because, whether we like to admit it or not, women (like men) are selective and statistics tend to favor a particular height range in men. First of all, women state their preference for taller men outright and, second, the numbers seem to bear this reality out—taller men have a distinct advantage. Again, this doesn’t mean that men on the average or shorter range have no chance, but it may mean that they will be less sought-after and thus, to be successful, they need to be less selective.

In the religious context that formed my expectations, the above reality was something that I could accept for “the world” and yet wanted to deny as it applied to the women whom I consider to be virtuous. I mean, I’m not extremely short or anything, I’m also in decent physical condition, but I’m definitely not above average in any regard and certainly did not draw as much interest from women as some of my friends who only needed to show up to make the list of the swooned after. It could be a bit nauseating, at times, when women would use me as their means of intelligence gathering about a “hot” friend, but at least I could be a good wingman for my friends, right?

Still, despite my knowledge of how things really worked and a growing number of failures, I remained a hopeless romantic. In fact, as a final act, before everything went totally sideways, rather than retreat or settle (a strategy that had never worked for me anyway) I decided to double down in faith and act in a way that I knew was irrational. For the first time in my life, I would ignore the odds, hope against hope, and find victory over my old nemesis of agnosticism that had always nipped at my heels. This young woman, the impossibility, became symbolic of my struggle to preserve my Mennonite identity and cling to the child-like innocence that had begun to fade over the years.

A Bitter Pill of Truth

What I found, in the end, is that Mennonite girls are really not that different from their secular counterparts. Sure, they wear a different costume, they also have some unique culturally-specific expectations, but being “thirty years old living in Milton” was still something unforgivable to a young woman full of her own ambition. And the more damning truth came in retrospect and in my further consideration of how a medical professional characterized this quixotic pursuit as mere sexual attraction. I had bristled at this. How dare this doctor say such a thing? But I was, like so many others, a victim of my own delusion.

The paradigm of my Mennonite identity came crashing down, despite my best efforts to preserve it, the night that I realized that she was dating and would marry taller more prototypical Mennonite guy over this hopeful fool. The gig was up. And, to pour salt on my wounds, this generically luckier fool, had the audacity to take to social media and crow about his success as a sign of God’s special favor—where did that leave me as the one who had put forward a truly faithful effort and failed? Of course, I didn’t lash out directly against his childish exuberance, I mean had I been successful you may have never heard the end of it. That is some of the reason why I started this blog, to chronicle my irrational belief that the impossible could be made possible and as a means to prove wrong some cynical faithless naysayers.

The hard truth, the wall that I hit, was that my faith could not overcome my lack of tangibles (at least tangibles that mattered) even amongst those seemingly most sincere. On top of that, despite my initial thoughts of this girl having a sort of strange or alien appearance, the reality is that she was a hot commodity amongst many guys. In other words, the very idea that my admiration of her was something special or spiritual fell flat against the clear contrary evidence. I had fought against my cognitive dissonance, refusing to accept things were not as I had imagined they should be, not as I was told they would be, and no amount of faith would change what was true about my culture.

The Rejection of Average

Anyhow, my sentiments aside, the trends that I encountered in selectiveness reflect a growing inequity in the dating economy of our time. This selectiveness is found in the data of various dating sites and as it turns out, is a phenomenon especially true of women. That according to studies cited in an article, “Attraction Inequality and the Dating Economy,” bearing this reality out. The summary is that around 80% of women consider about 80% of men to be of below average attractiveness and thus are competing for the top 20% of men.

It doesn’t take a degree in probability and statistics to see the problem. As a result of a variety of factors (our affluence, ability to travel, exposure to marketing and media, etc) our expectations have gone through the stratosphere. A young woman believes she can afford to wait and is thus willing to turn down a dozen potential suitors who she deems to be too average for her tastes. I mean, why settle for the frog, doesn’t every princess deserve her prince?

Sadly, for women of high expectations, this increased selectiveness does not correspond with increased numbers of above-average men. What it does mean is that fewer men, born with the right physical features and charm, have more women at their disposal. It also means that there are many other men of average stature or appearance who get very little attention. And, whereas marriage used to take some off the market (at least on paper) that is no longer the case. So, as it goes now, many women are eagerly awaiting the opportunity with those few of exceptionally attractive men who do not need to take them seriously and, meanwhile, are ignoring those whom they have a real chance with.

Mennonites Raise the Threshold

In the conservative Mennonite world where I came from the expectations are even more stringent. Not only do we have the influence of Hollywood, but we also have an increased starting commitment that comes with the purity culture teachings that crept in with the embrace of Protestant fundamentalism. In other words, not only are Mennonite young women as superficially selective as their secular counterparts, but they are also afraid to so much as having coffee with an average guy lest they are somehow defiled by this frog—accidentally marry him or something?

But the big difference is that, in the conservative Mennonite world, the guys are also as selective as the girls. Basically the threshold of commitment has been raised so high that a guy wouldn’t dare risk his reputation by dating that average girl. No, he’s going to go for that cherub-faced icon of Mennonite beauty and that’s because he already knows that the average girl will likely reject him as well. So, unlike the secular situation, where the problem is that 80% of the women are only attracted to 20% of the guys, with conservative Mennonites it is also 80% of the guys who are after 20% of the girls.

In such circumstances it is amazing anyone gets married at all. Of course, it helps that conservative Mennonites often marry younger when they are still too dumb to have established their impossible standards. It also helps now that there are more opportunities for Mennonite young people to humanize their other gender counterparts through fun group activities, like global missions or Bible schools. Nevertheless, there are many of average attractiveness who are left behind in the current Mennonite paradigm and I was one of them—there simply was not a path for me to romantic success within that context.

Willingness To Kiss Frogs

Fairytales are not only fun stories, but many of them are also full of meaning waiting to be unpacked and applied like a Biblical parable. And such is the case with the fairytale about the princess who kisses a frog and ends up with a prince. Sure, that never happens literally in real life, but it does illustrate the utility of taking a chance on an unproven commodity and the potential for a change of perspective. That awkward guy in the youth group or in the gym might not seem like much of a catch from a comfortable distance, I mean he can’t even protect himself from tripping over his own feet let alone be that dragon-slaying hero of female fantasies, right?

But sometimes those average guys have something beneath the surface that those other catered to “top 20%” guys don’t have and that is a thing called character. I mean, it isn’t easy being last picked in gym class. A clumsy guy is indeed very aware of his shortcomings and especially while he’s tripping over his words, despite a large vocabulary, to talk to the slightly above average girl (in his eyes) who treats him with that carefully hidden distain. If he just had a chance, if he would just be allowed to show a little of his heart, then maybe he would start to look more and more like a handsome prince rather than an ugly frog?

And not at all saying that we should not take the opportunity to better ourselves. There are plenty of guys and girls who refuse to make any effort to change themselves or adjust their approach to reality and end up repeating the same failure over and over again. They are a lost cause.

But there are many more, like me, who do shine when given a chance. There is a beautiful woman (not Mennonite) who allowed this frog an opportunity to speak into her life. She learned about some of my better qualities. However, more than that, her mere presence in my life created a new kind of strength in me. She gives me something to protect, she gives me a specific purpose and a reason to develop my abilities. I love her because she calls me her “average bhest” and uses that as a reason to embrace rather than disqualify me. It is because she knows that I am dedicated to her, that I am not like the guy who took from her yet never provided the security she needed for herself and her son.

The metaphor of a princess kissing a frog comes from the reality that women need to be selective and the other reality that most men need some catalyst to reach their full potential. The tragic part is that when impossible expectations are allowed to creep in the result is impotent men and dissatisfied women. Even those who are successful in getting married, who do not shed their romantic perfectionism, could very well end up with a relationship on the rocks. We need to renew a practical love, the ability to love people who are just average, like we are, or we will end up missing out on the opportunity for romances that go deeper.

It is time to show some faith where it actually matters. Most men aren’t six feet tall with the face of a Hollywood lead man. Most women don’t look like Ariana Grande or whomever else the entertainment industry puts on their billboards. Most women, whether they know it or not, are more frog than princess. Most men, even the decent ones, are not as worthy as they think themselves to be. Most of us are average. It is time to stop being so full of ourselves and start kissing some frogs. Or we could just keep hoping for that magical prince (or princesses) to show up and love us for no reason other than that we exist. Your choice.

 

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

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

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

Jesus is a man who led by example.

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

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

A hierarchical system serves those at the top.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The text…

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

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

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

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

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

I believe it is the latter.

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

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

Jesus prioritized people over the letter of the law.

Read Mark 2:3-283:1-6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus speaks against the attitudes of Mennonite religious elites today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is how to be a Christian leader.