Simone Biles, Joey Julius, Jim Thorpe and Mental Strength

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Simone Biles, arguably the best female US gymnast ever, decided to quit the competition at the Tokyo Olympics.  This decision was as celebrated as if she had won gold and that caused some conservative friends to protest.  The bulk of the criticism having to do with the glowing coverage of this choice.  But then there was a lot that was aimed at her personally, calling her a deserter, “an entitled, weak, brat,” and part of the “participation trophy” behavior. 

While I won’t call what she did stunning or brave, I will also withhold any sort of hard judgment concerning her.  Maybe it was the right decision?  If she isn’t feeling up to the task then it might be good to allow the next one up to fill the spot on the team?

Given that it was leaked, back in 2016, that Biles uses Adderall, a common stimulant used to treat ADHD, and banned by the Olympics, it is little wonder she is out of sorts.  That’s a strong drug, in the methylamphetamine class, and going off of it could severely hamper a person mentally.  Many people (conservatives, in particular) do not understand how much their mood and level of ambition are predetermined.  During my brief stint using Adderall, I learned a lot about how easy it is to get things done when you have complete focus  The withdrawal is something fierce too.  For me it left a dead inside, can’t get out of my own way, feeling when in withdrawal. 

So, rather than an indictment of Biles, this may be a concern about how we deal with life in the United States.  Whereas previous generations and most people in the world cope without drugs, the US is very drug dependent.   The US, in fact, is the world leader in prescription drug usage.  The US produces and uses about 85% of the world’s methylphenidate.  Rather than overcome by internal means, learning coping skills, or building mental strength by simply getting up and after it, we are relying on the take a little pill solution to problems.

Then again, we can’t know if Biles would ever be competing at this level without Adderall.  But we do know that she has had many things to overcome.  She has worked very hard to get to where she is.  She has endured a childhood of hunger and sexual abuse too.  This is why I’m not going to join anyone in calling her weak or anything else.  Unless someone has competed at the highest levels of gymnastics and knows a little of the commitment and strength it takes, then it may be best to leave judgment to those who have been there and done that.

That said, the question of whether we are getting mentally weaker is worth looking into, but first another athlete’s story…

A hard-hitting and short career

Joey Julius stormed onto the college football scene with his big boot and his hit stick tackles. 

Kickers are not generally known for their toughness.  It is typical that they hang back and play safety on the kick coverage.  It is expected that they might try to run the play out of bounds or go for a feeble attempt at the runner’s ankles.

Moment before impact

But that wasn’t Julius.  He was a big boy, 260lbs, and very quickly became a Penn State fan favorite with his ferocious coverage team collusions.  He was a walk-on and seemed to be ready to entertain for years to come.  Yet, right as his fame rose, he disappeared.

It certainly was disappointing for me, as a fan, to see this exciting and unique player off of the roster. And, of course, I had to ask why. For me being able to start for a college football team would be an amazing privilege and never something I would pass up. However, as one who saw my own cousin, a 6′-8″ 320lb lineman, confident as he was going in, get bogged down with injuries and the pressure of college life, end up off the team after one season, I understood that it isn’t an easy thing to be an athlete at that level.

As it turns out, Julius, despite his new celebrity, still struggled with body image issues and binge eating disorder. For all his success on the field, and the acceptance it brought, he felt he was not as he was supposed to be, was overcome by anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

As for toughness?

I know for certain, at least at my own size and strength, I wouldn’t run full speed into a division one athlete. So it would be hard to call Julius a weakling. As with Biles dropping out, their fame and athletic pursuits, our want of entertainment, all come secondary to their well-being and only they know what is right for them.

I wish him well.

My own story of quitting early…

I was picked to be on the church council late last year.  My congregation is small, yet a serious responsibility and, in my mind, an honor.  I had planned to serve out my full-term and was even a little excited.  It was the first time I would serve in a leadership position.  I had not been so much as a youth officer in my old denomination and it did bother me a little.  That said, I’ve never sought out mundane administrative duties, so being overlooked for the role wasn’t that big of a deal either.  Nevertheless, I took the reminders of Father Seraphim to heart, that we were to be an example to the rest of the church, and that would eventually lead to me resigning my post.

I would love to see myself as being mentally strong and might be in some regards.  However, the death of Uriah had taken an emotional toll and I really was not feeling up to the task of being a council member.  I was simply not putting in the kind of energy that I thought would be right for the position and started to have second thoughts after the first couple of meetings.  So I shared these thoughts privately with sub-deacon Anthony, who graciously responded, but then decided to continue the course.  However, that resolve did not last long.  The next meeting, for whatever reason, I was just feeling very discombobulated and even angry, it didn’t make any sense.  It was at that point that I decided to send Father a message to ask if it was okay to resign and he accepted.

It was embarrassing to me. 

As Jesus said, concerning discipleship:

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’  “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

(Luke 14:28-33 NIV)

Yes, perhaps the death, after a year hoping for a miracle, presented an extenuating circumstance.  But then everyone on the council has their own crap to deal with and some of them possibly more than me.  With a combination of perfectionism with some laziness, I had taken the easy way out.  Sure, it was good that I took my job seriously enough that underperformance was an issue.  And I knew when I agreed to the position that I wasn’t going to be a flawless participant.  Furthermore, I don’t quit my day job because of a bad day or even months of struggle.  So maybe it was all simply an excuse as soon as things got tough? 

I do know this, my replacement on council is an elderly fellow who probably should be enjoying his retirement rather than pick up the pieces for this me-first generation.

Is weakness a choice?

There is a character issue to be considered.  I’m the guy who can show up to work, in absolute agony, head ready to explode from an infected tooth, because someone has to do the job. 

Diminished capabilities or not, I understand that my participation in the group effort makes a difference and also that my paycheck depends on showing up.  In other words, maybe my quitting council was a sort of self-indulgence, or willing fragility, rather than an absolute reflection of my true ability to complete the task?

Sounds harsh. 

But then it is part and parcel of my generation’s ‘authenticity’ at all costs mindset.  We cast this as being strength, the “you do you” mantra is repeated often.  Still, it is also likely costing our greater potential when we choose to quit because of feelings of inadequacy or our lack of mental fortitude.  The idea of “fake it until you make it” does not exist because other generations had it easier than we do.  This learned helplessness, while comfortable, is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy and keeps many people from ever reaching their full potential.

The name Jim Thorpe comes to mind. This Olympic athlete, the first of Native American heritage to win gold, was an incredible story of mental toughness. While in competition, having had his shoes stolen, he found a mismatched pair of shoes in the garbage—used an extra sock on one foot to make it work—and went on to win a couple of gold metals in this hasty arrangement. This is a man who had every excuse to give up. Have you ever try to run, let alone compete at the highest level, in shoes that don’t fit?

The true GOAT

It would be worthwhile to read up on Thorpe, compare what he endured to the stories of Biles, Julius, and my own, then draw some conclusions. Perhaps the reality is that we could and we simply didn’t? In other words, we made a choice, picked an easier path, and missed an opportunity for growth?

My grittier moments…

I’ve had many setbacks in my life. I started struggling for breath, as a preemie, was a slow developer physically and late bloomer otherwise. Opportunities were often behind me before I even realized I should be seeking them.

I don’t recall, it was relayed to me, but apparently an elementary school teacher had told my mom about an incident, during a math test, where I jumped up beside my desk and screamed. Why that shy child would make such an outburst? Well, probably because I was so frustrated, trying so hard to focus, full of anxiety, and was barely able to do the work.

Obviously, like my eldest sister who blazed her path, I was driven. But, unlike my sibling, who could put her mind to something and do it, I would be overcome with my perfectionism and eventually defeated in various pursuits by my fear and doubt. The most crushing of those being my inability to pull myself together when things became uncertain in romantic hopes.

That’s not to say that my sheer will and determination gained me nothing. As a 112lb senior, I started and finished a season of football. I’ve comeback, on a couple of occasions, from injuries that might have caused some to put an end to their fitness regime. I had even walked in faith, against the odds, to pursue the impossibly, to the point that I became mentally ill and had nothing left to give. I’m still here.

At times I hated whatever made me want to keep going despite these setbacks. My mind, like Job’s wife, telling me “curse God and die.”

Fortunately, unlike many in this age that loves victimhood, I had a mom who would not let me slack off or quit. Sure, she could never do the work for me. But she could have easily nurtured me to death by catering to her poor Joel. I was a trouble child, especially as a teen, a tortured soul, someone always stuck in the mud, spinning his wheels as dreams sped away and vanished over the horizon. I didn’t actually know how to grow up or be independent. I would still be living at home had my mom allowed it. She didn’t.

Nobody is born ready to soar, not even a bird!

The idea of a home mortgage had terrified me. Could I make the payments? What if I could not pay it back? It was too much for me to do voluntarily, without that push, because I didn’t have the mental strength. And yet, when the time came, when I finally did sign the papers, not only did I pay off the loan, I actually paid it off in half of the time!

Incidentally, it was this that made me more confident when facing the impossibly, that Mennonite female interest to end all, and also totally upended me when she said, “you’re thirty years old living in Milton.” In one sentence she had destroyed the meaning of the entire struggle up to that point.

Nevertheless, even then, when I stopped eating and holed up in that cracker box house, wishing to die. It was my parents, especially my mom, who continued to push. Yes, there was comfort and consolation, time given for me to grieve, rest and collect myself again, yet never coddling or agreement with my despair.

It is absolutely terrifying for me to imagine what I may have become had I quit the first time things required digging deeper. I mean, I would have likely died in that plexiglass box—the isolette—had I not been a fighter, had my physician uncle given up, etc.

Not to mention had my mom decided pregnancy was too much for her or my grandparents lacked the commitment of marriage.

Life is tough.

We would not get very far if we make quitting when things don’t go our way into a habit. That is why we should be concerned about the new turn towards making heroes out of those who do not finish. Sure, there are reasons to quit, to avoid injury or whatever, but when it is simply an excuse for not putting forth effort? That’s a problem.

Build strength—Do not coddle weakness

Our culture, sadly, is coddling many to their own detriment. Many young adults live as overgrown children, unfulfilled, because they’re encouraged to be mentally weak and their needs are being provided. By contrast, I’ve seen an Amish toddler herd cows, Chinese toddlers can cook meals, and humans have an amazing ability to rise to the challenge.

It is a sad day when we go from honoring strength, that hard work it requires to achieve greatness, to celebration of weakness. It is basically a suicide pact, a death spiral, and makes thriving impossible. By telling people that they’re unable, that quitting is okay, we are doing them a lifetime of harm. We are currently at a crisis point it is not sustainable to go the direction we are going.

We need more heroes like Jim Thorpe now more than ever. The future of our species depends on it. However, this mental toughness, it doesn’t start (or end) with elite athletes on the world stage. It means having the courage to get up and go again, despite our feelings, and repeat as many times as necessary until we’re able to overcome. There is no pill, no magic solution, only learning not to make excuses and push on.

Godly Men Should Honor (Not Patronize) Women

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I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head and wept. ‘All right,’ I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’

That quote of Daisy, from The Great Gatsby, about the birth of her daughter, sardonically expresses her resignation to the male-dominated society of her time. She is saying that it is better for a girl to be a fool—because for a girl to be anything other than that would be to live a frustrated and repressed life, like her own life.

It shows that Daisy, though always acting flighty and fake, a rich ‘privileged’ woman in the roaring 20’s, has far more depth to her character and real intelligence than she is allowed to openly display.

One might assume that someone in her position, all of her material needs met and sheltered from any responsibility, would be content. I mean, the wealth of her husband, the brutal Tom Buchanan, walled her off from the toils and freed her from work or consequences.

But, beneath the veneer of playfulness, she seems miserable. She was powerless beyond what her husband provided for her and merely acting out the role carved out for her by society, the part of a fool, rather than truly free.

There is only the slightest difference between walls intended to protect and walls that imprison, the smallest gap between guarding someone’s child-like faith and enabling their childish behavior, and a person can claim to be protecting others yet really only be protecting their position. There are many people, men in particular, who like to keep others around them weak so they can feel strong or needed.

A fundamental misunderstanding of the weaker vessel…

The idea that women can’t be expected to handle certain circumstances or rise to the same level of behavior as a man is not something new to me. I know in fundamentalist circles many men regard women to be wholly inferior to them (besides in child-bearing) and thus a comment to that effect was not completely unexpected. However, it was still a bit jarring, in the context it was given, to hear a woman being excused for her unsociable behavior because she, as the “weaker vessel” and thus somehow incapable of doing any better.

I had to wonder what women (conservative Mennonite women in particular) would think of that comment.

Is that what they really want?

Do they truly want to always be regarded as helpless, the perpetual damsel in distress, rather than be treated as an equal and emotionally/intellectually capable?

I have a feeling that is not the kind of male protection that most women want.

But then, I could be wrong, my lack of success in the realm of conservative Mennonite courtship could indicate that my treatment of women as an intellectual equal was a grave error. Perhaps this is why I’ve been described as “intimidating” by a couple intelligent Mennonite women? Could it be that women really do feel better being coddled and patronized?

I will say that many women, especially attractive women, expect to be catered to and this is because men (including yours truly) are generally nicer to them for a variety of reasons—some of those reasons less noble than those more often expressed.

Anyhow, these hidden wants, openly expressed opinions and general tendencies aside, the real question is whether or not this is what the “weaker vessel” of Scripture truly means. Yes, obviously, women are, on average, weaker than men in terms of some measures of physical strength. But does this make women more feeble and less capable in all regards? Are women generally inferior to men?

Here’s the text:

Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered. (1 Peter 3:7 KJV)

I used the King James version because other translations replace “vessel” (σκεῦος) with “partner” or “sex” and potentially muddy the waters as far as this question more than they make things clearer. Again, I’m not an expert on the Greek language, but judging by how this word is translated elsewhere (John 19:29, Romans 9:21, Acts 9:15,10:11, etc), the word “vessel” seems to be a more literal, direct and appropriate translation.

That word “vessel” is an important qualifier to the word “weaker” (ἀσθενής) that precedes it. It is used in reference to objects or physical things and, in context of 1 Peter 3:7, would be reasonably understood to be a reference to a woman’s physical body rather than her person in general.

But more important is the rest of what is said. First, this passage is specifically about the relationship between husbands and wives. Second, the answer to a woman being the “weaker vessel” is for husbands to give “honour” (τιμή) to her, which means to value her, as one “being heirs together” with him, and it never suggests treating her like an inferior. If anything, this is an instruction not to use a woman’s lack of physical strength as means to diminish her other abilities or as a reason to otherwise patronize to her.

Yes, certainly we should protect what is valuable and Paul warns (similar to Malachi 2:13-15) about a man’s prayers being hindered if he mistreats his wife. However, that’s not the same thing as saying that we should be an enabler of weakness or should create unhealthy dependencies in our marriages. It is certainly not an excuse to allow a woman to act in an unChrist-like, inappropriate or otherwise unsisterly manner in the church.

The sexism of lower expectations is not honoring or Scriptural…

For the same reason we tell a bully “pick on someone your own size” we also say “don’t hit a woman” and should always take a clear stand against those who would exploit weaker people. Scripture always sides with the protection of the poor and against the oppression of the weak.

However, protection is not the same thing as pandering and nor does having Christian compassion mean we should coddle. No, a man should use his strength to encourage, empower and strengthen the weak. His role should be to give a space for his family to flourish. I believe that is the goal of our protection. Men protect the weak, in essence, by lending them our physical strength against external threats and that allows their abilities to shine rather than be crushed.

It is well-established that countries that protect the property and freedoms of their citizens prosper economically compared to those that exploit and/or do not. This is because people who know their work will likely be stolen have no reason to innovate or be ambitious. Likewise, a man who is a controlling tyrant, who sees his wife or children as wholly inferior, even if he does prevent their being exploited by others, will stifle and destroy the abilities of those entrusted to him.

Sure, maybe some women do employ their weakness as a means to get what they want in a relationship. I also know a couple cases of wives who can’t make their own decisions and depend on their husbands for everything besides picking the color of the drapes. But that level of dependency is not a good thing nor is it something we find in Scripture as an example of exemplary womanhood either:

A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet. She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land. She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers girdles to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:10‭-‬31 RSV)

That is not a limp-wristed wimp of a woman who follows two paces behind her man to keep in her place. No, that is a human dynamo, a force to be reckoned with and not that extremely anxious woman waiting for her husband’s input before doing anything on her own. No, the ideal woman, according to Proverbs, is the one who “makes her arms strong” and engages in commerce, a manager of a wide variety of affairs, and a wise teacher to boot.

Paul didn’t write so that men would lower their expectations for women. No, Paul has many expectations for women. Including in the verse prior (1 Peter 3:6) where he tells women not to be fearful. Telling a woman not to be fearful (φοβούμεναι) is the same as telling her to be emotionally strong and mentally capable.

It is not honoring of women to treat them as generally inferior or incapable.

How should men honor women?

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not!” (Isaiah 35:3‭-‬5a RSV)

Honoring means to protect and protect means to strengthen.

A wise man knows that he might not always be able to provide for his wife and children. For that reason, he will protect them by making them strong and not only shelter them with his own strength.

Yes, there is a kind of man who likes to keep others around him permanently disabled so that he can feel strong and useful. There are also women who enjoy being fearful and hanging on the arms of any man who will give them attention. But there is nothing in Scripture that suggests we should encourage this kind of codependent behavior and plenty that indicates we should strengthen and bring out the best in each other.

Men and women may serve different roles in the church and home. After all, people are different, regardless of gender, with different strengths and weaknesses. However, acknowledging that the reality of our differences in strength and honoring the “weaker vessel” does not mean treating anyone as our intellectual, emotional, or spiritual lesser. What Paul is really teaching, in a fuller context of Scripture, is that we not use our own physical strength as a means to diminish the abilities of our wife and rather we should honor her as someone capable.

In the end, nothing good comes from pandering to the women. Instead, we should respect them as capable, despite their lack of physical strength, and should encourage them (as Paul does) to be free rather than fearful. Fundamentalist purity cultures do the opposite, they seek to subjugate the weak and twist Scriptures (sometimes ever so slightly) to justify their dishonoring treatment of women. It is very subtle in some cases, it can be as small as lowering expectations based on gender alone, yet it is pervasive and perverse.

Maybe these men need a reminder? The word “helpmeet” used in Genesis 2:19-20 denotes a “suitable helper” and uses the same Hebrew words used to describe God’s help in battle. It does not imply subordination. It implies capability and strength. So, if we do not honor God through our doubt, then we do we honor women by lowering our expectations for women. Instead, we use our own unique strengths to encourage and strengthen each other.

A woman can be so much more than “a beautiful little fool” and we should not deprive them of the opportunity to rise up to the challenge of meeting the standards of competency that we would expect from a man—so do not dishonor her with sexism of low expectations.

Is There Room for Both Primitive and Historical Churches?

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Recently I had breakfast with an earnest young Mennonite man to hear a presentation on behalf of an organization that helps to educate pastors in India. My overall impression was good, they focused on empowerment of local leaders rather than creating dependencies, and it seemed a cause worthy of my support.

Part of the goal for this organization was to ground these new converts, who often are opposed and even persecuted by everyone, and establish them with correct doctrines. In many ways it is a ministry similar to that of Peter and Paul in the book of Acts. It is exciting to see that there is a primitive church established on the miracles Jesus promised.

However, and perhaps unfortunately, this organization and many others, while they do indeed serve in a way that I can appreciate, also promote their own theological perspective. It is founded and maintained by those who are themselves disconnected from the established tradition of the church and could likewise benefit from the council of their elders.

The Appeal and the Problems with Primitivism…

When we see new converts struggle in some foreign land we can easily see the need for increased understanding and structure.

Sadly, while we see their need, we often do not comprehend our own need.

For many years, as a child of Protestantism, I believed that my own sect had as complete an understanding of Christianity as there is and that I was individually able to discern truth. As I’ve grown into adulthood I started to become more aware of inaccurate teachings and my own fallibility as an individual.

I was raised in a denomination that promotes their own idea of primitivism. In other words, many in the church of my youth believe very sincerely that they are the spiritual successors of early Anabaptists and also the early church. Basically we assumed, based in where we were born or in our own personal interpretation, that we held a corner on the truth.

This, sadly, is a belief established on confirmation bias. It is the intellectual equivalent of comfort food and keeps many from digging a little deeper. To think the ground that you stand on is sacred because you’re standing on it is a terribly arrogant position. This often ends up like this:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9‭-‬10 NIV)

Primitivistic groups are experts at finding the evidence in favor of their perspective and pointing out the faults in other groups. They, like Diotrephes, exclude those who do not agree with them. And that is the biggest problem with primitivistic church groups, they do not all teach the same things, some are extremely heretical, and yet all believe they represent the real unadulterated truth and keep out all who disagree.

What is the Historical Christian Response to Primitivism?

Not all primitivism is bad. A person must start their journey of faith somewhere and a basic conceptual understanding of the foundations of Christianity is a good start. Note how Jesus corrects the disciples for trying to silence those who were working miracles in his name and yet were not connected directly to his ministry with the disciples:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49‭-‬50 NIV)

Jesus appears to endorse those working the miracles because they are correct in their basic understanding and doing his work. But that’s not to say we should be content to leave others ignorant and unconnected. I’m reminded of when Paul encountered some primitive believers:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:1‭-‬5 NIV)

It is the duty of a Christian elder to disciple and instruct the young in the faith and increase their understanding of the truth in the same way Paul did. Those who are of the right Christian perspective will appreciate the help and encouragement of an elder. They have the attitude encapsulated in the words of Peter:

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5 NIV)

We, like those new believers in India who are eager to be taught, need to take the same attitude towards learning from those who represent the historical church. There is an established church. There is a true orthodoxy of Christian faith and practice. We, those born into a more primitive setting in particular, would be remiss not to submit to our own elders and especially when we tell others to follow our own teachings.

Leave Those Who Are Both Primitive and Proud…

There is only one option with those who are proud and unsubmissive like Diotrephes, we must leave them because their pride blinds them. We must follow the advice of Jesus when dealing with those promoting false religion:

Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit. (Matthew 15:14 NIV )

There is extreme danger in relying on those who know little more than you do and who refuse to be accountable to anyone besides themselves. There are many denominations and parachurch organizations that fit that description. All have their subscribers who sip the same poisoned Kool-Aid (sometimes literally in the case of Jim Jones) and dismiss perspectives outside of their own.

We should rebuke the rebellious and those who deceive:

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. (Titus 1:10‭-‬11 NIV)

Many denominations (and non-denominational groups) keep their independence for sake of being free of accountablility to others and having control in their own hands. This kind of purity based on personal preference has been the foundational principal for many cult groups and is a corrupt foundation even when it doesn’t end in a Münster Rebellion or mass suicide.

If you are part of a small group that teaches that they are the most authentic church (or excludes other Christians from fellowship who do not follow their litany of man-made regulations) be very wary. There are many people very confident in themselves, who think they have all the answers, who see themselves as pure—and are deceived by their pride.

Being Reconnected with the Historical Church…

My biggest temptation, when leaving the Mennonite denomination, was to do what many other Protestants do when disappointed with their denomination and that is to go start the “Perfect Church of Joel” or basically a new pure and primitive sect. That, of course, was a foolish impulse. Any church founded by me, while possibly strong in some areas, would also share my weaknesses and blindspots.

The impulse a “pure” church is a product of arrogance, a focus on the shortcomings of others rather than on our own, and ignorance of the historic church. The early church, believe it or not, was not exactly pristine of free from problems. Read through the Gospels, the book of Acts and Paul’s letters, there is controversy, there is disagreement and failure.

However, despite their quarrels and shortcomings, keeping unity was the refrain:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.(1 Corinthians 1:10 NIV)

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. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:2‭-‬6 NIV )

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Corinthians 13:11 NIV )

Unity of the church is a Christian imperative. Perfection on our own Mennonite, Lutheran, Mormon, Methodist or other denominational/separatist/sectarian terms is not.

There is truly no pure church, all are made of people who are imperfect, but there is a historically grounded church, one with a better claim on apostolic succession than any other, that keeps the traditions passed by word of mouth or letter, and is focused completely on Jesus Christ.

Unity should not be on our own terms. It is the responsibility of the younger to submit to the elder (according to Peter) and this is a teaching that can apply to both individuals and entire denominational structures. Those in primitive churches, therefore, as individuals or collectively, should make it their perogative to connect and be unified with the historic church.

My finding my place in the Orthodox Christian tradition was not an easy transition. It required me to think beyond my own individual preferences and perfectionistic impulses. It required me to submit to an understanding in many ways different from my own, I’ve had to sacrifice some of my primitivism, and seek unity in Christ rather than unity on my own terms.

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.