Dealing with Death and Despair

Standard

Writing tributes has become one of those things that I’ve done.  It feels right as a way that I can give back to those who have positively contributed to my life.  It is said, “a person dies twice: once when they draw their last breath, and later, the last time their name is spoken.”  So, by writing, I feel like I’m extending the legacy of those whom have lived as an example and deserve to be remembered.

My thoughts were to do the same for my cousin Uriah.  To honor him as someone who was there for me, as the brother who selflessly cared for his special needs siblings, as the young man mature beyond his years looking to contribute to society in a positive way, as a listening ear and true friend during some of my darkest days, as someone who never complained about being dealt a very nasty card and had every right to the question God.

A picture from Moyer Christmas a few years ago

So far I’ve collapsed under the weight of the task.  There is simply no way to put into words or adequately describe the loss of a close friend.  The other tributes I’ve written were for those who had basically lived a full life and, more importantly, cases where I could take a step back from the subject to capture their character.  I’m simply not skilled enough as writer to give a summary of someone who meant so much to me.

But, still, since his death is something that occupies my mind and since grieving is a process that most have experienced, I’ll write about my own experiences with him and the feelings that I’m currently sorting out.  I’ve decided to talk about death and despair.  And not with anything glowy to offer as an alternative either.  And yet also not as someone who is defeated or ready to succumb to hopelessness.  Yes, I’m battling with some depression, but down does not mean defeated.

Anyhow, the blog from here will be in two parts.  First the events of the past couple of years from my own perspective.  Then, after that, going back a little further for some additional stories about my interactions with Uriah and why this has brought back some of the identity related questions and traumas that has been the overall theme of Irregular Ideation.  It is relationships that define and show the depths of what a person is.  Hopefully by sharing from my own eyes it will be easier to understand what manner of man Uriah was.

The Strange Lump On Uriah’s Ankle

After finishing up at Bloomsburg University, Uriah decided to enlist.  I’m not sure why exactly, he was always up to a challenge, the National Guard was a way to serve his country and give back, and it was always something to put on the resume.  I’ve always flirted with the idea, despite being raised in a conservative Mennonite culture that preached against military service, the structure appealed to me.  But, unlike me, Uriah followed through.

A rare picture of Uriah without a smile.

He excelled in basic training.  He was motivated and willing to put in the work to be at the top of his class.  One testament to this tenacious spirit was that a painful lump developed on his ankle.  Uriah, unlike a ‘normal’ person, decided to continue with his training rather quit to get immediate medical attention.  He reasoned that it was better this than to repeat basic and simply endured.  I’m doubtful this made much difference as far as the final outcome, but it did mean that he was active duty military during the fight and received the very best care possible.

It was when he came home, over the winter, to visit family and get this lump checked out that I first heard about it.  I decided to visit over this time and it was definitely concerning.  Still, I was optimistic, I had had a lump removed from my shoulder area before, my sister had a tumor in her abdomen removed, and there was no reason to despair about this.  We would wait on the results of the biopsy and pray for the best in the meantime.

We would soon find out that this tumor was malignant and when chemo didn’t do enough, the choice was given: Allow the to cancer spread or amputate.  Uriah elected to do the unimaginable for most young and active people.  He had his leg removed below the knee.  This was hard enough for me.  I couldn’t possibly imagine having to make this kind of decision.  To go from runner, weight lifter, and athlete, to having to learn how to walk again!

Some nifty attachments
Me trying to be positive, like Uriah

But Uriah, for lack of a better expression, took this huge setback in stride and committed to physical therapy.  It felt very fortunate too that he was in the military, Walter Reed is a prosthetics leader and he very proudly showed me the attachments available that would eventually enable him to run again.  Besides this, he also had the wonderful Shanae in his life, and knowing my lifelong struggles in the romance department, this was something significant for me.  Lumps, and loss of limbs, life goes on.

The Terrible News, Moments Bittersweet

A little over a year ago, and about a year after losing his leg, soon after Uriah’s new normal began to slip from my daily prayers, came the awful news: The cancer was back, this time it was in his lungs and the prognosis was not good.  My heart sank.  And tears flowed.  Uriah would not be with us for much longer and there was very little that could be some about it.

Still, I would not allow this dark cloud plunge me into despair.  If we couldn’t save Uriah then we would give him a most glorious send off imaginable.  My imagination ran wild with ideas, a day that would be unforgettable, with my brother flying him and faking an emergency landing in a nearby city where us cousins would be waiting to whisk him away in a waiting limo, maybe a mock car chase with him in the passenger seat of my Shelby, with police in on the fun in pursuit around the closed airport, me yelling “we only live once!”

Alas, that was never meant to be.  Uriah needed medical treatment more than a memorable adventure, the pandemic shutdowns followed soon thereafter (briefly changing the mood from: “Oh no, Uriah’s going to die” to “Oh no, we’re all gonna die!) and then his marriage to Shanae.  That last item being a far better send off than this bachelor and a bunch of crazy cousins could provide.

A handsome couple

The last year with Uriah served to highlight his bravery even against these impossible odds.  Uriah, even with late stage lung cancer, refused to stop living his life and made time to be with those who loved him most.  On multiple occasions, when the restaurants were still open, we dined out together.  Me and him or joined by friends and cousins.  These are some of the most beautiful and cherished moments of a very stressful and emotionally draining year.

However, of those moments, one shines above the rest.  Uriah, probably only because he was Uriah, asked me if he could come visit my church sometime.  Of course, I was thrilled by this, that he would think of this, and soon the arrangements were made.  Nobody seeing him that day would have guessed he was terminally ill.  He looked as strong and vital as ever.  The highlights when Father Seraphim, who I had ambushed together with Uriah, agreed to anoint him and pray for healing.  I also had the opportunity to take Uriah on one more ride in the Shelby on the way home.

In the week that followed the anointing something amazing happened.  A text message from Uriah with the first good news since his lung cancer and prognosis were revealed.  The tumors had shrunk!  Could it be possible?

But this relief would only be temporary and the next time I would see my cousin he was no longer looking so invulnerable.

Over Thanksgiving Uriah, his condition already deteriorated, became infected with the Covid-19 virus.  He was not doing bad from what I had been told.  Unfortunately, after walking into the hospital, he was soon put on a ventilator and his loved ones told he would likely never be taken off of it.  Still, my courageous friend had yet one more trick up his sleeve.  He ended up, at some point, ripping the ventilator out and was breathing well enough on his own.  It was fantastic.  I prayed he would be able to go home and he was going home.

My optimism remained until my last meeting with him.  I figured as long as he was fighting I would keep hoping for that miracle. 

I had not been able to see him for months, partially due to my own bout with Covid-19, and also because he was under the care of his parents and Shanae.  I may have missed the opportunity to see him entirely had it not been for my cousin David declaring that he didn’t think Uriah wanted visitors.  I thought to myself, “we’ll see about that,” and I sent a text message soon thereafter.  Uriah told me he wanted to see me and directed me to Shanae, I asked if David and another friend Derek could accompany me.  We planned for the next Saturday.

I had known, with the cancer spreading throughout his body and now unable to walk because of diminished lung capacity, that Uriah wouldn’t be an image of health.  Still, actually seeing him was a little jarring, he looked rough, and I realized that, even if the lastest longshot treatment option would work out, there was irreparable damage.  It was a struggle for him to breath.  But he still ate a slice or two of the pizza that I had brought.  It was their wedding anniversary and an honor to be able to be there despite the circumstances.

Four friends in better times

When David and Derek said their goodbyes, they offered a fist bump.  But it did not seem appropriate.  I offered a hand shake, I wanted to clasp his hand and look him in the eyes.  My last words to him were to tell him how proud I was of him.  It was only a few days later that I received a phone call during the day from David.  Uriah had passed away that morning.   We had done we could, he fought like a true warrior, never complaining or falling to despair.  He died short of his twenty-fifth birthday.

The Time Uriah Asked Me For Advice

I am a good bit older than Uriah.  I can’t remember exactly how and when our relationship took off.  But he had his own unique version of the Moyer cousin humor and a rare determination.  I recall him out running, as teenager, with bricks in the backpack he was wearing.  He wanted to be the best at what he did and put the work in too.  He was a decent athlete, played basketball and soccer, and I knew he was becoming a man when I could no longer take him in a wrestling match.

When Uriah enrolled in Bloomsburg University, I had very little doubt in his abilities.  He was extremely intelligent, someone mature beyond his years, and thus it came as a bit of a surprise when he reached out to me asking for advice.  We met at Weaver’s for some pizza and ice cream.  And when there he expressed his doubts.  He was thinking about dropping out and wanted to get my opinion.

Of course, as one who has long struggled with feelings of having buried my talents, having quit college before obtaining a degree, to open I urged, “don’t be like your loser cousin!”  I went on to explain the lifelong benefits of a degree, my own regrets, and encouraged him to continue on pursuing his dreams.  

Uriah would go on, finish that first year, and continue through the next year.  He was on the Dean’s list, evidently a good student, and would graduate with his criminal justice degree.  It was something that made me immensely proud, especially that I had a small part in his success, and it seemed as if even the sky wasn’t the limit for him.  He had done the thing that I failed to do.  Not only that, but he had met Shanae while on campus and there was a budding romance between them.

Taken from Uriah’s Facebook page

As I look back my feelings are mixed.  On one hand, my advice came with an assumption that he would live a long life, that his degree would open career opportunities.  Uriah never did get that far, he never had an actual career, so what was the point of all that hard-work and discipline?  My nihilism creeps in.  As the book of Ecclesiastes begins: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”  But, on the other hand, and as if to throw a wrench in my despair, had Uriah quit he would not have Shanae to accompany him during the last two years.

The Friend That I Didn’t Want

I’m a very idealistic person and loyal too.  I remember my plans, as a child, to eventually live with my brother Kyle.  I mean, we were peas in a pod, we understood each other, why would we ever go our separate ways, right?  But, eventually, I had to come to terms with the fact that my siblings, including Kyle, are very motivated people and were destined to have their own lives away from me.  Our childhood together a passing phase and not permanent.  It’s tough, yet necessary for progress.

However, having learned this, I was not prepared for what happened when a close friend, a wingman for many years, got married.  I’m not sure what happened, but right after his wedding he basically disappeared.  And, after the first efforts to reconnect failed, I decided that he simply didn’t need the relationship anymore and had moved on.  To this day his wife is the only person who has shown any interest in maintaining a connection and it truly is baffling to me.  Is this normal behavior?  Should I be concerned?

Anyhow, this friendship of over a decade that vanished overnight left me wondering what friendship really is?  It also made me wary of making such an investment ever again.  If someone like this other friend could completely abandon our relationship, effectively ghost me, was it truly worth becoming connected at this level again?   I almost felt lonelier having lost a friend, my romantic life wasn’t helping that, and when someone else started to emerge as a friend (Uriah) I wrote the following in a journal:

Uriah is a faithful something.  I suppose he is a friend, although I don’t know if I want any friends really, not after [omitted].  I feel antisocial, I am sick of people and yet would not fare well alone.  Last weekend proof of that.

I was dealing with many things at the time, in rehab and off of work because of a knee injury, and still reeling from the loss of a friendship.  Once bitten, twice shy, right?  I was reluctant to allow someone else to become close.  I felt better to be in control, to keep some safe distance between myself and other people.  

Nevertheless, a stronger bond did continue to develop between Uriah and myself, he was capable of intelligent discussion, completely trustworthy, and never judged me.  My ideations, given the feelings of betrayal, were extremely dark and it was safe to express them with him.  He helped me to not take them, or even myself, too seriously and provided a bit of a reprieve.  And when I holed up he persisted.  There were times we sat quietly together.  I knew that he cared.

When I left the Mennonite church many of the people that I spent years with made no attempt to connect.  There were so many relationships pursued and never reciprocated.  Or, when there was relationship it was forced, a part of their religious duty and not real.  Uriah was always genuine, like I try to be, and was never going to be a fairweather friend like so many others.  That’s what makes it so especially hard to lose him in a manner completely unexpected.  

He’s the friend that I didn’t want because losing friends is too painful.  In the weeks following his death my desire was to withdrawal, avoid intimate relationships, and protect against future disappointment.  Of course, avoiding pain and risk is not a way to live and in the intervening weeks I’ve started to force myself to reengage.  I can’t bring Uriah back, he’s gone.  But there’s no point in joining him in the grave.

The Questions That Cannot Be Answered

The hardest part of Uriah’s death is where it leaves his parents.  Ed and Judy are two of the hardest working and most dedicated parents I know.  And for reasons we’ll never know three of their four children suffered terrible seizures.  Renita Gail, I carried out to the cemetery on a cold day many years ago.  Uriah’s two remaining siblings, Aleah and Isaiah, have not developed beyond a certain point and require constant care.

My wonderful aunt Judy

It goes without saying that there were many hopes that evaporated with the passing of Uriah.  He was the strong and healthy son, someone more than willing to help with Aleah and Isaiah, and now he’s gone.  It is unfair.  There is no way to understand why misfortune visits some.  Perhaps that is why the book of Job was written?  To put to end this notion that people get what they deserve only good things happen to good people?

There is nothing I can offer that will come close replacing a young man who was my better in so many ways.  It would be silly to even try, he was one of a kind, tall and handsome.  He got the intelligence and work ethic from both of his parents.  He had the compassionate heart of his mother and quirky humor of his father.  He was their legacy, the one who was supposed to carry the Derstine name and support them in their old age.  

Uncle Ed with Uriah

Being a pallbearer for Uriah was a great honor.  However, carrying that casket up that icy hill, like I had with Renita many years before, came with the burden of the many unanswerable questions.  I won’t even attempt to answer.  But maybe if I have another son, I’ll name him Uriah Edward and tell him someday about my cousin, my aunt and uncle.  I have not heard one complaint from them Uriah’s parents.  They feel the loss more than anyone else and yet their resolve to trust God is encouraging to those of us with our many questions.

A very cold day

Dealing with death isn’t easy, especially not when it is someone so undeserving and special.  I’ve been battling against depression and despair over the past few weeks, despite having a year to prepare, and I suppose it would be strange to feel nothing in such circumstances?  But I don’t plan to linger here.  I acknowledge the feelings, I lost a friend, a rare kind of individual.  There will never be another Uriah.  There are no easy answers.  But I will try to carry the legacy of Uriah as far as I am able.

Uriah E. Derstine

March 15, 1996 — February 4th, 2021

Memory eternal!

Breaking Down Identities

Standard

The other day I was filling out a survey and came to the questions about my race and gender.  I paused for a second, “what am I today?”  And decided to select what applied to me in that moment, which is the answer that I would typically use when asked those questions, and yet continued to ponder this question of identities.

I understand why these categories exist, we do have tendencies and traits as a part of a demographic group.  Generalities and stereotypes certainly do have some basis in reality and I won’t deny that.  However, what makes me bristle a bit is what this grouping too often does to relationships across category lines.  It is divisive, it robs us our uniqueness as individuals and also puts us at odds with those deemed to be different from us.

It is too black and white.  Too simplistic and encourages a distorted picture of reality in emphasizing that one similarity we share in common (or one difference we have) over everything else.  The labels themselves are even dumb.  I’m not actually white.  My skin is a shade of brown.  Furthermore, I probably only ever started identifying as white because someone told me to fill in that box as a child and I mindlessly complied.  

The idea of “whiteness” is a social construct and has come to mean much more than it ever did before.  Now some claim that everything from work ethic and politeness to mathematics is somehow a part of being white.  Which is appalling ignorance, unexcusable, given the contributions of people of all skin shades and cultural backgrounds to civilization as we know it.  All people should be offended by that nonsense.

I had a classmate, a Jamaican immigrant, brilliant at math, well-spoken, very polite, the son of an engineer or university professor as I recall.  And, by the current color obsessed paradigm, he’s more ‘white’ than I am.  It is a backhanded insult to the many, like him, who have natural talents that don’t fit within the narrow categories or grievance culture narratives of the racially prejudiced left.

Which is the crux of the matter.  I hate these categories because they lie.  As Mark Twain quipped, “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”  Sure one color group may, collectively, produce more elite athletes, another more classical musicians, and another mathematicians.  But those group statistics tell you absolutely nothing about individuals nor why some individuals achieved these outcomes.

Much being attributed to color is actually culture.  In Europe, in Africa, in Asia, and America, there are as many cultures as their are shades of skin color.  Some European regions are known for their industriousness and superior engineering, others for their laid-back attitude and art.  The same is true of Asian cultures.  The same is true of African people.  So how do we know color has anything to do with these differences?

The two biggest lies of our time…

1) The myth that skin color is synonymous with culture.

2) The myth that group statistics determine individual outcomes. 

Yes, there may be some statistical correlations between certain behaviors and skin color categories.  But that doesn’t mean that what applies to one of a certain category applies to all.  For example, many women love pink, but that doesn’t mean the most or even many women are fond of that color.  My younger sister defies many of those sort of feminine associated things, she’s not afraid of any critter, has reptiles for pets, and that does not make her less of a woman than those who freak out at the sight of a spider.

Correlation is not equal to causation.  And the late George Floyd has more in common with me, as a working class schlub, than he does with the Harvard educated, son of a privileged WASP mother, who calls himself Barack Obama.  It’s true.  Look it up.  One half of Obama’s lineage is as Yankee as you can get, a great great […] grandfather being the first to build a gristmill in the State of New Jersey, back in the 1600s, later elected to the state Congress.

It is a complete farce that a coal cracker kid, raised in rural West Virginia, is advantaged over a college educated “person of color” working as a Wall Street broker.  Nah, I’ve been around, I know how the cultural elites sneer at ‘deplorables’ and work overtime to make sure that they know their place.  Class privilege is often misidentified as color privilege and misidentified by the very people who benefit most from spreading out the blame for their own sins.

The son or daughter of an immigrant wage-slave has more in common with the ‘black’ category than the trust fund babies of any color pointing the crooked finger.  This is what grates me the most.  In the real world blacks and whites work together.  Out on the road, hauling commodities for the man, I swung the sledgehammer as much as that ‘black’ fellow beside me.  

So do I really need my prissy, Che Guevara T-shirt wearing sociology professor cousin, son of a doctor, who could somehow afford to travel the world taking photos while I worked for $7.50 an hour, lecturing me on things that I don’t understand as a white male?

No, no I do not!

Those who associate certain outcomes or behaviors with certain colors of skin, who only ever see skin color in their analysis, are the true racists.  There is a stronger correlation between fatherless homes and negative outcomes than there is between skin color and negative outcomes.  In other words, things commonly categorized as a color privilege is more strongly correlated with family structure.  

Look into mass shooters.  

Not at all excusing their violence, but many of them were estranged from their fathers, struggled to fit in, and it is hard not to see this as being an insignificant factor in their outcomes.

Think about that when discussion of privilege comes up.

Unfortunately, there is not much to be gained as far as political power in a “the fatherless unite!” campaign.  Racial division, by contrast, is an easy sell.  Skin color, indeed, is the low hanging fruit of human difference.  Tribalism comes naturally, all you need to do is convince people that they are somehow fundamentally different because of something superficial and their confirmation bias will do the rest of the work for you.

Breaking the Bonds of Designated Identities

I’m not going to minimize the importance of life experience and family inheritance in shaping our identities.  I was born into a conservative Mennonite home and that identity was very important to me.  In public school it made me a religious minority, subjected me to many inquiries, what would now be called micro-aggressions, and some bullying later in life too.

The strange part is that, while being the Mennonite kid amongst my school peers, I never really felt like I fit in with my ethic church peers either.  After years of rejections, both in romantic endeavors and even as far as filling offices or missionary opportunities.  Finding my place, complete acceptance, within the Mennonite culture had eventually become an obsession.  I desperately wanted to be the good Mennonite for reasons that I can’t fully explain.

That pursuit came to an end with a young woman who declared, “I can’t love you the way that you want to be loved.”  

Mercifully, over the same time, a truly fatherly figure, Fr. Anthony, an Antiochian priest and college professor, took me under his wing to help me through this collapse of my Mennonite identity that had left me with a meaningless existence and suicidal.

I had to break from my ethnic and religious identity because I had no other choice.  It was not pleasant.  I loved, and still do love, many parts of the Mennonite culture.  My parents are wonderful.  My church was not one of those Pharisaical nightmares all too common in that denomination.  But, as Fr Anthony offered, maybe I had simply “outgrown” the tradition.

And, truly, in Christ, we are all called to a higher common identity:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

(Galatians 3:26‭-‬29 NIV)

St. Paul, in the context of the tumultuous days of the early church, spent much time addressing the many competing identities within the church.  He took on the religious elitists, bluntly telling them to castrate themselves in one letter, and spoke up for those being excluded on a class or ethnic basis.  That’s what he’s doing in the passage above, emphasizing that in Christ we can all be “children of God” and share one identity together.

The astounding part is that the church then, like the church now, still struggles on this point.  Even in the conservative Mennonite church, where we were basically all from the same ethic and cultural background, there were definitely tiers of acceptance.  Some simply check more of the ‘right’ boxes, are more popular, find the beautiful adoring wife, have all the opportunities, work their way up the ranks quickly and others not so much.  In short, the words to the Galatians are as relevant now as were then.

Christian Identity Makes Difference Beautiful

One of Mennonite cultural distinctives that I had rejected early on is that of uniformity as a part of Anabaptist non-conformity teaching.  My own church wasn’t nearly as strict as some.  But there is an undercurrent, undeniably, that if a girl talks more than average she’s a “flirt” or a motorhead guy with a nice car was somehow materialistic compared to a wealthy business owner with three farms.  Pity the artistic types in those churches more traditional than mine.

By contrast, an Orthodox Christian friend, gave this wonderful description:  The church is like a garden, full of different plants and plants, all watered by the same source.

That is the ideal.  

Unity in Christ is not about erasing all differences.  Galatians 3:28 is not turning us into an androgynous ‘multi-cultural’ blob of completely equal outcomes.  Jesus was not a Communist.  Having “all things in common” was not about forced wealth redistribution or reparations.  Certainly not about getting mine.  Rather it was about bringing our diversity of talents and abilities, bonded together as the body and blood of Christ, to the church.

Diversity can be a strength.  Not talking about superficial skin deep token ‘diversity’ achieved through quotas either.  Instead, what I love is those of many colors, many backgrounds and classes, working voluntarily towards a common goal, having found a shared identity that transcends all others and allows the entire group to reach full potential.  Competing identities keep us in conflict, but through Christ we could create the most beautiful harmonies.

In the end we must free ourselves from identities that keep us at war with each other.  However, that is not something we do ourselves. There are many misguided efforts.  Many are embracing divisive political ideologies, like critical race theory, that will only produce more hate and mistrust.  Condemning “whiteness” or heaping praise on “people of color” and otherwise playing favorites on those currently deemed to be victims is never going to do anything besides add to the confusion.  

Only in Christ, in repentance, in faith, can our differences in gender, culture, color or class be something beautiful. 

The Rise of the Christian Influencer

Standard

The man had charisma.  He wore a swanky grey sport coat and a shiny pair of quality brown dress shoes, that all went along with his well-manicured hair.  He stood out in this crowd of mostly Amish gathered for the seminar. 

I tend not to pay for such things.  I have a knack for learning through non-conventional means, namely running into walls until I get to the correct answer, and have also learned quite a bit from observation.  My own ticket had been provided by my company and I was there with the rest of the office staff to hear what this life coaching speaker had to say about customer service and listening. 

The content was good.  It seemed worthwhile advice for those seeking to improve their customer experience and grow their business.  However, I kept thinking about the Christian themes mixed into his message.  This son of a missionary did not preach a sermon nor did he mention the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Still, there was definitely an attempt to relate to the audience at a level of their religious values.

This sort of thing, good or bad, seems like the latest development in Christian missions.  In times past, the church was the church, those ordained and sent were more open about their underlying goals, urging repent and be baptized, and those personally profiting off the message were condemned:

“Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.”

(2 Corinthians 2:17 NIV)

Now, the man before us, he represented a non-profit entity and was giving advice that pertained to sales and serving customers.  Still, he did reference Scripture amongst his quotes of self-improvement gurus and even used the phrase “word of God” at one point in his presentation.  He would use our familiarity with the “good book” to bolster his claims and even shared some theological perspective. 

Again, I have no problem with this man nor the particular presentation.  In the business world this kind of consulting and advice is likely key to reaching the next level of sales and I’m sure we will do many of the things that he recommended.

However, what did stand out, and is the reason for writing this blog, is this trend towards a mission of influence rather than open proclaiming of the Gospel and, in many ways, I was at the forefront of this evolution.  My blogs, often a mix of theology, philosophy, and personal observation, is not openly declared as a Christian mission.  Still, I have used this media, and my understanding of Scripture, to do pretty much the same thing (minus the monetization) of this life coach of Anabaptist background.

So here’s some thoughts…

Where Did It All Begin?

The church has always had influential men and inspiring women.  Some rose in prominence, even have their writings and stories recorded in the canon of Scripture for our benefit.  The Orthodox have many noteworthy figures, Early Church Fathers, including St John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, a man who took on the abuses of ecclesiastical and political authorities of his own time, and whose Divine Liturgy we celebrate to this very day, his name means “golden-mouthed” in Greek and he definitely had a way with words to match the description.

However, those in Scripture, as well as St John Chrysostom, were themselves all under the authority and guidance of the other Christians.  They were also very open about their mission.  They were unabashed preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They weren’t your life coach using Christian themes to decorate a business oriented daylong consulting session for $150 a head.  St Paul may have made tents to support himself and his ministry, yet I’m not sure that he sold them using Christian themes.  Just saying.  His ministry was ministry and business was business.

But there is a sort of murkiness to many modern day efforts, where they aren’t part of the church per se nor even announcing themselves as a ministry, and it is by design.  So how did we get here?

The starting point of the current Western paradigm is obviously the Protestant schism with the leadership in Rome.  The intention of Martin Luther, ordained by the Roman Catholic Church, was not to start a denomination.  He wanted reforms and had good reason for his critiques.  And yet his written protests quickly became a catalyst, many took things much further than he had ever intended and we have the multitude of denominations as his most significant accomplishment.

Still, despite this, the church, even or especially with those of the radical reformation, remained a collection of individuals with accountability to each other.  Sure, the Anabaptists were more localized, led by shared statements of faith and collectively agreed upon congregational rules rather than by a hierarchical structure, but it was never every-man-for-himself or a free-for-all.  Those who spoke were ordained by various means, not simply a man full of his own ideas and finding a following.

The turning point? 

I think around the turn of the last century represents a shift.  The whole tent revival circuit, where a dynamic speaker, an Evangelist, would get up in front of the crowd and wow the audience with his polished salvation message.  Many were sold the Gospel in this manner, walked the sawdust trail, the circus would eventually leave town and life would go back to normal or the new normal, I suppose?

The next stage in development was the parachurch missionary organization.  By parachurch, these organizations are run seperately from the denomination, are often subject only to their own board members, and seek funding for themselves.  Basically, any ambitious person, with some natural musical or speaking talent, interested in travel, can start a prison ministry, missionary training institute or what have you, and only with as much ties to the existing church structure as they want.  All one must do is set up their nonprofit, find investors, buy the bus and be on their way to preach the word as their adoring wife glows beside them.

Yet, as all things, the traveling Evangelist and other obvious Christian missionary efforts, including openly Christian contemporary artists, have become tired old tropes.  The in your face presentation, the lack of follow-up or one-dimensionality of the presentation, the realization that the novelty had worn off of the original form, the scams and scandals, has led to a third wave of influencer and that’s the one that doesn’t even announce the Christian intentions at all.

Sometimes this lack of openly expressed intention is to avoid legal prohibition.  For example, teaching English in Asian countries that would not otherwise invite Christian missionaries.  Other times it is to add a practical element, after preaching and charities failed to help solve many underlying conditions, which gave rise to micro-lending groups.  Sometimes this repackaging is to sell the mission itself as something exciting, an adventure rather than some kind of dull service opportunity, and part of an effort to make Christianity relevant to the next generation.

After watching the presentation the other day, I suggested to a left-leaning Mennonite friend that we go on tour together for sake of racial reconciliation and healing.  Why not?  I think I could probably work the crowd, with a little practice, and definitely believe in the cause, could leading faith-related seminars be my calling too?

In theory this cause-oriented Christian influencer thing seems great.  We can have sportsman’s banquets, business seminars, and TED Talk the unsuspecting heathens (or even the more traditional religious types) with a flashy Powerpoint presentation, funny stories and down to earthiness.  And yet, this does seem to get things out of order, it puts values first and repentance second. 

More troubling, from the Evangelist of the past century, to parachurch missionary organization of the past decades, to the influencers of the present, the distance between the activity and actual purpose has grown.  The Evangelist preached without providing adequately in discipleship.  The missionary went without being sent or accountable to the church.  And the motivational speaker, while referencing the Bible, never announced a Christian intention.  And it makes me wonder, how far can we detach values or ministries from the Church, and cause of Christ, before it becomes entirely self-interested and divorced from Christ?

At what point is it all just a moneymaking scheme, devoid of actual spiritual substance?

I mean, we’ve all seen it, the shyster, the con man, the ministry with a board of directors full of families and “yes man” friends, the Televangelist, the guy selling a product, an ideology, a Ponzi scheme.  There is sometimes a very fine line between the less scrupulous, eyebrow raising efforts, and the more accepted manifestations.  Are we some day going to have Christian pornography, subtle Christian themes, maybe an actor pick up a Bible and read a passage before the main event, to hopefully plant that seed of influence? 

Where does it end?

The Rise and Fall of the Christian Influencer

David Ramsey, James Dobson, Ravi Zacharias, Ken Ham, and Bill Gothard are familiar names in conservative Mennonite circles.  Ramsey with his financial advice, Dobson with his focus on the culture war, Zacharias with his appeals to reason, Ham for his fundamentalist theme park and Gothard an earlier version of life coaching seminars.  The point of all of these men, at least as expressed, was to advise, consult and influence.  They are all men who took aspects of their religious values and turned it into an enterprise.

None of the men above represent a church denomination.  They rely on selling merch, the loyal support of people like you and donations to expand their reach.  They have built ministry campuses, a literal ark in the state of Kentucky, a few massage parlors here and there, and are only accountable to their own ministry boards.  Usually the focus, at least initially, is around one illustrious character, a strong personality, who is too often surrounded by the cult he has created rather than those who will challenge.

There now seems like a parachurch organization for every niche.  The list of bloggers, authors, evangelists, producers of all sorts, continues to grow and especially now in the age of social media.  It costs me nothing but time to set up my account on WordPress and start spewing out my perspectives.  Perhaps, if I were a bit more ambitious, I would write a book, do a book tour, and eventually be at your Lady’s Tea event sharing what I learned about life and love from the book of Ecclesiastes.   Book your reservations now as available slots are filling fast!

But the parachurch is the downfall of the church.  Too often these ‘ministries’ have come at the expense of the local body of believers, submitting and serving each other in love.  Too often it is something guided more by the spirit of Diotrephes, wanting things our own way and seeking those who agree, rather than by Christ.  That is why we have seen a growing number of scandals come to light, of leaders forced to resign by outside pressure or disgraced after death for their hidden sinful deeds.  I know, speaking for myself, it is too easy for me to shun deeper involvement in the actual church because it is difficult, not determined by my feelings of inspiration, and this is something that must be repented.

Jesus was willing to serve, but he didn’t determine the cross he was required to carry and, instead, submitted to the will of the Father.  The disciples, and St Paul, likewise, were not Lone Rangers, doing it their own way, without accountability or oversight.  Those with gifts aren’t to use those gifts to serve themselves or build their own empires.  They were sent and commissioned by the church, under the umbrella of those ordained to lead, and not independent contractors pursuing their own pet causes.

The Christian life is not about values, certainly not about self-promotion or having the right program either, but is about our Communion together with other believers, both past and present, and with Christ.  From that, the Holy Spirit, from our accountability to each other, our true obedience, transformation will come from inside out and love will flow out to change the world.  The values and culture coming from that rather than taught at seminars, religious institutions or Bible schools.

We don’t need more influencers.  We don’t need more parachurch organizations or a return to tent revival meetings either.  Many of these things are mere human efforts that will ultimately fail.  What we really need is the body of Christ, to partake and participate together in the life of the one true Church.