The Appearance Of Evil

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There was an incident, years ago, that pretty much perfectly encapsulates the difference between rules-based religion and Christian love.  I was in a wedding party, the reception had started and then, abruptly, the parents of the groom got up and left.  As it would turn out what had caused them to leave in a huff was sparkling grape juice. 

No, despite their being part of a teetotaling sect, the problem was not that they thought it was alcohol in the bottles.  They knew it was only grape juice as it had been cleared ahead of time to prevent issues.  So what was the problem?  The servers didn’t get the memo, they poured directly from the bottles, which looked like wine bottles, and had committed a ‘sin’ of creating the *appearance* of evil:

Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil.

(1 Thessalonians 5:21‭-‬22 KJV)

Of course, the absurdity of those who claim to follow after Jesus whose first miracle was to turn water into “good wine” at a wedding in Cana being completely opposed to drinking is bad enough.  But for them to go even further and get hot around the collar over grape juice because of the container it was poured out of is astounding.  Ultimately they were more worried about what people thought than they did sharing the joy of their son and new daughter-in-law.

I’m not sure if there has been any regret and repentance since, this post is not about this couple or a judgment of their salvation.  But it is a prime example of being more focused on what others think, or remaining within the rules of a religion, than showing love.  

Even if drinking alcohol were truly forbidden, which it is not, there was no alcohol involved at this reception.  The real concern was how it appeared to their peers.  But the worst part is that this isn’t at all what 1 Thessalonians 5:21‭-‬22 is talking about.  Other translations have it saying “reject every kind of evil” and thus is not about how things look.  So these parents were in the wrong on multiple levels and, for all I know, may still feel completely righteous about it.

False religion is all about maintaining outward appearances and at the expense of the command of Christ to love.  It relies on rules that stem from misunderstanding of Scripture or ignorance. It is application always void of the spirit of the law even when they are supported.  It is the very same thing Jesus encountered with those who pridefully clung to their own ‘Biblical’ tradition and were offended by Him.

My First Two Weeks Of Fatherhood

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My decades of being single came to a rather abrupt end on November 3rd.  Two people, a mother and son, arrived at JFK after a trip around the world and our lives will never be the same.  

A few years ago, I was worried about how it may be to be a stepfather and hoped Charlotte’s son, CJ Y-dran, would accept me.  One day, soon after this thought, and out of the blue, Y-dran told his mom he had something that he wanted to ask me.  

The voice on the other end of the video call gave me the assurance that I needed:

“Can I call you daddy?”

Crazy, right?

More amazingly, after I told him he could, he asked if we could pray together.  That was, of course, another request granted and the whole thing a wonderful confirmation.  But, that said, it is one thing to be called “daddy” and another to be a good father.

CJ Y-dran is now ten years old.  

A Crash Course In Parenting Begins

Saturday, after our arrival together in central Pennsylvania, we visited Ed and Judy, my aunt and uncle.  Ed surprised us with an early Christmas gift by getting Uriah’s bike out and offering it to Y-dran.  

It was fun to see a young boy’s face light up in amazement.  Y-dran rode around happily while we all enjoyed the unseasonally warm weather.  Later we were able to secure the bike in the trunk of my car and then brought it home.

It was the first Monday back to work after the trip to the airport and I was just settling in for the day when a message notification popped up.  It was Y-dran.  What did Y-dran want at this early hour of the day?

“I cen not bike naw”

“Becos momi not let me”

“Lets pot it back to ante”

“I can not yos it”

Uhoh.  

Unwittingly, having missed some details he had included, namely that he was allowed to ride albeit only in the yard, I answered him exactly as his mom did and said he could ride in the yard and only in the alley after I was home from work.  So it was great to be on the same page with his mother.

The Knife At School Incident

Y-dran found a small Leatherman-type tool in my utility drawer and was fascinated. He wanted to whittle away at the banister, which was immediately discouraged, and directed to a cardboard box to satisfy his stabbing need.

Boys love tools and especially tools used as weapons.

The blades on this multi-tool were too small to be lethal and yet were enough to keep a ten-year-old’s imagination captive.

But, when I discovered this tool in his backpack after coming home from his fourth day in school, I very quickly gave a stern warning to never ever bring a knife to school. I took the tool and returned it to the drawer to emphasize the point.

It was around nineteen hours later, at my desk during lunch, when I got that dreaded phone call from the school office. It was the principal. He told me Y-dran was in his office and went on to say how my son was displaying a knife to classmates.

The irony of this situation struck me. I had bought a house and moved across the river, in anticipation of Y-dran’s arrival, and the thought of him being expelled in the first week was not one that I had entertained until this moment.

Making matters worse, when confronted by his teacher about this, Y-dran, thinking he was helping himself, he tried to justify carrying the bladed instrument and claimed it was for self-defense.

In his defense, his citing potential “kidnappers” as a reason to be armed is not completely without cause. In his home country that is something that parents are concerned about given stories of human trafficking and thus part of his own thought process.

However, this explanation was also more incriminating than had he just kept his mouth shut or said he just thought it was a fun thing to play with. Never give away intent like that! /Facepalm

Fortunately, while having a zero-tolerance policy, they didn’t do like they did to a co-worker’s grandson, also a 5th-grader, who was not only expelled from his elementary school but was also fined and had a court date—all for having a knife discovered by other students rifling through his backpack!

Lord have mercy!

The real dilemma for me, after learning that this wasn’t going to be taken further than reprimand and confiscation of the tool (which I told the principal to dispose of rather than hold for me to retrieve), was how to handle this at home.

I wasn’t sure that I should involve his mom or just take him aside and tell him that I would keep his secret so long as it didn’t ever happen again.

Thankfully, returning after work, I didn’t have to decide. Y-dran had already confessed to all believing that I would eventually spill the beans on him anyways.

I really need to teach this kid how to read the room better.

What Have I Learned About Fatherhood?

The first thing I have to come to terms with is that I’ll make mistakes. Right now everything has been so new and uncharted that there is no way for me to map my progress.

He is a handful. He weighs as much as I did when I graduated from high school and has the tenacity of a rabid gorilla too. He just does not stop when he gets going. But then he’s also appropriately gentle with younger children and, despite some wildness, has a great heart underneath it all.

Things have gone relatively well so far.

Still, I keep thinking of the verse:

“Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”

(Ephesians 6:4 NIV)

The KJV may say it better using the words “provoke not your children to wrath,” but what does this Biblical commandment truly mean in practical terms. Does it mean I give him everything he wants to keep him from being angry or upset? What exactly is the training and instruction of the Lord?

Y-dran can be very persistent. When we’re out shopping he seems to feel entitled to a sugary drink or whatever else he can grab from the shelves. What he does not realize is that this constant pestering, needing to even be in control of what gifts he gets at Christmas, really takes the joy out of giving and makes us less likely to oblige the request.

I suppose there is no systemic or cut-and-dried answer to these things. It isn’t about balancing either. It takes wisdom, and putting them first (that doesn’t come easy), to gain and keep the credibility required to guide a son. Children see our inconsistencies. He will tell me if I look at my cell phone at the table or forget the prayer before we eat. He’ll know if I care about him or not.

Maybe the more important thing is to realize that I don’t know what I’m doing and can only do my best. My success or failure as a parent will not be a product of my perfection. I mean, even if I could check all of the right boxes and make no mistakes, that does not mean he’ll be reasonable or accept that as enough, right?

I’ll try to be consistent, to give him the best opportunities and all the good for him that I am able to do. But, ultimately, I’ll fail as a father if it is all about my own effort. In the end, I can only depend on the grace of God (generous uncles and lenient principals) to even have the slightest chance.  Otherwise, I’m already well over my head without any hope. 

The Token Converts

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Years ago I had a nemesis. My counterpart positioned himself as a white knight type of character and was basically there to harass anyone too fond of the religious tribe I was born into. He knew the group, he had been a convert and was now an ex-member, who classified us as “an ethnic church” dismissing what we said about our conversion experience.

Now that I’ve left the group there is no reason to continue to guard the ideas left behind and that includes the notion that my own participation had been completely a choice. There are doctrinal reasons for this denial of the obvious. I mean, if you believe that conversion is a personal choice, a rational and unbiased conclusion, then it really gets under your skin when someone says that you’re more or less a product of a religious culture.

We were, in our own eyes, a sort of remnant church. And then also had to deal with the awkward reality that many, like us, were so inbred that they had distinct genetic disorders. And, unlike our radical forbearers, we had no cultural relevance besides being the quaint old fashioned people who dressed like it was the 1800s and called this non-conformity to the world. So, obviously, the fact that everyone who shared our views happened to be genetically related was the source of cognitive dissonance.

It is for this reason that converts, the more exotic the better, were clung to and even given special treatment. We would say it was out of Christian love and yet some of this had to do with our own insecurities. They were our validation. They were the proof that we were more than just an ethnic cloister, more than a bunch of cousins of a particular European heritage claiming that our own brand of religion represented something universal and relevant to the times.

Those who come into this group, visibly from the outside, are often treated both with mistrust and also with a special adoration as well. They can never be fully accepted, they’re always both more and less than equal, coddled or spared normal rebuke from some to keep them from leaving, and yet also can sense that they’re just the tokens being used to prove a point rather than being treated as people. Sure, they may form real friendships with some, but they themselves are often misfits from whence they came and still remain stuck in no man’s land.

Now that I’m in a church that both spans continents and is mostly converts locally, I don’t have as strong an urge to collect tokens or evidence that I’m not just a product of my ethnocultural roots. I mean, sure, I still want to be right. But the pressure to bring the Gospel to all people is off my shoulders. The Church didn’t take long to spread into Asia or Africa, early Christians didn’t dress like Europeans from a generation ago either, there may be some times to chase down Ethiopian eunuchs in their chariots, and yet there’s also a time to acknowledge that the fullness of the faith has never left Africa.

Evangelicals, of all stripes, have this desperation for relevance. They think that they will win more converts by being more cosmopolitan, and by painting a picture of superficial diversity and inclusion, but Jesus said that his message would make the world hate us and even divide families. If we have the truth, if we know the truth, we are no longer bound to ethnic quotas and, instead, simply love people, especially of the household of faith, as we are commanded. Jesus preached to his own tribe first, his converts were mostly other Jews, like him, and that was perfectly fine.