Thinking, as I’m sipping my coffee at Dunkin, a Saturday habit, we build civilization as part of the urge to reduce variables and the effort of living. The thought started during my pre-waking slumber: We work, build shelters and store resources, create complex networks, to try to decrease unpredictability and the end result is that I don’t need to worry about my source of caffeine.
This orderly environment we create is ideal for raising children. It is a nest. Or at least at some levels. Where we, like birds, weave a structure out of chaos in order to keep our offspring safe from predators and ourselves protected a world that can be unkind to the unprepared. Squirrels scurry around, in the fall, gathering up things to keep for food over the hard winter months. Our own species, likewise, is as instinctively forward thinking and creates systems to ease the strain.
The human endeavor, towards these ends of producing stability and abundance, has been so successful that many can go their entire lives not appreciating it.
We’re so well-off, in the developed world, that our impoverished are obese rather than hungry and many now think that healthcare (a service provided by others) is a right. we live in such unprecedented luxury and ease, even the poor can afford a lifestyle that many ancient kings would envy and yet feel so entitled to everything that we will shoot up the McDonald’s drive thru if we can’t get our bacon:
Anyhow, other than entitlement and lack of appreciation, another product of civilization is boredom and fat. In the absence of wars we created sport and without hard work, to keep from physical deterioration, we go to the gym. It is truly bizarre, when you think about it, that we go out and seek the very anxieties that our ancestors built civilization to escape. We are adrenaline junkies, doing intentionally dangerous things for the fix, we want to have unpredictable outcomes.
All of this really does make everything about our existence a weird paradox. As soon we achieve a little bit of stability and peace we become restless. That’s what convinces me that we are as much nature, made for the world we are in, as we are not. That feeling that we somehow do not belong in this place with death and sorrow is what has motivated our progress. It is less about our own being otherworldly and more what has enabled us to survive this universe that would kill us the moment we grew complacent.
This, incidentally, is the one thing that many people do not grasp about entropy, we tend to see decay and deterioration as being only a bad thing. I mean, we fight it. If someone walks into the house with muddy boots it is upsetting and spurs action. But, without this tendency to disorder, without this repeated need to clean up on aisle five, would we even have a reason to live? As much as we hate disorder, it is this continual struggle against it that gives us meaning and purpose.
Pursuing the used car section, I happened upon an ad for an AMG Mercedes for a very good price. “This would be worth checking into,” I send a message and end up arranging the meet up.
So I travel two hours and, sure enough, there it is black and beautiful, the three pointed star on the hood. I’m excited. The interior is immaculate, leather, that perfect German fit and finish. It was loaded, with all of those features one would expect from a modern luxury vehicle.
“Okay, let’s take it for a spin,” I exclaim, anxious to see how this beast performs on the road. “Oh, you want to actually drive it?” My host asks. I wasn’t sure if he was going to throw me the keys or perplexed. So I answer, “Yeah, I want to see how it runs, could we go around the block?”
“This is a Mercedes Benz C-class sedan,” the response comes, “you either accept what it is or stop wasting my time.” At this point I’m a little stunned, taking a test drive isn’t that unreasonable. “I’m serious about this,” I respond, “could we at least start it up, hear how it runs?”
At this point the seller seems to be a little confused. “The battery is strong,” he says, as reaches for the radio knob, “surround sound,” turning up the volume. “Oh, that’s great!” Still trying to maintain my positive demeanor despite my increasing uncertainty, “could I look under the hood?”
“I don’t understand why you’re asking that,” the owner of the car retorts, “are you saying that you’re not satisfied with the heated seats and navigation system?”
“Well, I’m looking for reliable transportation,” I pause, “you know, to get from point A to point B.” And then add, “the door locks and other doodads certainly matter to me, but I really want to make sure that the drivetrain is solid before I commit to anything. That’s why I want to see how it drives or at least hear how it runs and look under the hood, can we do that?”
“The body on this car is immaculate, no dents or scratches. There is not an AMG this pristine, for this price, anywhere. So are you interested or not?”
“Okay, so here’s what I’m looking for,” I say, becoming more forceful, “I want a fully functional vehicle, something with a solid drivetrain.” I stop, then add, “I can pay cash, I I just need to be sure that the engine runs well enough and the car can move.”
Now getting red in the face, my counterpart responds angrily, “Oh, I see what this is really about, you’re jealous, you are on the attack against my Mercedes-Benz out of your own feelings of inadequacy, because you couldn’t handle the payments for a car like this! You make it about the engine and the driveability of the car as an excuse for being unwilling to pay the price for a luxury sedan!”
I laugh, a bit nervously, assuming this man must be joking as bizarre as the rant is and yet not entirely sure that given his serious expression. “I guess I just thought it was normal,” pausing to think, “to take a test drive and see under the hood.” And adding, “No offense, but most people are going to want to know this before making a commitment, is there a reason why you’re being so cagey about this?”
“How dare you judge me!” Comes the retort, and he continues, “Fine, it has no engine, but you’re being so negative! It’s obvious that you are unable to appreciate the bells and whistles, too completely obsessed with only one small component of what makes a great vehicle, so entirely unsophisticated!”
At this point, being unable to take the man seriously anymore, I hurry to make my exit without further drama, “Thanks for letting me look, so I’ll let you know if I’m interested.” As I turn to get in my vehicle and leave he mutters “go to hell.”
There was a 1980s cult film about a man who finds a pair of sunglasses which allows him to see subliminal messages in mass media. In this science fiction movie, “They Live,” the protagonist learns that world is run by aliens, along with human collaborators, who use billboards and television to control the population. The protagonist, now that he is awakened to this truth, goes on a mission to free people.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever watched the entire movie. It was before my time. But, from the bits and pieces that I’ve seen, it is basically a commentary on our mind-numbing American consumerism and political propaganda. It is trying to show how mass media is used by social elites to manipulate and manage people.
Anyhow, for a moment, yesterday, I thought somehow I had landed in that movie and posted the following on social media to describe the experience:
“Was out on the road today and saw a billboard with the word “Obey” in large print. I thought, for a moment, that I was in the 1980s movie, “They Live,” in which the protagonist finds special glasses that allow him to see what really is. In the film the world is controlled by aliens who manipulate people to conform. As it turns out this was not my new vision that could see through the propaganda, but was a Christian Aid Ministries (Mennonite) evangelism effort aimed at professing Christians that do not live to their standards.”
Now, given that much of my friends list is still conservative Mennonite, who live mostly in their own religious cloister, I knew the risk of some missing the meaning and intended humor of the cultural reference. However, what I had not expected was the personal attacks against me and bizarre accusations of bashing CAM for stating the plain truth. What led to this severe reaction? Apparently, that last sentence, that this message was “aimed at professing Christians that do not live their standards,” which offended.
Standards are a sore subject for conservative Mennonites and most especially for the neo-Anabaptist types. Perhaps, had I used the word “doctrines” the howls of protest may have been more muted. Why? Well, the word “standards” is often associated with that multitude of extra-Biblical rules that some argue aren’t a matter of salvation and yet, despite this claim, are somehow important enough to be the cause of their countless church splits. But the bizarre part is that I didn’t say anything about their extra-Biblical standards and that’s what made the boisterous denials so interesting.
What does “Real Christians” actually mean?
The billboard proclaimed “Real Christians OBEY Jesus’ teachings,” citing Luke 6:46 as a reference. At face value that is the goal of all Christians, to obey Jesus, right? But it is this qualifying word “real” that indicates this is a loaded statement and more than just a reminder to be good Christians. The writer doesn’t want you to just be any kind of Christian. No, they want you to be a “real Christians” and quite obviously, unless this writer is at odds with themselves, it means to be like them.
There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment, St. Paul urged, “follow me as I follow Christ,” (1 Corinthians 11:1) and that would certainly mean to be a part of the same church body as him. It shouldn’t be a big controversy, when a Mennonite puts up a sign saying to be a “real Christian” they mean to be more like them, an Anabaptist. This would not even be a question if a billboard, with a similar message, were put up by a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness organization. So it is beyond disingenuous to insist that this use of “real Christian” has nothing to do with being more like Mennonites.
As someone who has spent decades of their own life amongst conservative Mennonites and other Anabaptist types, this notion that “we’re the real Christian” oozes out. And, more precisely, when they say “obey Jesus” what this ultimately means is agreeing with their Mennonite ‘doctrines’ of “non-conformity” and “non-resistance.” To them, this is just Biblical teaching, the clear extension of the commands of Jesus and, therefore, the most essential part of what it means to be real Christians.
So why deny it?
Why do some get up in arms over someone speaking this truth?
Why not be Mennonite and own it?
The real issue goes deeper. Mennonites, for various reasons, do not like to be identified as Mennonites. The term turns them into an ethnic tribe or mere subculture rather than the purer form. Whereas they would rather see themselves as simply being the only genuine Christians. The Holdeman Mennonites, calling themselves the Church of God in Christ, were more forthright in this regard and believed themselves to be the only true church. Other Mennonites aren’t as bold as to outright say that they’re the remnant church, but also do not fully embrace their common denominational label either.
The worst of the deniers try to discard the word “Mennonite” completely, despite this being their religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage. Modify the veil a little, ditch the capedress for another style of conservative dress, change the language, and suddenly they’re now the more authentic ‘Anabaptist’ who arrived at this particular emphasis by their own study of Scripture. This faux conversion is something born of insecurity from knowing that their own religious form is inherited. And yet, despite this, holding to a dogma of “Believer’s baptism” that causes cognitive dissonance if their being Mennonite isn’t completely a choice.
There’s also another possible reason why someone might deny their religious heritage and that is to fool their potential converts. In other words, a bait-and-switch tactic: 1) Tell inquirers that the group is all about following the example of Jesus, 2) shower them with attention and get them invested in the local fellowship, then 3) slowly shoulder them with those expectations that aren’t explicitly stated and yet required to be in Communion with them. This way they can use the established emotional connection as a tool for manipulation to later bring the new person into full compliance.
Let’s talk about those Mennonite doctrines…
What was most striking, and absolutely disturbing, about this recent encounter on social media, was how completely willing some were to question my faith and even to bear false witness to my face. For my infraction of saying that Mennonites are what they are, that they generally promote keeping their standards as being the definition of what it means to be a true Christian—for being an ex-Mennonite—one of their number went as far as to question if I was even a brother in Christ.
This, of course, is the grandest of ironies and starkly illustrates the disconnect between what adherents claim versus the reality of the practice.
First, they (two or more) wrongly interpreted my post as bashing CAM. But, instead of show love or turning the other cheek (as would be truly obeying what Jesus, right?), they attacked me personally and lied. Rather than address me directly and honestly, they would attempt to knock down strawman versions of what I said and pigeonhole me. Which is another reason why I don’t buy into the Mennonite ‘doctrine’ of non-resistant. It seems almost entirely about avoiding military service, giving them something to hold over other believers, and not all that practical or sincere.
In response to this empty non-resistance, it would be better to be the Roman Centurion that Jesus commended for his “great faith” than be the person who is a “conscientious objector” as a matter of cultural inheritance or convenience. It is noteworthy that Jesus, in the “Sermon on the Mount,” says not a word about wars between nations or about police doing their work, the examples given are what amount to insults and it seems to be about how we respond to our own personal enemies. So how this gets reversed, as part of Mennonite ‘doctrine,’ is strange.
And, so far as “non-conformity,” taken from St Paul’s “be not conformed to the world,” (Romans 12) the rest of the context does not at all support the most common ‘Anabaptist’ interpretation or application. In that context, there is no mention of clothing or style, but rather what this means is summed up in the second half of the verse where he says “but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” He goes on in the chapter to define this further, describing what this looks like in practice. It is about looking intentionally different or in-your-face billboards.
The Truth sets free!
The fictional “They Live” speaks of the reality that is hidden beneath political messaging and commercial advertising. It is almost routine now that the name of a new piece of legislation or branch of government is nearly the opposite of what it does. For example, the Defense Department leads the absolutely most aggressive military in the world. The Inflation Reduction Act has nothing to do with reducing inflation and will likely only increase costs as all subsidies tend to do. The ‘right’ words are always manipulation and cover their agenda.
But the reality is, most of us, and especially those brought up in a religious home and community, have great difficulty telling the truth. No, it is not that we set out to lie or mislead people, rather it is we have difficulty fully comprehending how corrupted our own hearts can be. We tend to see ourselves as being righteous and forget that even our Sunday best is filthy rags by comparison to true Holiness. We do not realize how much we are bound to our own confirmation bias and prejudices. This could be why Jesus said we leave behind even our families to follow Him:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26 NIV)
Taken literally this would be a contradiction with the many admonitions to love found in Scripture and the Gospels. I’m pretty sure the “hate” means to not be encumbered by or unable to see beyond our own heritage and most familiar to us. This means accepting that we may ourselves have an incorrect understanding of the Biblical texts. When Jesus spoke of those who cry “Lord Lord,” he isn’t speaking to those other “nominal Christians,” but to those who are sure that they represent His truth and do not.
Jesus said, in John 8:32, “the truth will set you free.” And, for this reason, it would be far better that Mennonite-borns embrace, rather than deny, the influence of their culture and tradition so far as the Christ that they are able to see. In doing this, in our understanding that what we received in doctrine or practice is not plain unadulterated Christianity, there is a far greater possibility of discovering our own blindspots and growing in faith. It is more comfortable to assume that we’re the real Christians. It is much harder to deal with our pride and repent.
A thought occurred to me, while lamenting my persistent unorthodoxness, that eventually the point of any religious practice (with emphasis on practice) is to color outside of the lines a bit. From art, to athletic endeavors, being spontaneous, unpredictable, and original, there is advantage in harnessing some of that creative chaos. So ritual and rigorousness has taken a back seat to emotional expression. Many call themselves ‘spiritual’ for their abandonment of church tradition.
However, an art teacher will tell you and a good writer knows, that there is no natural talent so good that it can’t benefit from studying the masters. Before one can reinvent the wheel, it might be good to at least know what the wheel is and understand the basic function of the thing before improving upon it. No basketball player does well to ignore all of the established fundamentals of their sport nor is it recommended that a weightlifter abandon good technique. Doing things your own way can lead to injury, can limit potential and be a tremendous disadvantage.
Yes, some do “shoot from the hip” and still manage to score some points. My own writing has improved from simply writing and not from having read every style manual written in the past few centuries. And yet I would be remiss, as well as incredibly arrogant, to not give complete credit to the teachers, the many writers, the coiners of terms and all those who have contributed to the descriptive wealth of the English language. And if my desire is to improve, then reading the greats, absorbing their knowledge of the craft, is only going to enhance my own creative efforts.
Only a fool would enter the ring relying only upon their natural and unimproved fighting abilities. Absolutely, Mike Tyson would knock me out without having spent a day training, God gifted him with a heavy weight’s frame and musculature. But, no boxer, no high level competitor, would last a minute against a person who studied form, who learned all they could from the best, practiced hours and came prepared. It is religious devotion that pushes even the elite to the next level.
Jesus is the foundation of the church, that is true, yet this doesn’t mean we should strip it bare to the bedrock each generation. Do we forget that Jesus himself, God in the flesh, was a practicing Jew for three decades before, while reading Isaiah 61, the prescribed text at the synagogue, announced “today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” We know that Jesus would go on to push the boundaries, to correct and build upon the established religion, yet never claiming it was worthless.
What Is Orthodoxy?
This word “orthodox” refers to correctness.
It is the same root used for terms like “orthopedic” or “orthodontist” and basically implies straightening out, correctness.
Orthodox, as the Orthodox Christian uses it, is an adjective and not a noun. Orthodoxy is not a denomination. No, it is an unbending pursuit, a desire to live out the fullness of the faith, it means uncompromised worship and devotion to Christ and the Church.
Unlike Protestantism, that has whittled away at tradition, the Orthodox continue to practice as Christians have for over a millennia. We celebrate the liturgy of St John Chrysostom or St Basil and not because it is required to be a Christian, I’ve never heard those Orthodox proclaim those who profess Christ outside the tradition to be lost, yet we do see established tradition as a useful aid to the Christian.
Orthodoxy is built upon the foundation of Christ. And yet it is not in denial of the history of the Church nor dismissive of the written and unwritten tradition that the Apostle Paul admonished the church of Thessaloniki to keep:
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings (or traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
(2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 NIV)
The first thing noteworthy is that the church had a tradition and the second is that this tradition was passed down by the Apostles both in letter and spoken word. But, more significantly, in the same context of keeping tradition, St Paul also speaks of things of the Spirit. The idea that spiritual is odds with traditional is the great delusion of our time and trying to sustain one without the other is proving to be an overall failed experiment. Tradition, passed down by the Church both in written and by “word of mouth” is for our spiritual benefit.
Orthodox tradition is about carrying forward the practices sustained, and that sustained, generations of the Church. It pertains most particularly to the traditions of corporate worship. And, like the tradition of Scripture itself, gives a voice (or vote) to the many faithful who have gone on before us:
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”
(G. K. Chesterton “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy)
To be Orthodox one must appreciate that the Church is bigger than their own individual perspective. The Church is bigger than this generation. Yes, we, the Church militant, are still in the the fight and yet undoing the contribution of the Church triumphant is foolishness. It is a special kind of ignorance in an age where ‘progress’ too often means replacing an old church building with a Dollar General.
Christ is the foundation of the Church, but much has been built, from the Apostle’s time forward, that is beneficial to our spiritual growth and also very beautiful.
The Beauty of Orthodox Worship
There is something incredible about participating in a tradition of worship that has passed the test of time. The basic form of Divine Liturgy has endured, despite the severe persecution of the Orthodox, and in to join in this is to join in the choir of all who have worshipped in this manner.
To those who have never been to an Orthodox service, the first experience may feel foreign, especially if there is some ethnic flavor mixed in, and yet why would we expect the Church (which is universal throughout time) to be a reflection of our modern American culture? Are we truly that arrogant to believe that our own practices, built from the clay of Modernism, is superior to the gold refined over the centuries? We’re better than the entire Church spanning the millennia?
Before going further, consider for a moment that every Church has a liturgy, an order to the service, their own unique traditions, and there’s a reason for this. Protestants, from revival meetings to special mother’s day services, have formed their own traditions to replace those more timeless. I’ve heard about conservative Mennonite churches where at least one elder would insist that the ordained men enter in order of their respective ranks.
And, lest my ‘contemporary’ friends see themselves as superior. Not everyone is up front leading the service.
Order is good. St. Paul spoke to this need for order in worship as an alternative to the chaos and confusion of everyone talking over each other. We are creatures of habit, when brushing our teeth or taking a shower, rather than go through the wasted mental effort of finding a new way each time, we repeat a liturgy of a sort. We can get more done when we finally cease these useless arguments over worship style and move on to things of more substance.
Before I had ever entered an Orthodox liturgical service, I (like most or many Protestant borns) would’ve believed it to be stuffy and boring. I mean, how can something prewritten, predetermined, be as authentic or real as my own concept of worship?
However, upon reflection, considering the many times of Mennonite deacons begging for testimonies and prayer requests to a deafening silence or the same requests over and over again from the same people, the liturgical form that covers everything in prayer makes much more sense. Every service the priest leads us in prayer, through a list that covers pretty much everything, and I’ll often think (and pray) for a specific reason while crossing myself to physically confirm my inner thoughts.
Which is the one beauty of Orthodox worship: It is immersive, involves all senses, we love the beauty of the house we share, our temple, that is divided in a similar way to the Biblical places of worship. There is rich symbolism, incense rising as prayer (as is described in Scripture) and an altar, behind the Iconostasis, where the Communion is prepared. Better yet, the entire service is participatory, a sort of call and response style, with the entire Divine Liturgy service centered around our partaking of the body and blood of Christ.
The second thing I have found, as beautiful, is that this repetition of Scripture in song is spiritually like the muscle memory formed from any other practice. I can’t count the times when the music and words of a liturgical service will pop up during the week, either as a comfort or a challenge, and how these phrases have started to shape my perspective. For example, “put not your trust in princess or sons of man in who there is no salvation.” What a great reminder in this time when the institution of government seems to be failing, right?
Well worn pathways are not confining, they are freeing. Why hack our way through the jungle of life, being ‘authentic’ in the way of every other person in this age who has lost both religion and depth, undisciplined, when there is a rich banquet of tradition to draw upon? Does reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over again ever take away from the meaning of the words or cause you to want to rewrite it for our own time? I should pray not!
No, we need good ritual in our life because it helps us to focus. Everything in Orthodox worship is founded upon Scripture and a beautiful expression of obedience. It has richness and depth, from the Lenten journey of fasting and reflection, to the icons, incense, vestments, altars, oil, candles, hymns, recitations and processions. It connects is to centuries of the faithful, in our participation in the Church that they built together on the foundation of Christ and is wonderful.
In the end, as Father Seraphim reminds us often in his homilies, we are not saved by our church attendance, we can read Scripture, sing, give tithes and it all be for naught. If there is no spiritual fruit this is all empty and utterly meaningless as far as salvation. However, as St Paul speaks of the law being a guardian, the established prescription and pattern for worship, once catalyzed with sincere Christian faith, is an invaluable asset. It may not be necessary for salvation, the repentant thief on the cross beside Jesus was never Baptized, and yet it does greatly enhance the life of the believer.
Lastly, Orthodox worship doesn’t take away from our ability to worship spontaneously, in the spur of the moment, like King David dancing as the Ark of the Covenant was being processed through the city of Jerusalem. This is not an either/or thing nor have I found the tradition to be onerous or confining in the way one may fear coming out of a legalistic tradition. There is a sort of casualness to our formality, an allowance for imperfection. So simple even children participate.
Structure We Need To Thrive
Us creative types loath structure. We like to color outside of the lines, right? And yet, despite this umbrage, we often live as beneficiaries of the structure that others provide. Many artists would starve, or be overrun, unable to do their work, outside the structure that others have diligently maintained for them. And many would do better, even in their passionate pursuits, if they would acknowledge their need.
The framework that Orthodoxy provides, likewise, for me has been that missing element that I didn’t even know that I needed. This idea that tradition is somehow bad is corrosive, it is creating a generation desperate to find their place, suicidal, distorted and unfulfilled. We are better when plugged in, when a part of something bigger than ourselves. Tradition brings us together and Orthodoxy enhances rather than take away from worship.
It is hard to believe that another decade has already come and gone. This past decade has been one of many transitions for me, from the launch of this blog in 2014 to a big change in career a few years later and, on top of all that, a departure from the only religious identity I had ever known for another.
It was a decade marked by an extreme of faith, the high-water mark of my spiritual life, leading to the most profound of disappointments and suicidal despair, all followed by a rise again from the ashes. If there is such a thing as living a second life, a life after death, then I am living proof of that concept despite the scars.
Delusion, Disappointment and Divine Humor
This blog was started, mid-decade, to be a record of my journey and also a story of the triumph of faith within a Mennonite context. However, things did not go as anticipated, my enthusiasm was not shared by those who had the power to make a difference, and my misplaced faith ended up being fully exposed by the end of it all. That was the lowest of lows for me.
However, even in my lowest moments, in the midst of that, there was a moment of levity where my sharing my disgruntlement with the impossible Mennonite marriageability expectations went viral. That remains my most viewed and shared Irregular Ideation blog to date (and recently vastly eclipsed by a blog on another blog I curate) and my proof that God does indeed have a sense of humor.
It would be hard to give that up. And I knew the newfound popularity of my blog would likely suffer once I formally announced my departure from Anabaptism—which does seem to be the case as traffic has diminished since then—but that is also the kind of sacrifice that a Christian commitment requires:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 NIV)
For the first time in my life, I had left the comfort of the Anabaptist fishbowl for something bigger. Who knows what that will bring?
Dramatic Changes and Delicious Ironies
The move to Orthodoxy has been part of a huge paradigm shift and was pretty much the only option that I had left. It was a refuge to preserve the little faith that survived the collision with a terrible reality of my misplaced hopes. I certainly didn’t go to replace what had been devastated in me. And there are all of the problems found in every group of Christians from those recorded in the book of Acts onward—all of the silly squabbles and turf wars included.
Nevertheless, the beauty of Orthodox worship, the focus on Scripture and glorifying God in our song (rather than human emotion, etc) along with a simple (and timeless) Gospel message, helped me to move forward. Orthodox worship centers on our Communion together with God and (unlike the traditions I was most familiar with as a Protestant) they do not attempt to explain the explainable. At some point, we need to let go of our own understanding and embrace the mysteries beyond our comprehension.
Moving on from religion to real estate and other miscellaneous items, I started the decade paying down my debt for my first home and driving cars that probably belonged in a scrapyard. But then, in 2014, spurred by my other and disappointments, I bought my first new car, paid cash for a handsome black Ford Focus—my best purchase to date. In fact, I was so pleased with that purchase that I sold my prized (but high mileage) Jaguar XJR and bought a brand new Shelby GT-350 two years later when they first came out—an extravagant purchase which also led to some very meaningful friendships.
Anyhow, having reached the pinnacle of automotive excellence (at least for a working man’s salary) it was time to rest comfortably, save my money and relax a bit. Or, rather, that had been the plan…
But somehow (possibly working in an office with a bunch of restless Amish investors rubbing off on me?) I ended up buying a second property with the thought (at the time of purchase) that I would move in to and sell my old place in Milton. But suddenly that plan didn’t make sense anymore, why not rent the new house and build some equity instead? Needless to say, my ideas for a comfortable existence went out the window and, only two years later, now I’m working on house number three. Not exactly a business empire, yet more than calculated risk than I’ve ever taken on before.
In the time since my blinding hopes ran into a young Mennonite woman’s all-consuming ambitions, my feet have landed in three different countries (read more here and here) and all on the opposite side of the world. As it turns out, despite my self-doubts, all that I really needed was a good enough reason to go. I had started the decade thinking that I was incapable of finding my own direction in life, that I needed to hitch myself to someone else’s ambitions to get anywhere, and yet here I am moving on. Yes, very soon, echoing the central complaint of the young woman who rejected my offer of the impossible love, I will no longer be thirty years old living in Milton.
Where False Devotion Fails, True Love Prevails
I was wrong to hope to find the kind of love that is only possible with faith within the Mennonite context.*
That said, I was right about one thing: It is only that kind of love could ever motivate me to do anything worthwhile with my life.
Truly I did nothing, over the past few years, on the strength of my own effort. No, I’ve needed physical therapists, family, spiritual fathers, sisters, and brothers. Not to mention those friends on the road who made my loneliness bearable, also those who know my name at the various establishments that I frequent, my generous current employer and the many others who have positively impacted my life over the past decade. To all those people I owe a debt of gratitude.
However, there is one who has been there for me unlike any other, the one who didn’t lose hope in me despite my delusions and attachments to Mennonite dogma; the one who told to be strong for her, to get out of bed and go to church again. Everything I’ve done over the past few years would not have been possible apart from the investment of faith that she has made in me. She, as a person who has experienced her own personal misfortune, showed more love for me than those who claim to travel the world as a display of their Christian love.
In this coming decade, I plan to spend far less time trying to please the falsely pious and proud, who can’t be pleased and are obsessed with their own image, and more time with the downtrodden and truly humble.
That is the vision behind FACT, an organization of one, so far, that has already given me some hope that my seemingly divergent strengths and interests can finally be combined into something useful and good. I hope the vision of FACT will soon grow into concrete steps towards truly meaningful actions and compassionate solutions for OFWs and their families. But that, of course, will take more than my own personal efforts and I hope there will be others willing to put aside their doubts and help those who are already doing all they can do to better themselves.
*Mennonites, like people of all established religious traditions, are really good at carrying out their own particular programs and denominational prescriptions. Similar to their Anabaptist cousins more known for their barn-raisings, Mennonites love to help in disaster relief projects. They will also dutifully staff and fund their own private schools (or homeschool if they are more trendy) and now even travel the world as missionaries. All good things, I suppose. But all those things do not require any real faith on the part of Mennonite individuals, they are a cultural inheritance, a good way to find a romantic partner, an acceptable path to rise through the ranks, and are not truly sacrificial acts of faith or love.
Entering Into A Strange New World
In the past decade, my plans got turned upside down. I gave up on old dreams and, from the wreckage of my hopes, found some new vision. Had anyone said, ten years ago, that I would have three properties, traveled to the opposite side of the world, and converted to Orthodoxy, I would have probably laughed at them. But here I am, having started a journey to the impossibility and ended up here, perplexed.
We started the decade with a president who would seem more comfortable in a lecture hall and ended it with a persona built for professional wrestling, reality television, and trolling on Twitter. Yet, contrary to popular opinion or at least in contrast to the fears of half the population, the earth has not fallen from orbit nor has the moon disappeared from the night sky, life has gone on. Albeit, my assumptions, the idea that our political decisions are rationally based, had to change overnight. Scott Adams has persuaded me.
Over the same time, I’ve been processing the battle with cancer of a younger cousin and good friend, who just finished college and plans to marry soon, who already sacrificed a leg (in the past year) and now has new growths in his lungs.
So the fight will continue for him as it does for all of us.
One day at a time.
None of us knows what trials we will face in the next decade and yet need to continue to live in faith. I hope to be done with my inventory taking, soon break free of the transitional time I am presently still in, and finally have some of those long-awaited triumphs that have eluded me in certain areas of my life. But, at the end of it all, I can’t really tell you what this next decade will hold, whether Trump will win in 2020 or if there will even be a year 2030.
There is no point in getting stressed out about what we can’t know. Our life is a vapor, it appears for a little and then it is gone. So make the best of the time you have and don’t worry about tomorrow!
I’ve never been a huge thrill seeker. I’m too aware of gravity’s power to take my chances with heights and think drowning in the ocean would be a stupid way to die for someone who had no business being in that nasty salt water to begin with. I mean, I understand, there are risks worth taking in construction or in travel, but there is no need to play games with a terrifying trip to my final destination. Besides, I’m in awe of enough things of substance (science, history, architecture, etc) to have no need to chase after cheap excitement at the cliff’s edge.
Although that is not entirely true, there is one vast exception to my normal cautious streak, that being when I’m behind the wheel of any machine and know it well enough to be confident. From my youth until this very day, there is no better feeling than that dance, on the edge of control, where senses heighten, time slows and instincts take over. For those who have seen my more inspired moments, I’m legendary, or Biblical as in 2 Kings 9:20, “The driving is like that of Jehu son of Nimshi—he drives like a maniac.” And, whether talented or just plain lucky, I’ve pushed vehicles to their outer limits and came out of the teeth of death alive.
One of those glorious moments was a cannonball run out of the mountains. My church youth leader, now a conservative Mennonite deacon, was an equally furious driver, had a slightly more capable car, and was right behind me. My own car, a Ford Tempo, was made for a pedestrian existence (brakes that would fade after a couple hard stops, lots of body roll, and underpowered) was vastly outmatched by the Pontiac Sunbird GT Turbo in my rearview mirror, and overloaded with the weekend’s gear and at least one slightly terrified passenger.
The game? Keep the bowtie derivative behind me through the twists and turns of these narrow poorly maintained roads. A sane person would tread very carefully on these unfamiliar cow paths, some with loose gravel, and especially driving a vehicle built with no purpose in mind besides being cheap basic transportation, certainly not made for excitement nor even to be especially reliable. Fortunately, I had two things going for me: 1) It was all downhill, some portions quite steep and 2) my teenage adrenaline.
The strategy was simple. Conserve brakes, slide the turns, stay in the lane when visibility was poor and take the inside track when available. Oh, and no trips over the edge into the ravines, trees, and rocks below, that would probably be a big ouch and possibly paralysis and permanent disability or death I was young and stupid, but still understood that one bad move could lead to permanent consequences. However, pride, a competitive spirit, and that dopamine reward awaiting me at the end meant embracing the challenge.
So, off we went, testosterone overriding our developing frontal lobes, my senses sharpened, awareness heightened and was as completely alive as one could possibly be.
I wound up that 2.3 liter, the poorly conceived four banger it was, with two valves per cylinder, breathing out the same side as the fresh air came in, probably designed by the bean counters in Dearborn, and more suitable for a boat anchor than any vehicle of the era performance or otherwise. The suspension and braking matched, it had drums in the back that were probably near useless and nearly the body roll of an Oldsmobile station wagon from the 1970s. Still, it would have to do, it was my cherished first car and all I could afford at the time.
The first turns were soon behind me in a cloud of dust. The speedometer, as I recall, only went up to 85 or 95 mph, and I had it pegged. As I tested the outer limits of this habitually understeering, bathtub on wheels, of a sedan, my companion, Alex, the son of Russian speaking immigrants, sat wide-eyed and held on to whatever he could grab—perhaps the only security that he could find at the moment or maybe a desperate bid to keep the car from coming apart? I’m pretty sure he was praying, repenting of his sins and asking for God’s mercy to be upon him.
My brakes were basically mush after the first couple hard stops, so balancing current and future needs became a priority, but the fact that the pesky Sunfire was still behind me ensured that my grin remained wide. I was maintaining just enough momentum to keep him from chancing a pass on the few straights. That and my dedication level, as someone young, single, the clear underdog and oftentimes frustrated, might have given me the slight edge.
The unannounced race ended as we swung onto the interstate onramp. My car, clearly outmatched, would easily outrun on the highway and, besides that, the State Troopers were sure to be out there lurking. I had my fill of exhilaration, man and machine had passed the test, the sun shone more brightly in the sky and it was, indeed, a great day to be alive!
Postscript: Say what you will, I can’t say this was not foolish, but all human progress depends on this love of novelty and risk-taking spirit. Had some idiot not experimented with keys, a kite, and a lightning storm, you would not be reading this blog on an electronic device. Certainly, we should try to temper these urges and try to direct them to more useful outlets, but we should never stifle the youthful in their pushing the boundaries of experience. Yes, to make civilization possible, we may also need to subdue our most aggressive impulses, still, all creativity, advancement, and pleasure depend on engaging in a bit of risky behavior. It is those glorious moments, riding that line between control and chaos when we are most truly alive.
One of my favorite features of Orthodox architecture is that Jesus is always above all.
And by this I mean, literally, there is an image of Jesus painted on the ceiling, looking down from the highest point, and this is a constant reminder during worship of what it means to cast our eyes up towards heaven:
This past Sunday I had a beautiful vision while Fr Seraphim blessed the bread and wine. I saw this flow, like a vapor or a cloudburst, coming down through Jesus, pouring down on us and then fanning out in all directions into the world. It was a glimpse of what Holy Communion really is, it is God bringing life into those who are gathered so they can go out bring hope and healing to the world.
Microburst in Pittsburgh
During the liturgy (which literally means “the work of the people“) we bring our petitions to God. Our prayers, which are represented by incense, rise towards God’s heavenly throne. It is a picture of worship found throughout Scripture. It is found in the description of worship throughout the Old Testament and also in Malachi, at the end of that volume of books, in this a promise:
“Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 1:10-11 NIV)
Of course, we know that Jesus brought a permanent end to temple worship in Jerusalem. The old temple was destroyed in 70 AD, as Jesus had prophesied would happen in the generation to which he spoke (Luke 21:5-32), and now the promise of Malachi is fulfilled in the church which has been founded by Christ. We have become the new temple, the Spirit of God dwells in us, and worship in every place. It is the church that offers incense and pure offerings and makes God’s name great among the nations.
It is a picture of heaven found in the last book of the New Testament:
Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. (Revelation 8:3-4 NIV)
Our prayers go up, with a sweet savor of incense, for the country we live in, for the city we are in and every city and land, for favorable weather, an abundance of fruit and peaceful times, for those traveling by land, sea, and air (also through space), for deliverance from affliction, wrath, danger and necessity, and asking “Lord have mercy” after each petition led by the priest. These prayers go up, culminating with the Holy Oblation, the blessing of the Precious Gifts, and we sing:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
Those words a combination of the hymn of the Seraphim (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8) and the words of the crowd called out when Jesus made his triumphant entry to Jerusalem. It is in anticipation of what is to come. Our prayers go up and God pours out his mercies through the body and blood of Jesus, through the life of Spirit as it was foretold in the book of Joel:
And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. (Joel 2:28 NIV)
Peter quotes this on the day of Pentecost, in Acts 2, to explain the miraculous things happening then and that continues in us today as well. It is through Communion, our partaking of the body of Christ together, that we can be filled with the Spirit and flow out into the world. The life of the church comes through our Communion with each other and with God. This is the picture of what happens next:
A fountain will flow out of the Lord’s house and will water the valley of acacias. (Joel 3:18b NIV)
That is the world, people are thirsty for spiritual life and to be watered by the fountain of truth. It is in our Communing with God (and being anointed with oil) that we have a cup that runs over (Psalm 23) that brings life and healing to those whom we touch. We, as those in Communion with Christ and his Church, are the Lord’s house, we are “God’s temple” (1 Cor. 3:16) and our “body is the temple of God” (1 Cor. 6:19) and, therefore, we are the fountain of life in the world.