The Patriarchal Protection Paradox

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The order and protection of patriarchalism and purity culture could appear to be the alternative to the chaos, confusion, risk and hurt of sexual liberation.  We know that women are taken advantage of all the time by men who have no intentions of making a commitment, they do naturally bear the higher cost of sexual promiscuity and therefore it does make sense to offer them some special protection, right?

Men should be protectors.  This is a role that men are well suited for and, in correct form, actually enables women to thrive and be the best version of themselves.  Does this mean that women can’t do what men do?  No.  But it is simply optimal, in a trade relationship, that both parties specialize and do what they are better suited to do.  For the betterment of the whole and ultimately for themselves.  My grandma kept the books for the farm while my grandpa ran the equipment and did the field work.  Why?  Well, it’s simply what worked for them. 

The patriarch, the elder man of a household or a community, should indeed protect those who are under his care.  That’s what he is there for.  He can provide food, shelter, shepherding and defense for the vulnerable.  His age and experience, his humbly knowing his own place under God, can give him perspective valuable to his children and appreciated by the woman that he has committed to love.  This may be patriarchy, I’m not sure, but the good kind.

Unfortunately, patriarchalism, like that often found in religious purity cultures, tends to be the wrong kind of protection.  It elevates women while simultaneously not treating them as equals.  It protects some women, but not all.  And, while framed as a male advantage, because it does privilege some men, actually hurts men.  It may prevent some promiscuity, but it doesn’t protect people or truly show Christian mercy to anyone.  Worse, since it never gets to the heart of the matter, it often only covers for abuse.  That’s the paradoxical part: Below the surface it is not really any different from the degrading and demeaning alternative. 

1) Paradox: Both Elevates And Demeans Women

Patriarchalism is often framed in terms of dominant men who think women should follow two steps behind, which is certainly one part of it.  But it can also be much more subtle than those notions of women remaining barefoot in the kitchen, pregnant, submissively waiting on their husbands. 

In fact, many men who identify with feminism are very often unwittingly patriarchal in their overzealous protective and preferential treatment of women.  Coddling or patronizing women, assuming their motives are always pure, is ultimately another form of patriarchal protection.  This is, incidentally, the reason why some feminist women resent having the door held for them.  Is it a kind gesture or is it an assumption of her inferiority and need for male help?

What I’m talking about is this idea that a woman can do no wrong, that assumes that she is always a hapless victim of male abuses and basically lacking any agency or discerning capacity equal to a man.  

I know women like this, who look adoringly at their husband as he compliments her (patronizingly) for her being able to pick the drapes.  He gets to make all of the real decisions and she can live comfortably without the stresses of adulthood. 

And, not surprisingly, some women are completely fine with this arrangement.   Why not stay on the gravy train if you can?

However, many more women are uncomfortable with this protection.  They sense this treats them as if they’re not fully formed humans and, in the end, will stifle their God-given potential. 

Of these backhanded insults that intelligent and capable women face constantly in this current social paradigm is that they are either a) in need of some crusty politician to help them or b) they are some sort of faultless Mary Sue, with no need of character development, who only had to show up to dominate men.  Nobody truly wants to be treated as special simply because they have a certain type of genitals.  Putting women on a pedestal (even if called feminism) is patriarchalism.

The protection of patriarchalism is the wrong kind of protection.  It treats women sacred objects, idols, faultless and not real people with complexity or depth.  It protects the female body, at least in theory, yet neglects her soul.  It objectifies.

2) Paradox: Protects Some Women, But Not All

In purity cultures (both secular/political or traditional/religious) only those who meet a certain standard or subscribe to a particular ideological agenda are actually protected.  Those who do not conform the cultural expectation are not valued or respected.

In the religious culture which I was born into, the woman who follows the rules (kept up outward appearances and acted the part of innocent) is always treated as pure-minded and virtually incapable of evil.  A young woman, who outwardly obeys, is her daddy’s little angel, practically divinity, and subject to unceasing praise.  Women are protected, but not as equal to a man, and only so long as they represent the ideal.

Perhaps this ‘protection’ is motivated by guilt and a way to make up for the extra pressure put on women to conform and submit?  Or simply a way for some men to advantage themselves over other men by playing the hero?  Maybe it is just a bias of those in a culture where everything is judged by outward appearances and men can’t imagine their female counterparts as being anything but porcelain dolls, where it is unimaginable that a beautiful young woman, from a good home, wearing the prescribed attire, could be anything but sinless and a saint.  Whatever the case, it is real and is a privilege (albeit perverse) that women enjoy in patriarchal purity cultures.  

This privilege, and pedestal, of course, does not apply to ‘worldly’ women.  No, only the girl who meets the patriarchal religious standard is sort of viewed as some kind of unattainable perfection.  A woman is either a paradigm of virtue, a Madonna, or she is a Jezebel, a Potiphar’s wife and temptress, with very little room in between.  An too often, the woman who stands up for herself a bit or defies their cultural expectations, to the patriarchal men, are comparable to a prostitute and totally debased.  They need women to be weak so they can feel strong by comparison.

The patriarchal paradox is that it does elevate and protect women, but not in a way that humanizes or allows women to have the same fullness of character as a man. Patriarchalism doesn’t protect women as people, but rather as they represent an image of femininity and cultural ideal.  This is revealed or exposed, in the reality that patriarchal men do not protect all women.  No, they only protect their women and only so long as they fit the cultural prescription. 

Furthermore, the protection patriarchal purity culture is mostly focused on defending the physical body of a woman, managing her outward behavior, rather than her actual spiritual well-being.  She is the trophy on a man’s shelf, a conquest, but not recognized as a fully formed person.  Women are valued for their virginity and only protected if deemed pure by some cultural standard. A woman is only worthy of protection if his purity fantasies can be projected onto her feminine frame.

This ‘protection’ (or at least as it is combined with purity culture) labels those who fall short as “defiled” and treats them like damaged goods rather than broken people to be loved. The paradox is that patriarchalism protects a cultural ideal for women rather than protect women.  It offers condemnation, not care, for those who fall short.

3) Paradox: Hurts Rather Than Helps Most Men

Patriarchal treatment of women also leaves many men feeling inadequate amongst women who are truly their equals and not perfect as imagined.  In my own life, I’ve put Mennonite women so high on a pedestal that their rejection felt like a judgment from God.  That is unfair to the men, it is unfair to the women, and yet is very common in patriarchal religious purity cultures.

Again, in patriarchal purity culture, so long as a woman dressed and acted in a particular manner she was basically immune from criticism.  I’ve seen very patriarchal pastors side with a wife against her husband, when she was as much at fault, and suspect it was a matter of sexual preference.  And I do mean “sexual preference” in the crassest and literal manner, in that they were protecting women to preserve their own sexual status with her.  Somewhere, in their reptile brain, they needed to impress the woman, play savior to the damsel in distress, and did a terrible disservice to both sides with their prejudice.

Young conservative Mennonite men, unlike the females within the culture who are treated as blameless, are frequently called out for their more open expression of their lusts and pornography addictions.  It is as if it never registered to them that Jesus called out those who appeared to be righteous more harshly than those caught in their sin.  Mennonite women sin.  They have their vices, even if less obvious.  Anyhow, when some are left feeling dirty and irredeemable rather than sinners in need of God’s grace like anyone else, this is patriarchal purity culture and unChristian.

Men in patriarchal purity culture, rather than love other men, enjoy eliminating competition.  By highlighting and haranguing about the more visible weaknesses or inadequacies of other men they hope to increase their own social stature.  This is even more pronounced in purity cultures where polygamy allowed.  The “lost boys” of fundamentalist Mormonism, where young men are accused and run off, a clear example. 

Other men are a far bigger threat to abusive patriarchal men than women.  And this is why Biblical fundamentalist (Protestant) men demand submission to themselves and yet absolutely refuse to fall under any authority other than their own.  It is not so much about women or purity as it is about protecting the overblown ego of some men and comes at the expense of all.  It is actually about power not protection.

4) Paradox: Patriarchal Protection Often Covers For Abuse

The great irony of patriarchal purity cultures are that they are as focused on sex as the ‘worldly’ whom they condemn.  Even in their condemnations of promiscuity there is this “methinks thou dost protest too much” feeling and sense that this constant bluster is for their titillation or pleasure.

But, more than that, this display doesn’t mean these moralizers are free from sexual sin themselves. 

No, they are as obsessed with the physical bodies as anybody in the world outside their cults. 

And, while they consider themselves to be moral authorities, they often blame-shift responsibility for their own lust onto women.  From pulpit pounding sermons about “immodesty” (in front of an audience of women wearing  long dresses) to men who literally blame the young girls they molested for the abuse. 

However, the worst part is when those in these cultures are more concerned about the victims remaining silent than they are about the abuse.  This is probably not so much about keeping individual abusers from justice so much as it is about protecting the culture.  To feel good about themselves, to keep up the “holier than thou” show, they must conceal the impurities.  It is about protecting image not people.

Purity cultures are about preserving an outward image of purity and avoid looking inward at all costs.  They need to externalize blame, keep the focus on the sins of those outside of the group, or it would be impossible to sustain the system.  So deny the extent of their own problems, to try to keep their sins secret, is a means to protect their special identity and culture. 

The Wrong Kind Of Protection

In the end, patriarchalism protects the cultural ideal of purity rather than actually loving people.  It is concerned primarily with a woman’s body, or outward behavior, not her being.  It is centered on the physical rather than the spiritual.  It stifles women who don’t fit the cultural mold, does not protect their dreams or ambitions, and also gives cover to bad behavior that flies beneath the radar of dress standards and superficial obedience.  It protects the power of a few men at the top, but does not serve many (or most) of the males within the culture very well. 

It does not follow the example of Jesus, who did associate with prostitutes and others who did not keep up their righteous image according to the standards of the religious paradigm of that time.  He intervened on behalf of a woman accused of adultery and condemned the sanctimonious elites.  They Pharisees were obsessed with maintaining an outward image, creating physical separation between themselves and those deemed impure, yet knew nothing of spiritual transformation or even their own need of an inner change.  They loved status and outward image, they protected a religious ideal, but not real people.

The problem with the patriarchal purity culture protection is that it protects women like property, as sex objects, and not as people.  It is dehumanizing in the way that it puts women on a pedestal.  The problem is not male leadership.  The problem is any leadership that does not protect other than for it’s own benefit.  Despite what it claims, patriarchalism is about defending the status of some men, keeping their lust satiated, rather than Christian love.  It is ‘protection’ of the wrong spiritual source. 

And, thus unlike what popular mythology would suggest, this is not a problem that would be solved by replacing men in leadership with equally domineering women.  That is the one big absurdity of our time, we are told that women would be better more empathetic leaders than men and then given purple-haired Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo berating a subordinate man as an example.  That’s not an empowered woman, that’s a woman that is dangerously entitled or so uncertain of her own command that she needs to make an example of anyone who dares to question.

It is the spirit of patriarchalism that’s wrong and why it creates such resentment.  Most of us would fall willingly behind a fatherly figure that we trusted was not in it for himself and had our best interests in mind.  If we knew that our unique personhood was being protected rather than how we fit into their own cultural ideal and scheme then we would be less skeptical.  More would fall into place as God intended if we would all start here, with humility and a truly serving spirit:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

Philippians 2:5‭-‬7 NIV)

The Man I Never Met — Remembering Wayne_in_Maine

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There are some characters you meet online and never forget.

Such was the case with Wayne_in_Maine, who could come off as a sort of cranky or cantankerous old man and yet seemed (even then) to have a golden heart under the bluster. There is a way or an intuition I have, that can cut through the harshness on the surface. I can just know when someone is full of themselves and cruel despite their nice-sounding words or truly compassionate despite their surface-level unpleasantness.

Wayne was the latter kind.

The first thing notable about Wayne was that he was intelligent, he had been a nuclear engineer, could articulate his arguments well, and clearly was not going to be backed into a corner. The second thing was that he had a very unique journey and a different perspective from the other ethnic cultural inhabitants of the MennoDiscuss forum. He had gone from a hippy leftist to a conservative-minded neo-Anabaptist and could speak with authority on matters of science unlike the religiously indoctrinated parroting their fundamentalist teachers.

Initially, I saw him as a sort of threat to my worldview, another person compromised by secular influence trying to get Mennonites to shift to his views, and yet later his perspective would actually strengthen my faith when it faltered against the scientific evidence clearly pointing to the appearance of age in the universe.

Because of Wayne, I learned that young-Earth Creationism (or YEC) is not necessary to have a sincere and grounded faith in Jesus Christ.

In fact, it might actually be a liability and cause many to fall into a serious crisis of faith when they go to university, study biology or almost any science and find out the case for YEC is not as clear as it was presented. That Wayne, a rational mind and well-educated, could both reconcile modern scientific theory and his faith was more useful to me (a critical thinker) than some Hammy tourist attraction put there to feed the confirmation bias of fundamentalist midwits. I came around to his position and haven’t looked back.

I have long respected Wayne despite our sometimes clashing and my occasionally coming away feeling unappreciated by him.

He was a man a conviction. He gave up lucrative career paths, actually tried communal living, literally sold all from what I recall, and had come much further in developing his own perspective than most do.

However, despite my respect, Wayne’s version of Christianity didn’t appeal to me. He had, inadvertently, pushed a friend of mine away from Anabaptism with one of his responses. I still believe his take on the rich young ruler account misses the mark, where he read the response of Jesus as a sort of legalistic prescription rather the same as we understand Luke 14:26 where Jesus says if someone “does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

I know, for a fact, that he did not take that literally. He came across, from my limited ability to see, as a very loving father and committed husband. I can’t imagine him hating his family to prove his commitment to Christ. Nevertheless, he was adamant about being completely Anabaptist in his perspective about wealth or warfare, an inconsistency of thought that bothers me about him and others of that fold. It did annoy me too when he characterized the Orthodox tradition as “smells and bells” as if worship was supposed to be something other than a beautiful or full sensory experience.

The Cancer and Change

After I heard about Wayne’s cancer diagnosis, none of our previous sparrings mattered much to me. Wayne, despite our differences, was a true friend and someone that mattered to me. It was especially important to me, given my mourning of Uriah, to talk to someone coming to terms with their poor prognosis and yet not giving up hope.

When I reached out on Facebook Messenger, mentioning Uriah and my desire to meet with him, he replied quickly and with more warmth than I had expected. There was no standoffishness, as had kind of been a feature of his personality, he reciprocated the desire to meet and we talked about various matters of faith.

I took a look at some of the MennoNet discussions he was involved in and got a laugh together about the various bad arguments being used. That’s one thing about him, his humor was dry and always fun, or at least fun when you were on the same side.

It was a sort of therapy, talking to this different side of the pragmatic engineer. Truly, it was special, the man that I saw emerge in this final trial was different. My own thought was that this was the Wayne that was always there under the snide comment and cynicism. Men can put up their walls, to not appear vulnerable, and that was no longer there. We were just two old keyboard warriors with nothing left to prove to the other.

And that’s not to take away from anything he said as far as the grace he was given to endure to the end. It was definitely something spiritual. His testimony of faith was clear. As a friend described him, in this transformed version, “It was like he became a totally different person. Happy, cheerful, optimistic.” He would not be defeated in death and I wanted to hear more about how a rational man, such as himself, given my own struggles, could continue in hope of the eternal.

I had to think of this Scriptural passage:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

(1 Peter 1:3-9)

More important than all of his intellectual endeavors and Christian apologetics, theory or theology, is Wayne’s undying faith through trial is of the greatest comfort to those still in the fight. I never did get to have that face-to-face meeting that we had committed to upon his planned move to Pennsylvania to be closer to his daughter and grandchild. We had planned to meet in order to give us both something to look forward to when he did.

Now that meeting will have to change locations. Wayne took his final breaths yesterday evening, on August 12th, a couple of days after his 65 birthday. By God’s grace, in triumph, we’ll see each other on that other side.

I’m sad that Wayne remains a man that I’ve never met, in the flesh, despite our interactions over the years. However, in his terminal illness, there was also a man that I never met, that softer side, and feel blessed have finally met this man. I loved him and believe that he loved me too. I’ll remember our last interactions for much more fondly than our first. It was beautiful to see his golden heart revealed.

Let the Seed Fall!

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Some might wonder why I have such a visceral reaction to wokeism.  I have written a few no holds barred blogs trying to warn people of what this is and where it invariably leads.  But each time I write it feels as if my concern is not well-explained.  I mean, I know some probably read and ask, “why is Joel attacking these well-intentioned people?”

However, I’m having a moment of clarity and therefore will try to expound on why it is absolutely necessary to shock people out of their stupor.  The reality is that wokeism (or grievance culture) and religious purity culture are two branches off of the same tree.  Both patriarchal conservative men and those angry pink-haired feminists are trying to create a world without suffering.  Both, tragically, create more problems than they solve.

First, what is purity culture?  

As I experienced it, in the conservative Mennonite context, it was a branch of Biblical fundamentalism (Protestantism) that had been grafted in to the Anabaptist tree.  It was a legalistic perspective.  The pure life was to avoid vice (no drinking, dancing, going to movies, etc) and remain completely a virgin until marriage.  It is not that the aim is entirely bad, but there was also a lack of grace accompanying this perspective.

In other words, there was no room for failure.  It a hellscape of unchecked perfectionist tendencies.  People who should be diagnosed as having obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), along with other mental illness, viewed as being virtuous.  And the rest of us struggling to meet an unreasonable standard without the actual spiritual help we needed.  

For example, girls who thought they were ‘defiled’ for simply talking to a guy that they didn’t intend to marry.  And heaven forbid you did date and break-up.  Then you were damaged goods.  Cursed to walk the earth, like Cain, a stigma tattooed to your chest, a scarlet letter.  

To those steeped in this religious purity culture it was about saving the next generation.  It was a reaction to a world of promiscuity and failed commitments have produced far-reaching consequences.  And yet, while it does work for some, those who check all the right boxes, it permanently marginalize others and gives them no real road to redemption.  Divorced and remarried?  Tough luck, you’ll need to break up that successful loving family to become a Mennonite.

That’s the purity culture I know all too well and, for reasons I’ll get to later, have fully rejected as being unChrist-like and spiritually void.

Wokeism, despite the vast difference in appearance to what I’ve described above, is another subset of purity culture.  It is a reaction to the ‘privilege’ of those who better represent the cultural ideal.  It is another form of utopian idealism.  

Whereas the latter religious variety of purity culture believes that if their children only kiss one person, never experience the pain or disappointment of a break-up, then heaven will come to earth—the ‘woke, by contrast, believe that if everyone was forced to tolerate their ugliness and embrace their toxic grievance; if they could live free of further offense, then they would be fulfilled.  

Both forms of purity culture are offshoots of Western values.  They both see suffering as a flaw in the system and try to eradicate it through their own means.  And they do have their valid points.  No, the girl, the victim of sexual abuse, who (because of her loss of self-worth) goes from one guy to the next, should not be called a slut.  But, that said, nor should her unhealthy coping behavior be normalized.  Instead, we should stop seeing people as damaged goods because they failed to reach some sort of phony cultural ideal.

The truth is, the woke, as much as they attack whiteness.  Or the feminist who acts aggressively and looks to a career as being freedom.  The patriarchal father, as much as he claims to be protecting.  Are all the thing that they despise most.  Religious purity culture, sadly, is hypersexual in focus and produces conflicted men like Bill Gothard, Doug Philips and Josh Duggar.  Feminism amounts to a form of female self-loathing that unwittingly idealizes the male role.  And so-called social justice is simply a means to manipulate and enslave another group of people.

All of them assume that if a person could simply avoid pain and bad experience they would find their completeness.  All seek a kind of perfection outside of Christ and very quickly, despite their wonderful intentions, turn into a dystopian hell.  

What is wrong is this idea that pain us is less for our good than pleasure.  The religious, ignoring the lesson of Job, neglecting what Jesus said about the tower tower of Siloam or the man blind from birth, see suffering as a sign of God’s displeasure and a punishment.  Likewise, the woke want to be embraced without repentance, if they would simply be called clean then they could finally escape their terrible anguish, right?

The truth is, bad experience is part of life and as beneficial as the good.  Growing up in a single parent home can be an excuse or a motivation to do better.

This is what makes the story of Jesus so compelling.  Unlike us, he was completely innocent, his intentions were pure and should have been loved by all.  But, instead of embrace him, his own people saw him as a threat, he would undermine their system and perspective, show them for what they were, thus had to be eliminated.  That he was executed with criminals would seem like a humiliating defeat.  He suffered and died for what?

The tree of life.

However, it was in this suffering that salvation came.  Sure, the burden of the cross comes with anguish.  We would rather seek pleasure and avoid pain.  However, in Jesus, the cross is transformed from being a brutal instrument of death into a well of eternal life.  How?  It is in the same way that a seed falls to the ground, is buried and leads to new life.  

Why would we cling to the seed or refuse to let it be buried and prevent the tree?

The overprotectiveness of religious purity culture, the refusal to acknowledge our brokenness and need of transformation of wokeism, both try to find salvation by human means.  One seeks to impress God, like the rich young ruler or proud Pharisee, whereas the other (like Cain) demands that God accept their unworthy sacrifice and then murders their righteous brothers.  Both need Jesus.

The wonderful cross

In conclusion. We’re all damaged goods and can be made more beautiful than ever through repentance. Jesus can make our pain as much a joy as our pleasure.

Broken Records: The Choice To Be Healed

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Adam is a friend of mine.  We have gone out to eat on multiple occasions since being introduced.  He’s a bit eccentric, he carries a notebook everywhere, has humor that doesn’t quite hit the mark, spiritual rather than religious, dresses a little like an old-school hippie and is sort of alt-right conspiracy-minded. 

Adam is also depressed and a broken record.  Time and time again he goes back to his relationship with his father and wants some sort of validation that he never does receive.  His father, his opposite politically, left when he was a child, seems to have some mental issues of his own and can be very degrading when things don’t go his way.  It is quite evident that the sins of the father have visited upon the son.

I have urged Adam to move on, told him that his biological father will never give him what he so desperately wants, and have suggested that he do as I have done when let down.  Namely, I have told him to come to Holy Cross.  The Orthodox have fatherly figures who represent the Heavenly Father for the fatherless. 

Unfortunately, Adam, despite his desperation, is stuck on doing things his own way.  From the first time we met until now there is a wall of resistance that goes up against Christian religion and even what seems like an inability to understand simple explanations.  For example, I used the illustration of Naaman having to dip in the river Jordan to be healed, thought I had explained well, and got nothing but a blank look of his being genuinely perplexed.

There’s truly not much hope for Adam until he is able to let go of his disappointments and hope of some sort of resolution on his own terms.  And, quite frankly, even if his dad would miraculously transform into the father he envisions as ideal, that would not fix what broken in Adam.  He will try drugs, he asks for my “fellowship” with him, but absolutely refuses to dip in those healing waters of the Church.

It’s sad because his repeatedly going back to this makes me feel as if I’m wasting time on a lost cause.  I mean, it’s hard not to do that inner “here we go again” eye roll when there seems to be no progress.  And it does certainly work on my patience too.  But there’s one big reason why I do not write him off entirely.  What is that reason?  Well, maybe because I’m not all that different from him.
 
My Own Skipping Record

In the days of vinyl records there was nothing more annoying than the skip.  It was what happened when the record had been mishandled and the surface grooves scratched.  The needle would travel down the groove, reach the scratched area, and jump back into the prior groove.  The result is that the music abruptly stops and makes an unpleasant transition over and over again.

Being stuck in a rut is not fun.  Ending up in the same place no matter how hard you try will exhaust the strongest person.  Worse, when others try to help pull a mired soul out, and the stuck person goes sideways rather than forward, many will leave concluding that they do not want to be helped.  And sometimes that is indeed the case.  Some do enjoy the pity party attention and are simply a drain of resources that could be used for those who truly want out.

Those who have read my blogs over the past few years have probably started (long ago) to wonder if any progress has been truly made.  And, believe me, some days I do wonder myself as I give a slightly different angle on the same themes over and over again.  I mean, you get it.  I had some really big expectations and ended up really disappointed at the end.  So move on already, right?

And the truth is, I have in many regards.  I’m not the same person as I was a year ago.  I have gained confidence, continue to attend to my responsibilities, and the feelings of loss grow less intense with each repeat cycle.  That said, the recent setbacks, the physical pain, along with the unresolved situation with Charlotte, can very quickly lead to that spiral back into those past hurts.  There was no real resolution or closure there, to survive I simply pivoted to new hopes.   

Completing the transition, out of the wilderness of broken glass to my new promised land, means seeing a fulfilment of the impossibly.  That means Charlotte being here.  Until that moment when we meet in the airport terminal, her safely on US soil, there will be that cloud of uncertainty hanging over me.  It does cause me to skip at times, to go back to those feelings of helplessness and worries that my hopes are still entirely delusion.

I choose to believe. But not because it is easy to believe.

As the man with the sick son who came to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Do You Want To Be Healed?

A year or two ago, this was the text for the Homily one Sunday morning:

One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

(John 5:5‭-‬8 NIV)

It really struck me, more than ever before while hearing this passage, that Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed.  Imagine that, a man, waiting for nearly forty years, nobody helping this unfortunate man into this healing pool.  He, like Adam, like myself before the pursuit of the impossibly, had been waiting on rescue by the means that he could understand.  His days must’ve passed an increasing nightmare of his own paralysis and being surrounded by other hurting people more concerned with their own needs.

Jesus asks, almost as if knowing the man’s will to be healed is permission.  And the incredible part?  After hearing the man’s complaint about no help, simply commands him “get up” and the man does.  His faith set him free.

That in contrast with this:

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.

(Mark 6:1‭-‬5 NIV)

The disbelief of those who knew Jesus as merely a man, the carpenters son, limited what he was able to do.  Spiritual healing is, and has always been, a matter of our own choice.  So many of us insist on doing things our own way, we refuse to dip in our muddy Jordan rivers because of pride, we wait on rescue believing that our salvation comes from other people, yet all we need is to look up in faith and then healing is possible.

No, this does not mean we will be spared physical ailment or live forever in our current form.  Even Lazarus, raised from the dead, passed from this life.  But we can be made spiritually whole.  That is why I keep writing, maybe I sound like a broken record, maybe this is too much for many people who stopped reading this blog long ago, still I write so that my most faithful friends may someday also share in my joy having known of my sorrows.

North-South, East-West

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One of my favorite love stories, the BBC adaptation of a Victorian era novel, North & South, features two very strong and compelling characters.  

The first, Margaret Hale, the cherub-faced daughter of an English clergyman, is forced to move to the industrial North after her father’s resignation over a matter of conscience.  The other is John Thornton, a mill-owner, a handsome man with piercing eyes, brooding and intense, and interest in the demure young woman.

Things started fairly well.  But, that doesn’t last as the differences in their perspectives becomes clear.  Margaret, compassionate and having lived a sheltered life, interprets the actions of John in a negative light and pulls away after witnessing his harshness towards an employee caught smoking.  What she sees as just cruelty was actually Thornton’s concern for the safety and wellness of his workers given the extreme risk of fire.

It is in the last and final act where there’s a scene where the tension between the two finally disappears.  Throughout the middle-act Thornton’s truly good character is slowly revealed.  And, Margaret, having returned South, has reconsidered her own idealistic notions, now sees the merits to living in Milton, and decided to return North again.  Meanwhile, John is going South, the two cross paths at a station near the midpoint and cue the music.

North & South

There is this wonderful part of the soundtrack in this climatic station scene, Northbound Train (listen here), that so perfectly accompanied the moment.  It is understated and elegant, reflective, that builds in waves to crescendo and then slips away as wistfully as it came.  Thornton’s steadfast devotion is finally rewarded with a kiss and happily ever after begins despite the painful struggle to get there.

When the Story Goes South…

During my pursuit of the impossibly (a preacher’s daughter, like Margaret) this story brought a little hope with the similarities to my own.  It wasn’t that we were so terribly different in our desires as it was she never heard me.  Her conclusions formed before the conversation even began.  She had pronounced “you’re thirty years old living in Milton” (the actual name of the town) meaning, in translation, that I would hinder her big plans.  And could not understand it was her boldness and ability to get out that attracted me.

My thesis then was that a composite of our unique strengths, seemingly incompatible, bound together by Christian love, would exceed what those of similar abilities could accomplish. My thinking outside the box combined with her represention of the Mennonite standard.  And, while I’m never good at getting things started (hence being stuck in Milton) I’m extremely loyal and willing to sacrifice for the team.  I knew my age and life experience was an asset.  But she could not see my value.

Still, for the year or so following her initial rejection I believed.  What a wonderful story we would have when all was said and done, right?

Anyhow, that music, Northbound Train, had seemed like the perfect bridal march.  Partly in innocent faith, partly to bolster my failing confidence against the deluge of rational fears, this image of the impossibly walking the church aisle dressed in white.  As would be the case in real life, tears would stream down my cheeks as the nightmare of the past decade was replaced by this wonderful dream of marital companionship and completeness.  

The strong emotions that came with that gentle harp being replaced with one violin and then two, have now disappeared.  The music is still beautiful, but my feelings of numbness have long replaced that panging desire for a well-defined conclusion to over a decade of struggle.  What I got instead was a world more complex.  The cynicism that I had fought tooth and nail was confirmed.  

The sunshine through the clouds, endings sweet and perfect are not for everyone.  And the reason we tell such lovely tales is probably because they’re so uncommon, the exception, and not the rule.  Sure, we can see ourselves as the characters.  But the impossibly will likely go on seeing me as the villain in her movie, her conventional guy as the hero, and has never once shared in my fairytale that love would prevail over our differences.

As Far As the East is From the West

It is hard to believe that nearly another decade has passed and I’m still alone.  I’ve moved from Milton, left the religion of my childhood behind, even traveled to the complete opposite side of the world twice, and have changed from that guy perpetually unsure of how to find direction.  No, I’m not a missionary, but I do genuinely love people and probably accomplish more of actual value than those duty-bound Evangelical types who see ‘the lost’ as their get-into-heaven projects.

More importantly, I’ve found another impossibly, a beautiful Filipina flower, a little lost sheep when I found her (struggling abroad, in Taiwan, to support her son back home) and now the one who keeps me strong despite our torturous wait.  Unlike the Mennonite impossibility, we do not share a cultural or ethnic identity, our lives have been very different, yet we have our simple and devoted love in common—which has been just enough to sustain us through these past years.

East & West

However, after all I’ve been through, holding on to hope is hard.  Could my visions of her arrival at the airport, on American soil, with Y-dran in tow, also be a delusion?  

It has been over two years and eight months since we’ve held each other that one last time before we parted ways in Taoyuan International Airport.  I had known the immigration process would be difficult, but could not have anticipated the pandemic and travel bans that make it nearly impossible to be with Charlotte.  It really does start to bring those worries that I might be cursed to the forefront again and sometimes the despair does win.

The eternal optimism of youth wiped away by the rejection of the Mennonite ideal, now facing my rational fears and the fact that I’ve been hoping longer than Jacob worked for Rachel and without so much as a Leah in between, I can now fully identify with the wife of Job, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.”  The frustration is real.  How long does one go on dreaming?  When is it justified to wither away into bones, with life never to return again?

As far as the East is from the West is an expression, in Psalms 103:12, used to describe an impossible distance that cannot be bridged.  And it could seem that, despite the abiding love of my bhest to encourage me onwards, I’ve jumped straight from the frying pan into the fire.  We have had a bit of good news since I’ve last published a blog here, the USCIS approved the application, and yet will this impossibly ever become possible?

I see the successful couples. So lovely together. To them it feels preordained, meant to be, a dream come true. For me, on the outside looking in, there is now more uncertainty than certainty, not everyone gets that music at the end.

Simone Biles, Joey Julius, Jim Thorpe and Mental Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hard-hitting and short career

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

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

Moment before impact

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

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

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

As for toughness?

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

I wish him well.

My own story of quitting early…

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

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

It was embarrassing to me. 

As Jesus said, concerning discipleship:

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

(Luke 14:28-33 NIV)

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

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

Is weakness a choice?

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

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

Sounds harsh. 

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

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

The true GOAT

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

My grittier moments…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is tough.

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

Build strength—Do not coddle weakness

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

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

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

When Christ Takes the Back Seat to Civic Religion and Politics

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The God-and-country religious belief system is the low-hanging fruit of compromised Christian types.  These types, a branch off of Protestant fundamentalism, are easily identified and frequently lampooned by the cultural elites in this era of deconstruction and ‘woke’ self-loathing.  It is highlighted, aptly, in this picture and the accompanying caption:

Sadly, many of us have an “uncle or aunt” in our lives who non-ironically post things like this on social media… thinking they are doing something good by obliviously spewing compromised civil religion thinking—that it is anywhere close to authentic Christianity.

This, of course, is correct.  Jesus was not an American and civic religion is not the Christianity of the New Testament.  Those of this category are pretty much putting Uncle Sam in equal standing with the son of God or, at the very least, blending two very different things in a way that only lowers the more significant of the two.  It would sort of be like saying “I love my wife, and chocolate chip cookies!”

These are people similar to Peter in this passage and elsewhere:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

(Matthew 16:21‭-‬24 NIV)

Peter, like all of the true disciples, had been oriented towards a worldly kingdom led by Christ.  This is why he swung his sword to defend Jesus from being arrested by the corrupt religious authorities.  He was misguided, yes, but also sincere and truly loyal to Christ despite his vastly incorrect understanding of the Gospel.  Eventually he became the example of self-sacrificial love and led the church before his death as a martyr—crucified upside down on a Roman cross.

It is not my place to question the salvation of anyone.  However, I will say that if anyone puts their faith in their nation for salvation they will be sorely disappointed in the end and many are learning this hard lesson as institutions fail them.  As Scripture says, “put not your faith in princess or mortal men in whom there is no salvation.”  Great leaders come and go, nations rise and fall, but there is one Lord and Savior of all who reigns supreme from everlasting to everlasting.  Amen.

The More Sinister Betrayal of Christ

However, now that we covered the easily ridiculed simpletons, let’s move on to the more sophisticated.  There are many critical of this latter type, who also profess to be Christian, and yet themselves are tools for a form of nationalism.  Indeed, the rulers of our time are not those embarrassing older relatives called out on social media.  No, it is those who reject all religion—Christianity most especially—or at least do until it is useful for manipulation.

Unlike the God-and-country religious types, who wear their cartoonish devotion to consumer Jesus on their sleeves, the subscribers to ‘woke’ nationalism position themselves in opposition to traditional American iconography, recast the stars and stripes as a symbol of oppression, and present love for country as being some form of fascist.  The church of “social justice” being merely a branch of this popular political movement.

The irony being that they themselves, the ‘woke’ nationalist, are more in alignment with corporations and machinery of the national politics than those whom they most frequently condemn.  Nine out of ten times, those using the word “Christian nationalism” act in alignment with the most violent (and excused by elites) elements in our time, have worked for the government in some capacity, and then, with prissy indignation, blast their working poor “blue collar” neighbors.

This ‘woke’ nationalism is the current civil religion of the Democrat party elites and establishment Republicans alike.  The evangelists being the supposedly edgy late night hosts and corporate media.  Their dogmas enforced via Big Tech monopolies with doctrines reinforced by their paid shill fact-checkers.  Those at the top of this hierarchy mock Christianity and find more in common with Karl Marx than they do Jesus Christ.  But they are happy for the help of the religious useful idiots.

Indeed, like Zionism takes eyes off of Christ to the nation-state of Israel, this woke nationalism also takes the eyes off Jesus and places it on those designated victims of oppression.  Sure, they can claim that this as part of their obligation to the Kingdom of God—a fulfillment of the Christian mission prophesied by Isaiah 61:1: “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.”  Unfortunately it is anything but that.

Posted, and apparently unironically, in the Socialism subReddit

No, woke nationalism, along with most of neo-Anabaptism, is the modern-day equivalent of Judas throwing the words of Jesus in his face.  Under the facade of correct language and noble sounding intent, these are a scornful and nasty people who attack those who are actually most vulnerable in this present time.  They, like Judas, use the words of Jesus as a means to attack even the good-faith efforts of others:

Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

(John 12:3‭-‬8 NIV)

Judas pitted the words of Jesus against him.  Unlike Peter, who once unwisely rebuked Jesus, the betrayer spoke in arrogance.  He, like Satan twisting Scripture to tempt Jesus, was malicious and a hypocrite (stealing from the collective pursue) under his phony virtue-signaling about the poor.  Sure, Peter was also oriented towards a worldly kingdom, and yet Judas seemingly had a lust for power that he thought would be fulfilled in Jesus.

Who does this today?  

How about the kind who attack those using the expression “thoughts and prayers” in response to tragedy?

Or maybe those who made their wealth at taxpayer expense writing Tweets targeting the projects and achievements of others couching this in concern for the poor?

The word of God is powerful and I believe that there is good reason why we have the detailed account of Judas attacking the worshipful act of this woman.  It is to highlight the toxic mentality of those who can quote the words of Jesus when it is politically (or otherwise useful) and yet have a heart far from God.  We are told that the Pharisees diligently studied Scripture.  But they did it for personal advantage over others and to attain rank in their social or religious circle.

The reason that I have spent far more time trying to expose woke nationalism, as opposed to other forms of civic religion, is because it is both the more dominant force right now and also the most blatantly anti-Christian.  Despite the clever packaging as being opposition to racism or concern for the poor, woke nationalism is all about political power and having absolute control over others.  

These are people who can’t love their own literal neighbors and somehow delude themselves to thinking themselves saviors of the oppressed.  They don’t merely misunderstand and mischaracterize Christ as the God-and-country religious types.  No, they believe that they are essentially His equal and twist His words to their political ends while imagining themselves to be better than everyone else.

They are out saving the world and can’t even save themselves.

Redefining Our Scarlet Letters

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Many of us are defined by the hurts we have experienced.  Truly, how we interact today, the anxieties we have, are often a product of something in our past, injustice or injury, that has warped our perceptions.  

For many years of my life, I felt unloveable.  

I had gotten off to a bad start in the romantic realm.  After some failed efforts, stinging rejections, my confidence fell off a cliff, I would self-sabotage even when I had chances and spiraled even further into fear and doubt.  With every “not interested” answer came increased feelings of shame and the stigma of being someone not good enough for even a first date. 

I still apologize, sometimes, or actually more all the time, when asking to have dinner with a woman.

Why?

Well, not because I’m a terrible person.  I’ve always been a good friend and respectful of boundaries.  I have much to offer even in terms of platonic relationships and have proven myself in this regard over and over again.  But still, because of the value others have assigned to me, I look at myself as possibly being a burden to the person I’m asking and that hesitancy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because it makes the person being asked uncomfortable.

If you see yourself as being worthless it shouldn’t be a big surprise when other people agree.

Breaking free of these cycles can feel impossible when stuck in them.  The most frustrating advice I’ve ever received was “be confident” as if I was simply choosing to see myself as garbage for no reason whatsoever.  I mean, I had been confident enough to express interest, even overcome the oppression of my social anxieties, only to be swatted down one more time by young women who had their eyes set on 5′-10″ or over.

Of course my plight, as a shy person on the shorter end of male stature, was not at all helped by the conservative Mennonite culture that had been overcome by purity culture teachings.  Young people had it drilled into them that dating that didn’t lead to marriage equated to defilement.  So, if you didn’t have the superficial tools, there was really no means of building a relationship or mutual respect that could lead to a deeper commitment.

The Letters We Are Forced To Wear

The Scarlet Letter, a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, is set in the 1600s, in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, and follows a woman, named Hester Prynne, who—through an out of wedlock pregnancy—was found guilty of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for her sin.  It contrasts her plight to that of the child’s father, the town’s minister, whom she protects with her silence and lives in constant fear of being exposed for his concealed sin.

Like Hester, some of us wear our shortcomings more visibly than others.  Those who obviously lack something according to the prevailing social standard, whether exposed to public scorn and ridicule or simply excluded from institutions and driven to the margins, are forced to deal with feelings of humiliation.  Of course, that’s not to say that those who appear to be outwardly pure and undefiled are free of pain, those with less visible faults often live with a tremendous fear of being discovered and guilt. 

We all want to be accepted and yet have those letters to wear.  It could be that we’re typecasted, “oh, that’s George, always big talker!”  We have heard the labels, the declarations, “she’s a flirt” or “he’s desperate,” and sometimes it is hard to know if it is that person or the group making that reality what it is.  It is not all completely negative, it could be “they’re meant to be” or any statement that builds an expectation, but it certainly can keep a person confined and limits potential. 

Once you fill a particular role, in the minds of the group, it is often difficult to break beyond it. 

For example, my biggest fear, when I took a job driving truck, was that I would be branded a “truck driver” and thus not eligible for other work.  My concerns were fulfilled, years later, when I talked to a business owner friend about my desire to get off the road and they offered that maybe I could drive a truck for them.  

These kinds of things aren’t necessarily even spoken.  But we know there are those individuals or that don’t quite live up to the ideal of the group, who have a blemish visible or invisible, and are tolerated more than embraced.  In some ways, it would be better if our chests could be emblazoned with these symbols of shame, that we could be told exactly you get told by an eligible young woman “you’ll make a great husband someday” and yet nobody (including her) seems to want that greatness.

However, not all of this is imposed.  Some of this punishment, if not most of it, is self-inflicted.

Shamed No More

The most brilliant theme of The Scarlet Letter is that that this symbol of shame is transformed over the course of the novel.  This letter intended to stigmatize eventually becomes a badge of honor for the protagonist and something she wears willingly rather than because she must.  The letter “A” because of Hester’s diligent work, her charity, and listening to those lower social status, comes to mean “able” or “angel” as the story progresses.  She, for her proven virtue, becomes well-respected as humble and wise.

My own life journey, with the investment of love and care of a few, has begun to take that turn as well.  

I have begun to realize that my romantic failures were a reflection of a broken courtship culture and not my own lacking.  Because of the drip drip drip of Charlotte’s confidence in me, I have become stronger.  Not only that, but as a result of my struggle, I also have deep compassion for those who suffer and a desire to free them from the bonds of their insecurities.  Now, even when snubbed, because I know who I am and don’t depend on this external definition of what I am for security, I barely care.  It is on them, not me.  I know I’m a good friend and focus my effort on those who appreciate what I offer.

The reality is that I’ve become a different person.  I behave differently than I did when ruled by my anxieties and thus have become more attractive.

No, that doesn’t make what others did to push a person down a dead-end road any more right.  The love of Christ should compel us to invest in the salvation of others and especially to help those who want to be helped.  Things like slavery and denial of rights to people on the basis of outward appearance certainly do hurt and hinder.  And yet, there’s also a way to live beyond our typecasting. to not be confined by the expectations of others, and transcend our circumstances.

For me, there was never that final triumph nor day of reckoning with those who hurt me.  My hopes were shattered.  My identity crushed.  Those who caused my torment continued along their merry way and probably not with a second thought of how their attitudes impacted me.  They never did listen to me when I tried to escape from the box they had put me in.  But, nonetheless, I did emerge.  

The Scarlet Letters others forced us to wear may remain emblazoned on our chest.  However, we do not need to accept the meaning others have created for the symbol.  In the novel, Hester’s daughter, Pearl, became upset when her mother didn’t wear the letter.  For Pearl, the letter represented something other than shame.  It represented her loving mother, not sin.  That was a seed and very likely helped Hester to see her value beyond the opinions of the judgmental townsfolk.  And, eventually, what Hester became changed the meaning of the symbol even for those around her.

Our Perfection Is Not Purity

One of the inspirations for writing this blog was a conversation about matters of sexuality and shame.  My contention that the suffering of sexual abuse victims is a product of social expectations, as much as it is about the violation itself, and would be far less painful if we put less weight on perfection in terms of being ‘pure’ in a physical manner.

That’s where the shame comes in.  It comes from this idea that by being physically violated, or even touched consentingly by another person, we have somehow become worth less as a person than we were prior.  Of course, this is nonsense.  Our value does not come from physical purity, a person who was raped is no less beautiful or virtuous even if she does now feel differently about themselves as result.  It is this, this change in belief about oneself, that lingers long after the assault and is the real cause of suffering.  We are conditioned to see those who have been through this as damaged or defiled.

And that’s not to say that the assault does not do real lasting harm beyond what is physical either. No, rather that a rape survivor is going to be re-traumatized hearing a sermon about saving yourself for marriage. It is going to add to their fears of being disadvantaged and may actually stigmatize them when they really should be loved and treasured. That’s what purity culture does, it heaps shame on those who themselves may have done nothing wrong and often forgives those who should be held accountable.

While holding sexual abusers accountable, like we would anyone who takes what isn’t theirs to take, maybe we should also take on this idea that someone is forever tainted because of sexual intercourse and therefore a perpetual victim?

It isn’t the abusers that define the worth of a person as being their virginity nor is it the abuser who assigns the value to what happened.  No, we do that.  And one of the reasons why sexual abuse is so painful for those who were raised in a purity culture is because they are convinced that their own value is somehow decreased because of something that happened to them.

Jesus, even in dealing with those who had willfully sinned sexually, was completely gentle. 

Why? 

Well, it is because Jesus valued the individual for more than their physical ‘purity’ and past behavior.  Yes, he told the woman at the well, “go and sin no more,” but he did that for her sake.  Her lifestyle was not good for her and, unlike the proud religious elites who can admit no wrong, she was already humble enough to know her own shortcomings and want the change.

So, if Jesus could forgive those who sinned of their own volition, why should those who were violated by the sin of another feel as if they are somehow damaged goods?

If we actually believe that our righteousness comes from being clothed in Christ, made perfect in him, then why do we place so much value on the physical and the past?

To be clothed in Christ means that our negative experiences can be redefined.  No longer should the sins of the past (our own or by others) define who we are.  Instead, we are new creatures.  No, these things we have gone through are not removed, yet they can be redeemed and no longer a burden of shame that we carry, no longer a cause for self-pity or self-loathing, because our perfection does not come from our own abilities.  Our purity comes from the inside, through spiritual transformation, and no longer by the reputation others give us or regrets we have.

The Symbolism of the Cross

When Jesus was stripped naked, his flesh cruelly shredded by scourgings, battered and bruised, finally mocked under a sign “king of the Jews” while he suffered unimaginable anguish, the whole process was intended to humiliate and shame. 

He did not deserve the mistreatment nor was it a pleasant experience.  It was the sin of others that put him there.  It was a cross and a horrendous image of despair and death.  There nothing worthy of celebration in that.  But even this, intended to destroy him, could not.

Most of us, put through similar abuse, may curse God or at the very least we would not be in the mood to forgive those who torment us. 

Jesus, by contrast, did not let the circumstances define his character.  What they did to him was not a reflection of him nor could it be to his shame.  And, most importantly, they could not keep him in the grave as much as they tried.

As a result, the cross, this symbol of their hatred and abuse, has now become something we can look to for healing.  It is in the cross of Christ that we can see our worth as being more than what the crowd yells, more even than our broken physical body, and to have faith in God’s perfect justice.

Those ensnared in the world of sin and death, whether victims of abuse, self-declared advocates for victims or the abuser, cannot accept the message of the cross.  It is foolishness to them.  They are slaves of their twisted passions, prisoners of the past and bound to their own reasonings. And, for the victims who harbor grievance, their answer to being mistreated is always the same as what they feel was done to them. They want to take the marker of shame off of themselves and place it on those who harmed them.

But the message of the cross is that even shame itself can be defeated by the grace of God. Those clothed in His righteousness no longer have need to rank above their peers, no longer live for the acceptance of other people, and live for something altogether different from what many others strive for. No, rather than shrink in fear or fall into self-pity, they see their cross as something that is purifying, as the proving ground of their faith, and opportunity to serve.

If something as awful as the cross can be redefined to become a story of salvation, those letters we wear can also be changed in meaning and redeemed. We can be the Hester, in our own story, the one who proved that her character was about more than that one act those many years ago. In the end she was the better person, for what she went through, than those who had looked at her in judgment.

The Privilege Paradox—What Jesus Taught About Fairness

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Remember that viral video, from a few years ago, that has a bunch of young people lined up in a field?  

As the music plays, we hear an announcer tell participants this is a race for a $100 bill and  then proceeds to list off statements that will allow some to advance.  If both parents married, if they had a father figure, if they had access to private education, if they never had their cell phone shut off or had to help their parents with bills, and the list goes on.

For those of us who have studied socioeconomic issues, and have long pointed to things like fatherless homes as being predictive of outcomes, this is no surprise.  In fact, fatherless homes have a stronger correlation with negative outcomes than race.  Many mass shooters come from broken homes.  We should be talking about such things.

However it seems many of my former religious peers, raised in conservative Mennonite cloisters, prior to watching this video, had been completely unaware of this ‘privilege’ of family structure.  Suddenly their ignorance had been revealed.  But, some, rather than simply ponder and reflect, used this new knowledge to bludgeon others and suggest that anything less than feeling deep shame equal to their own is somehow sinful.

One problem with being raised in a religious culture where indoctrination and conformity is preferred to open discussion is that many coming from this background are nearly incapable of critical thought.  A media presentation like this dazzles them and there’s no reason they can imagine to question the conclusions.  They see what they’re supposed to see, what was carefully edited and prepared for them to see, and what the lecturer tells them to believe.

The video, unfortunately, frames things in terms of race.  The one announcing even explicitly saying “if this was a fair race…some of these black dudes would smoke all of you.”

It’s ironic that this man plays on racial stereotype, the perceived athletic advantage that some have, while simultaneously making the case that privilege is about getting the money at the end of a race.  He undermines his own thesis.  If some young people, as a result of their athleticism, can get into a prestigious university, how is that not also privilege?  

More importantly, where does that leave those of us who neither had the athletic prowess nor the academic chops nor wealthy parents to provide for our education?

My father was absent, out on the road weeks at a time, I went to public school because my parents couldn’t afford the Mennonite school tuition, I never had a cell phone growing up and also eventually had to pay rent to my parents for the privilege of living under their roof, is that unfair?

Who is to say that a person raised in single parent home is truly at a disadvantage to someone with a learning disability?  

And is it actually true that those with non-athletic scholarships didn’t earn any of that reward through their own hard work?

A big problem with the presentation is how it frames privilege in a very narrow and misleading way.  The list of factors is extremely selective.  He never mentioned the many other disadvantages (or advantages) that can shape outcomes, things like physical stature or gender, affirmative action and health.  There is also no attempt to explain why these factors should be weighted as they are.  Ask different questions and the completion of the results may completely change.

Breaking Down Privilege 

The problem with the privilege narrative is not that it highlights the advantages that some have over others.  We all know that an athletic tall guy is more likely to dunk a basketball, and have a girlfriend, than the 5′-5″ tall perpetually last-picked dude.  All of the things listed in the video may very well have an impact on outcomes and yet there are so many other things people overcome that never got mentioned.

The message is right, in that we should be aware of the disadvantages others face, but does a disservice in framing privilege almost entirely in terms of race.  And, with that, feeds insecurities, builds upon division, encourages animosity or guilt—all without providing any actual solutions.

To get to solutions we need to break down the framing:

1) Not About Race

The irony of the “white privilege” claim is that, when we get to specifics, the advantages some have are often not actually about race.  

Fatherless homes, for example, have nothing to do with race and everything to do with the choices of a prior generation.  My dad took responsibility, he provided for his children, my mom remained loyal to him despite his shortcomings, and us children benefited.  

Do you know who else had that privilege?

The daughters of Michelle and Barack Obama.  

Not only that, Sasha and Malia, had access to private school, prestigious universities, and other opportunities that a working-class child (such as myself) could only ever dream about.  Sure, they may have similar skin color to Trayvon Martin, but that’s where the similarities end and to say otherwise is to be absurd.  The average blue collar white person has more in common with racial minorities than anyone in the ruling class.

My school friend, Adam Bartlett, the one who eventually killed himself and another man, was a victim of sexual abuse as a child.  Not only that, but he wasn’t all that athletic, wasn’t a great student, had nothing given to him by his parents, yet we’re supposed to believe that he had this thing called “white privilege” and was actually better off than the daughters of the President?

This idea that privilege is about color, that fatherless homes and poverty is a matter of race, is the very definition of prejudice.  It is a message bad for the racial minorities whom it both disempowers and discourages.  It is also wrong, an injustice, to the many people deemed privileged who face the exact same challenges and never get as much sympathy or help.

The truth is that statistics never tell us about individuals.  There are many born into poverty and poor conditions who do overcome their circumstances.  It has as much to do with attitude, the things we believe and are told to believe about ourselves, as anything else.  The very things that can be a disadvantage in one case can be motivation in the next.

2) Let’s Address Culture, Not Color!

If we’re truly interested in changing results then we need to talk about the elephant in the room.  Why do some children grow up in single parent homes, in poverty, while others do not?  More importantly, what can we do to prevent this from repeating?

Woke nationalism, a far-left Marxist political movement adjacent to this sort of privilege propaganda, would have people believe that more money (in form of reparations or government programs) is the solution to disparities in outcomes.  Rather than address the root cause of disparities, they blame-shift and promote acceptance of toxic behavior.  

Black Lives Matter, for example, doesn’t support the reestablishment of traditional families.  And, worse, many promoters of the “white privilege” narrative would have us believe that things like work ethic are somehow related to skin color.  They are explicitly encouraging the very things that the video would have us believe hold people back from success.

Just today, while writing this, a BLM leader in London, was shot in the head.  Her story not all that uncommon in the inner-city, where gang warfare and honor culture, a criminal underground, leads to many violent ends.  

Are we truly supposed to believe this is black culture?  

Should I celebrate that the majority of shootings in my little corner of the world are perpetrated by a rather small minority?

My answer is a hard N-O to both questions.

No, we should not accept fatherless homes as normal nor be an apologist for the honor culture that so often leads to violent outcomes.

No, skin color does not, should not, should NEVER determine our behavior.

Many things that are being framed in terms of race are actually cultural and a direct result of choices.  A man, no matter his color, does not need to murder his ex-wife because she is with another man, or shoot someone over a borrowed hat, there’s no excuse.  My little town does not need drive-by shootings, we don’t need more bodies dumped in remote locations.  And, yes, we need to ask why the ‘disrespect’ of a mask requirement was a considered a reason to murder a security guard, why a successful NFL athlete took a former friend to an industrial lot to execute him for talking to the wrong people.

It is culture, not color, that is shaping outcomes.  And to conflate color with culture is the very epitome of racial prejudice.  Seriously, saying that black people must act differently, must be more expressive, must prefer particular kinds of music, must talk a certain way, is the same kind of ridiculous thinking behind minstrel shows.  We should be beyond this, we should be judging by content of character rather than color of skin, stop promoting foolishness!

3) Life Is Not Competition

The most egregious presumption in the video is that life is a competition and ending up with more money is the goal.  Talk about spiritual rot posing as enlightenment!

Sure, your bank account may be somewhat a product of the home, community and culture that you were raised in.  Hunter Biden certainly has an advantage over me in terms of earning potential given his father’s high political profile.  And, trust me, it has very little to do with anything he’s done.  For sure, if he were the average Joe, if the 1994 Crime Bill applied to him, he might be in jail for a long list of crimes.  But that ‘privilege’ doesn’t mean he’s a success compared to me, does it?

Some extremely wealthy and visibly successful people are extremely unhappy with their lives.  No amount of access to private education, cell phones, health care, or whatever, is going to solve a feeling of inferiority or self-loathing.  And, if anything, more wealth in the hands of a disgruntled person will only enable them to do more evil.  I mean, was Hitler, a struggling artist and disenfranchised military veteran, improved by the power eventually given to him?

No, not at all.

This idea, in the video, that life is a competition, that more material wealth equates to success, is completely wrong and deserving of the severest rebuke.  What is truly shameful is that those religious folks sharing this message never once stopped to consider the metrics of success presented.  So much for the first being last and last being first, as Jesus taught, apparently to them life is all about the accumulation of stuff and political power.  

Sad.

Maybe if we would, instead of pitying and patronizing people, start preaching the truth, start telling dead beat parents, or anyone making excuses for themselves, to repent—then we would see positive change? 

But that would require us to see others as being our equals, capable of choosing good behavior.  It would require being unpopular and to stand at odds with the virtue signaling of the social elites.  Those who are honest about matters of culture, who confront woke nationalism and racist lies, they are the only people systemically oppressed.

Jesus Defies Privilege Narrative

No, matters of bad character and toxic culture are not fixed by more money, consider this parable:

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. “ ‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 

(Matthew 25:14‭-‬30 NIV)

Of the parables that Jesus told, this one has to be one of the most harsh and counterintuitive.  I mean, who can blame this servant, given so little, for burying his talent?  

Was it fair that, before the investment phase even began, the “wicked” and “lazy” servant was already at a severe disadvantage?

While this parable affirms the idea that what we’re born with has little to do with what we’ve done.  However, it departs radically from the central notion of the video that success at the end of life is “nothing to do with what you’ve done.” 

This flies completely in the face of the social justice gospel and, frankly, everything that comes naturally to me.  As one who always felt like the servant given little and thus was fearful of God, this parable confounded me.  Didn’t the initial disadvantage, the unequal distribution of wealth, shape the outcome?

Are we now going to say that Jesus lacked understanding, compassion or sensitivity?

Should we cancel Jesus?

We could replace the wealth or talents of the parable with “privilege points” and not change the message.  Jesus who said, “to those much is given much will be required,” also said those who are given less by God should be appreciative and invest well rather than make excuses.  

In other words, if you have no father, you can wallow in the disadvantage or choose to invest in the next generation so they do not suffer as you did.  If you were excluded, as I was, on the basis of lacking stature and athletic abilities or other things not within your control, you can harbor the grievance, let it take over your life, or you can use it as motivation to do unto others what wasn’t done for you.

The reality is that Jesus was being far more compassionate in addressing the spiritual matter at the heart of many negative outcomes and ignoring questions of fairness.  Furthermore, life is not a competition for material gain, it is not about the rank we attain in society either, and to frame it in such a way only shows a complete lack of discernment.  The privilege narrative is not only racist to the core, it is also at odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Instead of chastising innocent people for their alleged color privilege, trying to burden them down with guilt.  Instead of telling some people that they lack the ability to be successful simply on the basis of their outward appearance or place they were born, which is a total lie.  We should love our neighbors, rebuke this notion that life is a competition for money, and call all to repentance.

The Beauty Of Orthodox Faith

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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.

Dismiss “smells and bells” all you want, but it is worshipful and beautiful.

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.

As we Orthodox like to say…

“Come and see!”