Solving Conflict in the Church

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Conflict is everywhere, anywhere there are two are more gathered there is potential for conflict.  We currently watch the lingering hostilities between the West and Russia unfold into open war in Ukraine, between people of a common Kyivan Rus’ religious and cultural heritage.  The reasons are complex (watch this video for a deeper dive) and beyond the scope here.

Nevertheless, the same things that cause wars between nations also lead to schism and splits in the church, and despite the exhortation of St. Paul to make every effort to maintain unity:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 

(Ephesians 4:2-4 NIV)

If we would ask most who profess Christ, they would probably agree that the Church should be united, there should not be rifts or denominations, yet that’s probably where the agreement would end.  The body of believers has split hundreds of different ways, over matters of theology, history, structure, worship style, politics, or personalities.

But, before we get to the broader conflicts and division within Christianity, I’ll confess that I’m currently in my own conflict.  This is why I am both the right and the wrong person to write about this topic.  I am the wrong person because the impasse has not been resolved yet despite a small gesture on the part of the other person.  My anger has exasperated the issue.  And yet I’m also still wanting to find peace with this other person and honest resolution.

Conflict is Nothing New or Unexpected

If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers. 

(Psalms 55:12‭-‬14 NIV)

I believe we can all identify with the text above.  We expect an enemy to do us harm and will find ways to maintain distance.  However, when someone that we trust acts in a deliberately hurtful way, exploiting our vulnerabilities, the betrayal of a friend is the worst kind of pain.  It is hard to come back to the table when someone professing Christ, who worshipped with us, seemingly close in spirit, totally destroys our trust.

That said, restoration of what is broken is part and parcel of Christianity.  Indeed, we’re told that if we can’t forgive a person who owes us, then we will not be forgiven by God. (Matthew 6:4,5)  This is something that Jesus expounded on in the parable of the unforgiving servant, a man who begs for mercy for a vast sum of money he owed, is forgiven, and then turns around to demand from a fellow servant. 

And yet, no teaching of Jesus should be taken out of context either.  Jesus was not, I repeat, was not telling us to sweep sin under a rug or not hold people accountable for their abuses.  This  certainly was not unilateral and unconditional forgiveness without repentance:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15‭-‬17 NIV)

So many conflicts within the Church could be solved if we would go directly to the other person who had caused our offense.  This process above is prescriptive and may keep a mere misunderstanding from blowing up into something that leads to separation or divides a congregation.  First, before consulting anyone else, we should try to settle the issue amongst ourselves.  Then, if that doesn’t work, it is time to seek the counsel of others and confront together.  And, if that fails, if they refuse collective council, we should part ways.

It is similar to this explicit command from St. Paul:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” 

(1 Corinthians 5:9‭-‬13 NIV)

Forgiveness is not the same thing as tolerance for unrepentant sin.  The church cannot be a hospital if we let the infection of sin to spread, like a superbug, untreated and ignored.  The antiseptic is to confront the issue, to give opportunity for confession and repentance to begin the healing process.  But, if the limb refuses treatment, then (as an absolute last resort) it must be amputated to save the body, as St. Paul had asked rhetorically in the lead up to the verses above: “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?”

In cases of actual unrepentant sin, conflict is entirely appropriate.  The church cannot be allowed to become an incubator for sin.  The toxicity can quickly spread and destroy the fellowship and health of a congregation.  It takes proactive pastoral involvement, like that of St. Paul, to keep things from spiraling out of control.  Yes, we should pray about all things.  Sure, we should not judge without mercy and willingness to forgive the repentant.  Still, we must confront sin, endure the discomfort of effective conflict resolution, and not simply resign to fate.

Not All Separation is Sin

Too many seem to skip over the book of Acts and miss the opportunity to see how Christianity played out in the early church:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 

(Acts 15:36‭-‬40 NIV)

This seemed like an amicable separation between Paul and Barnabas.  Nevertheless, it was an unresolved conflict and they parted ways over it.  There is no indication that either of the men was harboring an unforgiving spirit or in the wrong for this and, in the end, it probably helped the Gospel to reach more people than if they had stuck together.  That is why with my own current conflict I may simply move on rather than make an effort to settle things.  It is sometimes not worth the energy to continue with someone that does not see things the way we do.

Going separate ways, rather than trying to push through a conflict, may serve a greater purpose.  At the very least, as with Abraham and Lot who parted ways over the turf wars between their respective herdsmen, we’ll gain a little peace.  The key is that we don’t harbor ill-will or bring any hostilities with us   Note that Paul and Barnabas did not go out and start competing church groups.  They stayed within the same body of faith, carried on the same tradition, and simply moved in a different direction.

Is Ecumenicalism the Answer?

A church unified in teaching and mission should be the desire of all Christians.  Some achieve this by declaring themselves the remnant and carrying on the great tradition of Diotrephes who turned away even the Apostles:

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

(3 John 1:9‭-‬10 NIV)

Declaring yourself to be the true church and everyone else imposters is certainly convenient and yet not really employing be completely humble.  I mean, sure, when I was Mennonite I wanted a church unity built around the doctrines that I was taught.  It is easy to assume that the ground that we stand on is sacred simply because we’re standing on it.  However, that is not an attitude or spirit that will ever overcome our existing conflicts.

Many are tempted to see ecumenicalism as the better alternative.  Let’s all just give up on the particulars, find our common ground in Jesus, sing kumbaya while holding hands together, and move on, right?

But this is a race to the lowest common denominator, we would need to throw out almost everything to reach some kind of consensus.  We would end up with a vague picture of the real Jesus and only end up creating one more faction.  That’s the grand irony of universalist, non-denominational or ecumenical efforts, they never do actually solve the divisions and only end up creating another group of those willing to compromise for sake of creating a kind of unity that doesn’t really amount to much.

Pope Francis greets Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople outside the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy, July 7. The pope met leaders of Christian churches in the Middle East for an ecumenical day of prayer for peace in the region. (CNS photo/Vatican Media) See POPE-ECUMENICAL-ENCOUNTER-BARI July 9, 2018.

Eccumenticalism tends to be a denial of the reasons why the conflicts exist.  It glosses over serious differences in theology and practice.  It appeals to a “can’t we all just get along” sentiment, it is modeled off of the democratic process that many in our time embrace rather than the Gospel, and is not the way of the early church. 

How Did the Early Church Settle Disputes?

The early church was not conflict-free.  And had a fair amount of heretical teachings and false prophets that needed to be addressed.  But one of the big disputes was between the Judiazers, those of Jewish background who wished to impose Jewish law on all new converts, and those who did not see this as necessary:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “ ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— things known from long ago. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 

(Acts 15:1‭-‬19 NIV)

This conflict was not solved by democracy or popular vote.  No, it was decided by a council of elders and Apostles, who then told the rest of the Church what the right approach would be.   It also went against a strict interpretation and application of Scripture.  It was both hierarchical and required submission.  We might not like that this dispute was decided from the top down.  We can question the authority of this council or those that followed after, nevertheless, this was how conflicts over theology and practice were settled.

The Embrace of the Apostles Peter and Paul, Cretan school, Angelos Akotantos, 1st half 15th century

This is the strength of Orthodoxy; Orthodoxy centers on the Orthodoxy rather than hierarchy and that does mean the tradition of the Apostles, passed on “by word of mouth or by letter,” (2 Thess. 2:15) a canon of teachings (including Scripture) that have been established as authentic through councils of the Church, and has been held fast by the faithful throughout the centuries.

So Orthodoxy is the Answer to Conflict?

Many Orthodox Christians will tout their unbroken lineage all that way back to the Apostles.  Our way of worship goes back over a millennium, the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom celebrated from the 5th Century on and is unrivaled in terms of the beauty of the content and structure.  We are the ancient Church tradition and, indeed, Holy Communion is a mystical experience when in the presence of all those through the centuries who have participated.  Such unity!

We’ll talk about the Great Schism and do some of that necessary handwringing about the literally thousands of divisions within Protestantism.  I mean, judge for yourself, is there any civilization more divided against itself than the West?  Even Roman Catholicism, with its progressive Pope and sex abuse scandals, is quite at odds with itself despite having a defined hierarchical structure.

Had I entered Orthodoxy with blind idealism, expecting the perfect church, I would probably have left even before getting started.  The Orthodox may have the richest of Christian traditions, it is certainly a treasure trove for those who appreciate history and want to participate in a Christianity recognizable to those in the early Church.  There is also a defined hierarchy to settle disputes.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong?  And yet the same conflicts of personalities and politics happen here as much as anywhere else.

Pretty much simultaneous to my entering the fold, the Ukrainian Schism took place.  The gist of the dispute was that the Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew decided unilaterally to grant autocephaly (or independence) to the Ukrainian church.  The problem was that this overstepped canonical law and violated the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.   For sake of context, Bartholomew is pretty much the patriarch of a city that no longer exists, is supported by American churches, and is acting outside of his authority in a way reminiscent of the very Papal abuse that led to the Great Schism between East and West in 1054.

And then there were those families that left my own parish, led by a homeschooling mom from a Protestant background, who made some vicious (and completely unfounded, I was on the council and reviewed the books) accusations against the new priest.  This woman, one of those pious and outwardly perfect types, the kind that can fool all of the frivolous old ladies, sends up all of the red flags of a classic manipulator.  Things didn’t go her way and, therefore, that was proof of abuse and fraud.  I tried to be her friend.  I don’t completely connect with our new priest myself, and yet she’s way out of line. 

Of course, I come from a Mennonite background, where no dispute is too petty to divide over.  We would part ways over hairstyles.

The most disappointing fissure, however, other than my own personal conflict with someone that I thought was a real friend, is that between Abbott Tryphon and Ancient Faith Ministries.  Tryphon, a convert to Orthodoxy, is a great writer and a favorite of my parish priest.  I follow him on social media.  He had a falling out with Ancient Faith over his more overtly political content.  Of course, the accusations fly between sides, some say that one side has been compromised, has connections to this industry, or that, while the other would say it was over someone getting too entangled in worldly politics.

In other words, both sides are making essentially the same claim about the other and it probably does stem from both sides holding slightly different partisan perspectives.  I can understand the perspectives that both sides have.  I do not see worldly politics as being a good mix with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and yet I also see that a prophetic voice must speak to the issues relevant to the time.  Still, Tryphon, though very eloquent, seems the more butt-hurt of the two parties and even alienated some of his own audience with his lashing out.

I would actually side against Tryphon, based on his visible conduct, if it weren’t for one thing and that thing being that I’m just like him when hurt.  He’s a passionate man, someone who speaks with conviction, a bit black and white, and completely like me.

Division Makes Us All Weak

There is no religious system or culture that can prevent conflicts.  We can go through all of the correct motions, speak all of the right words, have a perfect understanding of Christianity at a theoretical level, and yet totally fail to resolve conflicts. 

Returning to the passage from Ephesians, from the start of the blog, the “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” is preceded by “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”  That’s the hard part.  When hurt or offended we don’t want to wait, we want to speak out rashly and let them feel a little of our own anguish.

And yet St Paul does not tell us to bury our grievances in the name of keeping unity and peace either:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

 (Ephesians 4-14-16 NIV)

We should not lose our sensitivity:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.  That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.  You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 

(Ephesians 4:17-25 NIV)

Instead, we need to find a way to navigate through conflicts, to speak truthfully and reject falsehood, while still being completely gentle, humble, and patient at the same time.  It is both prayerful and proactive.  The potential growth of the church is stunted both by those aggressively confrontational and overly passive in their approach.  Again, what good is a hospital that only ever talks about infection without ever treating it?  Likewise, who would go to a hospital where they a browbeaten and belittled constantly?

Having the right spirit is the start to resolving (or even completely avoiding) conflicts.  There is a need for open and direct communication.  We should also not let things stretch out too long, where we let things stew, as Ephesians 4:26‭-‬27 says: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”  The more that I think about something the more upset I can become.  I tend to soften up very quickly when face-to-face with someone, it is harder to hold on to the grievance.

Oh No, Here We Go Again!

When I entered Orthodoxy, trying to put the deep disappointments behind me, and already having the romance question answered by Charlotte, I was determined to remain friendly, and yet aloof and impersonal enough not to get hurt.  The people were nice at the small parish, a good mix of ages, coffee hour conversations could go deep and I very quickly warmed up to most of the regular attenders. 

In the intervening years, there has been some change and conflict.  The long-serving Fr. Dan, who helped to build the parish, retired (his last service my Chrismation) and the search was on for a new rector.  Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the choice and almost immediately set to undermine the new priest.  I tried to steer clear of those politics, choosing to remain faithful to the parish community despite my own personality conflicts with the burly bearded Harley riding Baptist convert.  He’s a gruff man with a golden heart.

It was in the midst of the pandemic, after that initial quarantine phase in the spring of 2020, that a new person started to attend.  She looked like someone who could be cradle Orthodox, with dark curly hair, and her veil with a long dress reminded me of the traditional Mennonite style that I loved.  So I pretty much had to introduce myself and make them feel welcomed.  I can’t really remember how that went, she was reserved and a little standoffish, and yet Orthodoxy provided a bond that allowed us to develop what seemed to be an authentic brotherly and sisterly relationship.

We spent a fair amount of time talking about our long-distance love interests, we became a sort of two-person support group for those waiting on their significant other to arrive, comforting and encouraging each other, and I found the greatest joy when her tall handsome man arrived one evening for vespers.  I was so excited, in fact, that I offered to play the part of the photographer to make sure that this moment was captured. 

I didn’t realize then that this would be the high point of the relationship.  Uriah’s death meant I needed some space to process and mourn.  I pulled back.  And pulled back even more after a sarcastic remark was directed at me.  It wasn’t meanspirited or meant to hurt, but I simply didn’t have the emotional armor for it and decided to let her be with her new nihilistic Ortho-bro Millennial buddies.  A church isn’t supposed to be a social club or clique of cool kids snickering at everyone else, I could find more neutral company until I got my feet under me again, and that’s what I did.

It was mutual avoidance at this point.  I wanted space, she never really loved me anyway (later revealing that our friendship was fake when I did try to reconcile) and this was fine.

However, eventually, this arrangement started to wear thin for me.  It seemed dishonest or out of sorts with the loving claims we made with our mouths during worship together.  It was too reminiscent of those cold shoulders Mennonite girls give when they want the pudgy less than hygienic misfit to get the hint and not Christian.  So I did what I thought I do well, wrote an email, shelved that one, and wrote another less emotionally charged version that I sent. 

Unfortunately, the signals that I got back were not conciliatory and some of the comments seemed to be very intentionally aimed at my known vulnerabilities, I was falsely accused of being romantically interested (100% not the case) and pretty much had everything thrown back in my face.  It was at this point some of my past started to bubble back up, seeing her would trigger severe discomfort and a flight reflex.  She did gesture to try to make it right and try I have not seen much evidence of a change of heart either.

Rather than reconcile with me directly and be honest, she seems determined to maintain the distance by getting intermediaries involved.  And my initial anxiety attacks have morphed into intense feelings of anger from what feels like a betrayal and lies.  I don’t trust her anymore and I don’t trust anyone to mediate.  I can’t see platitudes or empty motions as being a way forward and would rather stick to the avoidance strategy.  So the one triumph for true brotherhood in Christ ends in a messy quagmire.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The truth is that my interpersonal conflict, like all in the Church, is a problem with me as much (or more) than it is them.  I have trust issues and an impossible ideal, the initial estrangement was my fault, she has her own baggage to deal with and is now moving to protect herself from me.  In her mind, and in the mind of her allies, I am the unstable and manipulative party in this conflict.  She is, no doubt, being encouraged to write me off and move on.  I’ve given her reason (like telling her “stay away from me”) to never talk to me again.

So,  what is my reason for spilling my guts in a blog once again?

Maybe so that someone reading can offer a solution or that those who are prayer warriors can help by begging God to remove those blinders from our eyes and free us from the bindings of fear.  I had initially loved this person because they appeared to be sincere and that (during a sermon about martyrs and contemplating my own weakness of faith) I decided it would be worth dying beside her rather than leaving her to face death alone.  It is tragic that we should end up dying now in opposition to each other due to our past.  Please pray for me, a sinner, that I can learn humility and live a life of repentance.

This brings me to the final point and another reason why I’m sharing this openly: We cannot solve those broader schisms and divisions within the Church if we can’t even love those who are right in front of us enough to lower our defensive posture or give a second chance to those undeserving.  Healing, within the body of Christ, can only be accomplished by working locally to resolve our own conflicts with humility, gentleness, and patience.  We cannot conquer the world for the Kingdom when we’re at war with ourselves.

Furthermore, it takes being at peace with who we are as individuals, petty, unworthy, afraid and broken, to solve our own inner conflicts, before we’re going to do much good in our communities.  My own insecurities, no doubt, are what cloud my judgment and lead to the wrong kind of response.  The Gordian knot that I project onto this situation is less an external reality and more a reflection of my internal state.  I am frustrated with my lack of progress.  I did find great comfort in this friend who is complex and conflicted like me. 

Now my true character has been revealed.  I’m not this wonderful even-keeled guy.  My emotions do get the best of me.  I’m not at peace with myself all of the time and sometimes do look outward for a resolution to this inner battle.  Unfortunately, looking to others for security and stability, will leave us further hurt. They have their baggage too, they respond wrong, misunderstand, misrepresent, manipulate, lie and will otherwise disappoint. That’s why spiritual healing has to start with mewith getting my own conflicted heart right.

Going Through the Motions

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A person can attend every church service, faithfully tithe, and beneath this righteous public display be concealing an adulterous affair.  One can go through the ritual of Holy Communion without being truly reconciled with their brother or right with God. False religion makes a mockery of the Church and the true faith of the Saints.

It is because of that fake devotion that many do throw the baby out with the bathwater and conclude that all religious practice is useless.  My generation, for better or worse, longs for authenticity and has rejected the motions of religion on that basis.  We all know hypocrites, those who dressed in the correct prescribed manner, who acted right and abused, neglected, or mistreated us.

This is likely one of the reasons why church attendance is dropping.  People had a bad experience (or many) and decided it is better to stay home than to simply show up for sake of appearance.  Why hang out with people who are phony, who do not truly live out what they claim to believe, yet will judge you because you are sincere and don’t follow all of their forms?

This is, after all, what Jesus did during his ministry, he challenged the pretentious, the religious elites, and brought the focus back to being genuine in love for each other.  And yet this is not to say that he was not an observant Jew or irreligious.  We know he was taken to the temple as a child, we know he was active in his own synagogue and kept the feasts.  

Sure, he chased out the corruption.  Sure, he corrected the misuse of the law.  And there was also the condemnation of those who were circumcised and imposed their tradition on new believers.  But that doesn’t mean that Christianity was without ritual or religion, it certainly does not mean we would be better to practice our faith only when we feel like it or completely agree with the application.

Authenticity is a good thing.  However, as an artistic cousin of mine (employed as a writer and musician in Nashville) once told me, you must practice even when you do not feel like it.  That is why I write almost constantly, and whether I feel like it or not, because regular practice is the only way we get better at anything.  If we always waited for the right amount of inspiration before going to work we would severely limit our potential.

Practice makes perfect and going to the gym every day, the repetition of various motions with the right amount of intensity, will allow us to build strength over time.  That is the power of religion.  It is not vain repetition to go through the motions of prayer or treating others with love, that is what builds muscle memory and leads to gain.  Had we just stayed home, to prove our authenticity or whatever, we would miss out on the opportunity for growth.

The danger of taking authenticity too far is that we never show up because we don’t feel like it.  My natural disposition would be to attend St. Mattress on Sunday morning and not have to face some people and their hurtful behavior that is inconsistent with their Christian profession.  It is triggering, it feeds deep-seated doubts and makes me uncomfortable.  Still, I go to work in the morning or the gym despite feeling unmotivated.

That is why we go through the motions of religion.  Faith is what it does.  And, if you want to move mountains or slay giants, then you need to show up for the small tasks as well.  David was a good shepherd who tended and protected sheep before he became king of his people.  Daniel prayed, faithfully, three times a day, before he faced down the lions.  Religion, going through the motions, can strengthen us.

However, at the same time, we can’t expect any gain through the ritual alone, at some point this must translate into tangible acts of love or it is fake. The Pharisees, we are told, were diligent in their religion and yet unloving in their actions. The church should never be a toxic environment where problems are never adequately addressed. St. Paul was brutal in his letters in addressing neglected issues. James too makes it clear that profession without concern for our brothers and sisters is not enough:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

(James 2:14-17 NIV)

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

(1 John 3:16-18 NIV)

Religious discipline, without love for each other, is only ever a dead work.  It is false security for those relying upon their own strength.  We’re not saved by the number of prayers we pray nor by our participation in the rituals and tradition of the Church.  All of this, without genuine love, is “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” a hollow act, worthless noise, and meaningless.

Maybe do not have any unmet material needs anymore, like those mentioned in the passages above, but we do have emotional needs and a need for real connection. And, let’s not forget that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, we can even go through the motions of intimacy and love. The truth of our faith depends on the authenticity of our love one for another; what we withhold from our brothers and sisters we withhold from God.

It is disappointing when the church is like a social club, people go through the motions of relationships, and there is no true depth or commitment to real love. It does seem that many lean towards this idea that Christianity is a “personal relationship with Jesus” or something between them and God alone, basically impractical religion, but that is not the attitude of those in the true Church. There is no love for God required to sit alone at home.

Freedom In Christ, Consistency, and Conscience

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It is often disheartening to see differences of application within the Church. I’m not only talking about the tens of thousands of Protestant denominations either, no, even those within the Orthodox tradition see things vastly different at times.

A few weeks ago, and adding to my consternation over the past weeks, which included an estrangement from a close friend, another trusted friend caught in his double life, as well as my continuing wait for Charlotte, still indefinite due to Covid restrictions, impending neck surgery, and other painful physical ailments, I had reached out to Fr. Anthony for council.

Now, I have suspected (but do not know and do not need to know) based on hints, that Fr. Anthony’s politics are a little different from mine. So when I shared about my own struggles with relationships within the parish family he shared a bit of his own. It turns out that his diocese is pushing vaccines (oops) and, evidently, he is in full support. My own bishop, by contrast, and fortunately for me, has issued a don’t ask don’t tell policy and basically forbade it from being an issue.

The thing is, I would never argue with Fr. Anthony over something like this, he is a wise and humble man, I have nothing but respect for him. Still, that doesn’t change my own opinion, my own hesitancy is not without good reason and I’m certainly not comfortable with this kind of medical decision being imposed on anyone. So there is a bit of cognitive dissonance while contemplating this difference in perspective. Can I have it both ways?

This was on the back burner until the other day, when a good friend, asked me to parse this:

I’m assuming you’re aware of the sentiment running around right now that Christians are supposed to be compassionate and care for their community.  Therefore they should gladly submit to the vaccinations.  Assume the vax is as effective as they think it is.  What is the CORE philosophical/theological/moral flaw in that thinking?

I never actually answered the question. I honestly don’t know how to answer. But I suppose caring can cut many different ways and including being compassionate with those concerned about the risks of vaccines. My mind immediately went to that email exchange with Fr. Anthony where I had wanted to reconcile the opposite positions on vaccines, within Orthodoxy, and didn’t have the mental energy at the time.

My own rough position was that the whole debate, to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, was a secondary issue and there were others of primary importance.

Early on, last year, aware of the disease, still uncertain about the deadliness, I had stayed home a couple of Sundays because of my feeling sick and wondered about the wisdom of partaking from the Chalice. I’m not ignorant of virology and everyone being served from the same cup seemed to be a potential super spreader event in the making. Despite some saying otherwise, that we can’t get sick, I’m not completely convinced that disease can’t be communicated in this manner.

However, at some point, I decided that life or death, partaking of the body of Christ is more important than my own understanding of the spread of contagious disease. Besides that, my own risk of dying was relatively low, so why give up the practice of my faith on the basis of this risk? To live is Christ, to die is gain, right?

Why worry?

So, here’s the thing, if my parish did require me to vaccinate in order to partake, again, why worry? If faith means not being afraid of disease, then doesn’t it also mean not being fearful of vaccine side effects? New virus or new vaccine, we should not fear death.

But still, how do we reconcile one group using conscience as a reason why we should not even ask others about the vaccine status, while another uses it as a reason why all should vaccinate?

Why can’t Christians agree on this simple matter of application?

Christian Conscience and Meat Offered to Idols

Sometimes it is best to take a step back to gain some perspective. It is very easy to prioritize our own reasoning (and self-righteous indignation) above relationships and should remember what the Christian life is truly about. Is it about winning debates? Having our own way? Can we be technically right, as far as our own position, and wrong in spirit?

Looking back to St Paul, as far as how to handle the vaccine debate or other hot-button issues, I do believe that the answer is clear. In his first letter to the Corinthians he speaks to one of these issues of disagreement, pay attention to how he starts, what he priorities:

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “Lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

(1 Corinthians 8:1‭-‬13 NIV)

We have many knowledgeable (and proud) in the church today, they studied theology, they have all the answers and will use “freedom in Christ” to exempt themselves from anything they don’t like. They have their “rights” and don’t you dare tell them otherwise. But they seem to have completely missed on the love part.

St Paul picks up on the meat theme again and drives home the point:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

(1 Corinthians 10:23-10 NIV)

Those who went to the discount rack, who bought the meat offered to idols, had logic and reason on their side. Meat is meat, right? Why not save a little? So it was offered to some false god and the proceeds go to pagans, what difference does it make? He even gives Psalm 24 as a proof text of this position.

However, he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that we should respect the conscience of those who do have a problem with the cheap meat and therefore abstain when the origin of the meat is known. In other words, our own personal freedom is secondary to the good of others, and even when our own position is more rational, or even Scripturally correct, than those of a more sensitive conscience.

He never says to argue our side or condemn their lack of knowledge. It’s not even something considered. His focus is on being respectful to others where we agree with them or not. Live or die, we yield in love, as St Paul writes in Romans:

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt?

For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

“ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’ ”

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

(Romans 14:1‭-‬23 NIV)

The ‘meat’ of St Paul’s point is that the other person’s conscience must be honored over our own, so that we do not create a “stumbling block” through our exercise of freedom. Even though he believes that there’s nothing unclean, in Christ, he strongly argues that we respect the conscience of others. In fact, he says it is sin for those who have a conscience against eating, and therefore we would be causing others to sin through our inconsiderate exercise of freedom.

To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate?

We no longer have controversies over meat offered to idols. But we have had some intense debate over vaccines and there are reasonable points made on both sides of the argument.

Generally speaking, vaccines have saved lives. We have, for the most part, eradicated some debilitating and deadly diseases through traditional vaccines and, therefore, we could offer protection to those most vulnerable by being first in line. It could be an act of Christian service to get vaccinated.

However, for some, the idea of using a vaccine derived from aborted fetal cells is completely reprehensible, a terrible evil. Would it be Christian to force these people to comply with our own understanding of science and violate their own conscience?

Is it ever right to tell another person to take on the risk of a medical intervention against their will?

My own position on the new Covid vaccines is that the risks outweigh the rewards and especially for those who already have antibodies through infection. According to some estimates, at least a third of Americans have natural immunity to the virus, and therefore the new vaccines (with the serious side-effects some suffer) are an unnecessary risk for these people. Why would we ever require these people to put their own health at risk for sake of our own conscience? Let people choose for themselves.

At the same time, are the moral objections we have to the vaccines actually as important as we make them. I mean, so some of the vaccines (not all) were tested on a cell line called PER.C6, would we ask as many questions about donated organs or if we should inject blood from another person? Do we raise the same ruckus when shopping for an iPhone, refusing to buy so much as a T-shirt if it may have been manufactured by sweatshop labor? Do we apply the same level of scrutiny to other products that enter our bodies?

Is it actually conscience or is it selective outrage, finding any excuse to be defiant, to stand on the ‘principle’ of our position because we need to win the debate, that keeps us from cooperating on vaccines?

This can cut both ways. One could say that we should never let a bad substance enter us, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and yet Jesus, in Matthew 15, says very clearly that what enters our bodies cannot defile us. Furthermore, in Mark 16 we read an assurance of what is possible with faith, “when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.” So should we really be so fixated on accounting for every molecule that enters our body? Are we not going to die eventually regardless? If you weren’t afraid of Covid, why be so terrified of a relatively safe vaccine?

Why do you oppose St. Paul when he says to put the other person’s conscience above your own?

The “You’re Not the Boss of Me” Attitude

If you’re an independent American, who wants to always do things your own way, then you probably won’t like my answer.

Nobody wants to be told what to do and especially not by those whom we do not believe are up to the task of leadership. It is not unusual, amongst siblings, for a child being ordered around by another, for the phrase “you’re not the boss of me” to rise in protest. And, it is true, in most circumstances it is not the role of one child to tell another what to do.

That attitude carries into adulthood, We don’t want to be told what to do. How many times have we heard “this is a free country” and people declaring their rights, as Americans, especially over the past few years?

Early in the pandemic, a security guard was murdered for his enforcement of a state mask policy in Detroit by a man who would not have his girlfriend suffer the “disrespect” by being told what to do. It was one of two shootings that I know, another in Denver, where a simple request, in a private business, was treated as if it was an unpardonable offense and a reason to murder.

Now, to be clear, I do not believe that government officials have authority over the law. It seems that many have a misconception about the structure of our government and seem to believe that Presidents or state governors are the equivalents of kings. They are not, this country is supposed to be one where rule of law trumps any official in government. There is nothing ungodly or rebellious about challenging illegal use of power in the courts. St. Paul himself took Roman jailers to task for their abuse of his rights as a citizen.

However, the Church is not a democracy, like it or not, and is ruled by a benevolent dictator with His ordained ministers. It is simply astounding to me that so many people take their understanding of American civics and apply this to the Church. The Church is (and always has been) patriarchal with Christ as the head. And just as a parent may give an elder child the authority to act on their behalf, as a stand-in, the same is true in the Church as well. No, this doesn’t mean that these ministers can rule in a manner different from their Lord. Indeed, they will give a greater account. Still, we are to obey those who are given charge over us:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

(Hebrews 13:17 NIV)

When Peter spoke, and the Jerusalem council decided, that was what the Church did. They overruled those who were trying to apply Jewish law to converts and, unless you want to throw out this part of New Testament canon, the book of Acts, then this was within their authority to do. This is what Jesus was talking about, in the Gospel of Matthew, as far as giving the Apostles “the keys to the kingdom” and authority to bind and loose. It is the role of the Church, the collective body, led by those ordained by Christ, to help guide us. Many individualize the work of the Holy Spirit and I do believe that it does lead individuals, yet Jesus said where two or three are gathered I am in their midst.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

(Ephesians 5:21 NIV)

It is not submission if we only go along with what already agrees with us or goes along with our own conscience.

Church shopping to find one that suits you is not obedience.

Ultimately, I’m okay with contrary positions on vaccines from diocese to diocese. For those concerned only about the kingdom, this should amount to little more than a toilet seat up or down type of preference. It should be spiritual death that is our concern, prioritizing those things on a higher plane and not being so caught up in having our own way that we can never submit to those of a different conscience.

Christian love solves the paradox. It doesn’t actually matter vaccinate or unvaccinated. What matters is that we respect each other, that we submit to the conscience of others even when we do not agree. For some this means we love by not imposing a newly developed pharmaceutical product against their objections, for others it means obeying those who are given the responsibility to decide such things.

Many say that they would do anything God asks of them and yet aren’t willing to give an inch in love for their brothers and sisters, maybe they don’t hate and yet they certainly don’t love:

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

(1 John 4:20‭-‬21 NIV)

One Nation or the Divide

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“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

(Malachi 4:5-6 NIV)

That end to the Old Testament has intrigued me.  It contains a very clear either/or option.  Either the people heed the message of Elijah or the land will be totally destroyed.  God desired all to be saved, to be united in love for each other, and yet also doesn’t force the relationship and eventually the opportunity for reconciliation will end.

This is how John the Baptist was introduced in the New Testament:

He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

(Luke 1:16‭-‬17 NIV)

Very aspirational. 

Unfortunately, we see how this would eventually work out for the nation, as a whole, of those who didn’t repent or turn from their religious elitism.  We see it in the following pronouncement of Jesus:

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn “ ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother,  a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

(Matthew 10:34‭-‬36 NIV)

Many picked or else. 

They choose their own destruction rather than heed the message and accept the offer of repentance and life. 

I’m convinced it didn’t need to be that way, that had the people accepted their Lord and Savior, the city of Jerusalem would’ve stood and would not have been destroyed by the Romans.  It was political division, the insanity of the zealots (including Judas) pursuing their own version of social justice, the complacent ruling class unable to make up their minds, that ultimately doomed the city to destruction.

Jesus is uniting or divisive.  The choice is ours.  Like it or not, the Gospel lays out a choice between unity or division.  The truth will set you free or you’ll stay in bondage to your sin, to your preferences, your prejudices and perish.  If we would truly choose Jesus then we would let go of all of our other identities, grievances and special privileges, we would be united in love. 

Many who profess Christ today are more like those who rejected him.  They choose tribe over unity, they choose political gain over peace, they accuse others while being as guilty or more guilty themselves.  We would be wise to do as Jesus told his disciples regarding those who refuse to hear, to kick the dust from our sandals and move on to those more receptive.

Peace Through Separation 

This theme of peace through separation is throughout Scripture, one example being Abram and Lot:

“…quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.  So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives.  Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”

(Genesis 13:7-13 NIV)

Lot picked the area close to the city, pitching his tent towards Sodom, Abram went the other way, and the strife between their clans ended.  Nobody was offended, there was no reason to be offended, seperation to avoid unnecessary conflict is a peaceable solution. 

We see the same happen in the New Testament:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

(Acts 15:36-41 NIV)

Imagine that.  A sharp disagreement, even within the early church, leading to a parting of ways.  And it actually seemed to work for the best.  Sometimes the best solution to an irreconcilable difference is to go different ways.  It seems that actually enhanced rather than take way from their respective ministries.  At the very least, we see this affair being stated matter of factly and not a cause for additional drama.

There is, however, at least one case of separation gone awry and that’s when Pharoah refused to let the children of Isreal go.  He had refused after first bring asked nicely, relented only after a series of plagues that increased in severity, then changed his mind once again and pursued those seeking freedom from him.  Why?  Well, because he was exploiting their labor and knew letting them go would cost him.

That is also how an abusive spouse acts.  They simply can’t tolerate someone wanting to get away from them, they’re insecure, they need to have control, and would sooner murder the other person than allow them to go in peace.  They can’t stand that someone would dare to expose their own ugliness and will slander the other party rather than repent of creating the conditions that led to the other party being uncomfortable remaining with them.

A Christian is able to walk away in peace, without things ending on their own terms, but those who are exploiting others or trying to advantage themselves cannot.  Is it better that there is no seperation?  Sure.  Is separation wrong when remaining together becomes unbearable?  Absolutely not!  In short, seperation is a peaceable solution for peaceable people.  But tyrants, who must have their own way, will refuse to leave others be.

Two Groups, Presenting an A-B Option

About six months ago, in response to the increased promotion of tribalism, I started a group on social media “One Nation Under God…”  The point was to present an alternative to these divisive forces.  A place where people of all colors, creeds, genders, or orientations could celebrate our common humanity together.  The idea being that we could act “one nation” rather than allow our differences to divide us.  I featured a picture of a diverse group of American children and posted feel-good stories of people overcoming conflicts, Good Samaritan acts, and kindness. 

Love Thy Neighbor

That group, which is representative of my highest aspirations and my desire to be unified with all, only attracted a handful of friends and remains at only a few dozen members.  I would rather that we learn to get along, to hear each other’s perspectives, to find our common humanity, and respect our differences. 

That’s definitely my option A. 

However, around the start of the new year, after a contentious election season and continuing strife, seeing some voices were not being represented, I decide (on a whim) to start a group where disenfranchised rural people could find a home.  My group description contrasted “two different Americans” and went on to note the differing cultural values between rural and urban people, with a lament of double standards, and a call for a peaceful resolution.  

The point? 

Well, on one level, it was option B, to advocate for an amicable divorce rather than continue the perpetual conflict and subjugation of one half of the country or the other every four years. 

But, on another level, it was still in hopes of option A, to make those on the ‘other side’ aware of this grievance, to hopefully find a listening ear, and then find an understanding together.  In other words, it was the same reason that any other peaceful advocacy group exists, to give some a voice in the conversation, to say our culture matters, to stop sweeping our issues under the rug, and have a dialogue.

First and foremost, the group was created as a haven for rural people, who tend to be more reserved and too often get dominated by their socially adept, politically powerful, urban counterparts.  There was no hate or contempt for those on the other side of the divide, only a listing of different cultural values, a lament of double-standards, and a call for a peaceful resolution to irreconcilable differences.  Rural people have the same desire to feel safe, to feel reasonably represented, and speak against the cultural imperialism of the truly privileged as anyone else.

Many people are fleeing urban areas to escape tyranny and violence.  And they are all welcome to live in rural areas.  But, that said, those bringing their problems with them, their tribalism and hate, are best staying where they are rather than have them bring their divisiveness to us.  Little old Asian women aren’t being physically assaulted by grown men in central Pennsylvania and some of us would rather keep it that way.  We believe in equal justice under the law, merit and not quotas, and no special treatment for some over others.

Respect our values or let us go our separate ways.  That’s all.  Option A and B.  Hear the grievance and maybe we can patch things up.  That’s always possible.  But, respond with more accusations and hate?  Yeah, that will only confirm my own reason to leave.

Pharaoh’s ‘Woke’ Army Is Outraged

I was blindsided by it.  A friend went me a private message to alert me.  The eye of Sauron had found The Rural Divide and the legions of far-left sympathizing, the hoards of apologists for wokeism and closed social justice warriors were on their way to overrun this resistance to their totalitarian agenda.  Behind the buttery smooth words, of well-trained passive-aggressive Mennonite-borns, there was seething rage—a sea of hatred, irrationality and nasty accusations

Murder in words.

Only one person reached out for an explanation.  A few others to heap condemnation and clearly unwilling to listen.  Even some old friends were unwittingly used as pawns.  But the truly disappointing part is that those who led this campaign know me enough to know that their characterization of the group was a lie.

For those who don’t know me, I was the religious odd ball at my school (as a conservative Mennonite) and found my place amongst the other misfits. One of my close friends, throughout my school years, came out of the closet in highschool and never once did I think of him as less a person than me. My cafeteria clique consisted of the only Roman Catholic and Mormon guys in the school, an ethnic Indian Hindu, a Filipino Seventh-day adventist. My other closest friend was an atheist fellow.

After school, I’ve only ever dated women categorized as “people of color” according to the current jargon. I’ve punched an openly racist Kansan (not my finest moment) and lost my job as a result. I was obsessed with the Civil Rights Era and fully embraced what Martin Luther King Jr said about content of character over color of skin. My assailants are mostly whites who grew up in ethically homogeneous enclaves, homeschooled, often privileged over me and extremely gullible too. They, like their forbearers, seem to believe that their own poop don’t stink.

So Woke.

Anyhow, back to the present drama, one particularly sanctimonious religious elite, likely trying to impress his peers with this virtue signaling display, suggested that those who joined the group were not even Christian. 

Imagine that, you get a random request for a group, decide to accept the invite to see what it is, and bam suddenly you’re out of the Kingdom.  Wow!  Yeah, I’m thinking this extremely judgmental elite confuses Christianity with cancel culture.  Or maybe it is that they are from a conservative Mennonite background where a marriage partner who separates from their abuser is often treated as the guilty party?  The apple doesn’t always fall far from the tree, does it?

I’m sure they are too ‘woke’ to carry on the prior generation’s opinions regarding abused women leaving their abusers.  And yet, under this new facade of social justice, they carry on the exact same attitude in regards to those who wish to be separated from those that routinely accuse, slander, and belittle them?

Reminds me of this:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.  And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.  Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!  “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?  Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.  And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.  Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

(Matthew 23:29‭-‬39 NIV)

It is interesting, first, that this passage above contains both a loving lament and harsh condemnation, both in the same thought.  This goes back to the either/or proposition of Malachi.  Second, those who killed Jesus, along with the other prophets, thought they were the enlightened and righteous ones.  Saul, who latter become St Paul, harassed, pursued and killed Christians thinking this was God’s work.  He found fault in others despite being murderous himself and it was only after repentance that he could see.

The very same people today, who are heroes in their own eyes for attacking peaceable people today, would likely be cheering loudly for Jim Crow laws a few generations ago, or aligned with Bolsheviks in Russia and Nazis in Germany before their atrocities were fully known.  It’s amazing the similarities between abusers, both then and now, rather than live and let live or leave when unwelcomed, they “pursue to town to town” and demand their piece of God’s people like the mob of degenerates in Sodom wanting a to ‘know’ Lot’s angelic visitors:

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

(Genesis 19:4‭-‬5 NIV)

The far-left is equally aggressive today in pursuit of anyone who would rather not be with them.  If you’re putoff by their nastiness they’ll accuse you of an “ism” or being “phobic” and harass and lie in an effort to have their way with you.  To them you have no rights as an individual, you belong to them, and if you refuse their advances they will  break your door down…

And those outraged about The Rural Divide acted in the same manner.  They attacked in a swarm, relentless, demanding to know why the group existed, trying to infiltrate, and were no different than that enraged mob picking up stones to murder St Stephen for his paraphrasing of what Jesus said:

“Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.”

(Acts 7:52‭ NIV)

A Time To Reconcile, A Time To Choose A Side

If anyone in that cabal of hate and hysteria would like to approach me and apologize, I’m more than willing to forgive the slanderous attacks.  Unlike the far-left, I believe in repentance, that people should be forgiven of their faults and can change.  I’m willing to reconcile with any of those who participated in this spreading of malicious nonsense about me.  A simple apology admitting that they misunderstood or were misled into believing my group was something it was not would be sufficient enough.

There are those whom I blocked on social media for their racism or otherwise rude and elitist behavior that I would gladly welcome back into my life if there was a hint of repentance. That’s option A.

This is option B:

But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

(1 Corinthians 5:11 NIV)

St Paul prefaces this by saying that he’s not speaking against association with sinful non-Christians, who God will judge. But he’s talking about those who profess Christ and yet refuse to repent of their sin. This excommunication is necessary to maintain our own integrity and as not to confuse our non-believing neighbors. It applies, not in cases of different preferences, but in cases of clearly defined sin and lack of repentance. In case I’m unclear:

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions.

(1 Timothy 6:3‭-‬4 NIV)

I’m sure this was just St Paul’s white cisgender male privilege speaking right?

More toxic masculinity, I suppose?

Whatever the case, if even Paul and Barnabas had to go their separate ways over a dispute, both early church missionaries and leaders, then why is it so offensive or wrong that some would rather peaceably divide rather than continue in a quarrel?  Isn’t that what happened with Abram and Lot when their groups were in conflict?  Abraham going the way of the country and Lot picking the life of the city?

In the end, it is laughable that any Protestant religious separatist, especially these proud social justice preaching types who still identify as “Anabaptist” and refuse to seek membership with the universal church, would be at all critical of those rural folks who wish to have a separate space for themselves.  Their hateful reaction confirmed every reason why The Rural Divide exists.

The Rural Divide is a group open to all shades of skin color, even those of other cultures, but only where there is mutual respect and not cultural imperialism. And, yes, the unrepentant ‘woke’ nationalists can stay out.

Relax, folks, it is just a Facebook group.

Everyone else has their safe space, wants their communities and values to be respected.

Why not the rural minorities?

Breaking Down Identities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two biggest lies of our time…

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

2) The myth that group statistics determine individual outcomes. 

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

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

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

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

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

No, no I do not!

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

Look into mass shooters.  

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

Think about that when discussion of privilege comes up.

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

Breaking the Bonds of Designated Identities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Galatians 3:26‭-‬29 NIV)

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

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

Christian Identity Makes Difference Beautiful

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

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

That is the ideal.  

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

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

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

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

Why Was the Real Jesus So unChrist-like?

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Jesus was an extremely divisive figure. He said insulting things, routinely called out the religious elites, and was ultimately nailed to the cross for the inflammatory things that he said. Some of what Jesus said, if taken in context, would make Donald J Trump blush. And, lest someone say that this role was reserved for him, as son of God, Saint Stephen was cancelled by an enraged mob for doubling down on what Jesus said and St Paul literally told his religious rivals to emasculate themselves in one of his rebukes.

When someone uses “unChrist-like” to describe something another person did that offended them, it immediately flags that person as an unthoughtful and reactionary person. It is a favorite term of Mennonite religious snobs, with an extremely black and white perspective on everything, and seem to think that Jesus was some kind of Marxist hipster douche, like them, rather than a man who could throw a rhetorical punch, call people out for their hypocrisy and made many enemies within the ranks of the self-righteous religious elites.

If Jesus were in the flesh today he would enrage the ‘woke’ social justice left like he did the Pharisees. He would violate their speech codes, intentionally, like he did by healing on the Sabbath and allowing his disciples to ignore the cleansing rituals:

“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”

(Matthew 15:2‭-‬9 NIV)

These studious religious experts, looked up to within their own religious circles, point out that the disciples of Jesus are not behaving correctly according to their standards. But Jesus, rather than apologize, instead uses what would now be called a “whataboutism” by those trying to deflect legitimate criticism. He goes after their own crafty violation of the law, their legalistic approach that neglected the spirit or intention of the law, and then attacks them personally, calling them hypocrites, with empty words, who merely follow after human rules.

Ouch!

However, what is most interesting about the Gospel account is that those who loathed Jesus couldn’t condemn him on the basis of his inflammatory rhetoric alone. No, they still had to connive to misrepresent the actual intent of his words to paint him as violent and a threat to the powers that be. They maliciously twisted his words to suggest that he was planning to lead a violent insurrection and should therefore be condemned:

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’ ” Yet even then their testimony did not agree.

(Mark 14:55‭-‬59 NIV)

That passage (above) would, if they had social media then, would likely be rated as being false by the fact-checkers. Why? Well, Jesus did indeed say that the temple would be destroyed:

“Destroy this temple…”

(John 2:19 NIV)

See! Right there it is! Incitement to violence! Jesus, speaking to the crowd, with his followers listen and willing to obey, says “destroy this temple.” Clearly a madman, speaking in a fit of rage after assaulting money changers on sacred ground, attacking established institutions, and a man clearly leading an insurrection, right? No wonder the frenzied mobs wanted him dead, permanently removed, his followers purged from polite society, they were being misled and used as pawns by the powers that be who saw Jesus as a threat to their own religious/political racket.

Follow the Real Jesus—Reject the Leaven of the Pharisees

Christianity, real Christianity, did not parrot the popular narrative. It was extremely divisive, although not along lines of gender, race or superficial difference, and it was those with the blessing of the established institutions who pursued and persecuted his followers. The followers of Jesus, for their part, were defiant like Him, they refused to stop speaking the truth even against the orders of governing authorities. These weren’t no limp-wristed mealy-mouthed educated folk, trying to position themselves for the approval of others.

The followers of Jesus today, as simple blue collar workers, would be called ‘deplorables’ by the elites who despised them. Some of them, as Romans or former collaborators with Rome, would be hated “fascists” or any other of a long list of names used by social justice activists to silence, marginalize or dehumanize their political opposition.

And, yes, the hypocritical religious elites of our day will use “unChrist-like” in an attempt to discredit and shame legitimate critics. They see themselves as being the pure and undefiled arbiters of truth. And you? Well, you’re the unwashed masses, those not privileged with their superior intelligence or education. No, they are, in their own minds, more truly compassionate, those who listen to and represent the downtrodden, while you are too dumb or hard-hearted to comprehend. Of course, it is all hogwash. Nevertheless, they do have a power to lead silly women and weak men astray with their nonsense.

Ultimately, contrary to the myths of the sanctimonious Mennonite progressives, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a divisive message. It calls all to repentance, it stands in opposition to all tribalism and identity politics, and offends the elites who are not accustomed to being put in their place. It is not all kumbaya, linking hands singing “praise and worship” around a fire while shaking a tambourine, or unity around the lowest common denominator. No, sometimes it is harsh, raw and divisive truth, like this:

“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

(Matthew 16:6‭ NIV)

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.

(Luke 12:1 NIV)

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

(Matthew 10:34‭-‬36 NIV)

Those of the prideful social justice mindset, like those of any other errant ideology, the Pharisaical “leaven” of our own time, should be called to repentance. They, themselves, are not arbiters of truth, who can declare a person as not Christian for belonging to a group not their own. No, they are like the self-righteous religious elites who confronted Jesus for his incorrect, according to their own rules of conduct, teachings and example. The religious ‘progressive’ today would imagine themselves on the “right side of history” the same as Jesus sarcastically and very caustically condemned:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

(Matthew 23:29‭-‬32 NIV)

And continued…

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.

(Matthew 23:33‭-‬35 NIV)

Religious elites today never understand that the words of Jesus address them, personally, as much as anyone else nor are capable of understanding that those who were called “you brood of vipers” were the polished, the educated, those of correct pedigree and how dare this uncouth uneducated man tell them otherwise! They were completely justified in their own minds and this man had no business name calling! I mean, how unChrist-like can you be? The real Christ, according to their own experts and expectations, would be a religious bigot like them, would talk down to those lacking sophistication, and endorse them as rulers.

Let My People Go!

The sanctimonious never mind their own business. No, they’re always out to prove themselves more righteous, thus must pursue and destroy anyone who stands in their way, points out their egregious doublestandards or otherwise triggers the privileged religious elites. They are entitled, they have the credentials, who are you to stand up to their bullying and abuse?

They need a captive audience.

They need to have you around, as their whipping boys, to feel better about themselves.

Cutting to the chase, after years of seeing good rural people belittled and falsely accused, having their grievances ignored by the coastal elites, I decided to start a Facebook group to highlight this growing divide. It was a semi-serious solution, where urban and rural people, with their vastly different needs, would be governed separately and in a way better matched to their own needs. The key operant words words being “peaceful partitioning” of the two divergent Americas as a means to avoid violence.

Unfortunately, and predictably, while enjoyed with light-hearted amusement by the rural folks invited, it was soon met with an extremely vicious response. As aggressive as those men in Sodom knocking on Lot’s door, demanding access to his angelic guests, and not taking “no” for an answer, the assault was on. By the direction of a few agitators mischaracterizing the group according to their own blinding prejudice, many in the social justice mob (or sympathetic) began to stalk the group and harass me. How dare rural people seek to be separate and safe from them! [Insert popular false accusations here.]

“You’re unChrist-like!”

It was “unChrist-like,” they cried, with a collective banshee howl, and heaped condemnation.

And yet, those who tell you that there is no Christian precedent for peaceful separation between disagreeing parties are either ignorant or liars. In Scripture there are multiple times when conflict between parties led to separation, as a means to keep the peace, starting with Lot and Abraham who went their different ways to end conflict between their parties. And, even in the New Testament, there was a time when St Paul and St Barnabas, had a severe disagreement and decided to go their separate ways.

The only time where this sort of separation did not go smoothly was when Moses asked Pharaoh, “let my people go!” Evil Pharaoh had initially balked, he didn’t want to lose his source of cheap labor and felt he had all of the power on his side. But Moses persisted, and God assisted by visiting Egypt with a series of plagues, until the tyrant was forced to loosen his grip. Finally, only when the cost became too high, the beleaguered abuser of the children of Israel allowed them to go—only to go against his own word later and pursue them to his own peril.

Maybe Pharaoh is the Christ of the social justice Mennonite?

I’m sure he was polished and prestigious.

Whatever the case, insisting that every American be under the same national flag has nothing to do with Christ or his teachings. I have worshipped in foreign nations, amongst those who didn’t share my political affiliation, and it never ever took away from unity in Christ. No, only when Christianity is corrupted, turned into a political ideology, does this difference in national identity become an issue. And it is not coincidence that those influenced by Marxist political ideology cannot see the vast difference between the two kingdoms. They profess faith, they condemn us as nationalists, yet are the ones who are truly blending religion and politics.

Lastly, there’s something deliciously ironic about a bunch of religious separatists, proud of their Anabaptist heritage, lecturing peaceable folks about keeping unity in the church.

You’re joking, right?

These are people who have no desire to reconsider and reunite with the historic church, that transcends nations, is timeless and complete.

No, they see themselves as superior-minded, able to discern for themselves what is correct ‘Christ-like’ teachings. There is zero self-awareness or introspection as they parrot popular leftist slogans and copy cancel culture against those who dissent to their rule. They are always looking outward, at the Publican over there, praying in his unsophisticated humble manner, trying to justify themselves. They see themselves as the gatekeepers of the kingdom and yet, if they do not repent, they too will be shut out and condemned to outer darkness.

Some day Jesus will divide the sheep from the goats. I ask everyone to consider what side they want to be on in that final judgment. Rural or urban, none of us are in a position to decide who belongs in the church or does not. Those suggesting that being a part of a Facebook group they disapprove of are any less Christian than them? They are delusional. Full of themselves. It is cultural imperialism at best (no surprise some of these are in that special self-congratulatory ‘missionary’ class, who travel over land in sea like those addressed in Matthew 23:15) and is an attitude that will only drive the wedge deeper.

Nobody wants to stay in a toxic relationship. Nobody wants to share a home with their unrepentant abusers. If these elites want to be heard by those of us who have listened to them lecture and condemn year after year, then it is time for them to start listening to our grievances too. If not, if they are incapable, then the most Christ-like thing they can do is let us go our separate ways. It is not peaceable to demand that others see things your own way, there is no reason why Christians can’t go their separate ways, and being in two different nations doesn’t mean we should be at war with each other.

Christian Answer to the Perfect Church Myth

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One of the markers of Protestantism, from the start and especially in the current evolutionary stage, is the purity spiraling of those still seeking the perfect church on their own terms. In a sense, the protest of Protestantism never has ended and continues to fracture the Western church into oblivion.

As a product of that way of thinking, I had always sought after and argued for my own ideal for the church. It could very well, if I was slightly more ambitious, had eventually led to the formation of the Perfect Church of Joel. That is what many Protest-ants do when they become disillusioned with the tradition they were born into, they protest and start their own new and ‘perfect’ church.

Of course, the shine of these fresh attempts to reform or restore the ‘original’ church is soon burnished. The next generation comes along, or disagreement comes up between these idealistic individuals, and soon spawns the next Protestant group, and the next after that, and the next after that, ad infinitum.

The Seeker Versus Slanderer

The concluding end of Protestantism is only perfect disunity, with everyone staying at home on Sunday as to be away from those other hypocrites and to do church right their own way. And, yes, if you’re thinking of the retired Burger King “have it your way” slogan, that might as well be the banner over these endeavors. Protestantism is the church for the consumerist age. It is defined by individualism, marketing campaigns, and seeker-sensitivity, or alternatively, pride, perpetual discontentment, and perfectionism.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Like now, there was also self-aggrandizement in the early church:

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

(3 John 1:9,10 NIV)

There was plenty to criticize in the early church. There was sin overlooked or even celebrated locally, there were cliques of those of higher social status and those left out, arguments among leaders, and plenty for someone to be dissatisfied with. But Diotrephes took things a step further, he rejected church unity altogether, refused even the Apostles, and I’m sure, in his own eyes, his theology was impeccable. However, it is quite evident that Diotrephes had put himself first and, despite his inflated ego, was as sinful as those whom he arrogantly slandered or shut out.

There is no indication that Diotrephes ever wavered in his commitment to himself and his own understanding, it is quite possible that he remained inordinately impressed with himself until his last breath, but we certainly should not follow his example.

This is what we should seek after:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

(Ephesians 4:1-6 NIV)

Casting Pearls Before Swine

Had I still been seeking a perfect church I would not have become Orthodox and I would not have joined your silly cult group either. I can pretty much rip anything to shreds with my critical spirit and, at the right point in my life, would’ve been one of those that Jesus advised his disciples about, saying:

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.

(Matthew 7:6 NIV)

It is likely not a coincidence that this quotation above follows Jesus saying “judge not, or you too will be judged” and recommends us taking the beam out of our own eyes first.

There is nothing to be gained by dialogue with a cynical and divisive skeptic. They aren’t there to learn, they are there to tear you apart as a means to prove their own superiority or justify themselves. Their goal is not to understand, it is to trip you up so that they can smear mud in your face. I think we all know the type. They live for controversy, for an opportunity to debate and disparage.

Do not engage these people. They are not seeking after the unity described by St Paul. They are proud, self-righteous, demanding, and never satisfied.

No, these contentious people are no more hopelessly lost than anyone else. They may be sincerely seeking and yet will not be argued or logically driven from their own position. However, despite their perpetual restlessness as a result of hidden uncertainty or insecurity, they cannot see the folly of their own way and are only engaging you to feel better about themselves.  They will ridicule and mock because it distracts from their own inner lack of peace.

It is not worth arguing with someone who is focused on the imperfections of everyone else. They will need to come to terms with their own imperfection first and by not arguing with them you give them that space they need to turn their inquiry inward. Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us, he did not say to try to argue and persuade those not truly interested in hearing or considering their own need for repentance.

I’ve spent years of my life trying to convince people. I believed that people were changed by means of the mind, that we were rational creatures, and could employ reason to drive people to a correct perspective. But there is more to than that and, as a wise uncle recited to me years ago, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The pigheaded, those blinded by their own bias, will stomp, snort and sneer at anything they don’t want to accept. Without a change of heart, without repentance, trying to engage with them is a waste of time.

Correcting Our Orientation

Looking back the problem is clear. The divisions in the denomination that I was born into, the conservative versus liberal, had to do with a horizontal rather than vertical focus. We were oriented wrong. We thought we should be unified by our shared standards, our understanding of theology, and purity on our own terms. But the reality is that this was an approach that led to quarrels and a form of religious pride disguised as righteousness. Had we been oriented towards Christ we would have been more understanding of our own continual need of salvation and thus been more forgiving of faults and differences.

Seeking perfection in the church brings division and self-centeredness.

Seeking perfection in Christ brings unity and healing to the imperfect church.

Many seek the perfect church at the expense of following Christ who spent his time with losers. They neglect to notice that the book of Acts and the letters of St. Paul are full of examples of failure. Even the leaders of the church, Peter himself, had to be “opposed to his face” (Galatians 2:11-13) and call him out for hypocrisy. So who are we that we think that we are somehow cut from a better cloth than the Apostle themselves and can create a better church better than the one that they left for us?

Sure, the history of the church is full of imperfection and failure. There were heresies that gained traction and even leaders that got out of line. But why are we seeking perfection in the church? Shouldn’t we be seeking after Christ, who loved us while we were still lost in sin, who forgives us as we forgive others?

This was what Jesus told the disciples:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

(John 13:34,35 NIV)

This idea of a pristine church, free of failures, abuses, or problems, flies in the face of our need for salvation and a Savior. It is pride, the biggest sin there is, and people trying to save themselves, that divides the church. It is an orientation that looks across the aisle rather than inward and upward, eyes that see every sin but our own. It is preferring that others conform to our own will and understanding over loving each other (as commanded) and valuing our Communion together.

I became Orthodox once I stopped chasing after the fantasy creature of a perfect church. I gave up on the sufficiency of my own reasoning and started putting unity in Christ over having things my own way in theology and practice. There never was a perfect church, at least not one perfect according to my own hopes, perspectives, or personal standards. But there was a church that was brought together in their following after the teaching of the Apostles and in their seeking after unity in the Spirit.

The measure of true faith is how much we love those who do not deserve it, as Christ first loved us, and this starts with loving our brothers and sisters in the imperfect church:

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

(Luke 6:36-38 NIV)

To be perfect, as our Father is perfect, is to be merciful as our Father is merciful.

The Church In the Age of Narcissism

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The idea of individual rights and liberty has evolved into a defiant “nobody can tell me what to do” attitude. This toxic individualism can be in reaction to abuse, a response to the failures of authority figures or simply a person’s naturally narcissistic disposition.

As a product of American culture, I’ve always believed that people should be free and still believe this. It seems that totalitarian states, while certainly able to build great monuments and copy the innovation of their rivals, do often stifle creativity and limit the potential of individuals. A right to self-determination has enabled many to pursue their passions and helped in bringing about progress in terms of technology and medicine.

However, there does seem to be a point where unchecked individualism begins to be a threat to our collective advancement. And we are now to the point that it is not safe to so much as assume an individual’s gender based on the evidence without potentially triggering a violent, over-the-top and completely abusive backlash.

In this age of narcissism, it does not matter what has been established for centuries. It also doesn’t matter what the consensus is on a given topic or what the various authorities tell us. No, all that matters is how the individual imagines themselves.

Narcissism Enters the Church

In the church, this narcissism is often hidden under a mask of spirituality and sanctimonious blather. Sure, many will claim the Bible as their ultimate authority, yet they will reject anything it says about respect for the elder and submission when it is convenient for them and their own ends.

It is absurd, truly, that people are rejecting the very foundation of the rights that they assume. They tear down structures and institutions without realizing that they are unraveling the very things that have produced and protected the concepts they take for granted. They are dangerous in that they are too dumb to realize that everything they believe currently did not originate within them. Everything, even their ingratitude, and resentment of authority is a product of the times they are in,

They are not free, they are just ignorant of the collective consciousness that nourished and created their grand delusion of independence. Or, worse, they only recognize the negative contributions of the system without ever considering the benefits. They are not so pure or undefiled either, they have their own motivations and are woefully lacking in self-awareness. It is only a lack of humility, an idea that there is nothing to be gained in deferral to an elder or expert, that the individual knows all simply because they have basic reading comprehension and elementary knowledge.

Sadly, the erosion of confidence in the collective, mistrust of authority in general, does not make the individual any more competent than the system that created them. It doesn’t mean that they are themselves better qualified to be arbiters of truth than the hierarchies of flawed individuals that they aim to replace with their papacy of one. But it does destroy our chance for unity, it does make individuals extremely vulnerable to the deceptions of their own ego (“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” Jeremiah 17:9 NIV) and boiled down is nothing more than self-worship.

How the West Was Lost

In the West, this ego trip may have started with the Pope asserting his own authority over the church, to unilaterally decide matters for himself without counsel and led to the Great Schism. But eventually, it trickled to ordained men doing the same in protest, relying on their own individual authority and understanding of church tradition to start their own denominations—before their attitude spread to the laity who rejected their authority as well.

The reformers, in their exuberance, eventually denied the very tradition that established the canon of Scripture and yet, through circular reasoning, still clung to the book as being authoritative simply because they believed it to be so. This led to others, more enlightened, who saw the irrationality, went a step further, rejected even the book as written by men and written by men whose authority they could not accept. The cold might be preferable to those lukewarm, at least they can’t use “well, the Spirit led me to [insert whatever]” and must attempt a rational argument instead.

At least the secular scientist is subject to peer review. They can’t simply declare something for themselves or rely on their cohort of like-minded advisors, like king Rehoboam who reject the advice of the elders, ran with that of his unwise cronies, and ended up creating division. A biologist, unlike the windbag pontificator in the men’s Sunday school class, has at least had to earn his credentials and must carefully make a case with evidence or will be treated as a joke by colleagues. Those feeding their own individual tastes from the Biblical smorgasbord, oblivious to their own biases being read into the text, can’t be made accountable.

Unfortunately, science and human rationality have also reached their limits. The intellectual enterprise could never answer questions of why we exist, an accumulation of facts could never fill the void left by religion, most people can’t keep up with the brightest minds in various fields and yet many (on both sides of any issue) speak more boldly than those who have spent years of rigorous study, confident because they read something on the internet. There is a growing mistrust of all authority and structure. Political ideologies push the research and echo chambers have replaced serious discussion.

For example, in climate science, there is plenty of grey area between Greta Thunberg’s emotional alarmism and the actual evidence. Sure, there may be some consensus on a current temperature trend and human contribution, but there is no such thing as settled science. At very least there is no reason to assume that warmer weather is automatically a catastrophe or the cause of all things bad. And there’s definitely some hysteria involved when you have a CNN anchor speculating, on-air, about a possible connection between an asteroid and climate change. Is it any wonder that more are dismissing the whole thing as nonsense?

On the opposite side of the coin are those who use the above, the misuse of science by media sensationalists and political activists, as a reason to dismiss all science. I’m talking, of course, of those (often religious fundamentalists) who deny what is well-known about the general shape of the planet and physics. They use a form of reasoning, they are not wholly irrational individuals and yet seem to be motivated more by their mistrust of all authority and undying trust in themselves. They are much like the far-leftist who refuse to see gender differences as real (while, in contradiction to themselves, claiming that a man with feminine traits is transgendered), they have made their own opinion an article of faith.

Eventually, if things do not change, we may soon not be able to hold civilization together and return to our roots of tribalism. Christendom was the force that once brought Jew and Greek, man and woman—people of vastly different social status—into fellowship with each other through their allegiance to Christ. From the beginning, the church had a definite structure and also ordained leaders to decide the weightier matters. But that order has dissolved, often in reaction to abuses and always to be replaced with increasingly arrogant smaller entities. The current narcissism is only the final step before the total collapse.

How To Break the Trend Towards Narcissistic Chaos

Groups of people, institutions, can certainly fall victim to their own collective confirmation bias. Again, authoritarian regimes that stifle independent thought destroy innovation and limit potential. But the individual, especially the individual who resists all authority, is even more vulnerable to being blinded their own biases.

Yes, certainly authorities do fail, alas even the President of the United States is human and makes mistakes, but that does not mean that individuals are all equally qualified for every role. It is always good to question the experts. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers can miss the obvious, laypeople are not all total idiots because they lack a degree. At the same time, this overreaction to abuses and failures is even more dangerous.

No, the Titanic disaster does not mean engineering is untrustworthy nor does the 737 MAX being certified by the FAA before a couple of deadly crashes make the whole institution a waste. The alternative of everyone being right in their own eyes, being their own expert, will do absolutely nothing to improve the quality of life. The reality is that we are better off with authorities, those who have made a career trying to understand specific issues and can be held accountable. Sure, even the professionals can be wrong, but there are greater consequences that go along with their license.

The church also needs elders and examples. The church should have those ordained and more respected. The idea that spirituality is a free-for-all is utter nonsense, not founded in Scripture nor the church tradition that canonized and established what is Scripture. The person who sees no need for any authority in their lives besides their own understanding or that of their cohort are the dumb beasts condemned by Peter:

This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from the Lord. But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish. (2 Peter 2:10‭-‬12 NIV)

True Christianity starts with repentance. Repentance comes with an attitude willing to voluntarily sacrifice some self-determination and take advice. It means humility and realizing that the universe does not revolve around your own individual understanding of things nor is truth a matter of your own personal opinion. It isn’t so hard to submit to an elder—even when you do not fully agree on everything—when one realizes their own fallibility and need of a savior.

Sure, hierarchies do fail and especially when they cease to be accountable to the bodies that they represent. A Christian leader always had authority, like Peter or Paul who spoke in a manner that commanded respect, but was never supposed to be a tyrant like Diotrephes. Leaders, like individuals, can be terrible failures and must be disciplined or removed as needed. But to overreact, to pretend everyone is on the same level, is no different than the pride that led to the fall of heaven’s highest-ranking angel. To reject authority besides one’s own is to repeat that same sin.

We need order, we thrive when we are able to specialize and let individuals reach their full potential, and that requires us to acknowledge our own limitations. We need an order that keeps authorities even more accountable than others, that does not give them a free pass as part of a good ol’ boys club, and actually requires that they are more submissive (as an example) than those who they hold charge over. Ultimately a church with no submission to others is a church without love, only self-love, and will offer nothing to those trying to escape the narcissism of our age.

Filipino Christians Forced To Convert, Raped.

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In an article, “Filipino Diaspora: Modern-day Missionaries of the World,” the plight of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) is put in a positive light as a way that the Gospel is being spread throughout the word:

Mary Jane Soriano, a 25-year college-graduate Filipino domestic worker, has been working in Hong Kong for some years. During her stay there, she always made a point to attend the Sunday Mass in a local church, even if her employer and his family belonged to another religion. Besides Mary’s humility, simplicity, hard work, honesty and other human qualities that inevitably impressed her employer is her indomitable Catholic faith the way she practiced—simple ways to keep her life and faith going and always trusting in God and pray daily, and be good and do good to others.

Indeed, God moves in mysterious ways, Christianity swept through the Roman empire as “a religion of woman and slaves” (probably because it gave hope to these disenfranchised people) and in that way this diaspora of Filipinos is bringing Christianity to the world. The message of Jesus, and the cross, is that we will suffer for the sake of his kingdom—but that, in the end, the sacrifice we make is going to be rewarded:

“So the last shall be first, the first last.” (Matthew 20:16 KJV)

I have deep respect for those who aren’t missionaries as an extension of their privilege, living in behind compound walls, and entirely supported by the generosity of others. OFWs may indeed be the greatest missionaries of our time.

However, there is also a flipside, according to AsiaNews.it, in an article from 2010:

“In my tens in Saudi Arabia, I have witnessed several Catholic or Christian Filipino migrants accept Islam under duress,” said Joselyn Cabrera, a Filipino Catholic nurse working at Riyadh hospital. Because of high unemployment levels in the Philippines, more than ten million Filipinos have left to seek jobs abroad. Every day, about 3,000 leave the country. Recently, a majority has gone to Arab countries—some 600,000 in all, 200,000 in Saudi Arabia alone.

And continues:

The most recent case involves a woman who was raped at work. Because of the incident, Saudi authorities accused her of unlawful extramarital sex and on 11 September jailed her in the capital.

That doesn’t sound much like missionary service. It sounds like the vulnerable being exploited, forced to convert under duress, and is unacceptable.

Yes, the New Testament is full of stories of Christians ensuring terrible persecution for their faith. Yes, by their example of suffering example Christianity did spread to the world. But, no, that reality does not mean there is not a terrible cost nor does it absolve us of our own responsibility to intervene.

Suffer With Those Who Suffer

We should never allow our brothers and sisters to continue to endure hardships due to our own negligence or lack of compassion. No, as Christians, we are called to be their advocate, to care for them as we would for a member of our own families, and act on their behalf of them—like St Paul did in pleading for Onesimus:

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. (Philemon 1:8‭-‬10 NIV)

St Paul, in taking action on behalf of this runaway slave, was practicing what he preached:

If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Corinthians 12:26 NIV)

This is what it means to be Christian:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. (Romans 12:9‭-‬16 NIV)

Incidentally, the description “low position” in the passage above means those who do menial tasks. That is to say the domestic worker, the migrant laborer, and all those toiling away in the factories, that make our electronic gadgets, for wages a fraction of our own. We should love them, suffer with them, and share out of our own abundance as need be. Those of us living in peace and prosperity have an obligation to help those who are currently endure terrible circumstances and especially those of the household of faith.

To be a part of the body of Christ means not being too busy with our own lives to care. It means being willing to intervene in love on behalf of OFWs around the world, to carry their cross and be an example of Christ.

Carrying the Cross of the Overseas Worker

We live in a culture that has been Christianized to the point that even secular artists now encourage Christian values. We now act as if compassion for those who are not part of our own biological families, national identity or ethnic tribe and race is something normal. That we should care about these others rather than use them as had been common prior to Christ. Take the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s, “On the Turning Away,” for example:

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand
“Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away”

A Christian should never turn away from those in desperate need. We should feel the loneliness of an OFW, as those who are far from home and are separated from their families (including their own young children) for years at a time, and share their sadness. We should think about their fears, mourn the trauma of those who have been sexually assaulted and are being held captive, as slaves, by their abusive employers. We should pray, encourage and absolutely—by all means available to us—work to deliver them from their captivity and bring them home to the families they love.

Sure, it may be the job of the OFW to be a witness to the world of Christ’s love. But it is also our responsibility as fellow Christians, their brothers and sisters in Christ, to be a witness of the Gospel to them by helping to carrying their cross. If Christ himself, according to Scripture, needed help to carry his cross—then how much more does an OFW need our intervention for them? It is for this very purpose that Jesus told the disciples he would go, so that we (who are part of his body and filled with the Holy Spirit) will do greater things in his name.

But What Can We Do?

Many do have compassion. However, the problem is, how do we effectively do anything to change the circumstances for millions of people on the opposite side of the world? Even if we spent every nickel and dime we earned trying to support them and their families it would only help a fraction of those who are in need and it would do absolutely nothing to solve the actual underlying causes of this grim reality for countless Filipino people.

There is not much we as individuals can do as individuals. However there is much we can do in our working together towards a particular end. It is my hope that in my bringing awareness to this issue that others will partner with me, willing to contribute in their own small part, and together we can bring an end to the abuse.

That is why I’ve started the Filipino American Coalition of Trade (FACT) to give opportunity to those who want to make a difference for those who bear the cross as the truest missionaries of our time.

Like and follow FACT both on Facebook and also at the new blog site.

Pray for those who will spend this Christmas as slaves, sojourners in foreign lands, and victims of circumstances beyond their own control. Pray for the well-being of the OFW and their families, pray for their freedom from the economic conditions that keep them bound and separated from their loved ones, and may God be glorified in us all.

Kissing Images, Grandpa’s Love, and Jokes On Me

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Years ago, while on a Mennonite forum discussion about the “holy kiss” ordinance, I had joked that the practice was impossible given that those mentioned to kiss in the Biblical proof-texts were already long dead.

Old Order Mennonites, along with some conservative holdouts, continue the practice of greeting each other with a kiss. They base this practice on some salutations of epistles where St Paul instructs the reader “greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Corinthians 13:12) and even gives particular people to greet in this manner:

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings. (Romans 16:3‭-‬16 NIV)

I was being facetious in suggesting that it was impossible to carry out the instruction above. I was challenging the holy kiss hardliners to consider the context of the instruction and the intended audience. My own thoughts at the time being that this practice was more common to the culture then, that it had become archaic, and that a holy handshake would get the job done in our own time.

The concern of those questioning the need to carry out the salutation as instruction for all time was that men giving other men a big smooch would be misunderstood by those not familiar with the practice. So my joke that we can’t kiss dead people was to drive home that point, we can’t greet Mary Andronicus or Junia and the others listed in the letter as those to greet, so why should we take any of it as an instruction for us?

The Joke Was On Me

One of the strangest things for a person coming into the Orthodox Christian culture is the practice of kissing icons. For whatever reason, this practice of veneration is often misconstrued as worship and dismissed on those grounds. However, that is a silly notion, if it is idolatry to kiss an image then why is it not also idol worship to kiss your spouse?

Over the time I was still mulling over the Orthodox practice of kissing icons, my grandma passed away surrounded by family and my grandpa—her loyal companion and loving husband of sixty years.

My grandpa’s grieving was intense, as one would expect, and there is no person on this earth who could ever replace his beloved Mildred.

It was then that I found out about a curious little ritual he would perform each morning and evening. He would take the image of his late wife in his hands, kiss it seven times, and put it down again. Why? Well, in what other way do you suggest that he honor the woman who gave birth to his seven children, who faithfully cooked his meals up until dementia stole her ability to do that, and professed her deep love for him to the very end even as her mind slipped away?

Suddenly my flippancy about kissing dead people lost its humor.

My grandpa is not worshipping the image. He is not confusing the image with his reposed wife either. But he was showing his love for her in the most intimate way available to him. Kissing her image was symbolic of something for him, things he probably couldn’t even put into words to explain, and it would be silly to question the appropriateness of his action.

For me, this ritual of grandpa kissing grandma’s picture put the Orthodox practice of veneration of icons in a whole new light. My grandpa isn’t Orthodox, he is a Mennonite, and yet intuitively he arrived at the same place they do concerning the beloved who have departed this life for the next. Not only that, but he made it completely possible for us to carry out the salutation of St Paul’s letters and greet even those he listed with a holy kiss.

The Church Both Militant and Triumphant

As a Protestant-born, I was firmly stuck in the here and now, the church was those alive today and those who came before were basically irrelevant other than the writings they left behind. That is typical of our generation. I mean, we have smartphones and Instagram, what could previous generations have that is relevant to us today?

But the Orthodox perspective is different. They see a clear continuity from the early church to the present and they also see those who have gone on before us as participants in the worship service. They believe that the dead in Christ are still spiritually alive in him and they make up the “great cloud of witnesses” that we read in chapter 12 of the book of Hebrews.

The Orthodox see their corporate worship, which is centered on Communion, as the link between temporal and eternal, a place where heaven and earth come together, rather than merely a commemorative meeting of religious folks. In other words, as Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, I am there with them,” (Matthew 18:20 NIV) there is an emergent property of our coming together, that being the presence of Christ and the “cloud of witnesses” we read about in Scripture.

There is a beautiful description of the two parts of the church congregation. The Orthodox refer to those who have completed their race as being “the church triumphant” and use “church militant” in reference to those still in the fight. They acknowledge and greet both. When the Orthodox kiss an icon they are merely saying hello to the triumphant who join us in worship. It is a true act of faith. If we do not believe that those who have gone on before can join us in our worship, then why go to church at all?

When is the last time you’ve consulted the church fathers when trying to interpret a passage of Scripture?

It is a shame that I did not understand the significance and need for a church that extends beyond the current generation. This notion that we do not need the church triumphant, that their contribution has passed, makes us weak and vulnerable. We need to cultivate the connection between our current practice, the Scripture and other tradition we have received through the church, and those who have gone on before us. We may not see them with our physical eyes, but that does not mean that they are not present, relevant or worth our time.

The wonderful thing about icons is that they are visual reminders that we are not alone in our worship. Sure, like my grandma’s picture isn’t my grandma, the objects we kiss are not the actual person, but it does encourage mindfulness about the true meaning of being part of the body of Christ.

The Biblical Basis For Sacred Objects and Icons

As with many Christian practices, from Sunday school to Christmas celebration, even Dank Kingdom Christian Memes, there is nothing in the canon of Scripture that specifically instructs us to venerate icons with a kiss. That said, there is definitely a Biblical basis for images in areas used for worship and even Christian purpose for relics and other objects.

It seems, actually, that Orthodoxy encourages more Biblical literacy (through practice) than the alternative of Protestantism. In questioning various Orthodox practices I was always led directly back to Scripture. From incense being referenced in the context of prayer, to art and images being used in Israelite worship, there is plenty of support for the Orthodox understanding of Christian practice.

For example, the idea of relics, like the bones of various saints, having significance originates in Scripture:

Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. (2 Kings 13:21 NIV)

Can you imagine that?

Merely touching the bones of a prophet could bring a dead man back to life!

But, lest a skeptic might say that was Old Testament, we also have this from the book of Acts:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11,12 NIV)

The Protestant aversion to the idea that objects have significance and can be sacred is not rooted in Scripture. The Bible shows very clearly that things in the physical world can be given supernatural powers, that touching bones could bring a person back to life or some cloth merely touched by an apostle could heal the sick and exorcise their demons. That is not idolatry, it is both Biblical and Christian.

Furthermore, this idea that every Christian practice must come directly from the Bible, a book canonized by the church via councils, is absurd. Those who trust the institution of the church to give them Scripture are trying to have it both ways when they undermine the authority of the church elsewhere, you can’t say that the Bible is completely reliable without also acknowledging the authority of the very institution that decided what books would be included in the Biblical canon.

The Arrogance of Assuming Your Own Normal Is Normal

What the objection to kissing icons really comes down to is arrogance and an assumption that what is normal for me is the ultimate standard of right or wrong practice in the Christian context. Those who dismiss or mock a practice simply because it is foreign to them show an amazing lack of self-awareness.

Maybe it isn’t normal anymore to greet each other with a kiss? Maybe the idea of objects having healing powers seems foreign, strange, ridiculous or inappropriate from your own perspective? But who are you and what makes your own opinion the center of the universe? All of Christianity, from baptism to concepts of eternity in paradise, can be dismissed on the basis of someone’s normal. Is it really that hard to accept a symbolic greeting of the reposed, those alive in Christ, for someone who believes that God himself became flesh in the person of Jesus?

Icons represent a physical connection to the spiritual realm, the Orthodox do not worship them anymore than those in the Bible healed by sacred objects committed a sin of idolatry, and it is as much an established tradition of Christians as the canon of Scriptural is. A church council decided what was normal for inclusion in the Bible and, likewise, a church council decided that the veneration of icons is appropriate and normal Christian behavior.

The church does not revolve around your own personal ideas, you as an individual are not an authority over the church, and if you dismiss what you do not understand simply because you do not understand it, then the joke is on you.

Deal with it!