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!

Sorry, Revivalists, Personal Relationship Implies Religious Devotion

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There are many who claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus. This profession, which never appears anywhere in Scripture, has become a popular cliché amongst revivalists (over the past century) and is often used as a means to distinguish themselves from other Christians.

Those of this Protestant persuasion will, as part of their evangelical effort, ask strangers, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”

The question, a litmus test, suggests that they do have this personal relationship and that you must be able to mirror their own language or you are not a real Christian like them.

Those asking have a religious devotion to a particular kind of relationship for a particular reason. The reason is that they are reacting to something, namely dead religion, and they are not totally wrong for saying that religious devotion is not enough. I’ll go further into the reasons for their emphasis later on. But if you break it down, nor is a personal relationship without religious devotion enough. No, in actuality, a person needs more than a personal relationship with Jesus to be truly saved.

Judas, for example, had a personal relationship with Jesus. Judas, in fact, spent years in the inner circle of the disciples, physically right beside Jesus all the time, and was close enough to Jesus to give him a betrayer’s kiss. The relationship of Judas clearly lacked a necessary component. He was literally in the presence of Jesus, having actual conversations with Jesus, yet that personal relationship did not equate to salvation. Judas was with Jesus, he had a personal relationship with Jesus, but he was not religiously devoted to Jesus.

So why is a personal relationship important if it does not mean salvation?

Relationships can be good or bad. Relationships can start well and sour later on. Relationships can be based on a misunderstanding, an idea that we share something in common with another person, and then fall apart as the disparate reality sets in. We have many personal relationships, but what we really need is a good relationship, a relationship that can stand the test of time and bring us closer together.

What Is A Good Relationship?

Many young people “fall in love” with another person and get married. They are in love with each other, but more than that they are in love with an idea of what that other person represents. They have become closer through dating and eventually, through their physical intimacy, become one flesh. But this kind of love does not last, the initial feelings fade, the responsibilities increase, and many quit the relationship altogether once it starts to require more of them than they are willing to give.

Good relationships are self-sacrificial. Is it enough for a husband to tell his wife he loves her once, on their wedding day, and then go on with his life as he pleases?

No, relationships take work, they take a kind of religious devotion, an effort to remember special days, consistently doing things in a manner that respects the other. For example, if she wants the toilet seat down, then putting that seat down becomes a test of the commitment to love and cherish her. And, conversely, if a woman constantly undermines her husband, treats him as unworthy and pathetic, is her love real?  No, love prefers the other person, it encourages and strengthens.

A good relationship means a loving relationship and a loving relationship is always self-sacrificial. A personal relationship, without a religious devotion to love, is not enough to sustain a marriage and it is not enough in the context of Christian faith either. No, Jesus asked for far more than a personal relationship. In fact, he asked for religious devotion as a prerequisite to a true relationship:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:15‭-‬18 NIV)

Jesus said, “if you love me, keep my commandments.” It is then, and only then, does he promise that the Spirit will come. In other words, the personal relationship is contingent on our keeping the commandments, a religious devotion to be a fulfillment of his words, and not simply on our profession of having a relationship. Indeed, Jesus warned of those who never knew him, despite their use of his name, and it is because they did not put his words to practice. Having a good relationship with Jesus implies having a religious devotion to keeping his commandments.

How Do We Keep the Commandments of Christ?

Many are turned off by Christian tradition when the rituals and religious practices become separated from real love. They, rightfully so, see this sort of devotion as lacking a critical element and that being the indwelling of the Spirit. That is where the emphasis on “personal” and “relationship” came into the revivalist’s lexicon, they were confronting a kind of devotion that was separated from spiritual life and had a good reason for this.

Unfortunately, this newfound freedom from religion has often come at the expense of needed accountability and a true understanding of what a true commitment to Christ really is. Too many who claim a personal relationship, they claim to love Jesus, but do not keep his commandments and thus this personal relationship that they claim is really nothing more than the feedback of their own ego. A relationship with an imaginary friend based on their own personal ideas and not on the true person of Christ as they believe.

I’m not here to judge the authenticity of any commitment to Jesus Christ. However, like a marriage union produces children, there should also be signs of our commitment to Christ being more than something superficial, more than something we talk about. Those who truly love Jesus do not simply profess his name or claim to have a personal relationship, but they will also keep his commandments.

But what does that even mean?

What does it mean to keep the commandments of Christ?

I know some, from my Anabaptist roots, who try to turn the words of Jesus into a new law. When they say “keep the commandments of Jesus” they mean being duty-bound to a particular legalistic prescription (based on their own understanding of his words) and totally miss the point. In the end, those who do this, who exclude and refuse accountability to anyone besides themselves, are no different from Diotrephes who refused to fellowship with the actual Apostles of Christ. Legalism, a concern with words that supersedes relationships, is not keeping the commandments of Christ.

Rather, keeping the commandments boils down to simply this:

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)

Ah-ha!

To truly keep the commandments of Jesus means to love as he loves and to love those whom he loves. In other words, to have a good relationship with Jesus means to have a good relationship with his Church and your fellow man. Can a person who claims to love Christ, but can never get along with their brother and sister, be telling the truth?

True Relationship Bears Fruit Of Love

I’ve struggled recently over things related to money and relationships. We do not wish to be taken advantage of, especially not by other Christians, and I was beginning to have a bad attitude. I mean, am I not entitled to compensation, an explanation, a better attitude and more appreciation from them, etc?

In was in the midst of this that various family members, asking nothing in return, allowed me to use their vehicles, even accompanied me and gave hours of their time. Upon reflecting on this, and recalling the story that Jesus told of a man forgiven a great debt who goes on to try to get a little owed to him, I have endeavored to correct my attitude. If I were to demand everything owed I would be showing my lack of appreciation for God’s mercy towards me and set myself up for judgment.

My knowledge of that story of the ungrateful servant did not come to me through Jesus personally by some special revelation. No, rather it came to me through the religious devotion of those who taught me that story and by my continued desire to live by a Christian example, that this story was able to bear spiritual fruit. The seed was planted, it was watered by the work of the Spirit in me, and bore fruit in my actions. It is this kind of fruit that indicates a true relationship with Jesus, that which is described by St Paul:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22‭-‬23 NIV)

It is interesting to note that Judas, despite his personal relationship with Jesus, did not demonstrate the fruit above. Instead, he was sharply critical of a woman for her extravagant display of worship, for her pouring out a year of her wages onto the feet of Jesus, and even used the words of Jesus in his rebuke, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” But this was not out of genuine love for the poor nor was it born out of true love for Jesus. To Judas, the commandments of Jesus were merely a political tool, a way for him to prove his superiority to others or gain resources for himself, and a disguise for his true corruption.

Those who truly love Jesus bear the fruit of his love in their lives and that spiritual fruit is manifested in their personal relationships with those whom Jesus loves. It means esteeming others to be better than ourselves and having true humility (Philippians 2:3-5) rather than always be right. It also means being accountable to each other, holding fast to the traditions passed both in word or letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and being in Communion together with each other. We cannot claim to love God or have a true relationship with Jesus if we do not heed this warning:

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)

Can we really claim to love those who we want nothing to do with, refuse to associate with, etc?

True Relationship Means Real Communion

The one potential issue that I have with the “personal relationship with Jesus” emphasis is where it reflects the individualism of our current age. Not everyone preaching Jesus is preaching the same Jesus and there are many who use their own personal version of Jesus as a means to their own ends.

To some, it seems “personal relationship” means they do not need to answer or be accountable to anyone besides themselves or those who mostly agree with them. They have a personal relationship with Jesus and, therefore, don’t dare ever question their understanding of Scripture or lifestyle choices! Nope, no matter how far their interpretations deviate from what has been long-established, they believe that their authority (as an individual) trumps all Christian tradition before them.

For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. (2 Corinthians 11:4 NIV)

Ultimately, this claim of a personal relationship too often implies that an individual need not answer to anything besides their own personal interpretation of the Bible and/or feelings. It is indeed strange, given how even revivalists claiming personal relationships with Jesus can’t agree, that Jesus seems to tell his various personal friends contradictory things. But that’s not a problem, I suppose, those with a personal relationship can simply assume that others who disagree with them don’t have the same special connection that they do, that other people who disagree are either deceived or lying and go on believing their own Jesus?

This idea that Christians are all independent contractors, accountable only to their own personal Jesus, flies directly in the face of what the Apostle Paul taught about Christian love and the need for unity in the Church:

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 4:3‭-‬6 NIV)

And goes on to explain:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 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. (Ephesians 4:11‭-‬15 NIV)

A true relationship with Jesus should bring a person into the body of Christ, which is the Church, where they can become mature and reach that unity in the faith that. But you can’t do that while playing lone-ranger or imagining yourself to be some special remnant and claim to “love one another” as Christ commanded. Unity requires agreement and agreement requires seeking each other out, it means submission to the entire body of believers, especially our elders, and being accountable to more than ourselves or only those who agree with us.

A person can profess anything, they can claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus all day long, but the truth of their profession rests on their keeping the commandments of Christ and that is to love those whom he loves, to humbly submit to each other in love, and realize that the world does not revolve around us or our own understanding of things. We should prefer unity over having things our own way, love requires sacrifice, love means religious devotion to the good of another (as in a marriage) and even admitting that we need other people in our lives to be accountable to for our own good. Our love for Jesus is expressed in our love and devotion to those whom he loves.

The short version is that we need each other to be strong, so we are no longer tossed about by every new teaching (or repackaged heresy) that comes along, and that is how we (the body) are connected to Christ, our head. In other words, it is through our Communion with the body of Christ, the Church, by our religious devotion to study and pray together, that we have our real relationship with Jesus. Therefore, it is through our partaking Communion together, by our real connection to the body of Christ, not only our professing of a personal relationship, that we show our love for God, our Father, his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Why Do People, Including Anabaptists, Repeat Their Mistakes?

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With the conviction of Jeriah Mast, the Anabaptist father and missionary to Haiti whose years of sexual abuse were finally brought to light, there has been another round of handwringing on social media. There is a definite desire for change, I’ve seen some express the need for repentance, and that is good.

However, in reading some of the response, a proverb kept coming to mind:

As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly. (Proverbs 26:11)

The idea of the dog eating its own vomit is repugnant. It is most likely reingesting the very poison that caused it to vomit in the first place. Would any of us knowingly do this? Probably not. But many do exactly this, they continue to lap up the very things, the errant ideas, the poison, that will keep them repeating the same mistakes generation after generation.

We see this kind of doubling-down in politics all the time. Many ideological partisans, rather than admit what actually led to their failures, blame everything but themselves and go on to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. This is how confirmation bias works. Most people, rather than deal with the discomfort of being wrong about something close to their core identity, find a scapegoat to blame. People cling to the ideas they’ve most heavily invested in even after suffering through repeated failures.

With that in mind, as a product of both the culture that produced Mast and also produced the reaction to his evil deeds, I’m not convinced that this desire for positive change on the part of some Anabaptists in the wake of the scandal will bear fruit unless we can get to the true root of the problem. If anything, many who claim to be discontent with the status quo, because they do not understand the problem, will double-down on the very religious pride and cultural assumptions that produced it.

Many would like to blame organizations for failing to properly address Mast’s abuse. And it is true, CAM’s administrators really did drop the ball in dealing with Mast and then, rather than accept the full consequences, they went into damage control mode, lawyered up and attempted payoffs to victims. It is also true that his church seems to have enabled him rather than hold him accountable. However, it is quite easy to see the failures of others while never comprehending the cultural reasons behind the repeated bad decisions.

There is a folly here, grounded in pride, that needs to be addressed. It will be difficult to explain without offending some. But please do bear with me as someone who was an insider and is now viewing things with a different perspective.

What Is the Folly Of Modern Anabaptism?

Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them. (Proverb 26:12)

The first thing that fits the bill of folly is this better-than assumption. Modern Anabaptists are well-trained enough not to make an ostentatious display of their pride. However, it takes a great deal of pride to hold on to the very premise that makes them Anabaptist and that premise being that they (and they alone) represent some sort of radical reformation of the Church.

Since the time of Martin Luther and the many divisions that followed shortly thereafter, the answer to any problem has been to disavow and attempt to distance ourselves from it through creating yet another division. That is Protestantism 101 and Anabaptists, as those who couldn’t even agree with the other reformers or amongst themselves, are no exception. So, it is no surprise that those upset about Mast being enabled to abuse take aim at their institutions, that is exactly what their forefathers would likely do, and never realize the problem isn’t CAM or the Mennonite name.

It is a purity spiral that never identifies the real problem.

The irony is that the slice of Anabaptist that Mast belongs to is a group that has prided itself as being the “remnant” for their rejecting some aspects of Mennonite culture (including the Mennonite name) while doubling down on the Protestant revivalism that only entered Anabaptism a century ago. This, the “Charity” movement, has a great zeal for a particular version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are the self-styled Anabaptists of our day as much as anyone else.

Mast, much to the ire of some, has continued to receive a great deal of support from his home church, Shining Light Christian Fellowship, in Millersburg, Ohio. Their “church statement” regarding him highlighting his emotional display and further voluntary confessions after being caught in his sin and present their “Restoration Plan” to hold him accountable. His pastor, according to news reports, speaks of the transformation he has “witnessed” in these few months since Mast fled Haiti. His wife testified to a “radical change” in her husband. And I’m pretty sure they are quite sincere about this assessment. To them, this is, no doubt, the radical forgiveness required of all Christians and what makes them truly Anabaptist.

Meanwhile, on the other side of this debacle, are those who are horrified, rightfully so, and think they need to reclaim the Anabaptist identity by rejecting the form above. They see his home church as enabling him and an example of failure all too common in their denominational context. To them, this is an egregious misrepresentation of Christ that shouldn’t be associated with true Anabaptism.

These two groups may see themselves as being complete opposites. However, in reality, they are two sides of the same coin. Both claim to want to do away with various religious forms (including the Mennonite name) and desire to be authentic Christians. Both see repentance and revival as the solution. But neither side is willing to question their own assumptions about themselves and the history behind their core religious identity—rather than question or reconsider their identity, they continue to repeat the mistake of turning back to the Anabaptist ‘wisdom’ they’ve inherited.

A very intelligent and incredibly talented friend of mine, in lamenting the Mast case, had this to say:

In my observation, we’ve come a long way from the early Anabaptists who understood the error of the church which was bent on formalities and conformity to their own “one church”. They said, “No, we choose instead to put our trust in the living God and trust the Holy Spirit for guidance, regardless of the cost.” Have we slipped back into idolatry? Conformity to a religion? A religion that must be protected for fear it will crumble?

This sounds right to a person indoctrinated into the Anabaptist mindset.

Unfortunately, it is also an assessment of the problem that completely ignores the reality of the situation. Mast’s church doesn’t seem fearful, rather they most likely see themselves as being very courageous for what they see as their uncompromising Christ-like stand on forgiveness. In their embrace of Jeriah’s confession, they see themselves as doing right no matter the cost. CAM, likewise, is not protecting a religion, but rather they are protecting assets they believe should go to a particular mission—that being the mission those who entrusted the funds in them intended it for—and thus the trying to settle quickly/quietly is simply, in their minds, good stewardship.

The statement, “the early Anabaptists who understood,” is practically an article of faith for modern Anabaptists. Sadly it is the very idolatry they project onto any Christian tradition that they reject. It is an accusation full of pride in that authentic Anabaptist identity they see as represented in themselves. Instead of considering the words of St Paul urging unity or considering the case of Diotrephes who arrogantly cast even the Apostles out of his church, they point to their ancestors as if this connection to a glorified past will somehow justify their next move. The folly is pride, pride in our ancestors, a belief that they were completely justified in what they did and is believing, without ever considering the negative consequences, that we should be more like them.

In reality, modern Anabaptists, like those who enabled Mast, are not acting any different from early Anabaptists. Modern Anabaptists, like their forefathers, do not feel a need to be accountable to any established authority that doesn’t conform to their own understanding of things. They reject institutions, they reject each other, they submit only to their own interpretations and believe they are more spiritual for this.

But is that really what Christ taught?

Did he tell us to run from problems and try to reinvent the church every time we disagreed with the established tradition?

When will modern Anabaptists repent of the pride that keeps the Church divided and them unaccountable?

To Save Sinners, Of Whom I Am First

Every Sunday, before partaking of communion, the Orthodox pray:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.

That prayer, using the words of St Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15, shows what it truly means to be oriented towards humility and should be how we understand ourselves in relation to our peers. This is in contrast to the example of the Pharisee, that Jesus described in Luke 18:9-14, who boasted about his righteousness in comparison to another man.

If we believe that we are first amongst sinners it will change our response to when others fail. No, that doesn’t mean there will be no accountability for sins either. St Paul was forceful in telling the Corinthian church to cast the wicked man from amongst them and we should have a similar attitude to his. But our being first amongst sinners does mean letting go of hindering pride.

When we can stop saying “I follow [insert name of leader],” “I follow the Holy Spirit,” “I follow the Bible,” or even “I follow Christ,” (1 Corinthians 1) and instead be a part of the Church together and unified in our love, that is when we are being truly humble and understanding our place before God.

This idea that we or our ancestors could somehow create the more perfect Church is pure folly and keeps us bound to repeat the same mistakes in different forms. Sure, one generation may use forgiveness in a way that enables while the next will be ashamed of the enabling of the prior and seek to distance themselves from the others. But both are turning to themselves, to the cultural assumptions implanted in them, and never allow themselves to be accountable to anyone besides themselves.

The folly of modern Anabaptists is the same as their forefathers. They believe they can escape corruption by rejecting established institutions and traditions. And yet their ancestors end up as bad or worse than the groups they left. If they weren’t leading polygamous rebellions they excommunicating each other over things they couldn’t agree on (including, ironically enough, the practice of excommunication itself) and, incidentally, nobody was excommunicated for their participation in the violent uprising at Münster.

Nope, on matters of polygamy and use of force, early Anabaptists simply agreed to disagree.

Anyhow, is it a surprise that Jeriah Mast’s abuse has spawned two contradictory sides who both position themselves as the authentic Anabaptists?

There is a great deal of pride in the Anabaptist name. It gives the user a right to exclude those who disagree, to forgive those who know how to play the system right and avoid any accountability to a Church greater than themselves. It takes humility to realize that we aren’t special, that our ancestors were as flawed as we are today and that we are indeed sinners in need of salvation. It is time to stop repeating the mistakes of our Anabaptist forefathers, renounce the spirit of Diotrephes that divides the body of Christ, and start reconnecting with the Church bigger than our own ideas.

Going Full Circle, I’ve Decided to Start a House Church…

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Life is full of strange and unexpected twists.

Upon leaving the denomination of my birth, I had joked that my two choices were to a) start “The Perfect Church of Joel” or b) become Orthodox. But, since I lacked the ambition and other qualifications for being a cult leader, the latter was my only option and became Orthodox.

However, now, only a year and a half after my Chrismation, and due to circumstances that are beyond my control, I am currently in the planning stages of a house church.

Yes, I realize that this might come as a big surprise to many of you, it could appear like a complete one-eighty and reeks of instability, but it is a necessary step.

I know, I’ve always questioned this new house church trend where a few Protestant fundamentalist separatists, willful people who can’t agree with anyone about anything, who claim to be copying the early church and decide they are better off doing church themselves.

Sheer arrogance, right?

I mean, the Amish do this too, I suppose, in that they do not have designated church buildings and meet in homes. Yet, they do it in a completely different spirit, they maintain a real community beyond their own immediate family and are truly accountable to an orthodox tradition that transcends them as individuals.

So how did I go completely from one end of the spectrum, from a church with two millennia of history, with ornate architecture and a strong emphasis on Communion, in a universal sense, to deciding that I need to start a church in my own home?

My Journey to the House Church…

Okay, before I give Fr. Seraphim a heart-attack, I have no plans on leaving the Holy Cross family in Williamsport. None whatsoever. In fact, my decision to start a house church has everything to do with Orthodox tradition and my beginning to comprehend the reason behind a particular practice—that practice being an iconstasis.

Orthodox churches have an iconstasis, it is basically a wall with images of Jesus, Mary, various saints and angels situated between the nave (where the congregation is gathered) and the altar where the bread and wine are consecrated. It is a reflection of how the Jerusalem temple was laid out, where the “Holy of Holies” was separated by a veil, and is symbolic of the connection between heaven and the “Holy Place” of the nave.

I had been contemplating how to incorporate an “icon corner” in my new home (a place on an East wall of an Orthodox home designated for prayer and worship) when I found out that this is also called an iconstasis.

Interesting…

As it turns out, this prayer corner in Orthodox homes harkens back to the real house churches of the early church. Every Christian home is supposed to be a microcosm of the Church, a wedding being basically equivalent to an ordination service, the parents acting as the clergy and the children being the laity of this house church. The designated area for prayer and worship in the home mirrors that of the parish church building and early house churches.

As an aside, it is necessary to note, given currently popular notions pertaining to corporate worship in modern times, that the idea of a house church being a sort of informal affair is entirely wrong. In the early church, when meeting in houses, according to first hand account, the priests and bishops were in a room east of the laymen (and women, who sat separately) with the deacon guarding the door and keeping the congregation in line. It was an orderly liturgical service and not a free-for-all. And, likewise, worship at home today should still be similarly structured.

The Very Protestant Problem of Division

Growing up, as a Mennonite, we would have “family devotions” and prayer before meals. This was always informal, where we were at, and never really patterned as a church service. It was not called or considered house church. Church for me then was the assembling together of the body of Christ on Sundays and on other days of the week—and that church service was a semi-formal affair, with a definite form and structure.

In decades since my childhood, at least in the conservative Mennonite circles that I ran in, it has become more and more commonplace to skip corporate worship services, on occasion, and to “have church” with just the youth, family members on a weekend retreat or what have you. There are some who have taken it a step further and ceased with their mixing with non-biological brothers and sisters, and cousins (or the otherwise impure) altogether and replaced it with a casual around-the-campfire or lounging-in-the-living-room kind of house church affair that can last at least as long as their biological children lack access to a means transportation and escape.

The trendline in Protestant denominations is abundantly and woefully clear. There has been a steady march away from any established order, any authority besides ones own opinion, and Protestantism has played a key role in this development. What started as an attempt at reformation has ended as a fracturing of the Western church into thousands competing and often very contradictory entities. From the dwindling Fred Phelps types on one side to growing “woke” crowd on the other, it is very little wonder that this form of Christianity has led many to abandon the enterprise of faith altogether.

There is no need for a Jerusalem council in the current climate. No, in this denominational chaos, there is no longer a need to even practice a Christian love that is willing to work through differences, no reason to submit or show deference to anyone, you just stay home or start a new even smaller, more pure and perfect group and move on.

It is a classic purity spiral, it is a result of people heading their own opinions over the urging of St Paul:

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 4:3‭-‬6 NIV)

There isn’t much effort towards that end anymore, is there?

The Protestant house church, often billed as a return to the early church, is merely a next step in the direction of individualism and it is little wonder when children raised in such an environment continue down this path of division in search of a new purity on their own terms. Many will find congregations that require less of them, others will join the growing ranks of “nones” who simply stay at home Sundays, but some of the more ambitious will attempt to recreate a perfect church in their own image.

The Church That Spans Dichtomies

Fortunately there are other options, the dichtomies of Protestantism. As it turns out, Christians do not need to choose between participation in the universal church (by attending services in a church building with other spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ) and having a “house church” primarily biological relatives, former denominational cohorts and close friends.

There is a solution to this paradox where you can both have your cake and eat it too: You can (and should) have a house church with your families, but can (and should) also maintain the unity of the faith and be in Communion with the Church body that transcends denominationalism and has an unbroken chain of ordinations back to the time of the Apostles.

In Orthodox Christianity, every man is a priest and his wife co-ordained as the leaders of their own church/home, that is what their marriage implies. But there are also priests over priests, and everyone (man and woman alike) is still accountable to the “priesthood of all believers” (which is to say the Church) and must submit to each other, especially the elder, as St Paul instructs:

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)

It is impossible to obey that teaching above while being your own boss.

I’m under no delusion about the Orthodox hierarchy, there are problems there like anything else people are involved. I do not submit to their perfection. I do, however, submit in Christian love, to honor my Lord, and in knowing my own unworthiness. I have no need to be the priest, at least not until God ordains it through his Church, but do see an urgent need for all Christians to submit one to another as we are told many times in Scripture.

You can have a house church and be Orthodox. In fact you should have a house church if you are Orthodox and that is historically well-established.

But you simply cannot be Orthodox or truly Christian and refuse to acknowledge that the church is bigger than you and your own comprehension or ideas.

Orthodoxy, once again, simultaneously occupies both sides of an argument in both strongly encouraging home church while also—at the same time—rejecting the spirit of Diotrephes of those who acknowledge no authority besides their own and set about to create a new pure church in their own image.

Going Through the Motions

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The phrase “going through the motions” usually implies a half-hearted or insincere effort.

It is most often used for circumstances when we want people to be engaged and enthusiastic, but instead we see vacant expressions, a sea of zombies. And, like an old high school football coach screaming in the locker room at his sleepwalking athletes, we plea to the listless bodies: “Let’s show some life out there!”

There also seems to be an expectation, at least in the contemporary Western church, that a worship service should be a sort pep rally event, where anything short of people jumping over pews and shouting “hallelujah” is a disappointment.

Many, in defense of their preference for a lively experience, cite David’s dance (2 Samuel 6:14-15) as a proof-text and prescription. They treat this fist-pumping, near-naked and completely undignified affair as a sort of standard. However, this perspective neglects something very important and that something being context of this over-the-top expression.

That context?

Literally a once in a lifetime event.

The most sacred object of Jewish worship, the “ark of the Lord,” the physical manifestation of God in their midst, was being returned to Jerusalem. Recall the ark had been lost for a generation, captured by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:11) and, though back in Israel, had never returned to Jerusalem. Of course this was a joyous occasion, a reason for great exuberance, the glory of God was being restored!

Revive Us…Again?

Those raised in a revivalistic setting often seek after an emotional experience. Unfortunately this is often the spiritual equivalent empty calories, something that feels good but lacks real substance of change, a momentary high often followed by a corresponding crash—a crash of equal (or greater) proportion to the energy boost that leaves many feeling more defeated in the end.

I made the mistake, in one of the most vulerable times of my life, of attending an Evangelical “tent meeting” outside of a nearby town. By chance, coincidence or divine appointment, the ‘impossibility’ (that person who became the physical representation of my inability to find a place in the Mennonite culture and not someone I had wanted to see in that particular place) had decided to attend. Not only that, but the ushers of this event, obviously not knowing of my personal struggle, seated her right in front of me.

Her presence there, combined with a sermon about faith and Peter’s walking on water before slipping under the waves of doubt, was the perfect storm for upheal. The manipulative tactics worked. My body began to shake and, after a few choruses of those familiar “altar call” hymns, I got to my feet and walked to the front of the congregation. Soon I would be wisked away by an earnest young gentleman, who offered to listen, prayed with me, and even checked in a couple times in the weeks after.

But the revival effect was very short lived. A day or two later, after that fleeting moment of assurance, I plunged back into my living hell. That exhausting emotional rollercoaster, the fleeting hopes of resolution followed by soul-crushing deep despair and longing for death, day in and day out, did not end. What happened that night was nothing but a false hope, it left me only more confused, more disappointed and desperate.

What finally did work to bring back some stability of mood was an Adderall prescription. That drug, an amphetamine, is prescribed for attention-deficit disorder and yet did wonders for my anxieties as well and was wonderful while it lasted. The morning after starting this, I woke up with music in my ears and the thought, “wow, this must be what it feels like to be Betty Miller!” It felt like a miracle. My mind stopped spinning in circles. I had confidence because I didn’t think, I simply engaged.

Ultimately, even after going off the drug for various reasons (including my inability to sleep) the effect of that experience was long-term. It is actually what gave me the reprieve needed to launch this blog, Irregular Ideation, and showed me some of the potential that I always knew I had and somehow could never realize. The revival meeting, on the other hand, was simply another episode that convinced me that the religious system I was a part of lacked a critical component and was only useful in that it led me to look elsewhere for answers.

The Cure For Chaos…

There is a big push in our time for spontaneity and casualness. Those trying to bring emotional energy back into worship attempt to accomplish that end by changing up the program. The assumption being that this change of window dressing (or rearranging of the deck chairs) is the key to spiritual renewal and confuse the commotion of the change with something of real spiritual value.

Unfortunately, the ‘pump’ is nearly always followed by the dump. More and more young people are losing interest in the shallow, ever-changing, consumer Christianity of their parents. For some this chaotic environment, supposed to keep them interested, provides them with no escape, no means to be in awe of God, and only feeds their confusion. Not everyone can jump and shout on cue—especially not when there are better adrenaline rushes to be had elsewhere.

What if I were to tell you that worship is about orienting ourselves towards heaven, not our personal preferences?

What if I were to tell you that church is a sanctuary, not a stadium?

It was only after attending a liturgical service that I realized the things missing from the form of worship that was familiar to me. Shockingly, it is in going through the motions, by worshipping in the manner similar to heavenly worship, that I’ve been most profoundly moved. Ironically, despite the order, despite the mundane moments of going through the same old routine, there is also a peace that comes by participating in worship passed down from ancient times.

But, more than that, it is trotting this well-worn path that the practice leads something wonderful beyond words. A cousin of mine, Michael Logen, a professional musician and song-writer out of Nashville, once told me that the key to good art is consistency of practice. In other words, instead of only writing when feeling inspired, he encouraged me to set aside time to write every day and it was in this “going through the motions” that our moments of inspiration could be most fully realized.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” (Bruce Lee)

In this age of instant gratification and ‘worship’ that amounts to emotional pornography, many run from one ‘spiritual’ experience to the next, and miss out totally on the real need of their heart. Tragically, in their constant running from one temporary fix to the next, they miss out on the opportunity to practice a worship that is not centered on them, their whims, and eventually no amount of gimmick will fill that void. No, repeating the same routine, in worship and prayer, will not transform a heart. That said, neither will constantly changing things up.

Sure, there is a time for the emotional display and recklessness of king David. However, there’s probably a good reason why worship at the temple in Jerusalem was orderly and patterned. Like an athlete who goes through the motions, repeating the same routines of exercise and practice to be ready for game time, we too benefit from a worship that doesn’t conform to our own expectations—rather preparers us for a life that requires less spontaneity and more stamina.

Sometimes just showing up, regardless of how we feel, is enough.

Easter, Endgame and Resurrections

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Spoiler alert.

The fight is hard, there are great sacrifices that need to be made, but in the end the good guys win and the armies of chaos and confusion are defeated.

Or at least that is how one would expect of a superhero movie that packs movie theaters around the world, right?

Some, from my religious roots, would decry the fact that “Avengers: Endgame,” the wrap-up to a 21 movie saga where an unlikely group of misfits take on villains of increased size and power, is better attended than their Easter services.

I mean how can it be a good thing that so many seek to be entertained by watching such nonsense?

However, in my own perspective, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing that story of triumph through self-sacrificial love still dominates the box office. In fact, if imitation is the highest form of flattery then this creation of Stan Lee’s imagination is possibly the ultimate expression of Christian worship.

God, who lives outside of time itself, taking on the form of a man to save the world from death and destruction, sacrificing his all for sake of his friends only to triumph in a way unimaginable, is basically the end game of the Gospel.

As someone who enjoys “cinema magic” I’ve had to reflect many times, and often with tears, as I related to the struggles of the characters on the screen. Sure, the stories may be fictional, yet there is truth that transcends our reality captured in these fantastic accounts and that is exactly what draws the crowd now as it did when Jesus worked his miracles.

I am Tony Stark insomuch as I’ve needed to adapt to survive and overcome even myself, my pride, to protect those who I love.

I am Steve Rogers insomuch that I’ve often felt like a throwback to a more innocent time and, like him, I belong in a world that has passed me by while frozen in ice.

I am Bruce Banner insomuch as I’m the nice guy, who doesn’t always know how to express himself, but when pushed far can go full on Hulk mode and leave a path of destruction.

I am Thor insomuch that I’ve been handed great responsibility, given a divine inheritance that I feel unworthy to wield (despite many assurances) and have failed those whom I love.

I am Natasha Romanoff insomuch as my loneliness, being a tragic character, haunted by my past and my crushed romantic hopes in particular.

I am Clint Barton insomuch as I’m just a man wanting to live a happy simple life, yet always faced with complexities, sucked into a fight bigger than my abilities, etc.

As I enter this endgame of my life, I’m in a fight to save my future from my past. I carry a weight of painful baggage, the resurrection of my hopes still incomplete, and some days I feel stretched well past my abilities to continue on. There are times I wish I could go back in time and fix the terrible things that have taken so much out of me. However, there are those whom I love too much now to abandon in an effort to retrieve that which was lost.

It is only fitting that the Endgame movie come out so close to Easter and you’ll need to watch it if you want to understand why that is. The story is compelling because it is a story very much like that of the one who overcame death through death and has given humanity a path to salvation. As I look forward to being a husband and father, a true friend to those in need of love, it is the heroic example of Jesus that will guide me.

Why Do Orthodox Christians Celebrate Easter On a Different Date?

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As a Mennonite I never really thought about the date for Easter and why we celebrated it when we did. It was one of those questions I didn’t know to ask and only became a small curiosity after I started to celebrate the holiday on a different date as an Orthodox.

Fortunately, there are those at my parish willing to answer those questions I don’t even know to ask. An older gentleman named Joe went through the effort to copy two different references on the topic that explain the divergence of practice between the Orthodox East and the Roman West.

The regulations deciding the date for the celebration Easter were established by the First Ecumenical Council in 325 A.D. There were three criteria, as stated in the booklet, “The Date of Holy Easter” published by the Syrian Orthodox Archodiocese in 1963:

1) “That Easter must always be celebrated on a Sunday”.

2) “That Easter must never be celebrated on the same day as the Jewish Passover”.

3)”That Easter should never be celebrated on or before the vernal equinox of any year”.

Those three criteria were unanimously decided by the church. The Church of Alexandria, with its “noted astonomers,” was picked to announce the date to the Church of Rome every year and Rome given the responsibility of passing that along to the other Churches.

All of Christendom celebrated Easter together, even after the Great Schism, based on the three criteria—that is until the Roman Catholic West decided to unilaterally, in 1582 under the direction of Pope Gregory, adopt a new calendar and disregard one of the three criteria established by the Ecumenical Council in 325.

So, in short, Papal supremacy is why the West (including Protestants) celebrate when they do and the First Ecumenical Council is why the Orthodox celebrate when they do. Of course it does get more technical than that. I’ll send anyone the pamphlets if they are interested in the answers to questions they never thought to ask…