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.

There Can Be No Understanding in the Absence of Faith

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Recently a business page erupted over an earlier post that had offended some. The post, a rather mild meme suggesting that we not judge anyone on the basis of outward appearance, was removed and the owner immediately apologized. They claimed that they had not intended to post the meme, that they did not agree with the content, and this explanation was plausible given that the account doesn’t usually post anything besides menu items.

And yet this did not please the mob. These hate-filled individuals continued to assail the business even in response to the post expressing solidarity with their particular cause. There was blood in the water, the sharks circled with merciless indifference to the pleas and the appeasement strategy clearly was not going to ward off the continuing attacks. They were going to be branded as a horrible and insensitive person no matter what they said. No explanation good enough. Nothing they did prior mattered and there was no way to atone. Last I saw they were open talking about closing up shop as the verbal onslaught carried into a second day after another vain attempt to explain.

The perpetually offended can only ever see through the lens of their victimization and can’t ever be pleased. The mistake many people make, like this hapless small business owner, is that they assume they are dealing with someone like them, someone who can be reasoned with, who wants stability and peace. But I knew a few of the characters in this mob. These weren’t all good people trying to make the world a better place. No, not at all. Some, despite growing up in the same community as me and given every opportunity for success, had made a career out of conniving and seem to thrive on creating chaos for good people. They force others to tiptoe around them while themselves being totally uncaring about the suffering they cause others.

Of course, if you call these clingers to grievance out on their hypocrisy they will suddenly find religion and retreat to “only God can judge me!”

Grievance, in the case of this type of person, is a manipulation tool. It is exploitive of a cultural propensity towards compassion. Those who ply the grievance trade are not interested in solidarity or equal treatment, they are miserable people who want supremacy over others and thrive on creating conflict for their own gain. The only way to win is not to play their game.

The Victim Gambit

Years ago I had been invited to join an online discussion forum. I signed up with a sort of naive optimism, thinking it would be a place for intelligent conversation about things pertaining to theology and my religious sect. But my delusion did not last for long. The site was a lightning rod for the damaged and disgruntled, many of them ex-Mennonites or sexual abuse victims, some of them back for their revenge and others to commiserate.

Of course, I had a great amount of compassion for those who had bad experiences. There was no excuse for what they had gone through and I would gladly stand with them against the abuse they had experienced. However, their experience did not reflect my own nor the values I had been taught and I refused to be the whipping boy for things that had nothing to do with me. I’ll take the weight of the world upon my shoulders sometimes, but I’m not one to allow myself to be bullied.

It was in this encounter with grievance personified that I learned an important lesson. You cannot negotiate with those clinging to and defined by their grievance. Even goodwill gestures will eventually be reinterpreted in ways that a normal and healthy mind could hardly even imagine.

Case and point?

There was a woman on the site, maybe ten years my senior, with a slow burning hatred towards men. She had been sexually assaulted years ago and was completely devastated by the experience. But despite this pity me presentation, they struck most people as being a somewhat reasonable voice and who, along with me, had been given moderator powers. Of course it was important to me to have a positive working experience with them for this and other reasons. I did some outreach and very soon learned of her unfortunate experience many years ago and deduced that it still played an outsized role in defining her worldview.

One Sunday afternoon this chronically depressed individual was expressing their misery and woe, again, and I decided I would do something to try to cheer them up. I drove a little over an hour to where they were to chat face to face and had some vague hope that this would help our communication online as well where my voice or intent was frequently misunderstood by them. The afternoon didn’t go badly, as I recall, and she invited me to McDonald’s nearby for a snack. I had thought about paying, but was slow to the draw as I considered how that would be interpreted and decided we should both pay for our own so this would not be misconstrued.

This kind gesture would come back to haunt me. A few years later I did begin to date and things online began to deteriorate. My moderator counterpart had started to act like a jealous lover and I was too dense, at the time, to figure it out. It all culminated with a bizarre accusation from my girlfriend’s mother (also in a very abusive relationship) using the unique semantics of my moderator counterpart. I knew the source and confronted the source. But I was met with denials, they straight up lied to me about their attempt to sabotage my relationship and claimed to not know what I was talking about. However, eventually, keeping up the pressure, they did confess to the nasty gossip they spread and that could have been the end of it.

Unfortunately, that I had caught them did not improve our relationship. If anything, it made them more determined to undermine me. They had the ear of the site founder (someone who was not frequently on the forum and missed much of the ebbs and flows of things) and, over a moderation technicality, playing the victim, petitioned to have me removed. He obliged the request and I was livid. Had I kept my wits and been a bit more coniving or even just explained my side in more measured tones, I would likely have done better. Still, she had far more practice at her gambit and had been behind the scenes undermining me as well.

Now I had a grievance too. I had always taken the role of feeding controversy to help keep up traffic to the forum. It was all harmless fun for the most part, bantering back and forth. But this time I was not in a playing mood, this person had attempted (and failed) to destroy my new relationship, now they retaliated against me for exposing them (in private) by “having my head” as a moderator and so I took it up with the newly minted replacements. It was in this discussion where an accusation came out, from her, that left me completely aghast.

Yup. That’s me!

She accused me, on the basis of my goodwill visit to her years ago, of being a “cheap date” because, out of an abundance of caution and as not to mislead about my intentions, I did not pay for her Big Mac!!!

What?!?

The insane part is that none of these new moderators called her out for this insanity and it would not have gone over well if I too directly explained why she had absolutely no appeal to me. The designated victim always gets special protection. I suppose it would be cruel to say that this bitter, self-pity consumed and misandristic woman was one of the least attractive people I’ve ever met and had absolutely zero chance of a romantic relationship with me? However, with my help, she was able to successfully poison my relationships there and had me flailing without recourse. Little did I know that even a sincere act of kindness could be weaponized against me.

Good Faith Vs Everlasting Grievance

Good faith refers to the foundational assumptions one must make about their counterpart in a negotiation. All relationships are, to a certain extent, a negotiation and we must trust the intentions of the other person or a productive relationship is impossible. If a person always interprets everything you say or do in the most negative light possible there is no way to effectively communicate. If you express sincere intentions or do something friendly, a poisoned person will see this as an attempt to manipulate and essentially bribe them.

Most go along with the victim gambit out of misguided compassion or for fear that they may become the next target of hate if they were to speak honestly against the ‘victims’ own abuses. Many believe that if they continue to give in to demands, if they keep giving special deference to those possessed by their grievance, that over time this special niceness will somehow heal this wounded individual. But the reality is that those looking the other way and excusing the abuses of the abused are not helpful. No, in fact, they are enablers of abuse, they are allowing others to be harmed.

A grievance should always be heard. We should always be willing to address the conditions that lead to abuse and give those harmed by abuse a chance to express themselves. However, there are some with a grievance who are sincerely looking for answers and others who are merely using their bad experience as political leverage and a means to gain power over others. This latter group is faithless and cannot be satisfied.

Score keeping kills relationship

Those in the grievance industry may claim to be interested in conversation, but are truly out for blood and the conversation is only a means to gain entry, a foot in the door tactic or Trojan horse. Whether they are trying to sell you a bill of goods or lay waste to your city, there is no good faith in their effort. When you refuse to give in to every demand, if you stand up to their abuses, the faithless aggrieved person will lash out in anger, they will make nasty and absurd personal accusations, then blame you for their hatred. You are not dealing with the person, you are dealing with their demon that will never be satiated and must be exorcized.

When even good faith efforts to bridge a gap in understanding, when the perpetually offended person refuses to see that the problem (which was set in motion by something external) is actually originating with them and how they subjectivity process, they cannot be helped before they are able to acknowledge this and there is no option left besides distance. Those who continue to dwell in their grievance, even after being heard over and over again, should be ignored.

What Would Jesus Do?

Let’s talk about Jesus. But not the milquetoast happy hippie Jesus that many superimpose over him. Let’s talk about the real Jesus who made no apologies, who spoke critically about those who harbored resentment in their hearts and are consumed by blinding hate. There is a time to test the spirits and put some distance between ourselves and those who who absolutely refuse to hear truth:

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.

Matthew 10:14 NIV

This idea that love means infinite niceness and refusal to walk away from anyone is wrong. It is because so many coddled those with a grievance, allow them to continue in their self-deception, that these people learn to use pity and guilt as a means to get what they want. As long as there is incentive to use their grievance in this way they will never reach the end of themselves and get the help they truly need.

Again, not everyone is worth our time trying to understand:

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

Incidentally, that is preceded by this:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1‭-‬5 NIV

Those who are blinded by grievance are always righteous in their own mind. They are so focused on the sins against them (real or otherwise) that they cannot see that they are the same or worse than those whom they accuse. As justified, without introspection, they are free to heap condemnation on others. They, more often than not, project their own cancerous attitudes onto the imperfect actions of others and can twist even the best-intended goodwill gesture into a terrible transgression. If you open the door for them they will see it as a form of abuse.

It takes wisdom to discern between the person lashing out who can be helped with just a bit of love and those who will only use your concern for their well-being as a means to try to enslave you to their putrid grievance demon. Those who mercilessly assail a small business owner for an errant social media post even after the owner apologized and completely disavowed the message, are beyond what normal compassion can help. Don’t allow them to win, do not play their game, their aim is only to destroy you and are only using your mercy as a means to draw you in close enough to plunge their crooked grievance knife.

Walk away!

Leaving those absent of faith, especially those who claim to be Christian yet are unrepentant about their toxic and hateful attitudes, is sometimes the most loving thing we can do. It can be the only way that finally do reflect on their own true spiritual darkness and reach for the light and love of salvation. Or, at the very least, the distance we keep between us and them prevents us from being poisoned by them. Love never means enabling sin.

Good faith begins with living out, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and all people acknowledging their culpability in the mess as a starting point. Those clinging to an oppression narrative, enveloped in grievance culture, cannot truthfully pray that prayer and should not be considered part of the community of faith until they do. Good faith means understanding “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and forgiving our enemies.

No, Your Faith Will Not Spare You…But God Is Still Good!

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There are many things largely forgotten to history, one of them a horrendous tragedy that took place on June 15th, 1904, near “Hell’s Gates” on the East River, which would forever change one ethnic community in New York City, and that being the General Slocum ferry disaster.

What had started as an annual church excursion of German-Americans, mostly women and children, from their community in the city’s East Village to Long Island, ended with terror and over 1000 deaths. The poorly maintained boat caught fire, while underway, fire fighting equipment failed and the wooden craft quickly became an inferno.

Helpless mothers, unable to swim themselves, especially not in the heavy clothing of the time, put life preservers on their children only to see them sink like rocks into the river as the cork in the flotation devices had degraded. The Captain, likely trying to avoid causing a more devastating fire on shore, decided to head for some islands, into the wind, which only made the wooden ferry into a blow torch before it felt apart.

The result of this hell on earth was the eventual dissolution of the German-American community in New York City and one can only imagine the personal torment this left for the survivors and the fathers and husbands left behind.

My worse nightmare is not being able to help those whom I love. I had, in casual conversation with a psychiatrist, been told that I showed symptoms of PTSD after the unexpected death of Saniyah and judging from my current awful feelings and tears right now, from writing this, I would guess that they were right in their analysis.

If only seeing someone I loved deeply wail the loss of their daughter could rip the fabric of my being to such an extent, I can’t even begin to imagine what seeing them roasted alive would do. Lord have mercy!

My Covid-19 Mini-Crisis

Being raised in an American culture that too often confuses health and prosperity with God’s favor, the idea that someone that I love could be felled by a virus seems obscene. But, faith, right? Shouldn’t faith prevent my family members and loved ones from dying prematurely from a virus?

But it seems that the truly Orthodox have no such delusion. True, Fr. Seraphim expressed his belief that one cannot become sick through their participation in the body of Christ. However, even still, that does not preclude the possibility of our becoming sick during the fellowship and interactions afterward, does it?

It is was in the contemplation of father’s words that I ran across the story of early Christians who, unlike their pagan neighbors who fled, deliberately went into harm’s way to attend to their plague suffering neighbors. They attended to the sick, taking the illness upon themselves in many cases and succumbing in as much agony as anyone else.

How could this be?

Did their faith mean anything at all?

My own thoughts continued an ongoing internal discussion about the evidence (or lack thereof) for a God that actually cares. In my American-tinted perspective, they should have been protected from disease to prove God’s sovereignty over all of creation and show the truth of their Christian testimony, that’s only logical, right?

I can’t claim to understand. All I know is that many of them died, yet the stories of their extraordinary faith spread throughout the Roman world and you can still read of their testimony even in Foreign Policy articles published in our time. They died and yet they also demonstrated an example of love that has lived on to this very day and have defied my own logic in that.

We have but one life to live, all people die eventually, yet it is said that all people have two deaths: The first death being their physical death, when their body is put into the grave. Then a second ‘death’ at some point in the future when their name is said for the last time. And, I would argue that, in that light, those who, in faith, sacrificed their lives for their neighbor’s sake have actually outlived those who fled in fear.

It turns out that the Christ of Christianity only ever promised a life of suffering for others to those who would follow him. The ‘faith’ of those seeking health and wealth is shallow and will fall apart in times of crisis. But true faith lives for the good of others, despite uncertainty and fear, the proof is not in their own health so much as their faithful and lasting impact on the world.

No, your faith will not spare you, but if you live in love you will find God waiting on the other side of your suffering.

Crisis averted.

How I Have Seen God At Work

This may be a strange way to make an announcement of sorts, but I’ve never professed to be anything other than strange. I mean, I’ve tried to act normal, yet it never seems to work out for me. And so I guess I work with what I’m given, right?

Anyhow, I mentioned a bhest in past blogs, including my last blog, and haven’t really explained what bhest really means.

Right now, on the opposite of the world from where I am currently writing, lives a beautiful flower, her name is Charlotte. I found her in a moment of great faith, when my life remained consumed in my Mennonite identity and struggle with the father of a young woman, and had agreed to participate in her life as only an encouragement. She had moved to Taiwan, from her mountain home in the Philippines, as a means to support her son and secure an annulment from the father of her son.

Given her marital situation (along with my Mennonite and purity culture priorities) and my continued faithful pursuit of the impossibility, I told her that our relationship would have to remain platonic (which is something she allowed without any protest) and offered to be her encouragement. My commitment was to show her that someone still cared about her life, despite her being separated from family and not having anyone else to turn to at the time. At the time I was also on the road, away from home, so I understood the loneliness that comes with separation from family and friends.

There was a bit of a pattern that developed. I would be her faithful wake up call, to wish her a wonderful day, but later (with the stress of a high-pressure work environment and conflicts with coworkers) she would come back online with the crying puppy emoticon, which was my signal to get to work, and I would make it my mission to cheer her up again. Soon, by whatever miracle, I would have her laughing and smiling again.

At some point, pretty early on, she asked me if it was okay if she would call me “bhest” and (after a momentary hesitation to consider the potential damage of letting her use a term of endearment in our context) I decided to give her permission. It is a term that I had no idea what it meant really then and still am not entirely sure. But, eventually, it felt dumb to let her be alone in using that term, there was no term and thus she too became my bhest.

Bhest, according to Charlotte, meant this: “the very best best person, who is my friend, who is always beside me, to pray for me, advise me, cheer me up and who really shows care for me.”

Bhest, best explained, is a word mystical in meaning, has become a sort of joint identity and not something my words can easily explain. But I do know that it stands for a commitment to care. And, when my own road reached an end in the Mennonite church, like hitting a brick wall, it was the hand of my bhest reaching through, telling me in a moment of suicidal darkness, “if you go, take me with you,” and demonstrated a level of commitment to me even greater than my mother. It was then that I decided to stay to serve this lost sheep that I had found and if only for her good.

Charlotte’s happiness, I decided, was worth my suffering through another day of this life. The seed of faith that I gave to her months before, in my pure concern for her, grew into a limb that I could hold onto until my own feet again. She was the one who told me to “be strong for her” and gave me the courage to walk through the doors of Holy Cross, in Williamsport, on the road to my Orthodox conversion. And it was Charlotte who finally gave me that reason to no longer be “thirty years old living in Milton” (as the faithless alternative explained) and compelled me, months later, to board a Boeing 747 headed for the other side of the world.

Bringing This to the Present

There is so much I could say about Charlotte and her son. So many moments, from profound moments of sadness together (after the murder of her uncle Roland) to those of our greatest joy and many others somewhere in between. Her family has embraced me, reposed uncle Roland especially, welcomed me with open arms, and made me feel right at home twelve timezones from my current residence. I honestly felt like I had experienced a taste of heaven in Baguio City and in our various excursions.

Now that country, like my own, is experiencing the same Covid-19 lockdown (albeit stricter than my own) and our hopes for the future are overshadowed with even greater uncertainty than before. But at least Charlotte is stranded, for once, with her son Y-dran, whom she loves deeply despite being separated from him for years. He’s a real handful, a biter when I met him (who learned quickly that, unlike his grandma and aunts, I bite back), and has since matured to a bright (while still completely energetic) eight-year-old. His wide smile always welcomed me and I’ve missed him since our first meeting.

More recently, due to his history of illness, and a recent bout with pneumonia (he’s still coughing), along with the spread of Covid-19 worldwide, along with my own struggles due to some history of my own mentioned earlier, it has been exceedingly difficult for me to rest easy and trust God in this moment of chaos.

In one of my silly, more romantic moments, after Charlotte watched one of my favorite movie classics, “The Last of the Mohicans,” I recited to her the words of Hawkeye, “You be strong, you survive! You stay alive, no matter what occurs, I will find you! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!” Which was a promise said with a little smile and laughter, nevertheless pretty accurately represents the commitment that I’ve made to her. I’ve nearly had to make real on that once when she called me after almost being abducted by two men, while in Taiwan, and our current situation has left me wondering what extreme measures might be necessary to bring her here to my side, with her son, our son, Y-dran?

As of today, upon the request of Y-dran (a shortened version of his full name, pronounced yid-run) himself, that I will begin to call Y-dran my son. I had worried a few months ago whether or not a young Igorot boy, with his own biological father, would ever accept this goofy overwrought religious refugee American. But we hardly even speak the same language yet (although he was actually using sign language today and will likely learn English far quicker than I learn Tagalog and his tribal tongue) and yet he has asked me if I could be his father. *gulp* I really didn’t know how to express all my excitement, he had completely pre-empted all of my preparations for the future where I would need to explain this, where I would have to walk gingerly to avoid undermining the man that is his biological father, and now I do not have to worry about that.

Prayer answered.

And, speaking of prayer, unprompted, Y-dran, after all that, requested that I lead the prayers before he went to bed. So, being as Orthodox Christian as I know to be, I gathered myself and my phone, we went to the prayer corner of my house and led in the Lord’s prayer before praying for our future together, that it may come quickly and that he can remain healthy until then.

Dreams and Prayers

I have big dreams of what to do as a father with his son. But I also have a fear that hangs over me. My own life has been full of hopes ripped away from me right at the time when I thought things were in the clear. Now, before I can have my happy and simple life, with a little broken and repaired family, there is this monster called Covid-19 lurking in the darkness. I have full awareness of the terrible tragedies that have cut down the faithful and heathen alike, sometimes on a bright sunny day, like that day those German-Americans boarded General Slocum before their final hellish terror.

However, come hell or high water, I am determined, as determined as I am to pursue impossibility in faith, to not live my life in fear. I believe that God exists and that God is good because I have not alternative. I believe in God because without God there is no good. Logic and reason cannot explain away the feelings I have for my precious bhest and her livewire son. Even if we are cruelly kept apart for many more years, due to legal nonsense or plague, I know we will be together again and someday soon.

May God have mercy on us!

Only will tell if my dreams for this life will ever come true. It is easier for me to predict a global pandemic than to know if my next few days, weeks, or years on this planet will be happy or harrowing. Maybe my battered faith will finally meet it’s match, in something awful yet to come, and my hopes finally drown in a seas of despair. Nevertheless, as long as I’m alive, let my hymn be this: “Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have set our hope in Thee.” And, in the perilous days ahead, may I cling all the more to the words of St Paul:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35‭-‬39 NIV)

P.s., Y-dran, like his father, is also a fan of Dunkin donuts, which they do have in the Philippines, so the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree!

Martha, Take a Deep Breath…

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And just like that, everything stopped.  A little over a month ago I had started to follow a story developing in Wuhan, China.  A virus, a novel virus, had somehow driven the industrial heart of China to a standstill.  It is astonishing how something not even considered to be a living organism (since it doesn’t reproduce without our help) can defeat the best measures that us ‘intelligent’ creatures could throw at it.  

We are fortunate, at this time at least, that the Covid-19 isn’t as deadly as some viruses.  Unfortunately, it is very contagious, it is serious enough that it could easily overwhelm our medical infrastructure and, if there were no effort made to slow or contain the virus, it is very likely that Covid-19 would kill far more than the seasonal flu.  As a precaution against a worse case scenario many governments around the world have ordered a suspension of unnecessary commerce and non-essential events as a means to blunt the spread.  

For me personally this comes at a time when I was close to being overwhelmed by my workload and falling further and further behind.  I had worried (and perhaps not nearly enough) about how I would meet deadlines, particularly as far as my income taxes, and stay ahead of the growing stack of truss layouts.  The economy had, in three years, gone from pedestrian growth to bullet train speed.  I dreamed about not having to drive my long commute, freeing time to finish dozens of waiting projects or basically gaining a little time somewhere in my busy schedule to finally breathe again and relax a bit.

Church, entering the Lenten season, did not seem to offer much relief for this breakneck pace.  No, if anything the additional services were only adding to my already impossible list of obligations and stress.  Looking back over the past months and years, at my growing list of responsibilites, my life was on a trajectory that could not be sustained.  I needed a break.  I needed a push back against all those who depended on me and would pressure me to perform at a higher and higher level.  

Lent was supposed to be about the withdrawal of Jesus into the wilderness for forty days, how had it become yet another thing to cram into an already overcrowded schedule?

Going Nowhere Fast…

That seems to be the world we live in.  

Busy, busy busy and many don’t even know why anymore.  

I’m amazed by how traffic flies on the interstate.  I tend to set my cruise at or right above the speed limit and get passed like I’m grandma out on a Sunday drive.  It makes no sense.  Of course, then, I’m really no better in that it is next to impossible for me to focus on one thing even while hurdling through the early morning darkness or traveling back in the full grid of pushy tailgating morons.  Would it really hurt them that much to slow down?  

Perhaps (while ironically using the device to write this) it would be good for me to put the phone down for a moment?

The same people snicking about toilet paper hoarders, a week earlier, have about lost their minds when the governments of various states started to tell them to close shop for a bit and stay home.

Those infected with the restless American spirit pile up wealth for themselves, more than anyone else in the world, and yet the thought of taking a few weeks off for sake of their vulnerable neighbors will induce a panic.  “How will we eat?”  Cries out the guy, with three properties, to the guy who recently bought a brand new truck when the old one was just fine.  We, unlike many others in the world, could afford a week off to reflect on ourselves and our cultural priorities.

We could be the busiest, furthest traveling, civilization in all of human history, but we aren’t the first people scurrying about our various responsibilites and fretting about the lack of help.  A few weeks ago, while contemplating the fevered pace of modern life and the justifications given for it, I had to think of the example of a stressed out woman who lived two millennia ago and finally expressed her exasperation about the lack of help to Jesus:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”  “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

(Luke 10:38-42 NIV)

Mary and Martha

There are many anxiety-ridden people in our society today and that fact has become all the more clear in the past few weeks.  There are many who, like Martha, are working at their full capability, struggling to keep up with their seemingly ever-increasing workload and begging for help.  From those panic buying to those complaining about their favorite events being cancelled, both are missing the perspective of Mary, who sat listening, and really do need to take a deep breath and maybe just appreciate that they are still breathing rather than be so worried about things that will pass away soon enough anyways.


Be Still and Know…


Everyone, from government leaders to those who think that they know better than government leaders, wants to be in control.  And that is what drives the frantic pace of our lives.  We think, “if I just could have that one more property” or “after this year I’ll kick back and relax,” yet when we get there there is always that one more thing that needs to be done before we can feel secure.  There are many who pursue this sort of material completeness until the day that they die.  Some do better than others at accumulating their pile of stuff, some are like this foolish rich man Jesus describes:

Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”  And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.  And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

(Luke 12:15‭-‬21 NIV)

Listen up, folks!  This shutdown may be the last wake up call you get from God.  Instead of complaining about your schedule being upset and all the things that you want to do, including church services, maybe it is time to be like Mary and do some serious contemplation instead? 

When Jesus told the crowds, “take no thought for tomorrow,” he was likely talking to an audience with many who lived hand to mouth (like many still do in the world) and had every reason to worry about where the next meal was coming from.  While we fret and fuss about the inconvenience, fight over toilet paper, some will literally be going hungry while trying to wait this virus out.

This Lenten shut down can be a very good thing to sort out what is truly life sustaining from the truly frivolous.  My design work has aided in the construction of many barns over the past few years and there had been a great deal of optimism before everything came crashing down a little over a week ago.  Suddenly, much like that ambitious fool whose life was required of him the very night he felt satisfied, we too have been forced to take inventory over our lives and it would be a good opportunity to reorder our priorities.  When is the last time you’ve thanked God for the chance to work and have food on the table?  Have you noticed the sun still shining as the stock values plunge?

We may have BMWs to show our prestige and iPhones (emphasis on the ‘i’) to keep our schedules straight, but we aren’t the first self-important generation that needed brought to it’s knees and reminded that it was not sovereign over anything, that their power over the earth was only an illusion.  It is the wise person who lives in awe of the mystery of everything that the foolish take for granted.  It is the very thing that the Psalmist tells us to be still and know:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,  though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.  God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.  Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth.  He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.  He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

(Psalms 46:1‭-‬11 NIV)

Time to Reset and Refocus…

We are not in control.  And, “except you become as little children,” (Matt. 18:3) everything you accomplish in this life will eventually be wiped away and forgotten.  All of those barns my long hours and overtime have made possible will eventually, maybe in less than a century, be reduced to rubble, rot away or be burned.  Nothing we have built with our hands, no great intellectual endeavor, should take our eyes off of the true sustainer of life.  That sustainer being that which has set this universe in motion and holds it together while we frail critters delude ourselves, imagining our own invulnerability, and will some day need to face the reality of our own situation.

I was writing this blog (afterall, you, my audience, are too important to wait) as my dad toiled with the landscaping outside.  There had been many times where I had intended to buckle down and help for a little, despite questioning if all the work was ever worth it, but got swept away in my own projects before actually lending a hand.  Today, with no gym ritual or other routine to keep, I decided it was time to haul a couple wheelbarrow loads of mulch before finishing this blog and borrowing my dad’s truck to haul a few loads out of my old house in preparation for the new tenants.  

I do not believe Covid-19 will be the end of us.  But let it be the end of this paradigm we are in.  Let it be a time to slow down, to respect our fellow man and to, most importantly, be in awe of God.  It is truly, in these reminders of our own mortality, that God’s mercy is made manifest.  We can be the hands that help, the ears that listens, and the voice of calm in troubled times.  We live surrounded by chaos on all sides, it is terrifying if you stare into that abyss of uncertainty of the days and months ahead, but those who have faith in God never have a reason to fear and will always bring hope as long as they have breath.

So, take a deep breath, Martha, get your soul right and even Covid-19 cannot snuff out the light that you’ll bring into the world.  For a Christian there is beauty even in death.  Live in love, not fear, my friends, because in love there is a breath of life that cannot be extinguished.  Stop ‘adulting’ for a little, stop being like Martha, and learn to be a bit more like Mary.  Use this Lenten season to be still, to sit at the feet of Jesus, and set your eyes on what is greater than our daily grind.  All of the activity here will eventually come to an end, what have you done of eternal value lately?

Why the Princess Had to Kiss a Frog

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Those who had early success in the romantic realm can be excused for thinking of it as some sort of magic. For them the “right one” comes along, his awkward introduction goes well enough, then very soon they are entering that world of “meant to be” and marriage.

That was the world of my own teenage fantasies and remained a hope resilient enough to carry me through a decade of disappointment. Reality would slap me in the face over and over again. But, after some moments of despair, I would always refuse to believe the evidence and go with my heart instead: Eventually that mythical creature would come along, the one who loved me for my heart rather than my status or stature, and finally prove my hopes.

Hope, even hope at the level of magical thinking, serves an important role in our survival. Too much concern about the chances and a man might never get out of bed (or leave the cave) and confront the challenges ahead of him. Life requires faith and courage or the ability to overcome fears (based in our previous experience and/or a reasonable assessment of outcomes) and plunge blindly forward into the unknown. It was a bit of foolish hope that enabled our ancestors to continue the species.

Hope Is Not a Strategy

Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy and a positive attitude, while often attractive, is not a guarantee of success. For every miraculous rescue, there have been countless others who likely clung to their hopes until the last hour. Like those students on the ill-fated MV Sewol, desperately clawing for a chance to save themselves to the point of broken fingers as the ferry boat capsized, many have fought hard to survive against the odds and died cold and alone. The lucky ones didn’t spend their last moments in sheer terror and desperation.

Fortune may favor the bold, but if you are a man, in America, standing 5′-2″ tall, and you want to experience happily ever after, then you better be rich or dripping with charisma. Because, whether we like to admit it or not, women (like men) are selective and statistics tend to favor a particular height range in men. First of all, women state their preference for taller men outright and, second, the numbers seem to bear this reality out—taller men have a distinct advantage. Again, this doesn’t mean that men on the average or shorter range have no chance, but it may mean that they will be less sought-after and thus, to be successful, they need to be less selective.

In the religious context that formed my expectations, the above reality was something that I could accept for “the world” and yet wanted to deny as it applied to the women whom I consider to be virtuous. I mean, I’m not extremely short or anything, I’m also in decent physical condition, but I’m definitely not above average in any regard and certainly did not draw as much interest from women as some of my friends who only needed to show up to make the list of the swooned after. It could be a bit nauseating, at times, when women would use me as their means of intelligence gathering about a “hot” friend, but at least I could be a good wingman for my friends, right?

Still, despite my knowledge of how things really worked and a growing number of failures, I remained a hopeless romantic. In fact, as a final act, before everything went totally sideways, rather than retreat or settle (a strategy that had never worked for me anyway) I decided to double down in faith and act in a way that I knew was irrational. For the first time in my life, I would ignore the odds, hope against hope, and find victory over my old nemesis of agnosticism that had always nipped at my heels. This young woman, the impossibility, became symbolic of my struggle to preserve my Mennonite identity and cling to the child-like innocence that had begun to fade over the years.

A Bitter Pill of Truth

What I found, in the end, is that Mennonite girls are really not that different from their secular counterparts. Sure, they wear a different costume, they also have some unique culturally-specific expectations, but being “thirty years old living in Milton” was still something unforgivable to a young woman full of her own ambition. And the more damning truth came in retrospect and in my further consideration of how a medical professional characterized this quixotic pursuit as mere sexual attraction. I had bristled at this. How dare this doctor say such a thing? But I was, like so many others, a victim of my own delusion.

The paradigm of my Mennonite identity came crashing down, despite my best efforts to preserve it, the night that I realized that she was dating and would marry taller more prototypical Mennonite guy over this hopeful fool. The gig was up. And, to pour salt on my wounds, this generically luckier fool, had the audacity to take to social media and crow about his success as a sign of God’s special favor—where did that leave me as the one who had put forward a truly faithful effort and failed? Of course, I didn’t lash out directly against his childish exuberance, I mean had I been successful you may have never heard the end of it. That is some of the reason why I started this blog, to chronicle my irrational belief that the impossible could be made possible and as a means to prove wrong some cynical faithless naysayers.

The hard truth, the wall that I hit, was that my faith could not overcome my lack of tangibles (at least tangibles that mattered) even amongst those seemingly most sincere. On top of that, despite my initial thoughts of this girl having a sort of strange or alien appearance, the reality is that she was a hot commodity amongst many guys. In other words, the very idea that my admiration of her was something special or spiritual fell flat against the clear contrary evidence. I had fought against my cognitive dissonance, refusing to accept things were not as I had imagined they should be, not as I was told they would be, and no amount of faith would change what was true about my culture.

The Rejection of Average

Anyhow, my sentiments aside, the trends that I encountered in selectiveness reflect a growing inequity in the dating economy of our time. This selectiveness is found in the data of various dating sites and as it turns out, is a phenomenon especially true of women. That according to studies cited in an article, “Attraction Inequality and the Dating Economy,” bearing this reality out. The summary is that around 80% of women consider about 80% of men to be of below average attractiveness and thus are competing for the top 20% of men.

It doesn’t take a degree in probability and statistics to see the problem. As a result of a variety of factors (our affluence, ability to travel, exposure to marketing and media, etc) our expectations have gone through the stratosphere. A young woman believes she can afford to wait and is thus willing to turn down a dozen potential suitors who she deems to be too average for her tastes. I mean, why settle for the frog, doesn’t every princess deserve her prince?

Sadly, for women of high expectations, this increased selectiveness does not correspond with increased numbers of above-average men. What it does mean is that fewer men, born with the right physical features and charm, have more women at their disposal. It also means that there are many other men of average stature or appearance who get very little attention. And, whereas marriage used to take some off the market (at least on paper) that is no longer the case. So, as it goes now, many women are eagerly awaiting the opportunity with those few of exceptionally attractive men who do not need to take them seriously and, meanwhile, are ignoring those whom they have a real chance with.

Mennonites Raise the Threshold

In the conservative Mennonite world where I came from the expectations are even more stringent. Not only do we have the influence of Hollywood, but we also have an increased starting commitment that comes with the purity culture teachings that crept in with the embrace of Protestant fundamentalism. In other words, not only are Mennonite young women as superficially selective as their secular counterparts, but they are also afraid to so much as having coffee with an average guy lest they are somehow defiled by this frog—accidentally marry him or something?

But the big difference is that, in the conservative Mennonite world, the guys are also as selective as the girls. Basically the threshold of commitment has been raised so high that a guy wouldn’t dare risk his reputation by dating that average girl. No, he’s going to go for that cherub-faced icon of Mennonite beauty and that’s because he already knows that the average girl will likely reject him as well. So, unlike the secular situation, where the problem is that 80% of the women are only attracted to 20% of the guys, with conservative Mennonites it is also 80% of the guys who are after 20% of the girls.

In such circumstances it is amazing anyone gets married at all. Of course, it helps that conservative Mennonites often marry younger when they are still too dumb to have established their impossible standards. It also helps now that there are more opportunities for Mennonite young people to humanize their other gender counterparts through fun group activities, like global missions or Bible schools. Nevertheless, there are many of average attractiveness who are left behind in the current Mennonite paradigm and I was one of them—there simply was not a path for me to romantic success within that context.

Willingness To Kiss Frogs

Fairytales are not only fun stories, but many of them are also full of meaning waiting to be unpacked and applied like a Biblical parable. And such is the case with the fairytale about the princess who kisses a frog and ends up with a prince. Sure, that never happens literally in real life, but it does illustrate the utility of taking a chance on an unproven commodity and the potential for a change of perspective. That awkward guy in the youth group or in the gym might not seem like much of a catch from a comfortable distance, I mean he can’t even protect himself from tripping over his own feet let alone be that dragon-slaying hero of female fantasies, right?

But sometimes those average guys have something beneath the surface that those other catered to “top 20%” guys don’t have and that is a thing called character. I mean, it isn’t easy being last picked in gym class. A clumsy guy is indeed very aware of his shortcomings and especially while he’s tripping over his words, despite a large vocabulary, to talk to the slightly above average girl (in his eyes) who treats him with that carefully hidden distain. If he just had a chance, if he would just be allowed to show a little of his heart, then maybe he would start to look more and more like a handsome prince rather than an ugly frog?

And not at all saying that we should not take the opportunity to better ourselves. There are plenty of guys and girls who refuse to make any effort to change themselves or adjust their approach to reality and end up repeating the same failure over and over again. They are a lost cause.

But there are many more, like me, who do shine when given a chance. There is a beautiful woman (not Mennonite) who allowed this frog an opportunity to speak into her life. She learned about some of my better qualities. However, more than that, her mere presence in my life created a new kind of strength in me. She gives me something to protect, she gives me a specific purpose and a reason to develop my abilities. I love her because she calls me her “average bhest” and uses that as a reason to embrace rather than disqualify me. It is because she knows that I am dedicated to her, that I am not like the guy who took from her yet never provided the security she needed for herself and her son.

The metaphor of a princess kissing a frog comes from the reality that women need to be selective and the other reality that most men need some catalyst to reach their full potential. The tragic part is that when impossible expectations are allowed to creep in the result is impotent men and dissatisfied women. Even those who are successful in getting married, who do not shed their romantic perfectionism, could very well end up with a relationship on the rocks. We need to renew a practical love, the ability to love people who are just average, like we are, or we will end up missing out on the opportunity for romances that go deeper.

It is time to show some faith where it actually matters. Most men aren’t six feet tall with the face of a Hollywood lead man. Most women don’t look like Ariana Grande or whomever else the entertainment industry puts on their billboards. Most women, whether they know it or not, are more frog than princess. Most men, even the decent ones, are not as worthy as they think themselves to be. Most of us are average. It is time to stop being so full of ourselves and start kissing some frogs. Or we could just keep hoping for that magical prince (or princesses) to show up and love us for no reason other than that we exist. Your choice.

 

My Tumultuous Transitional Decade

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It is hard to believe that another decade has already come and gone. This past decade has been one of many transitions for me, from the launch of this blog in 2014 to a big change in career a few years later and, on top of all that, a departure from the only religious identity I had ever known for another.

It was a decade marked by an extreme of faith, the high-water mark of my spiritual life, leading to the most profound of disappointments and suicidal despair, all followed by a rise again from the ashes. If there is such a thing as living a second life, a life after death, then I am living proof of that concept despite the scars.

Delusion, Disappointment and Divine Humor

This blog was started, mid-decade, to be a record of my journey and also a story of the triumph of faith within a Mennonite context. However, things did not go as anticipated, my enthusiasm was not shared by those who had the power to make a difference, and my misplaced faith ended up being fully exposed by the end of it all. That was the lowest of lows for me.

However, even in my lowest moments, in the midst of that, there was a moment of levity where my sharing my disgruntlement with the impossible Mennonite marriageability expectations went viral. That remains my most viewed and shared Irregular Ideation blog to date (and recently vastly eclipsed by a blog on another blog I curate) and my proof that God does indeed have a sense of humor.

Somehow, surprisingly, my influence within the Mennonite denomination would peak with my candid expressions of frustration with the religious culture that came with my departure. A couple of my serious blogs, decrying fundamentalist influence and another discussing the role of ritual and tradition, even found their way into Mennonite World Review and an Old Order email group.

It would be hard to give that up. And I knew the newfound popularity of my blog would likely suffer once I formally announced my departure from Anabaptism—which does seem to be the case as traffic has diminished since then—but that is also the kind of sacrifice that a Christian commitment requires:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26‭ NIV)

For the first time in my life, I had left the comfort of the Anabaptist fishbowl for something bigger. Who knows what that will bring?

Dramatic Changes and Delicious Ironies

The move to Orthodoxy has been part of a huge paradigm shift and was pretty much the only option that I had left. It was a refuge to preserve the little faith that survived the collision with a terrible reality of my misplaced hopes. I certainly didn’t go to replace what had been devastated in me. And there are all of the problems found in every group of Christians from those recorded in the book of Acts onward—all of the silly squabbles and turf wars included.

Nevertheless, the beauty of Orthodox worship, the focus on Scripture and glorifying God in our song (rather than human emotion, etc) along with a simple (and timeless) Gospel message, helped me to move forward. Orthodox worship centers on our Communion together with God and (unlike the traditions I was most familiar with as a Protestant) they do not attempt to explain the explainable. At some point, we need to let go of our own understanding and embrace the mysteries beyond our comprehension.

Moving on from religion to real estate and other miscellaneous items, I started the decade paying down my debt for my first home and driving cars that probably belonged in a scrapyard. But then, in 2014, spurred by my other and disappointments, I bought my first new car, paid cash for a handsome black Ford Focus—my best purchase to date. In fact, I was so pleased with that purchase that I sold my prized (but high mileage) Jaguar XJR and bought a brand new Shelby GT-350 two years later when they first came out—an extravagant purchase which also led to some very meaningful friendships.

Anyhow, having reached the pinnacle of automotive excellence (at least for a working man’s salary) it was time to rest comfortably, save my money and relax a bit. Or, rather, that had been the plan…

But somehow (possibly working in an office with a bunch of restless Amish investors rubbing off on me?) I ended up buying a second property with the thought (at the time of purchase) that I would move in to and sell my old place in Milton. But suddenly that plan didn’t make sense anymore, why not rent the new house and build some equity instead? Needless to say, my ideas for a comfortable existence went out the window and, only two years later, now I’m working on house number three. Not exactly a business empire, yet more than calculated risk than I’ve ever taken on before.

In the time since my blinding hopes ran into a young Mennonite woman’s all-consuming ambitions, my feet have landed in three different countries (read more here and here) and all on the opposite side of the world. As it turns out, despite my self-doubts, all that I really needed was a good enough reason to go. I had started the decade thinking that I was incapable of finding my own direction in life, that I needed to hitch myself to someone else’s ambitions to get anywhere, and yet here I am moving on. Yes, very soon, echoing the central complaint of the young woman who rejected my offer of the impossible love, I will no longer be thirty years old living in Milton.

Where False Devotion Fails, True Love Prevails

I was wrong to hope to find the kind of love that is only possible with faith within the Mennonite context.*

That said, I was right about one thing: It is only that kind of love could ever motivate me to do anything worthwhile with my life.

Truly I did nothing, over the past few years, on the strength of my own effort. No, I’ve needed physical therapists, family, spiritual fathers, sisters, and brothers. Not to mention those friends on the road who made my loneliness bearable, also those who know my name at the various establishments that I frequent, my generous current employer and the many others who have positively impacted my life over the past decade. To all those people I owe a debt of gratitude.

However, there is one who has been there for me unlike any other, the one who didn’t lose hope in me despite my delusions and attachments to Mennonite dogma; the one who told to be strong for her, to get out of bed and go to church again. Everything I’ve done over the past few years would not have been possible apart from the investment of faith that she has made in me. She, as a person who has experienced her own personal misfortune, showed more love for me than those who claim to travel the world as a display of their Christian love.

In this coming decade, I plan to spend far less time trying to please the falsely pious and proud, who can’t be pleased and are obsessed with their own image, and more time with the downtrodden and truly humble.

That is the vision behind FACT, an organization of one, so far, that has already given me some hope that my seemingly divergent strengths and interests can finally be combined into something useful and good. I hope the vision of FACT will soon grow into concrete steps towards truly meaningful actions and compassionate solutions for OFWs and their families. But that, of course, will take more than my own personal efforts and I hope there will be others willing to put aside their doubts and help those who are already doing all they can do to better themselves.

*Mennonites, like people of all established religious traditions, are really good at carrying out their own particular programs and denominational prescriptions. Similar to their Anabaptist cousins more known for their barn-raisings, Mennonites love to help in disaster relief projects. They will also dutifully staff and fund their own private schools (or homeschool if they are more trendy) and now even travel the world as missionaries. All good things, I suppose. But all those things do not require any real faith on the part of Mennonite individuals, they are a cultural inheritance, a good way to find a romantic partner, an acceptable path to rise through the ranks, and are not truly sacrificial acts of faith or love.

Entering Into A Strange New World

In the past decade, my plans got turned upside down. I gave up on old dreams and, from the wreckage of my hopes, found some new vision. Had anyone said, ten years ago, that I would have three properties, traveled to the opposite side of the world, and converted to Orthodoxy, I would have probably laughed at them. But here I am, having started a journey to the impossibility and ended up here, perplexed.

We started the decade with a president who would seem more comfortable in a lecture hall and ended it with a persona built for professional wrestling, reality television, and trolling on Twitter. Yet, contrary to popular opinion or at least in contrast to the fears of half the population, the earth has not fallen from orbit nor has the moon disappeared from the night sky, life has gone on. Albeit, my assumptions, the idea that our political decisions are rationally based, had to change overnight. Scott Adams has persuaded me.

My identity, my religious and political paradigm, has changed very significantly in the past decade. I’ve witnessed the passing of my last remaining grandmother in 2017, one of my dad’s brothers also died in a logging accident mid-decade and then, uncle Roland, a man who had helped to facilitate my stay in the Philippines, was murdered.

Over the same time, I’ve been processing the battle with cancer of a younger cousin and good friend, who just finished college and plans to marry soon, who already sacrificed a leg (in the past year) and now has new growths in his lungs.

So the fight will continue for him as it does for all of us.

One day at a time.

None of us knows what trials we will face in the next decade and yet need to continue to live in faith. I hope to be done with my inventory taking, soon break free of the transitional time I am presently still in, and finally have some of those long-awaited triumphs that have eluded me in certain areas of my life. But, at the end of it all, I can’t really tell you what this next decade will hold, whether Trump will win in 2020 or if there will even be a year 2030.

There is no point in getting stressed out about what we can’t know. Our life is a vapor, it appears for a little and then it is gone. So make the best of the time you have and don’t worry about tomorrow!

Sowing Ideas, Sticking Up For the Underdog and Getting Started

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Have you ever wondered how organizations like the Red Cross or Salvation Army got their start?

You can watch this video about the Red Cross for details. But the short version of almost every organization is that it always starts with an idea and an individual willingness to take initiative. A person sees a need to be filled, takes action, tells others and the effort continues to build momentum towards a solution.

Or at least that’s how it is supposed to work.

It doesn’t always work out. Sometimes an idea fails because it was poorly conceived. Other times the person with the idea lacks the motivation to see it through and loses interest themselves. Still, on some occasions, there may be times when the person with the right idea arrives at the wrong time, fails to make the necessary connections, and the thing fizzles on the launch pad as unrealized potential.

Soil and Seeds of Faith

In the context of ideas, the parable of the sower Jesus told comes to mind:

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:3‭-‬9 NIV)

The interpretation of the parable is provided later on in the same context. Jesus is referring to his own message, that of the kingdom of heaven, and how the growth potential of this seed depends on the receptivity of soil. Bad ideas oftentimes spread like weeds while the good news is trampled underfoot by the disinterested masses. But we sow should sow good seeds, all the same, knowing that some will find the right soil.

And so it goes with any inspirational idea, even the best ideas die where there is no faith. Many ideas fail when they are faced with a challenge and the commitment is shallow. Other ideas are drowned out in the marketplace of ideas—their appeal is drowned out by the better positioned and yet inferior aims.

You get the picture.

We are both soil and sower. We can allow ideas, good or bad, to take root in our hearts, and from those ideas spring actions. Sometimes it is a seed someone else plants, sometimes we are the distributor of the seeds, but the mystery is in what causes the seed to grow. St Paul speaks of this in trying to explain who should get credit for the spread of the Gospel saying “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3 NIV) And that is the mystery that is perplexing to me.

Sticking Up For the Underdog

I had always been a bit undersized for my age. Not sure if it was a result of my premature birth or if I was out-competed at the dinner table, but on my first license (at 16 years old) I was just 5′-3″ tall and weigh only 112lb (50.8kg) as a senior in high school.

But I never lacked for grit and determination. My name, at least according to the placard that had been placed under my baby picture, means “strong-willed” and I’ve always done my best to prove myself worthy of the description. Mom called me her fighter for my surviving a traumatic start to life and that resolve, for better or worse, is a defining part of my identity and perspective of the world.

That’s why I’ve always been on the side of the underdog.

I’ve always been interested in the person who has more to overcome than others, the one who works harder than the rest and still does not necessarily come out on top in the end. It is easy to recognize and celebrate the winners. But if the effort could be measured, then the underdog is the one who has put forward the most effort and has shed the most blood, sweat, and tears. In any context or conflict, I’m always cheering for the one in the game who has to overcome the most disadvantages.

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I suppose that is why I had a deep respect for a particular classmate, a Filipino-American who stood about 5′-5″ tall and yet was the starting point guard on the high school basketball team who would put up 20 points some games. He had incredible ball-handling skills and could score in the paint, in traffic, against the trees like our own version of Allen Iverson. For someone who always thought of his own stature as standing in the way of athletic success, this was inspirational.

And maybe that is the reason why the Philippines has intrigued me?

Finding the Right Cause

I’ve always been cause-oriented or at least as far as causes pertaining to people that I care about. I have plenty of passion. But passion alone is not enough, passion needs direction and too often—given my chronic difficulty with focus—I’ve struggled to know what direction.

Some of my pursuit of the impossibility was in search of finding that thing that I lacked as far as a specific mission.

I did not find that direction where I had hoped to find it. However, in the aftermath of that severe disappointment, something did rise from the ashes and provided a path where none had existed before. With the stability brought about by a committed relationship, it gave me a reason to travel to the far reaches of the world and with that came some thought about the potential. I had first traveled to the Philippines and then a year later had an opportunity to spend time in Taiwan.

It was in that travel experience that I became well-acquainted with the hardships faced by overseas Filipino workers (OFW), began contemplating the economic reasons for this unfortunate circumstance and the potential solutions. Many seek work abroad because they have no other good options available and despite the stories of exploitation and abuse. Many become victims themselves after having borrowed money to travel to their new employer only to find things are not as promised.

I actually wrote out the strategic vision for an organization months ago. But I got caught up in the details of how to do it the right way (was thinking of getting a special website made) and it ended up on the back burner where it stayed. It was a story about an OFW “domestic worker” who had jumped out of a window and broke both of her legs to escape her captivity that finally drove me to take action. At that point, the particulars didn’t matter so much, the idea needed to be put out there, it was the right cause and something worth my fighting for.

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My hope is that the idea sown will find good soil to grow in, that others will join me in this righteous cause and that eventually, we can help to bring OFWs home. My hope is that someday those in the Philippines will not have to decide between gainful employment and their families. I especially want to make it so that fewer young women put themselves in situations where they are easily exploited. If the effort only helps one or two that is a success as far as I am concerned, but there is great potential.

So, all that said, you are invited to join me at the newly launched Filipino American Coalition of Trade blog site or the accompanying Facebook page.

Pure Nonsense: The Courtship Idealism That Failed

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I’m sure you are familiar with them, you know, that family who has a life that resembles a Thomas Kinkade painting, always so idyllic and cute. In fact, they are so adorable they are annoying. This sort of charmed life comes a sort of “holier than thou” smugness. Sure, they are too perfect to say it outright, they always religiously maintain that facade of sweetness, but they often have the easy answers that often betray their true cluelessness.

I can recall, for example, a lovely twenty-something, themselves engaged, who with complete sincerity suggested that my romantic struggles may be God’s will for me to remain single. They themselves successful because of their endearing charm and connections (which to them meant divine favor) whereas my own inability to navigate was to be taken equally as a sign. Apparently they worship the God of circumstances, one that absolved them of any responsibility to help those less fortunate—other than to offer some words of encouragement and advice.

Anyhow, thank God that doctors do not subscribe to a similar thought process: “We know you are lots of pain, broken legs are not easy for sure, but have you ever considered that it might not be God’s will for you to walk? Here’s an ice cube, I suck on one of these when I’m feeling down and out…” That sort of response would probably fall under the category of medical malpractice. Likewise, the advice of those who heap a burden on the shoulders of others and yet are unwilling to lift a finger to help (Matt. 23:4) are guilty of spiritual malpractice:

“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 2:15‭-‬17 NIV)

The passage above, from James, contrasts the mere words of the pretentious and the gritty hands-on sacrificial love that true faith requires. Talk is cheap, my darlings. And what my advice giver really meant to say is that they were unwilling to pull out all the stops on my behalf, they themselves were comfortable with my circumstances as they had persisted for years and thus they were unwilling to confront the prejudices or cultural assumptions that had made an impossible hurdle for me. But, rather than take personal responsibility for their own indifference towards my plight, they turned it into God’s will.

The Courtship Idealism That Failed…

When the news of the separation of Joshua Harris from his wife of over twenty years reached me this week it was hard not to connect it back to the courtship ideal he expressed many years ago. Harris, a “purity culture” advocate, rose to prominence in fundamentalist churches for his book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” published in 1997. In this book unmarried Harris promoted a model of courtship that was supposed to lead to happily ever after and instead left many of us outside looking in—unable to overcome this stumbling block put in our path.

The Harris model of courtship required a level of commitment that, for the less beautiful and bold, made it virtually impossible for many of us to get started. This absurdly increased threshold of commitment meant that unmarried women, even in their mid or late twenties, refuse to go so much as a coffee date with an eligible bachelor for fear that it could lead to ‘defilement’ or marriage. The horrors of being sucked into a commitment after finding out that slightly awkward guy is a lovable child of God! I mean, isn’t that what King Solomon had in mind by “guard your heart”?

(I have about 1000 reasons to doubt that interpretation.)

Pushers of purity culture didn’t necessarily intend their model as a panacea. I’m guessing Harris and others would deny that there were guarantees of success that accompanied following their prescribed methods. I’m also pretty sure they did not anticipate the unintended consequences and damage caused by their teachings either. Nevertheless, they did “tie up the heavy, cumbersome loads” of fear and many have failed to find meaningful relationship with their religious counterparts as a result. It undoubtedly contributed to my own woes.

Sure, some, including Mr Harris, were able to get through this courtship minefield. However, that doesn’t mean it produced that perfect marriage as was promised by their courtship prescription. However, formulas aren’t going to produce happiness through the years and struggle of a marriage. If anything they built up impossible expectations for married life in the same way that they did for dating relationships and leads to future disappointment. At very least, while unwarranted confidence is attractive, nobody wants to be married to someone with all the answers.

True Faith Comes Through Struggle…

For all of us who weren’t born into a Precious Moments world, who had to beg and plead, compete against the odds, claw for inches at a time, to earn our small measure of success, we can’t simply rely on circumstances. Our Pollyannaish notions of destiny and love have always went up against the headwinds of fear and brick-wall after brick-wall of rejection. We weren’t born tall, extraordinarily handsome or especially wise. If we were wait for our dreams to arrive on a silver platter we would never get anywhere.

If we were fatalists and shared the mechanical view of God’s will of those who depend on circumstances rather than faith, the faith of those who “ask, knock and seek” (Matt. 7:7-12) that Jesus described, then we could also blame circumstances for our not getting out of bed anymore. I can assure you of this, there were days where I had fight to continue, where it was only the love of another person that kept me going, and that’s what real faith is. Real faith is having the guts to face down the impossible.

The cutesy patootsy life doesn’t actually require any faith, sacrifice or grace. Everything depends on their good feelings and God’s will mysteriously never goes against their own expectations. And it works until they face that first real test. When those delusions of “meant to be” are replaced with the reality of failure. I pity those who get the rug yanked out from under their idealism at a later age. That is why I pray that Mr Harris and his family find God’s grace is sufficient even when things do not go as planned.

We need fewer books giving advice. We definitely need less advice from single men, with their graceless formulas (*ahem* Bill Gothard, are you listening?), and more faith of real action. Being a best-selling author at twenty-one might be a thrill and even good for your chances of getting married. My question is what did these idealistic men do to help others across that impossibly high threshold they created? In the end what matters is what we do to help others carry their burden.

It’s time to kiss the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” goodbye. A courtship ideal cannot prevent divorce and it seems to more often prevent marriage. It is faith of action, not a courtship ideal, that makes a successful loving relationship possible. A faith that is willing to sacrifice, truly sacrifice, for the good of another person. A faith that makes the impossible possible rather than blame God’s plan for our own unwillingness to intervene on behalf of others.

When the Truth Threatens Our Way of Life

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Recently I was asked what books were formative for me. Two books immediately came to mind. The first being F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, “The Great Gatsby,” a tragic tale of a man who got ever so close to his dreams that had haunted me since high school as it seemed to be a repeat story in my own life. The second book, written by Peter Hoover and far less known outside of a particular religious circle, compared modern-day Mennonites to their Anabaptist forebearers.

Hoover’s book, “The Secret of the Strength,” drew an interesting parallel between the disruptive and defiant (and, dare I say, irrational?) early Anabaptists and the Old Testament character of Samson. This exploration of the secret of their strength lay dormant in me for years, but eventually helped define my longing for more than the conservative Mennonite status quo (including the doubled down version of the same old Mennonite priorities rebranded as “Anabaptist” by some) and this put me on a collision course with the religious culture that had been my identity since birth.

Anyhow, my own religious radicalization aside, I’m fascinated by patterns and especially when it comes to Biblical types. These patterns and types can be easily missed by the casual reader and yet are unmistakable once discovered. And, if we look closely enough, we may even see ourselves and our own patterns in these various characters. As you read, consider your own life, what defines your experience? Are you defining the future with your faith that goes beyond the status quo or are you simply defending a way of life?

Two Men Who Threatened the Status Quo

One thing interesting about Samson is how his story so similar to that of Jesus. These two men, as different as they appear at first blush, have many intriguing parallels. Their births were announced by angels, they were sanctified in the womb, they were deliverers of Israel (old and new, respectively) and free their people of oppression, and the list goes on (click here if you want to learn more), but there is one parallel in particular that I would like to explore and that is how their religious peers responded to their exploits.

First up is the account of Samson and those who decided to confront this Hebrew Hercules:

Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?” He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.” They said to him, “We’ve come to tie you up and hand you over to the Philistines.” (Judges 15:11-17a NIV)

Here we have Samson running roughshod over the Philistines. And yet, these three thousand men of Judah, rather than join him in overthrowing their oppressors, decided to capture Samson and turn him over to their enemies. By their faithless reasoning, Samson was a greater threat for “rocking the boat” than the occupiers who had corrupted them with ungodly fear and turned them into cowards.

This reasoning in regards to Samson closely mirrors the discussion about Jesus, in the Gospel of John, and the threat he represented to the established order:

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:47-50 NIV)

The discussion above takes place directly after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Can you imagine that? A man is literally bringing people back to life, they claim to believe in a God that defeated powerful Egypt, and yet their concern is with what the Romans may think?

The men who turned Samson over to Philistines and the leaders who conspired against Jesus were both guilty of moral cowardice. In both cases, the concern was about the fallout. They feared what others may think, anxiously fretting over the potential for negative repercussions, and that fear led to a moral compromise. The three thousand who went to capture Samson were willing to side with the enemy for sake of political expediency. Likewise, the religious leaders who would eventually have Jesus put to death were more willing to sacrifice a little truth for an imagined greater good.

Samson and Jesus both presented a dangerous threat to the status quo. These moral cowards, more imprisoned by their own inner fear than they were by external oppressors, reasoned that it was better to hand over the heroes of faith, the very men who offered both them and their people a path to salvation, rather than to risk losing their own lives or privileged positions.

We like to think about them as the bad guys. But be honest, what of your cherished positions or most treasured things would you willingly sacrifice without carefully considering the consequences? Would you truly put your own Issac on the altar, the one thing that you value most in the world, and trust God or would you cling to your own reasoning and come up with an excuse for moral compromise?

Good Stewardship or Love of Money and Moral Cowardice?

The failure of Christian Aid Ministries (CAM) to act appropriately in response to sexual abuse caused me to think anew about my own experience.

This organization is basically the flagship of the conservative Anabaptist missionary effort. It is one institution that represents all stripe of conservative Anabaptist more than any other—with their shared German work ethic and careful management of resources.

From early reports, the primary concern seemed about “good stewardship” as it pertained to finances. Faith that does the right thing no matter the cost, apparently, in these initial discussions, taking a back seat to the advice of a lawyer and protecting their image and material assets.

This sort of damage control approach is not unusual in worldly institutions. However, it feels completely out of place for an organization that is supposed to represent a religious tradition of those who would rather face torturous death than to compromise ever so slightly in their commitment.

Indeed, it was Jesus who said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26a) Does an approach focused on avoid liability, punctuated by fear of consequences, the response one would expect of a political campaign, really represent Jesus Christ?

Whatever happened to “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matt. 5:37 KJV) and simply telling the truth regardless of cost?

One defining characteristic of CAM’s response is that it is reasonable and not unlike that organization’s general approach to missions. Unlike the disciples, whom Jesus sent out with nothing besides the shirts on their backs and the Spirit of God, they go in on the power of their own resources. It is a reflection of modern-day Anabaptist culture. They are reasonable and rational, not at all radical. Sure, some of their youth might be risk-taking and adventurous, but as a reflection of modern thrill-seeking culture. However, when it comes to really taking a step out in faith, doing what is right even if it means giving up everything, most retreat back to their comfortable religious lifestyles and token sacrifices.

It is really no surprise, then, that there is a tendency towards moral cowardice and “circle the wagons” when a leader needs to step up and take personal responsibility for the mess. I mean, these are men with families, the reputation of something they’ve built over many years to protect, they have something to lose and it is perfectly reasonable that they may hesitate to be open in a way that could expose them legally. Don’t most of us act the same when it comes right down to it? Is there anyone in our time who would actually volunteer to be hung up by their thumbs. It is really easy to advocate doing the right thing when it comes at no personal cost.

So there is definitely some sympathy to be had for those three thousand men from Judah who decided to hand over Samson. It is also reasonable that the religious leaders would choose to sacrifice one man to spare their nation from potential Roman destruction. Samson and Jesus were a threat to the established order in the same way as those who bring hidden sins into the open in our own time. There are many today who would rather “kill the messenger” and bury the prophets so they can continue on as they always have and remain in denial of their own hypocrisy and faithlessness.

Finding Faith Where It Is Least Expected

My blogging over the past couple of years (although less so recently) has focused on the failure of the religious culture I was born into. But that had not been my intention for the start. My writing in this blog had started in anticipation, as a means to share how faith had triumphed within the conservative Mennonite culture.

However, that is not what happened.

What happened is that my friends, my family, and those whom I had admired most, decided to side with what was most rational and sane over my delusional hopes. My hope against hope could not overcome their cold calculation and cynicism. How could it be that people who claimed to take the Bible literally and that Jesus walked on water suddenly turn to statistics and rational arguments as an answer to my pursuit of impossibility and faith? Do they really believe that “all things are possible” as it says in the verses they recite?

They travel around the world, earnestly trying to convert others to their Mennonite understanding, and then revert to “it is what it is” fatalism and insist that hearts can’t change when something comes up that threatened their own status quo. It was this double-mindedness that tortured me for those few years—the impossibility herself recited, “with God all things are possible,” (the theme of my faithful pursuit of a beautiful vision that nobody else could see) while she walked past my discouraged husk one evening and, when I was about to give up, it actually gave me the reason to keep on in my quixotic pursuit of true expectations-defying faith in the Mennonite context.

In the end, I was betrayed, like Samson and Jesus, by those whom I most dearly loved. Also, like those two men, my own bride will come from outside of my birth religious culture. Samson, by divine plan, married a Philistine. Jesus married his bride, the Gentile church… because there was more faith found among them than where it would have been reasonably expected. Like Jesus finding no greater faith in Israel than that of a Roman Centurion, I had to go outside my denominational understanding to find a Christian tradition not mired in modern rationalism and fear of change. Mennonite love could not span prejudice and preference.

The Christian tradition I now am a part of, while not free of the problems of other churches, has provided a fresh (albeit ancient) perspective of faith and, despite the defamatory caricatures I’ve heard in warnings against them by ever defensive Biblical fundamentalist Protestants, have as much vibrancy to their worship and signs of true spiritual life as I’ve found anywhere else. In fact, if it wasn’t for one of them my faith would have foundered—crushed forever against that unforgiving brick wall of Mennonite cultural expectations.

Those Who Try To Keep Their Life…

Speak the truth and you will be maligned. Be truly radical and you will be resisted by all, treated as a threat by those who should be strong allies, betrayed by those whom you trusted as dear friends, and abandoned by the crowds seeking their own ease in your hour of most desperate need.

The same patterns and types exist today as they did in Biblical times, (albeit in a different form) and we need to choose to live in faith and for truth rather by our own understanding and in our own strength. We must stand strong even when those supposed to be our leaders shrink back in fear and urge reasonable compromise.

So, anyhow, whatever did become of Samson?

Samson, after getting an agreement from the fear-fueled Judeans that they wouldn’t kill him themselves, allowed them to restrain him to be brought to the Philistines:

So they bound him with two new ropes and led him up from the rock. As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. (Judges 15:13b‭-‬15 NIV)

Samson, even in being handed over to the enemy by his supposed allies, saw an opportunity and seized upon it. He snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, literally, using a jawbone, and (filled with the Spirit) singlehandedly dispatches one thousand Philistines. Those men from Judah had to feel a bit silly after that, they had clearly picked the wrong side, the moral cowards that they were, and missed the opportunity to share in the victory with courageous Samson.

Likewise, had those who condemned Jesus to death been a bit more courageous, as a group, they might have saved their cherished temple and their beloved identity as a nation. Instead, through their faithless choice, they actually brought the “or else” of Malachi 4:6 upon themselves. The destruction of Jerusalem came as a direct result of the religious leaders picking their course of action based on fear of Rome rather than faith in God. However, the effort of these morally corrupt leaders to save their way of life by killing Jesus clearly did not pan out.

Faithless leaders end up destroying the way of life they so desperately try to preserve through their own diligent efforts. Religious cowards miss the chance for real and lasting success. As Jesus said, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33 NIV) That’s a paradox of faith and pattern of Scripture, those who courageously face down giants end up winning despite the odds against them and those whose cowardice leads to moral compromise end up losing everything in the end.

Jesus, like Samson, turned what appeared to be terrible defeat into a stunning victory and made fools of these religious experts who condemned him for going against their customs. Those who rejected Jesus, despite their rational calculations and reasonable compromises, lost everything they were fighting for and missed out on something much better than the lifestyle they clung to so bitterly in their faithless ignorance. They thought they were wise and were really only fools blinded by their own prejudices and preferences.

The good news is that it is never too late to repent, step out from underneath the false security of cultural conditioning and live in the light of the true substance of faith. Change is inevitable and death too. So, live recklessly, selfless, in love for those who need it most, as one with nothing to lose and everything to gain, because that is what praying “on earth as it is in heaven” is all about! Faith means leaving behind the prison of our fears and breaking the bonds of love-limiting expectations.

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.