Color Is Not Culture: The Political Lies That Perpetuate Racism

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All lies have an element of truth. In fact, a misleading narrative, in order to have any convincing power, must contain many true statements.

It is not the off-the-wall and totally unsubstantiated claim that is the most dangerous. No, it is the half-truths, the facts out of context, the misunderstood statistics, that are most deceptive. Effective lies employ facts, they work our emotions and attempt to frame even our own experiences into a deceptive narrative.

The biggest lie of our time is the so-called “anti-racism” of the far-left. Call it woke, call it social justice, Critical Race Theory, Equity committees, or anything else, it is all fundamentally the same thing and that common thing is to promote division over identities.

The sad part is that many will stop reading here and leave without understanding. They might see the statement above as attacking their good intentions, as being ignorant, and a lack of comprehension of what those things listed truly are.

First, discrimination is real.

People are discriminated against on the basis of height, body shape, ability, intelligence, credentials, wealth, political views, affiliation, having a disease, personal history, gender, and, of course, skin color. Any category of identity or appearance can be used as a reason to deny and mistreat people. Ultimately, we’re all a minority of one and most have faced some form of discrimination.

In this country, the United States, religious, racial, and ethnic minorities have faced a significant level of discrimination. Chinese weren’t allowed to hold certain jobs, Germans were forced to scrub away much of their cultural heritage and unique identity because of war propaganda, Japanese sent to internment camps, Mormons were lynched, as were Republicans, and of course the horrendous exploitation of African Americans as slaves and then the discriminatory Jim Crow laws that followed.

This legacy of discrimination, especially in the most severe cases, has undoubtedly left its mark on various communities.

Second, power dynamics change with context.

Be the wrong person to walk into a biker bar and the welcome will be anything but warm. Go to Philadelphia, get off the beaten path like my family did, and the McDonald’s may be a rather hostile environment where the staff servers others ahead of you and then make your tired little sister cry because they dumped a massive pile of salt on Happy Meal burger.

As a Northerner, in the rural South, I was a bit nervous about standing out too much for my accent, did the sons and daughters of the Confederacy hold a grudge?

I was definitely a fish out of the water getting off the bus stop in Compton!

I think we all feel a little uncomfortable out of our own context, away from our own cultural tribe. I know from traveling abroad, being surrounded by people who eat unfamiliar foods, speak a strange language, look, act and dress differently, this can feel a little threatening and unsafe. No, it is not because the people are unfriendly or show any signs of contempt for you, as a foreigner, it is just that you don’t know the risks, customs, or what to expect.

Stepping out of the airport terminal, into the steamy Manila heat, filled me with a mix of excitement and anxiety as I clung tightly to my bags and scanned for the face of that one person of millions that I hoped would not beat, rob, and leave me for dead.

It would be really easy, had I had the wrong encounter, to generalize and conclude that Americans were unwelcome. If on my own turf, if treated badly, I would assume it was a bad individual and not a reflection of all in the community or culture. But amongst those who are different in appearance, it is very easy to make broad generalizations based on a couple of bad experiences. Being in a room full of strangers, especially those who seem to know each other or have something in common, we feel vulnerable or powerless. And sometimes there is actual bullying and discrimination against the odd ones out in a given context.

As a Mennonite in a public school, I was always keenly aware of being different. I was asked questions, often containing assumptions and annoying, had nicknames based around my religious (and ethnic) identity, it is a behavior called “micro-aggression” according to the current paradigm. Being called “Jebediah” or hearing derogatory comments about Mennonites didn’t exactly leave me emotionally unaffected. There was always (and still is) a feeling of safety and security that comes from being with people of my own sub-culture.

Third, I’m completely opposed to racism.

I have long taken a stand against racism and discrimination based on appearance.

Even the concept of race itself does not actually make much sense.

Why is Barack Obama black when his mom was a privileged New England blue blood, white, and that lineage half of his genetics? What percentage of African blood does one need to be black? Why does skin color or a few unique physical features determine another race, but not hair color or height? Why aren’t redheads a separate race?

The definition of race, according to Merriam-Webster, is “any one of the groups that humans are often divided into based on physical traits regarded as common among people of shared ancestry” and could actually mean that Mennonites and Amish, with their unique genetic disorders, are a race. But the reality is that it is mostly an artificial barrier, something arbitrary, a category based on mostly superficial things, and not science-based.

This first step in eliminating racism is to reconsider the existence of race. Race is not real or at least no more than Mickey Mouse. It is simply lines that we have drawn, like the political and geographic boundaries between nations, and the bigger difference between people is actually culture, but don’t take my word for it:

Culture has enormous effects on social outcomes. The influence of culture on social outcomes is not just a hypothetical—there is a great deal of evidence that culture has a large effect on many of the unequal social outcomes that some would like to ascribe to biological differences between races or sexes. Those who urge us not to deny that biology contributes to human nature have a point, but they often short-change the significance of what really makes the human species exceptional—our culture.

(“Four Good Reasons You Should Be Skeptical Of the Claim That Biology Explains Inequality,” Micheal White, Ph.D. assistant professor of genetics at Washington University of Medicine in St. Lewis, member of Center of Genome Sciences and Systems Biology.)

There is a multitude of reasons why some like to emphasize racial differences and try to make culture synonymous with race. The first amongst them is political power. By convincing people that some others are inferior or a threat, based on some category of difference, you can harness their anxieties as a means to get votes. Blaming behavior on genetic predisposition is a license for color discrimination and also a ready excuse for bad behavior.

If we ever want to overcome racism we need to understand race is purely a social construct.

What is false about anti-racism?

Being raised in liberal America, post-Civil Rights era, meant being indoctrinated into the teaching of Martin Luther King. It was not colorblindness, as often framed, rather seeing the person first rather than judge on the basis of outward appearance. But this liberal order is currently under assault. Even reciting the passage out of the “I Have Dream” speech, about not being judged by the color of skin but by the content of their character,” will be met with the ire of the “anti-racist” left.

Why?

Well, strange as it is, the far-left push for ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ is not about race at all. No, in their worldview and framing of experience, it is always about this supposed power struggle between the majority (within their culture) and those deemed to be marginalized and oppressed. In other words, if skin color were removed from the equation entirely it would not matter, this ideology seeks to find any difference in outcomes and call it an injustice.

The term “white privilege,” for example, is indicative of race. That is how it is defined, as the perceived advantage of those with lighter skin tone over those of darker complexion, and yet that’s not truly what it is about. That’s simply the bait. The term is a divisive tool and cover for an assault on religion, property rights, traditional marriage, and other existing beneficial structures of civilization that stand in the way of the far-left’s self-declared ‘revolutionary’ ideological goals.

For sake of analogy, think of the gag when you tap a person on the opposite shoulder to make it appear that someone else in the room did it. I mean, nothing but a harmless prank in that case. However, it could also be employed as a diversionary tactic, where you get two other people arguing so you can take advantage of the ensuing chaos to pursue the actual objective. It is misdirection.

Many, in taking on racially divisive terms like “white privilege” fall for the ruse, they respond by pointing out all of the advantages black Americans have. This, in turn, can easily be presented (out of context) as proof of racial prejudice and only fuels the fire of resentment across color lines. Many black Americans, for their part, are very aware and sensitive about their racial identity and not without cause either. Unfortunately, this also makes them vulnerable to political opportunists who seek to exploit this history and experience of prejudice. It very quickly escalates into an unsolvable tit-for-tat mess, nobody on either side realizing they’ve been played for fools.

The prime example is how the Kyle Rittenhouse shooting is framed as being white privilege, the riots in Kenosha supposedly an expression of anti-racism. The narrative pushed by the corporate media is that Rittenhouse was some kind of far-right nut job looking for trouble, a counterprotester, and gunned down protestors at random. In reality, Rittenhouse had family connections in the city, he was there protecting a minority-owned car dealership, he has actually expressed support for BLM, and his attackers were all white men. He wasn’t there to oppose justice for Jacob Blake. He was there because of the destruction the night before and to defend the innocent from harm.

The three white men who attacked Rittenhouse are protected from scrutiny, under the “white privilege” rubric, for being classified as oppressed. It is not in spite of, rather it is because of the violent criminal history of these three white men that they are considered victims by the left. The left assumes that people behave the way they do because of circumstances, they blame-shift responsibility for violence perpetrated by their own and use narrative as cover for ideological agenda rather than a means of transmitting truth. The left is not truly against discrimination or anti-racism, they are about gaining power over others by any means and this racial wedge is simply an effective tool.

The lie that color is culture

Underlying the Critical Race Theory (CRT) and any of the rebranding attempts used to “start the conversation” or sell this anti-liberal divisive ideology is an assumption that race and culture are inexorably linked. It is, not too ironically, the one thing that both the ‘woke’ and actual white supremacists agree on. They both teach and believe that skin color determines behavior.

This is why those pushing CRT reject the call of Martin Luther King to see past color and judge by the content of character instead. To them people behave the way that they do because of their race, that skin color basically determines culture and character, and therefore it is oppression for the majority to impose any kind of order or at least not when it goes against their own leftist political agenda. Any cultural standard, like the idea people should work for their own food, is classified as oppression and racism.

Both white supremacists and far-left theorists present differences in behavior and statistical outcomes, between racial categories, as being primarily driven by genetics. They, unlike liberals, who see a larger role of culture and assume that economic circumstances play a part in shaping outcomes, see race as being what determines culture. The only difference between the two is that white supremacists see this as a reason to subdue and subjugate some races, while the far-left sees it as a reason to subjectively excuse or accuse people along color lines. Both are equally abhorrent. Both reverse cause and effect and provoke hate.

The first problem is that even if genetics did determine outcomes, why stop with categories of race? We all know that Europeans all have their own unique cultural groups, as do Middle-Easterners, Africans, and Asians. It is the basis for stereotypes. We know Italians to be big talkers, Germans as industrious, Russians for drinking lots of Vodka, and the same thing could be done across any racial division. It is sort of like Native American tribes, they were not all the same, some were warlike and conquered their neighbors. Some were nomadic, others building massive cities. To lump them all together is plain ignorant, it is the heart of racial prejudice and poor analysis.

At this point, some, at least on the right, would be eager to get into statistics showing the correlation between race and criminality or IQ. To them, this is smoking-gun evidence of the superiority or inferiority of collective racial groups. They would use the athletic advantage of African Americans, given the domination of black people in professional sports, as undeniable proof of this overall thesis. And, certainly, we could get into a discussion of the structure of the Achilles tendon, Testosterone levels, and whatnot that would go on forever. However, all this obsession on physical racial differences ignores both the large overlap between groups on the standard Bell Curve and also the role that culture plays in shaping these outcomes.

The lie is that race predisposes culture. That some are genetically predisposed to violence or laziness and therefore should be exempted (or excluded) and granted special permissions. It completely ignores the reality that categories of white and black are far too narrow given the diversity of outcomes within those labels, that there are two many other influences on behavior to settle on only an inborn genetic nature. Yes, perhaps some of our personality is predetermined and travels along with skin color. But we cannot rule out that these behavioral predilections are not mostly a product of nurture or culture.

The left needs to have race determine culture in other to push forward a victim narrative and this idea of systemic racism. If culture (behavior) is genetic and not a choice, then some can’t be held accountable for their own poverty of criminal activities. This is a new variant of Marxism. The German philosopher, Karl Marx, saw us as products of class rather than independent moral agents, which was the basis for class warfare rhetoric and license for violence against those more successful. The left wants African Americans to believe that they can’t thrive in the broader American culture. That’s a lie.

Religion produces culture and shapes outcomes

One of the most wonderful things about being rejected by my own ethnic kind is the opportunity it gave me to learn how much people are truly the same. I’ve never dated an ethnic Mennonite, nor a white American-born woman, and not as something deliberate either. In other words, I was open to any race and simply had more luck with those different from me.

But each time, whether an immigrant, black, white, or the infinite shades in between, Hispanic, Algerian, Egyptian, Cantonese, Filipino, or Congolese, slightly better educated or more athletic, these women had much more in common with me than was actually different. In some regards, they remain more my kinfolk than the conservative Mennonites who could not love me the way that I wanted to be loved. And, here’s the truth, while racial and cultural differences are always an interesting conversation, it is similarities in religion that formed the bridge of our common bond.

My bhest, Charlotte, is an Asian woman. A Filipino to be more precise. And yet her ethnic heritage is actually Igorot. The Igorot tribes live in the Cordillera mountain region of Luzon. They are known as ferocious warriors and only a couple of generations removed from head hunting:

A tribal war usually starts after a tribesman takes the head of a member from another tribe. Head taking was a rite of passage into manhood. The offended tribe can demand retribution. If the one taking the head desires continued peace, influential tribal leaders are sent to the other tribe to negotiate. Compensation is paid and the accord is sealed with an exchange of articles. If no agreement is reach then a war challenge is issued by the offended party.

The Igorots Then And Now

This cultural arrangement would make for a rather uncomfortable existence, at least when traveling alone on the edge of tribal boundaries, and resulted in plenty of bloodshed, no doubt. However, while still carrying on some of the tradition, the practice of headhunting is a curiosity of the past rather than a reason to be fearful of getting a haircut while visiting Baguio City, which is now a big tourist destination for other Filipino people and the hub of the Igorot world.

What changed?

Well, not the genetics.

Let me tell you the story of Charlotte’s family, the terrible tragedies they have (at the hands of wicked men) endured, what made the difference for them and how it is a path forward for us. The violent lifestyle of Igorot tribes changed with the conversion of many of their ethnic kind to Christianity and this has produced significant changes in outcomes.

An Igorot family that forgave

As a writer, as part of my trying to make sense of the world, I do not want the suffering of others to be for naught. But I know that this subject matter is personal and painful for Charlotte and her family, so understand that I share this with conflicted feelings. On one hand, I want to protect those whom I loved. On the other, I want to create a better world for our children by this very practical testimony of faith and sacrifice.

Charlotte’s grandpa converted to Christianity and even started a church in the village. He was a respected man, an elder in the village, and was called to settle a land dispute between two parties. However, the party he went against was evidently enraged. He hired an assassin. And Charlotte’s grandpa was murdered in the night, shot in his own bed, leaving the family without their beloved Patriarch and with a trauma that is visited upon generations.

Now, the traditional Igorot way of handling this would be to take matters into their own hands. However, rather than seek blood for blood, this first-generation Christian family chose to forgive. No, they would not have opposed justice for the killer. But civil authority is weak and overstressed in this region, this meant nobody would face legal penalties for this murder. A tough pill to swallow for sure.

And yet, that’s not even the most extraordinary part, they knew who the hired killer was. They knew who he was and would actually allow him to eat with them! Talk about heaping coals of fire! The only thing is, they did not forget nor did they let him off scot-free. There called him Judas. Referring to the Apostle who betrayed Jesus for money and his obsession with political power. Which is an apt description. So even with this forgiveness, there was still a bit of poetic justice and a not too subtle call for repentance.

One morning, several years ago, I was getting ready for work and received a call from Charlotte. I have never collapsed to the floor before in my life. But, I was immediately overcome with emotion, when I heard those words “they killed uncle Roland!”

My heart sank.

How could this be?

The man who so selflessly served his family, a wonderful father who would smother his children with love despite being exhausted from a long day of work, a provider, a leader in the community, and someone who would help anyone. The friend who welcomed me into his home, along with his lovely wife, aunt Geraldine, was murdered in a most brutal fashion, by thugs hired by a jealous business rival.

But, again, despite the identity of the killers (and who hired them) being known, despite the police lacking resources to investigate and prosecute, the family did not seek vengeance. I mean, for some time, I would fantasize about taking my own anger over what was done out on these wicked men. Still, in the end, what would that accomplish other than continue the cycle of violence common in tribal honor cultures the world over?

The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.

(Proverbs 28:1 NIV)

Now it is said that the man responsible for the murder, upon realizing what Igorot tribe uncle Roland came from and knowing their reputation for violent retribution, went into hiding and only goes out in disguise. Not sure if that is still true, nevertheless Jesus saved him even while he remains lost in his sin, and he should pray for God’s mercy on his soul.

Let’s talk about Haitian work ethic

A prejudice many sanctimonious Americans have against Haitians is that their poverty is the result of a lack of ambition or work ethic. A point of agreement between many on the ‘common sense’ right and ‘woke’ far-left. And yet, as one who has been there, who still has a deep respect for a particular Haitian family despite our estrangement (on social media) over political differences, I can say unequivocally that this generalization is a lie.

Looking at the county of Haiti, the poorest in our hemisphere, it would be easy to assume that this is entirely a reflection of the people. And, indeed, corruption does abound, there is something reflected of the character of a people in a nation and the fatalistic Voodoo religion likely does play a role. But what a lot of people do not realize is that there are a lot of good people stuck in a feedback loop and, once broken free of the cycles of poverty and violence, could be extremely successful.

First, I think of that Haitian man, in Port Au Prince, heaving a truck body on his back. That is many things, but it is not lazy or lack of work ethic. The amount of determination and strength this took, for such little compensation when he finally got it to the metal scrap yard at the port, required extraordinary motivation. I had to think about my own complaints, making tens of thousands out on the road, and how this man would be both able to do my job and probably be much more grateful as well.

Second, that young man who showed up outside the church us Mennonite ‘missionaries’ were painting as part of our well-meaning desire to serve others. This young Haitian man, thin and possibly malnourished, confirmed one of my fears prior to going on this youth group trip. He, with pleading eyes, begged, “I can paint!” We could have employed him and a crew of Haitians, with American supervisors if need be, for a year with the money that went towards our airline tickets. He was willing to work, but lacked opportunity due to circumstances completely out of his control.

Third, let’s talk about my Haitian immigrant friends. All of them have gone further with their education, have worked their tails off, and have proven themselves to be real go-getters. Beyond that, they have always been hospitable to me and I have many fond memories from the time with them in Brooklyn or elsewhere. Their agreement with divisive racial politics aside, I see them as people of great moral character and more than my equal in many regards.

You stick the child of a hard-working American in “little Africa” in Haiti and there’s a very high probability that they will not live a comfortable life in suburbia. In Haiti, there is a sort of systemic oppression. The elites in that country squandered opportunities for their people. The political gridlock and misguided charitable efforts produce poverty, and the culture as well. Yeah, duh, people in such a chaotic environment are likely to score lower on a standardized intelligence test or even give in to despair. Just like children from fatherless homes (white or black) are often disadvantaged. The differences in outcomes are a matter of culture or circumstances and not of race.

Furthermore, if you look at Appalachia or Coal Region, or any blue-collar town where the industry has left, the results are often no different. These “deplorables” are not privileged people and have more in common with inner-city minorities than the social elites who sneer at them. (I mean, take this UC Berkeley professor putting his anti-rural bigotry on full display.) The customs and costumes vary and yet the actual substance does not. Black or white matters less than frequently believed. No, work ethic has nothing to do with skin color, nor does faithfulness in romantic relationships nor propensity for violence.

We should be insulted that the ‘woke’ left is saying that work ethic is white. That’s racist.

Racial framing is toxic and political

There is little doubt that our genetics do have an impact on our outcomes. Being bigger and stronger, smarter or more attractive, is at least somewhat predetermined. It is not all nurture.

Still, race is a construct. People certainly are not predisposed to culture on the basis of the race category they are placed in. Behavior is a choice. No, we do not choose our cultural conditioning, the neighborhood we were both into, and a vast number of factors that help to shape outcomes. We are judged by our appearance. But this does not mean we should.

Lies can shape outcomes. If we are told, over and over again, that this one distinguishing characteristic is of primary importance, we start to believe it. My being 5′-8″ tall, for example. This is a definite disadvantage, there is prejudice against men of shorter stature, statistics show this clearly, but dwelling on this only compounds the problem. Things like short-man syndrome or insecurity only increase the disadvantage. Isn’t it better to tell people to be confident?

That is what is so troublesome about the racial narrative of the far-left. It encourages people to believe that race determines culture. This is part of their broader push to blame bad behavior on circumstances and undesirable outcomes on oppression. But the real crime is that they’re robbing individuals of their agency and saying that we cannot transcend or change our stripes. It is essentially anti-Christian and racist at the core. If a person is what they are because it skin color then prejudice and discrimination is justified. This is not the way forward.

Racism is the idea that we are fundamentally different because of skin color, that culture and behavior are determined by race. It is a framework, a lens, that discards any evidence to the contrary or, worse, attempts to delegitimize the people that go against the narrative. This happened in the segregationist South. It was almost worse for white people who stood against the racism there. But it is happening now, where racial minorities who stand up to the political far-left are the biggest targets of ridicule and hate.

If a ‘black’ person has a job and is a productive citizen, the racist left attacks this success as internalized racism. If a ‘white’ person enjoys other cultures, they are vilified for appropriation and accused of theft.

The ‘woke’ left must guard these color lines or their divisive political ‘theory’ falls apart.

The reality is that behavior is not inexorably tied to skin color. Culture is behavior and evolves. Loud and obnoxious or reserved and shy, it could be a result of social contagion and cultural conditioning more than something genetically preprogrammed. What is called ‘black’ culture today will change. The mainstream American culture has also dramatically been remade over and over again. We don’t have duels to settle ‘gentlemanly’ disputes, petticoats have long gone out of style, my German identity has largely been assimilated into the melting pot and my children will have values slightly different from my own. The same is true in Africa, Asia, South America, and elsewhere.

The reason why the left seeks to break cultural cohesion, with CRT indoctrination (or wherever it will be renamed now that it is being scrutinized) and conflating race with culture is that a coalition of minorities is more powerful than those who would represent the cultural norm. Think about it. Most of us think we are unique, most of us could frame our “lived experience” as being disadvantaged. Much of this, in actuality, is an illusion of our own knowing our own struggles and not knowing what others have faced. Oppression narrative frames this as being a matter of only some identities, not a shared human experience as it truly is. We’re all a minority of one that must negotiate within the broader social space. Culture can unite. It can bridge differences in racial or other identities.

The left wants morality to be subjective. There is no good or evil in their perspective. There’s only what is politically expedient to them, a means to obtain power and control for themselves or those like them. Every system designed to create equity will eventually only end up unfairly advantaging a different group of people. Allow pedophiles to follow their passions, like everyone else, and children will be exploited. They will destroy liberal institutions, in the name of helping those marginalized, and only ever make us all subject to their own dictatorial whims without solving any injustice in the end.

I have little doubt that many seeking “social justice” or “equity” are good and sincerely caring people. But they are participating in a divisive framing of things that will only lead to more injustice. The term “white privilege” promotes prejudice and anti-racism is truly hyper-racism. Their critique aimed at structures of civilization, like marriage, religion, property rights, will only result in more insecurity and hurt.

The Christian alternative to race obsession

The church, not an equity committee, is supposed to be the center of community and healing. We can’t solve a spiritual problem with a political solution. We can’t fix the world without addressing our own hearts first.

CRT is a cheap counterfeit for the Gospel. It encourages us to externalize blame rather than repent of our own sin and let God judge others. Rather than project our own guilt on others, or accuse, decide who has too much, is racist or whatever, this is the Christian ethic:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

(James 4:11‭-‬12 NIV)

Politics is a competitive affair. It is a constant battle for position. And one of the cheats to gain power is to rile people up and use them as pawns to take out those who stand in the way of their agenda. This is done through vicious accusations and evil surmises. It is the very opposite of what James instructs, which is to focus on our own behavior rather than judge others.

The Gospel is about creating a joint identity that overcomes our differences:

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

(Galatians 3:26-29 NIV)

Christian culture is for all identities. The salvation Christ brings is free to all and thus can’t be appropriated.

There is no such thing as the “social justice” Gospel. Our ‘equity’ does not come from political action. It comes from Christ and loving those whom He loves. Unlike the political alternative, this is a positive focus, us using our love to build humbly rather than destroy with accusations:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

(Galatians 5:13-15 NIV)

Proverbs 6 calls “a person who stirs up conflict in the community” detestable to God. It is because these contests are limiting our collective potential and destructive.

Orthodox Christianity is about looking inward rather than outward. It is about finding a common union in Christ rather than dwelling on differences. It promotes leadership through self-sacrificial love rather than by political power and change that comes through personal repentance rather than reforming systems, this is the way:

It is worth noticing that, after acquiring spiritual understanding, the defects and faults of one’s neighbor begin to seem very slight and insignificant, as redeemed by the Savior and easily cured by repentance—those very faults and defects which seemed to the carnal understanding so big and serious. Evidently the carnal mind, being itself a plank, gives them this huge significance. The carnal mind sees in others sins that are not there at all.

(St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena)

The other day, I had a ‘woke’ online acquaintance (presumably, someone who still goes to church) respond to something I wrote with a proclamation about racism existing. The weird part was that my post had nothing to do with race whatsoever and was simply me venting my frustrations with a multitude of things including the slow progress of Charlotte’s immigration. For whatever reason, he saw race and pounced on the opportunity to promote his racially divisive worldview. As in the quote, people obsessed with a particular narrative “see in others sins that are not there at all” and are truly only projecting their own sins.

We must first correct the beam in our own eyes before we can see clearly to help others with the splinters we perceive in their eyes. If we want spiritual transformation and social change we need to shed our own judgemental black and white thinking first. The path out of this sinful delusion of racism and divisive race obsession is repentance.

Let the Seed Fall!

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

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

First, what is purity culture?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tree of life.

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

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

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

The wonderful cross

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

North-South, East-West

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

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

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

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

North & South

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

When the Story Goes South…

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Far As the East is From the West

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

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

East & West

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

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

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

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

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

Redefining Our Scarlet Letters

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

For many years of my life, I felt unloveable.  

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

The Letters We Are Forced To Wear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shamed No More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Perfection Is Not Purity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? 

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

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

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

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

The Symbolism of the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Metzler — A Tribute to the Unsung Heroes

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In the world of sports there are the stars and then there are the role players.  The stars get the attention, the glory, while the role players work quietly behind the scenes, and yet would Michael Jordan be famous without his supporting cast?

This past week one of those supporting cast men died after becoming infected by Covid-19, having succumbed on Tuesday of this past week, on the same day as another regular during my growing up days, Lenore Miller, 89, who loved to use testimony time at church to sing, and passed after becoming ill of the same disease.

John Kenneth Metzler, 82, better known as just “Ken,” had been in poor health for the past decade and really seemed to be living on borrowed time as it was.  He was born in 1938, February 15, in Lancaster County, the faithful husband to his wife of 60 years, Arlene, and proceeded in death by his daughter Brenda.

I almost didn’t write anything about Ken.  I mean, the Mennonite denomination is my past and Ken was simply Ken.  A deacon in the church.  But an awkward and common man.   He ran a muffler shop for years, lived in a little ranch house beside it, drove a Chrysler minivan for years (completely practical like him) and spoke with his totally unsophisticated dutchified drawl.

Not really the kind who gets invited to speak in front of the crowds nor mentioned as someone noteworthy, and yet someone always willing to serve.

I’ll admit, as a teenage punk, who knew nothing and prioritized ‘coolness’ over substance of character, Ken was annoying for his self-effacing style.  He would literally apologize for himself while sharing a devotional, for his lack of education and many shortcomings. 

He also held some odd views, like the time he confessed to enjoying the comics page and acted as if it was some sort of terrible transgression.  He would also, while teaching youth Sunday school, ask questions that would be more suitable for kindergarten students, which would leave everyone confused thinking he was asking rhetorically and him frustrated (or “fuss-trated” in his persistent Lancaster dialect) thinking we weren’t paying attention.

But in the end? 

Ken was a man with a golden heart, who became more and more endearing as I matured and, despite his slightly stooped posture, had all the true qualities of a hero.

There are plenty of flashy Mennonites, big fish in their small ponds, who act as “missionaries” or “evangelists” and are roundly praised for their efforts.  Many of them have the perfect hair, the superior intelligence, the pedigree and popular families.  They travel to the exotic places, some have the academic credentials too, they have the wealth (or access to resources) and reputation for their wonderfulness.

Ken had none of that pomp and pizzazz.  He wouldn’t want it even if he were capable.  Instead he, slow and steady, like the persistent tortoise compared to the haire of children’s book fame, he worked mostly unrecognized for the good of others.  If it was to cut someone a break on a repair bill at his shop or consistently running the canned goods distribution, you would hardly have noticed his contribution. 

When crowns in heaven are distributed, I believe there will be many surprises.  But it will not be a surprise to me if Ken received a reward bigger than that of the known names.  No, he did not lead the church outreach, but he supported it wholeheartedly, and remained long after the charismatic movers and shakers chased after that next new and exciting project.  He stayed, stayed true to his commitments, and is a hero in a world full of vain and self-serving ‘good’ men.

Ken also died as he lived.  He could have, given his poor physical health, cowered in fear and never left his home. Nobody would have criticized him for doing this, he was clearly in that most at risk category and could not be faulted for hiding out the pandemic.  But then why miss out on life when you already know that your days are numbered?  He got out instead, remained a part of the community, and that is a choice that I respect—even recommend.

Ken’s death was not a big surprise to me.  My initial reaction when I heard he had been at church when a visiting chorus was there, basically a Covid super-spreader event, was to think, “oh, Ken,” and question the wisdom. 

But, on second thought, Ken made the right and heroic choice.  Ken knew that risk of death isn’t a reason to stop living.  He had been on death’s door before and made a deliberate choice. 

Ken, unlike many in this age, understood life is difficult and every day is a gift.  He may have lived a year or two more, possibly, but was not long for this world by any reasonable assessment.  Sure, he likely suffered, he spent his last days alone because of nonsense policies created by administrators, but he was a man who never had it easy and lived a life of faith and sacrifice.

Real heroes don’t wear capes or live in the pages of comic books, most of them do not die in some grand saving-the-world deed, many of them pass unnoticed. They quietly play their role, in the background, until it is time to go home.

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

Standard

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.