My Apologies For Not Being Flashy Enough, I Guess?

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Years ago, in the parking lot of the Mennonite church, one of the cool youth guys told one of the pretty teenage girls to do something.  I’m not sure the exact lead-in, he probably suggested it was impossible to do, but he instructed her to simultaneously grab her ankles and spell the word run three times.

To my horror, this young woman, my first real crush, in traditional Mennonite dress, voluntarily did exactly as he said.  She bent over, and with her dainty ankles in hand, actually spelled out “R-U-N, R-U-N, R-U-N!”

At the time I had regarded her as a completely innocent party and being exploited.  It has to do with this notion, especially popular in patriarchal purity cultures, that men are more sexually interested and women simply wanting emotional support.  Therefore it was not possible that she would consent to this sort of activity knowing what his actual intention was, right?

This heroic offense that, no doubt, my reserved conservative Mennonite male readers will likely take on her behalf is trust misplaced.

In retrospect, given the various activities that she would later quite willingly participate in, even after marriage, some that included the jokester from the story above, my own assessment of what was truly going on there has changed.  I mean, had he not been an athletic six-foot built, I’m pretty sure she would have decided to be a little more aware of his intentions.  But the reality is that she was enjoying the attention whether or not she knew exactly what game was being played.

Beauty and Godliness

Many men (and women) confuse feminine beauty for godly character.  One of those shattering realizations was that the virtue that I saw in conservative Mennonite women was one of mere outward appearance and not really an indication of their being truly different under the surface.  Sure, those of us raised in this culture are better trained, our lusts are hidden under more layers of religious garb, but this demure and righteous front conceals passions that are no different from those found in all people.

In ‘worldly’ hookup culture, it is all about the physical.  It is blatantly superficial and makes no attempt at hiding this.  Sure it is discriminatory, sayings like “must be 5′-10″ or over to ride” are common, only the hottest guys and girls are going to be especially successful, but it is also honest.  It is a meat market and that’s what you should expect going in.  

But, raised in the sub-culture that I was in, there was this idea that character mattered most and what was being sought after.  Some of us believed that.

My first crush, the girl in the account above, was someone that I had assumed was of impeccable character.  Compared to those high school girls, like those cheerleader friends who (while at McDonald’s sitting with this blushing Mennonite kid) had fun taking turns saying the word “penis” a little louder each time, she was a saint and basically sinless.  Or so I had thought.  However, as it turns out, those ‘bad’ girls went on to be faithful to their partners, and the girl that had left me feeling unworthy ended up being fondled by that R-U-N guy a few years down the road—despite both of them being married.

I had assumed that my crush was of better character because of my bias towards those who dressed and acted a particular way.  I had her, so pretty and pristine, high upon a pedestal.  She had no dirty thoughts like me.  She would love me for my heart rather than my stature or appearance.  And yet my doubts began to grow, she had become unapproachable to me, too good, too pure and too perfect, how could someone with my stumbling words, painfully awkward, ever add up compared to this angelic being?  It is easy to see why my effort was doomed from the start and especially since she was as horny and completely carnally minded as any other young person her age.

Men, at least those in traditional cultures, want to defend the damsel in distress.  So, women, in turn, will play that part.  They are agreeable, they will accentuate their vulnerability and it is all part of the game to attract a mate.  Maintaining an appearance of ‘godliness’ is a part of this trying to be desirable in cultures where such things are valued.

And that’s not to say it is knowingly a pretense either.  It is simply how we frame the experience.  We don’t need to admit to the sexual motivations like the crass (yet wonderfully truthful) young ‘worldly’ women—like those school mates who had delightfully, with giggles, defied my own teenage expectations as far as propriety and appropriateness.  Us born into religious subcultures, especially a purity culture, confuse our merely following the rules for actual righteousness.  It is virtue signaling.  We hang onto that wonderful image, because it is valuable, a social advantage, and yet are as superficial as our ‘worldly’ counterparts when it comes to the true motivation behind our choices.

I’ve learned since that I was lying to myself, this Mennonite girl was a complete knockout no matter how ‘modestly’ she dressed at that time.  That physical beautiy most definitely played a part in my attraction and the virtue that had been projected onto her physical frame.  And, while being genuinely horrified during the parking lot incident, there was also that fascination about what was happening, a curiosity like how we can’t take our eyes off of a trainwreck.  Yes, I might have even enjoyed it in a weird way, so was I actually any better than the instigator?

Seeing Through My Own Projections

The “R-U-N” crush was never a saint, to begin with.  I had projected my own ideas of her purity onto her, assumed that her inner composition matched her flawless exterior, and thus had turned her into more of an idol than a real person.  Not excusing her eventual infidelity and recent divorce, but would it really be any surprise if some do break under this pressure to perform and be her daddy’s perfect daughter?

My disappointment with things not being as they appeared to have long since worn off, I’ve come to accept that even the ‘good’ girls (even those who would never dare cheat on their husbands or even say anything out of turn) aren’t as spiritually oriented as their outward show would have many believe.  Their faith is often shallow and a means to stay relevant or appear as righteous to their religious peers.  I mean, it isn’t all for show either, we’re always a mixed bag of motivation in even our best moments, but ultimately they are as flawed as anyone else and as oriented towards that strapping physique as much as their hook-up culture counterparts.

Still, it was this realization that left me feeling betrayed by my idealism and needing to let go of this falsehood of their loftiness compared to my own shortcomings.  They were no different from me—not better, not worse. 

This sinless young woman myth is as harmful and as completely patriarchal as the idea that a woman being ‘undefiled’ is her only value.  Being beautiful, not being openly aggressive or disagreeable, does not make an outwardly well-behaved woman a better person.  And, truly, at this point, I would rather deal with the ‘slut’ that is real than the ‘saint’ that is only skin deep and fake.  It is much better to start with the baseline that all have sinned and fallen short of divine glory than to treat anyone as somehow above or beyond.  Religious women may not sin in the same ways or as openly as their male or secular counterparts, but they still do.

Man certainly looks at the outward appearance, but Jesus said this concerning the deception of those who kept up appearances:

You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

(Matthew 23:27b‭-‬28 NIV)

What I’ve found about myself and others raised in a culture with high expectations is that we tend to keep two sets of books.  One to keep up the prescribed cultural standard and impress our peers, and another hidden account book that contains our more carnal imaginations and base desires.  Pretty on the outside does not mean a pure heart.  It could simply be manipulation or a way to benefit from the protection provided to those who conform and not evidence of good character.

Character Is More Than Skin Deep

So, anyhow, once burned, twice shy, right?   And, having learned that exteriors do not always match interiors, when stumbled across Charlotte’s profile, saw this shy and adorable looking woman beautiful amongst the flowers, I asked:  “Are you as beautiful on the inside as you are on the outside?”

I know. 

Not much of a pick-up line, right?

Nevertheless, it was exactly the right question for someone struggling.  It signaled to her that I actually cared about more than her physical form and wanted to know about her as a whole person.  Of course, her beauty is indeed more than skin deep.  And, although she confesses that I’m a good person while she’s my “imperfect bhest,” she’s golden.  Her humility alone, in realizing that she is flawed and admitting it, is proof of her beautiful godly character.  And, as our relationship progressed, it was her soul that I wanted to protect and not merely some projected cultural ideal.

Charlotte, for her part, is also well aware that I’m not the epitome of manliness.  She knows that I show my emotions, sees me as a little soft compared to those stoic Igorot men and had to make some adjustments to my dress style in Taiwan so I didn’t look as much like a dweeb.  There’s very little pretense with her.  Maybe she’s more plainspoken being that English is a second language?  But it’s also cultural.  Or, rather, a lack of the cultural facade where people have learned to say the right things and yet lack actual substance.  She is refreshingly real and appreciates me for my character rather than care too much about my missing-in-action six-pack abs.  

I’m not flashy enough to attract the Tinder date nor the goody-two-shoes who conceals her carnal appetites under layers of sanctimonious bullshit.  And yet do have enough of something to keep from giving up on true love despite the painful distance and wait. I’m not her perfect bhest, but I do love that she is more concerned with my faith than my physical perfection.

Raped — But Not Devalued

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I was on the elevator down from the psych ward, having visited a friend in a bit of a rough patch and struck up a conversation with one of the other riders.

As it turned out, she was a psychologist, visiting a friend (not her patient) who was not doing so well.  This young man, now catatonic, had once had it all together. He was a standout athlete, had a girlfriend who was gorgeous, and then something happened that turned his world upside down.

What would take the feet out from under a strong and healthy male?

He was raped.  

While in the military, the Navy as I recall, he was forced by another man and this started his downward spiral.  It is not possible to know, having never gone through anything similar myself, what happened in this young man’s mind.  But one can imagine, if he had an identity and self-worth built around his ability to protect, being overpowered in this way would have to be absolutely devastating to him.

How could he provide security for a woman if he couldn’t even defend himself from an assault?

His relationship, his life, his will to live, crumbled.  This one experience, possibly over in minutes, probably not doing him lasting physical harm, broke him mentally and turned him into a shell.  I have no idea of what became of him.  Did he find a way to bounce back, form a new identity, move on from the trauma and overcome?  Or has he withered away into nothing?

More Common Than Thought

One of my first encounters with a victim of sexual abuse was in school.  A friend of mine, from elementary school all the way through high school, told me that he had been molested by his stepbrothers while living in Texas with his biological dad.  I had always felt bad for Justin. He was socially awkward and bullied by classmates, had a domineering mother, and came out of the closet later on as a teenager.

I’m also had some very close female friends that have told me about being raped.  Their stories are very similar.  A trusted male, often a boyfriend, talks them into a place where they are unable to escape his sexual aggression.  In all of these cases, to head off any assumptions, there was no alcohol involved.  They were good morally upright girls who were too trusting of a male ‘friend’ who stole their innocence and left them feeling completely broken.

Then there’s Adam, the school friend who took his life a few years ago, victimized as a child by a predator college professor.  His alcoholism and failed relationship no doubt, in part, linked to this experience.  I mean he let me in on this secret, and many years after it happened, so it was obviously still part of his thought process.

At one point in my life all of this was unthinkable.  I was in a home that offered stability and protection, with two good parents.  I’m sure there were things that I did not know about, but my community seemed mostly healthy and safe.  There was simply no reason for me to assume this sort of violating behavior was common.  So statistics about 1 out of 5 women being victims of rape seemed impossible.

It is truly understandable that many who were raised in sheltered homes are in denial of the extent of this problem.  It makes sense that they would try to explain it away as the promiscuous putting themselves in a compromised position.  It is probably a good thing when the reaction is disbelief. Most men aren’t rapists and would be horrified, like I was, if they heard a story firsthand from someone they love.

Boundaries and Consent

As part of my culture, and also my lingering shyness, it is difficult for me to so much as give a woman a hug.  It’s actually very frustrating to me, that I’m so awkward in this regard and would almost need to ask permission rather than simply make the read.  Why is this?  Well, it only seems right to respect another person’s space.  Intimacy is supposed to be reserved for special people, right?

It actually makes me livid to see even a boy too grabby with a girl too early, even if she seems to be enjoying it, because he’s treating her as an object.  And yet this sort of ‘confidence’ is often rewarded.  The women who think that every man is a rapist may have simply spent way too much time with men who do not respect their or any boundaries. 

And, yes, men who pressure with “if you love me you will…” are evil. 

Period.

Rape is a product of an entitled mind, a psychopath, someone who sees other people as something to be exploited for their pleasure.  Sure, maybe they can turn on the charm and blend into normal society, but their true character is revealed when there is nothing to stop them.  Be it in a back alley or her bedroom that he talked himself into while her parents were away, rapists exploit the vulnerable.

Incidentally, this is why I’m still in favor of at least one aspect of traditional courtship.  If a man can’t keep his hands off of your body for a few dates, if there is any unwanted pressure whatsoever to be physically involved, then maybe find someone who is interested in you rather than merely sexually attracted to your physical form.  If a man can’t commit to a relationship without sex, he certainly isn’t the type to commit after sex.

Lust and Self-control

In the animal kingdom there is no such thing as consent.  Often the strongest, most competitive, male gets to mate and by simply overpowering the female.  He runs on instinct, male hormones, testosterone, and is basically acting out his natural programming.  We don’t generally describe a buck “in the rut” as being a rapist because we do not see the animal as capable of complex moral reasoning.

And humans do have these similar underpinnings too.  Men, for the most part, are more aggressive, and women tend to be more submissive, agreeable, etc.  It is simply the substance we’re made of in the same way it is for any other animal.  We’re instinctive creatures that seek out, and imagine, the things we want.  But we also have a layer beyond this, a large frontal lobe in our brain, which gives us an extra capability for self-control.

Lust is often confused with simple desire for something.  Many in a strict religious upbringing, like my own, are made to feel extremely guilty for looking upon a fair maiden and finding her desirable.  But that’s not lust, that’s healthy sexual attraction and not a sin.  What is lust is when we dwell on something that’s not ours to take. That is a path that can lead to rape, as in this Biblical account:

Amnon became so obsessed with his sister Tamar that he made himself ill. She was a virgin, and it seemed impossible for him to do anything to her. […]
So Amnon lay down and pretended to be ill. When the king came to see him, Amnon said to him, “I would like my sister Tamar to come and make some special bread in my sight, so I may eat from her hand.” David sent word to Tamar at the palace: “Go to the house of your brother Amnon and prepare some food for him.” […] 
But when she took it to him to eat, he grabbed her and said, “Come to bed with me, my sister.” “No, my brother!” she said to him. “Don’t force me! Such a thing should not be done in Israel! Don’t do this wicked thing. What about me? Where could I get rid of my disgrace? And what about you? You would be like one of the wicked fools in Israel. Please speak to the king; he will not keep me from being married to you.” But he refused to listen to her, and since he was stronger than she, he raped her.

(2 Samuel 13:2‭, ‬6‭-‬7‭, ‬11‭-‬14 NIV)

Awful!

The sad part is that when Amnon’s lust was satiated, he discarded his half-sister (not biologically related) as if his sin were somehow her fault.  Incidentally, this violence did not go unavenged. Amnon was eventually killed by the victim’s brother, Absalom.  But this lack of self-control seemed to plague David’s house.

Considering what king David did to have another man’s wife, we could say “like father like son” to explain what happened here. 

Rabid Dogs Are Put Down

In the end, we all have sexual desires. Attraction is natural and not something to be ashamed about.  But, when this crosses over into lust, when we choose to dwell on something unattainable and scheme to have it through immoral means, that’s a choice and what separates us from animals.  The reprobate tries to hide behind their urges and impulses. 

If a dog can’t keep from biting we’ll put it down. 

Should a person with no self-control, who harms others because of their unwillingness to rein in their lusts, be treated any differently?

I know Jesus said, pertaining to those who harm the “little ones” (referring to those young in the faith, not necessarily children), that it would be better that a millstone be hung around the neck of those who do these things and they be cast into the sea.  He may not have been talking specifically about sexual abuse and yet, knowing what this sin does to those who have fallen prey, I’m quite certain it’s included.

Jesus never said, “if she’s wearing a skimpy outfit, then she shares some of the blame,” but he did say, in the context of lust, If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out…” (Matthew 5:29a NIV) 

Good people do not create scapegoats.

Godly men do not blame women.

Your Body Is Not Your Worth

The more important message of this blog, and my main reason for writing it, is to tell those who have been through this kind of trauma this: Your rape is not a reflection of you or your value.

As one who fully appreciates the human form, especially that of the female body, and completely desires physical intimacy, it could be easy to treat our bodies as being one and the same as our being.  We show preference based upon stature, beauty, shape and other matters of outward appearance.   So it can feel as if this form we reside in is of greatest importance and, therefore, what happens to it a reflection of ourselves.

Women, traditionally, put value in their cleanliness or purity, men in their strength and ability to protect.  Our identity is often wrapped up in this external image.  Rape is an attack on the physical manifestation of these things and causes the victim to question their identity or value at a deeper level.  This is why, in mere moments, someone can be shattered.  They now see themselves as dirty or defiled, inadequate or weak, and thus of less value.

But the truth is that our human value has nothing to do with what others have done to our bodies and everything to do with how we choose to live.  

I’ve encountered toxic and nasty people, bitter, who have used the abuse they’ve experienced as an excuse to mistreat others.  I have also met those who have not been defeated, who are able to put the unpleasantness behind them, and even become a better person in the end.  This idea that we’re damaged goods or have lost our worth because of something that happened, through no fault of our own, is choosing to put our own value in our bodies.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.

(Matthew 10:28a NIV)

There is so much more to our being than our physical form.  We might convince ourselves, based on the world’s obsession with the external, that our worth is in only these physical things.  But what matters, the real value we have, is our soul and that thing that can’t be touched. 

Age will eventually destroy our bodies. The tall youth will some day be hunched over, the strong man’s muscles will atrophy, wrinkles will spread on that angelic face.  The world abuses us, we will all likely face trauma even if not rape, and yet—if we know that value is something other than the physical—our worth will increase.

At the very least, no matter what anyone has done to your body, whether you were abused as a child, raped or whatever, I do not look at you as damaged or inferior. 

No, you are strong to keep going. There is a special beauty to a survivor that is not found in those sheltered.  And I believe there are more who agree with me than do not. 

Your value is in who you are and not what was done to you!

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.
(Luke 12:6 NIV)

The Beauty Of Orthodox Faith

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A thought occurred to me, while lamenting my persistent unorthodoxness, that eventually the point of any religious practice (with emphasis on practice) is to color outside of the lines a bit.  From art, to athletic endeavors, being spontaneous, unpredictable, and original, there is advantage in harnessing some of that creative chaos.  So ritual and rigorousness has taken a back seat to emotional expression.  Many call themselves ‘spiritual’ for their abandonment of church tradition.

However, an art teacher will tell you and a good writer knows, that there is no natural talent so good that it can’t benefit from studying the masters.  Before one can reinvent the wheel, it might be good to at least know what the wheel is and understand the basic function of the thing before improving upon it.  No basketball player does well to ignore all of the established fundamentals of their sport nor is it recommended that a weightlifter abandon good technique.  Doing things your own way can lead to injury, can limit potential and be a tremendous disadvantage.

Yes, some do “shoot from the hip” and still manage to score some points.  My own writing has improved from simply writing and not from having read every style manual written in the past few centuries.  And yet I would be remiss, as well as incredibly arrogant, to not give complete credit to the teachers, the many writers, the coiners of terms and all those who have contributed to the descriptive wealth of the English language.  And if my desire is to improve, then reading the greats, absorbing their knowledge of the craft, is only going to enhance my own creative efforts.

Only a fool would enter the ring relying only upon their natural and unimproved fighting abilities.  Absolutely, Mike Tyson would knock me out without having spent a day training, God gifted him with a heavy weight’s frame and musculature.  But, no boxer, no high level competitor, would last a minute against a person who studied form, who learned all they could from the best, practiced hours and came prepared.  It is religious devotion that pushes even the elite to the next level.

Jesus is the foundation of the church, that is true, yet this doesn’t mean we should strip it bare to the bedrock each generation.  Do we forget that Jesus himself, God in the flesh, was a practicing Jew for three decades before, while reading Isaiah 61, the prescribed text at the synagogue, announced “today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  We know that Jesus would go on to push the boundaries, to correct and build upon the established religion, yet never claiming it was worthless.

What Is Orthodoxy?

This word “orthodox” refers to correctness.  

It is the same root used for terms like “orthopedic” or “orthodontist” and basically implies straightening out, correctness.

Orthodox, as the Orthodox Christian uses it, is an adjective and not a noun.  Orthodoxy is not a denomination.  No, it is an unbending pursuit, a desire to live out the fullness of the faith, it means uncompromised worship and devotion to Christ and the Church.

Unlike Protestantism, that has whittled away at tradition, the Orthodox continue to practice as Christians have for over a millennia.  We celebrate the liturgy of St John Chrysostom or St Basil and not because it is required to be a Christian, I’ve never heard those Orthodox proclaim those who profess Christ outside the tradition to be lost, yet we do see established tradition as a useful aid to the Christian.

Orthodoxy is built upon the foundation of Christ.  And yet it is not in denial of the history of the Church nor dismissive of the written and unwritten tradition that the Apostle Paul admonished the church of Thessaloniki to keep:

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.  So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings (or traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

(2 Thessalonians 2:13‭-‬15 NIV)

The first thing noteworthy is that the church had a tradition and the second is that this tradition was passed down by the Apostles both in letter and spoken word.  But, more significantly, in the same context of keeping tradition, St Paul also speaks of things of the Spirit.  The idea that spiritual is odds with traditional is the great delusion of our time and trying to sustain one without the other is proving to be an overall failed experiment.  Tradition, passed down by the Church both in written and by “word of mouth” is for our spiritual benefit.

Orthodox tradition is about carrying forward the practices sustained, and that sustained, generations of the Church.  It pertains most particularly to the traditions of corporate worship.  And, like the tradition of Scripture itself, gives a voice (or vote) to the many faithful who have gone on before us:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

(G. K. Chesterton “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy)

To be Orthodox one must appreciate that the Church is bigger than their own individual perspective.  The Church is bigger than this generation.  Yes, we, the Church militant, are still in the the fight and yet undoing the contribution of the Church triumphant is foolishness.  It is a special kind of ignorance in an age where ‘progress’ too often means replacing an old church building with a Dollar General.

Christ is the foundation of the Church, but much has been built, from the Apostle’s time forward, that is beneficial to our spiritual growth and also very beautiful.

The Beauty of Orthodox Worship

There is something incredible about participating in a tradition of worship that has passed the test of time.  The basic form of Divine Liturgy has endured, despite the severe persecution of the Orthodox, and in to join in this is to join in the choir of all who have worshipped in this manner.  

To those who have never been to an Orthodox service, the first experience may feel foreign, especially if there is some ethnic flavor mixed in, and yet why would we expect the Church (which is universal throughout time) to be a reflection of our modern American culture?  Are we truly that arrogant to believe that our own practices, built from the clay of Modernism, is superior to the gold refined over the centuries?  We’re better than the entire Church spanning the millennia?

Before going further, consider for a moment that every Church has a liturgy, an order to the service, their own unique traditions, and there’s a reason for this.  Protestants, from revival meetings to special mother’s day services, have formed their own traditions to replace those more timeless.  I’ve heard about conservative Mennonite churches where at least one elder would insist that the ordained men enter in order of their respective ranks.  

And, lest my ‘contemporary’ friends see themselves as superior.  Not everyone is up front leading the service.

Order is good.  St. Paul spoke to this need for order in worship as an alternative to the chaos and confusion of everyone talking over each other.  We are creatures of habit, when brushing our teeth or taking a shower, rather than go through the wasted mental effort of finding a new way each time, we repeat a liturgy of a sort.  We can get more done when we finally cease these useless arguments over worship style and move on to things of more substance.

Before I had ever entered an Orthodox liturgical service, I (like most or many Protestant borns) would’ve believed it to be stuffy and boring.  I mean, how can something prewritten, predetermined, be as authentic or real as my own concept of worship?

However, upon reflection, considering the many times of Mennonite deacons begging for testimonies and prayer requests to a deafening silence or the same requests over and over again from the same people, the liturgical form that covers everything in prayer makes much more sense.  Every service the priest leads us in prayer, through a list that covers pretty much everything, and I’ll often think (and pray) for a specific reason while crossing myself to physically confirm my inner thoughts.

Which is the one beauty of Orthodox worship: It is immersive, involves all senses, we love the beauty of the house we share, our temple, that is divided in a similar way to the Biblical places of worship.  There is rich symbolism, incense rising as prayer (as is described in Scripture) and an altar, behind the Iconostasis, where the Communion is prepared.  Better yet, the entire service is participatory, a sort of call and response style, with the entire Divine Liturgy service centered around our partaking of the body and blood of Christ.

The second thing I have found, as beautiful, is that this repetition of Scripture in song is spiritually like the muscle memory formed from any other practice.  I can’t count the times when the music and words of a liturgical service will pop up during the week, either as a comfort or a challenge, and how these phrases have started to shape my perspective.  For example, “put not your trust in princess or sons of man in who there is no salvation.”  What a great reminder in this time when the institution of government seems to be failing, right?

Well worn pathways are not confining, they are freeing.  Why hack our way through the jungle of life, being ‘authentic’ in the way of every other person in this age who has lost both religion and depth, undisciplined, when there is a rich banquet of tradition to draw upon?  Does reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over again ever take away from the meaning of the words or cause you to want to rewrite it for our own time?  I should pray not!  

No, we need good ritual in our life because it helps us to focus.  Everything in Orthodox worship is founded upon Scripture and a beautiful expression of obedience.  It has richness and depth, from the Lenten journey of fasting and reflection, to the icons, incense, vestments, altars, oil, candles, hymns, recitations and processions.  It connects is to centuries of the faithful, in our participation in the Church that they built together on the foundation of Christ and is wonderful.

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

In the end, as Father Seraphim reminds us often in his homilies, we are not saved by our church attendance, we can read Scripture, sing, give tithes and it all be for naught.  If there is no spiritual fruit this is all empty and utterly meaningless as far as salvation.  However, as St Paul speaks of the law being a guardian, the established prescription and pattern for worship, once catalyzed with sincere Christian faith, is an invaluable asset.  It may not be necessary for salvation, the repentant thief on the cross beside Jesus was never Baptized, and yet it does greatly enhance the life of the believer.

Lastly, Orthodox worship doesn’t take away from our ability to worship spontaneously, in the spur of the moment, like King David dancing as the Ark of the Covenant was being processed through the city of Jerusalem.  This is not an either/or thing nor have I found the tradition to be onerous or confining in the way one may fear coming out of a legalistic tradition.  There is a sort of casualness to our formality, an allowance for imperfection.  So simple even children participate.

Structure We Need To Thrive

Us creative types loath structure.  We like to color outside of the lines, right?  And yet, despite this umbrage, we often live as beneficiaries of the structure that others provide.  Many artists would starve, or be overrun, unable to do their work, outside the structure that others have diligently maintained for them.  And many would do better, even in their passionate pursuits, if they would acknowledge their need.  

The framework that Orthodoxy provides, likewise, for me has been that missing element that I didn’t even know that I needed.  This idea that tradition is somehow bad is corrosive, it is creating a generation desperate to find their place, suicidal, distorted and unfulfilled.  We are better when plugged in, when a part of something bigger than ourselves.  Tradition brings us together and Orthodoxy enhances rather than take away from worship.

As we Orthodox like to say…

“Come and see!”

The Terrible Irony of a Person Who Hates People

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One of my biggest pet peeves?

How so many people hate people.

They see encroachment on animal habitats, destruction of the environment, our nature, and imagine the world as being better without people.

Sure, I do understand the sentiment, I do not want to see something good be ruined. And I believe, for the good of humanity and all other living things, we should be caretakers of this amazing planet to the extent that we are able.

However, without us to observe, what would be left to make the judgment that the world is better or worse without us?

Without a Capable Observer—Does Anything Really Matter?

Like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the existence of anything is a matter of there being a capable observer. Rocks or even simple organisms show no sign of being capable of appreciating their own existence—let alone beauty or the universe.

Our existence in time and space is something profoundly mysterious no matter what you believe about the origin of life—created in six days or over the span of 13.8 billion years—it is incredible.

But we are unique in this capacity to use words to describe our existence. We are, by all appearances, alone in this ability to contemplate our own existence or at least able to do it at a level unmatched by anything else known. Dolphins and elephants are, indeed, very intelligent yet, at very least, lack our vantage point as observers.

The Contradiction of a People Hating Person

Those who claim to prefer the creature over humanity are truly at odds with themselves. Not only are humans the pinnacle of the complexity of life on this planet, but we are also special for our ability to appreciate that we or anything else exists.

In other words, no beholder means no beauty, because beauty is not something out there or independent of an observer—beauty is rather a concept of mind that depends on the existence of the observer as much as the things being observed. What is out there only exists to the extent that something is able to assign value or appreciate that it does exist.

People who hate people underappreciate the wonderful mystery of their own consciousness and completely fail to comprehend that their observation is what gives all things value.

An amoeba may exist independently of us in some form, but it lacks the human mind to process things like future and understand the result of actions or consequence—which is the basis of the moral reasoning and the very thing that can cause some to view themselves (or just other people) with contempt.

Maybe it isn’t that people hate all people so much as they are narcissistic and simply hate every other person—with exception of themselves?

Narcissists Only Value Their Own Consciousness

It does seem that there are many people, who see themselves as being worthy of resources because they are (in their own minds) enlightened and special in comparison to others.

This aggrandized perception of self is possibly due to their own inability to imagine others being equally (or more) intelligent, as consciously aware or moral as they are, and otherwise equal. Their deficiency of imagination is only made worse by a culture that promotes a notion of self-worth that is independent of love for humanity in general.

Whatever the case, it leads to self-contradiction, it leads to a person who values themselves and their own moral judgment while not recognizing this capacity in others to do the same. It is basically a person who loves their own consciousness so much that they can no longer value perspectives that do not mirror their own and thus hate (rather than appreciate) anyone in competition with them for resources.

A people hating person sees other humans as being greedy and abusive, but fail to comprehend their own jealousy and control freakishness. They judge humanity as a whole without turning the criticism back on themselves or understanding that they themselves, with the mundane choices they make on a daily basis, are as responsible for the large scale problems as the collective whole.

A person who sees others as morally or otherwise inferior to themselves it is on a path to self-destruction. Pride coming before the fall is not karma—it is consequence. A person can become so blinded by their own arrogance and contempt for others that they are actually worse than those whom they condemn. They cannot learn or grow and are bound to hit a wall at some point when their own hatred makes their own life unbearable.

In some cases, when coupled with young male aggression, they become school shooters.

But in most cases, people who undervalue people simply live as one led by the nose by their own confirmation biases and emotions. They see themselves as having all the right answers, as always being the good or righteous person, and are really just egotistical and hypocrites. They may feel entitled because of their inflated self-worth—but are deceived. Like Cain who slew his brother Abel (as means to deal with his own cognitive dissonance as a result of his sacrifice being rejected), they are truly an enemy of themselves.

Why Care About What Will Eventually Burn Anyways?

Another deficiency of a person who hates other people is their inability to comprehend the reality of the universe as it is. Both an atheist astrophysicist and religious fundamentalist should be able to agree on this and that is that the universe as we know it will eventually end. Solar physics (evidenced in the stars) and Scripture point to fire as being the ultimate end of life on earth.

Even if some life were to somehow escape that consuming fire it too would cease as the cosmic clock spring of thermodynamics (behind all movement and life in the universe) became completely unwound. That, the “heat death of the universe” may be billions upon billions of years in the future, but it is as inevitable as the sun coming up in the morning and everything we know in this life will cease. There will be no stars flickering, no photosynthesis, no warmth or entropy—all will have expired.

But we do not even need to go that far out in time to understand the reality of life. Take a visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City sometime, consider for themselves all of those various forms of creature that went extinct and went extinct long before humans could have played a significant role in the environment. Nobody cries over Pakicetus nor laments the complexity of the ecosystem that it lived in, so why be upset about Pandas or Polar Bears following the same path?

Certainly, we should be concerned about the decline in the diversity of life, especially as rapid as it has been in recent centuries. That said, there have always been periods of expansion and contraction, usually related to cataclysmic events such as comet strikes or super volcanos, which will happen whether we campaign to “save the whales” or not. Which isn’t to say that we should care any less than we do, but we should probably care differently knowing that it is all temporal regardless.

Which leads into a question, if all this will end one way or another…

What Really Is Important?

Humans are magnificent creatures. We are the only creature capable of planetary destruction. But also creatures so extraordinarily capable of perceiving the future and contemplating things like value. It is our unique abilities that make our complex moral reasoning possible, where we can examine our own actions (collectively or individually) and pronounce judgment.

We are more responsible, but only because we are better at understanding the consequences of our actions and are able to adjust our behavior accordingly. We make priorities. We decide, in our own minds, what is good or bad, what is worthy of our love and what is deserving of our hate, whether flamingos matter more than fetuses.

We determine what is important.

So what is most important given that everything in this universe has a definite expiration date?

If there is anything timeless or beyond this universe, more important than life itself, what is it?

For me the answer is love.

If anything can escape our temporal existence it is love. Love transcends. Love allows us to show grace to the other creatures on this planet which are most like ourselves and that being all of those other fallible human beings. It is true, people are often unappreciative and wasteful. But hate for other people is really only self-loathing (removed a few steps) and to underestimate the value of our existence as the observers most capable of appreciating the beauty of this world.

It is important that we love other people. Sure, there billions of us and it is really hard to love those faceless masses sometimes. Still, other people have as much right to exist as anything else in the universe, we should appreciate them that they are conscious, like us, and love them as we want to be loved ourselves. Without love, nothing is really important and our existence, this tiny snapshot we get of the universe as humans, is meaningless.

How Orthodox Christianity Triumphs Against the Odds

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Christianity was systematically opposed and oppressed in the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox church, said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, was heavily persecuted under Marxist rule. Atheism was promoted in government schools, speaking against it outlawed, and it seemed that Orthodox Christianity did not stand a chance against this irreligious secular state.

During that dark period, thousands of church leaders were killed. Many more were imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals or the “gulags” to do forced labor. From 1917 to 1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested and 95,000 of them were executed by firing squad. Later, from 1937 to 1938, in another anti-religious purge campaign, 168,000 Orthodox clergymen were arrested and, of them, 100,000 shot. Religion was ridiculed in the public sphere, believers were harassed and deprived of parental rights, church properties were seized by the state and buildings, including the beautiful Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, were destroyed:

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The Russian Orthodox church, that extended into the Americas (where they didn’t kill the Native populations like their Western counterparts) and had an estimated 54,000 parishes in Russia before WW1, was reduced to only 500 parishes in the 1940’s under the Communist dictatorship. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 left Russian Orthodox churches in Japan, United States, Manchuria, and elsewhere effectively orphaned and without support. Patriarch Tikhon, in 1920, issued a decree for these churches to operate independently until normalcy could be restored and, as a result, many of these churches (because of financial hardship and/or need of pastoral care and governance) were turned over to the Orthodox churches of their national homelands—which is why there is the current disorganized mix of Greek, Antiochian, ROCOR and OCA parishes in America.

However, Orthodoxy has since triumphed over Marxism in Russia. An average of three churches a day are being opened by the Orthodox faithful in Russia, there are currently 40,000 churches and, at the current pace, that number may double in the next decades. In addition, there are now 900 active monasteries (down from 1000 pre-revolution) and this is an expansion based on demand. This resilience against the odds, against the world’s only other superpower besides the United States, is a testament to the strength of Orthodox religious tradition. Orthodoxy in Russia could not be driven into extinction by one of the most powerful and brutal regimes in human history and is as strong today as ever.

The divided (and dying) church of America

America has traditionally divided up according to ethnicity or race. Churches (Protestant, Roman Catholic or otherwise) are not exceptional in this regard. Many churches, including Mennonites and Amish, came as a result of immigrants taking their religion with them rather than as a missionary endeavor. It is not a surprise that traditionally German churches, like the Lutherans, are mostly populated by white people nor is it unexpected that people go to churches that are reflective of their own cultures or where their own language is spoken. People tend to gravitate to other people who look like them.

But this “homogeneity principle” also extends beyond skin color as well. A church that is racially or ethnically diverse is probably homogeneous in other ways (things like level of education, political affiliations, etc) and thus not truly diverse. For example, American Mennonites, from the most progressive or liberal to the most ultra-conservative and traditional Old Order end of the denomination. are (with the exception of a few adoptions and inner-city outreaches) ethnically homogenous. But, as centuries of divisions have proven, that shared genetic ancestry and skin color certainly does not make us the same. And so it is with Protestantism in general. A multi-ethnic church probably has very little diversity in terms of educational level, ideological bent, or income and this is because we prefer to be with people who share something in common with us.

The end result is that everyone claims that they are loyal to Christ and his love. Yet, in reality, there are hidden loyalties that are actually taking precedence. We are divided by our loyalties to our race, our religious/cultural heritage, national/political identities, denominational affiliations, personal preferences, and feelings or any combination of the preceding items. In other words, our pet issues and petty differences are what truly matters to us despite what we profess. And this doesn’t get better for those who are non-denominational or believe they are independently guided by the Spirit and are truly only loyal to themselves. Saint Paul, the Apostle, said that the Spirit brings unity to the body (Ephesians 4:1-6) and spoke out against disunity brought about by their misplaced loyalties:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, a in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10-15)

Note, Paul calls out even those who claim “I follow Christ” in his rebuke and that is not because Christ is not the head of the church either. No, it is because loyalty to Christ means loyalty to his church, to true believers past and present (and future) who together represent his body, and who we are to seek Communion with rather than chase after our own personal ideals. True Christianity is about forbearance, forgiveness, and humility, realizing our own fallibility and showing mercy to others as we have been shown mercy by God. It is little wonder that many are confused about Christianity in America and increasing numbers are checking-out of their denominational and ever-dividing churches. It is because many professing Christians say one thing and do another. They say they love as Christ loves, even call someone a “brother,” but are completely unwilling to sacrifice anything of true consequence to themselves in love for the body of Christ.

Is Orthodoxy any different from this?

Yes and no.

At the time I am writing this there is a break in Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarchate of Constantinople over a Ukrainian schism. In 1992, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, some Ukrainian Orthodox wanted their independence from Moscow (understandably so given regional politics) and, unfortunately, went ahead without having appropriate permission. Making matters worse than they already were, Archbishop Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, decided to recognize the schismatics and over the protests of Moscow. This, of course, is not acceptable, important church decisions have been always made by a council or through the correct channels, rather than independently, and this is reminiscent of the unilateral decision-making that divided the Roman Catholics from Orthodox in the Great Schism.

The explanation above probably comes off as Greek to those outside of Orthodoxy and took some time me to wrap my own head around. However, it is also a good way to illustrate a key difference between Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic perspectives of authority in the church. In Roman Catholicism, the Pope, as “Vicar of Christ” and supreme by his own decree, rules the roost. Protestants, by contrast, essentially believe that every man (and his Bible) is their own Pope and need not be accountable to anyone besides themselves. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, do not see even their highest-ranked individual as being infallible or outside need to be accountable and rather (like the early church) build upon consensus and through councils—which means even Peter, the first amongst equals, can be set right as need be.

(On an aside, Anabaptists, in that they believed in individual submission to the group, were traditionally sort of a half-step between Orthodoxy and Protestantism in this regard. The difference being that Anabaptists are only accountable to the local church (and what they cherry-pick from Scripture or early church writings) rather than the universal church and an ordination faithfully passed down, generation to generation, from the time of the Apostles. This unique Anabaptist perspective, while still preserved by the Amish and other Old Order groups, has been largely supplanted by Biblical fundamentalism in “conservative” Mennonite churches and secular/progressive group-think in the “liberal” side—both sides with zero real accountability to the historic church including even their own Anabaptist forebears.)

The Ukrainian schism, while a black mark on the testimony of the those who caused it if left unresolved, is actually proof the triumph of Orthodoxy over the spirit of division or unity formed around the wrong loyalties. The consensus across the Patriarchates seeming to be that the Ecumenical Patriarch went outside the bounds by recognizing the Ukrainian schismatics. The unity of the church is not mere unity for the sake of unity, but a unity of Spirit that doesn’t neglect sound doctrine or the traditions (“whether by word of mouth or by letter,” 2 Thessalonians 2:15) passed down by the church. In other words, the established Orthodoxy has more authority than any one person or group within the church. Orthodoxy is something that transcends all individuals in the church and protects against both abusive patriarchs and also the divisions over personal opinions. The Spirit of truth, the foundation of Orthodox tradition, is what preserved correct doctrines against heresy and false teachers.

Orthodoxy is what delivered the Biblical canon. The same Biblical canon that many Protestant fundamentalists and other separatists idolize as an infallible object equal to God while simultaneously not recognizing the authority of the church that wrote, authenticated, and compiled it for them. It is strange that a council was only good for that one thing, creating a collection of books that can’t be changed, and not anything else before or after, isn’t it?

But, I do digress…

Yes, Orthodoxy is messy because, as with the church of Acts, there is still a difference of opinion, politics, legalism, favoritism, and imperfection. We can’t get away from conflict, not even in the church founded by Christ himself and that is disheartening to us idealistic types. But that was also the case from the earliest days of Christianity and that is why there was a need of the Jerusalem Council recorded in the book of Acts. The church had councils to establish who was right or wrong and how to correctly interpret Scripture.

Orthodoxy (that is to say “right opinion”) is something worthwhile and should be the goal of every Christian. It is that sincere desire to find and hold to what is true that is leading many from the ranks of the most divided and disillusioned branches of Christendom and to the “ancient faith” of the Orthodox Christians.

The triumph of Orthodoxy…

Like King Josiah hearing the Scripture read for the first time, many are discovering the elegant theology and awe-inspiring, aesthetic appeal, and ancient beauty of Orthodox worship. Divine liturgy carries depth, history and meaning unrivaled in an age of flashing lights, cheap gimmicks, and consumerism. This is why people from all denominational backgrounds are finding a home in Orthodoxy today. The majority of those in my parish is not “cradle Orthodox” in that they were born in the Orthodox church and this seems to be the trend. In fact, nearly half of the million Orthodox Christians in the United States are converts and I am just one of the many who did.

It is very exciting to see the interest of those who have read this blog and want to know more. Several are either now attending services, have visited or are planning to visit when they have a chance. There is one, in particular, a single lady born into a conservative Mennonite church, never baptized and made a member, who left the church disillusioned by the pettiness, abusive leadership and message of condemnation, describes the Antiochian parish she is currently attending as “St Philips is beauty for the mind and spirit. A haven, a calm, a refuge,” adding that it is the “truest example of Jesus words put into my own, ‘Come just as you are.'” I have also had the pleasure of conversing with several who are converts from Anabaptist background, including a man who is my cousin through marriage, and have had the same hard-to-put-into-words experience I have had.

To be clear, the Orthodox church, like other churches, did come over with ethnic communities from Greece, Russia, Syria, Africa, Egypt and other parts of the world. Many Orthodox churches in America did often start as a part of an ethnic community and a decade ago may have been compromised mostly of people from one ethnic background. However, as that immigrant population declines it is being replaced by those who come from all sorts of Christian backgrounds. In my own parish, there is everything from non-denominational to Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic. Many of these converts were, like me, at the end of their ropes with religion as it had been presented to them, some agnostics, who were drawn to Orthodoxy through various means and have been forever changed by the experience. The most recent converts at my parish: Two women, one of them a Mennonite pastor, who were Chrismated and welcomed home a few weeks ago.

There is a great documentary on religious “nones” called “Becoming Truly Human,” that describes the journey of various people who have left the version of Christianity they were raised in and have simply stopped attending any religious services. There is clearly a need for an answer, people long for a connection to the historic church, worship that transcends current fads and trends, something real and authentic, and Orthodox Christianity provides this. Orthodoxy, made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), has withstood the persecution of the past century like it did in the first century and is a bastion for the faithful. Orthodoxy, the church that Jesus promised the “gates of hell would not prevail against” (Matthew 16:18), has and will continue to triumph against the odds.

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Turmoil and Theosis

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There are those unsung heroes—those people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and yet never could repay for their contribution to our lives. For me, there are many on that list. However, there is one woman in particular whose witness of few words was a seed. I wanted the peace that she embodied. But, at the time, I could not escape the turmoil in my heart. Only with the transition out of the church of my youth to a better place has the fruit of her influence has become clear.

A Bull In the China Shop

Years ago now I received an invitation to a new web forum. The site “MennoDiscuss” was created by a guy named Hans Mast and was dubbed “a place where Mennonites (and others) can discuss anything” in the tagline. I loved the idea. I was soon one of the first members of the board and was determined to make the endeavor a success.

I can’t recall exactly what I had expected going in. But early on it became very evident that MennoDiscuss would be a place where ex-Mennonites (and the otherwise) disaffected would come to argue with those of us still content with the denomination we were born into. And, being that I wasn’t afraid of debate (although, oddly enough, I dislike conflict) I jumped right in—playing the role of chief Mennonite apologist for some and being a real annoyance to others.

My zeal, both my desire to drive traffic to the site and need to defend my religious peers, led to me being one of the most prolific posters on the site and also often put me in the center of many controversies. My initial carefree (or careless) attitude soon led to a reputation and it is only a small transition from being engaged in conversation to feeling embattled. I took on the critics, yet I was not the “good Mennonite” who plays nice either, I believed turnabout was fair play and would often try to fight fire with fire.

Initially, despite being intense and a little too argumentative, my participation had mostly been fun and games for me. However that all changed when a personal tragedy knocked my spiritual feet out from under me and left me feeling betrayed by those whom I had assumed would be there for me and bitter at God. It was at that point things went very badly online as well. I was hurting and wanted answers for my pain. I needed help. But all I seemed to get was contempt and criticism.

The Calm In My Storm

There was one person different from the others. She offered me no advice. I can’t recall her saying much at all. But there was something about her spirit. She did not judge me. She let me speak without reminding me of all my past failures. I could open up and be honest with her in ways that I could not be with others for fear they might stab me in the back. She had been hurt by Mennonites yet didn’t seem to come in with an agenda.

Her name was “theosis” (or at least that was her screen name) and offline went by Martha. I do not know the details of her life, but she had been a convert to the Mennonite tradition before eventually finding a home with Orthodox Christians.

There were other Orthodox converts on the site. However, they were of the variety of converts who may have accepted Orthodox theology and practices, but have yet to grasp the attitude—or, in other words, “Ortho-fascists” as they are affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as by other Orthodox. Theosis, by contrast, was not aggressive or argumentative, she had a peaceable spirit and something quite a bit deeper than the judgmental ‘non-resistance’ or militant ‘pacifism’ of many Mennonites.

Mennonites tend to take the role of “peacemaker” and turn it into something forcible and even meanspirited. They might never pick up arms in defense of a nation or theoretically refuse to defend their families from a hypothetical attacker, but some will passive-aggressively resist and gossip about their real enemies while pretending that they have none. Mennonites are good at niceness, sometimes putting a smile on their face while harboring ill-feelings, because that is what the culture requires.

But theosis was different. She seemingly saw something in my antics others could not or at least she was peaceable. If I had to guess her perception was due to her own pain. But, unlike me, where I raged against fate, she accepted her lot in life and had faith. While fundamentalist Mennonites tend to see peace as something to shove down your throat, she embodied peace and embodied it in a way that would temporarily calm my storm.

I desperately wanted what she had and yet didn’t know how to get there.

What Theosis Means and My Journey Since

My first guess, as far as the meaning of theosis, would’ve been something like “theology” and “sister” going by the fact that the only theosis I knew was a female Christian. But silliness aside, given my respect for Martha, I finally did Google the word “theosis” and found an intriguing theological concept. Theosis, as it turns out, is the Orthodox description for the ultimate goal of Christianity and that being perfect oneness with God.

At the time the term intrigued me. But I had bigger fish to fry rather than try to sift through Orthodox theological descriptions and kept it filed under delightful (but otherwise useless) oddities. Becoming like God is a moot point when one is struggling to even believe in God. Besides that, theosis (otherwise known as “divinization” or “deification”) seemed way too tall an order for my Mennonite mind and was probably heretical. Still, it stuck in the back of my mind as a concept and that’s where it stayed percolating for years.

My turmoil began to subside as I came to terms with the unexpected loss of Saniyah and the hopes tied to her. During this time I made a brief return to MennoDiscuss (after a hiatus) and left after feeling that I had done my part to restore relationships there and could move on. And, more significantly, I had a spiritual experience, an epiphany about faith, that helped push me to this point where I could move on.

In short, I discovered faith is something God does, a gift of salvation, a mysterious “quickening” and spiritual transformation, rather than something proved through science, apologetics, and reason—it was not earned through my works of righteousness or religious efforts. I could finally rest in grace, be empowered by the Spirit and be changed from the inside out. That newfound confidence is what led me to pursue “impossibly” in faith and, after another period of turmoil when my “hope against hope” was not reciprocated, eventually took me beyond my Mennonite roots.

As I read through Paul’s writings, as one now spiritually alive and with eyes opened a bit more than before, a picture of theosis began to emerge out of the text. It was a marvelous thing, and a beautiful paradox of faith, that Jesus became man so that we could join Him in perfect oneness with God. That is what it means to be adopted as a son or daughter of God—putting on the divinity of Jesus Christ and being made into an incarnation of Him. This is not to be equal to or replace God, but rather to be in perfect Communion with Him and a true embodiment of His life-creating Spirit.

Theosis, the True Promise of Salvation

Theosis is a theological concept both simple and profound. God became man so that we could follow in the example of Jesus and go beyond what is possible through mere religious devotion:

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father. (John 10:33‭-‬38 NIV)

To claim to be God’s son is essentially to claim divinity or equality with God and, unless you truly are God’s child, is blasphemous.

What Jesus promised the disciples:

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (John 14:18‭-‬20 NIV)

And the day he delivered:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are oneI in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22‭-‬23 NIV)

How Paul explains this:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “ Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirsheirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:15‭-‬17 NIV)

That is an extraordinary claim. It is to essentially claim the same thing Jesus did and led to his being killed. And, in fact, before Jesus died to make the impossible possible, our calling God “Father” would indeed be blasphemous. This theosis, this divine adoption, is not cheap grace nor earned by our works of righteousness, it is a mysterious transformation that comes from faith and a work of the Spirit—It is partaking in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Where is Martha Today?

Theosis, her full name Martha Ann Hays, passed from this life to the next on December 20th of 2010. She was terminally ill when I knew her and dealing with the same sense of loss all sane people feel when facing certain death. Yet despite this, and excruciating physical pain, she treated me with extraordinary kindness and a love that I did not deserve. Unlike me, constantly trying to figure everything out and win people through theological brute force, she was simply peaceable.

Her terminal illness, colorectal cancer, was very unpleasant and painful. She was still a young woman, in her thirties, when first diagnosed and was no doubt dealing with the weight of broken dreams and disappointment. That is probably why she understood me and had compassion where others did not. I knew she was not well. But she would never complain to me about the things going on in her life at the time.

Martha had never fit into the Mennonite culture and eventually moved on. She learned Russian while in university and later found Orthodoxy (Russian Orthodox) and a parish community in Toronto that loved her. She had many friends in her parish and that including a boyfriend who would be at her bedside. She died peacefully, as she had lived, surrounded by family and friends.

Her funeral, according to one non-Orthodox in attendance, had beautiful music and a worshipful atmosphere.

It is interesting how two people can see the same event through a completely different lens. Another friend (a conservative Mennonite who knew Martha) commented that her funeral was a “very sad occasion” because allegedly there were more Mennonites than Orthodox in attendance. But an Orthodox Christian knows that is not true. Yes, conservative Mennonites definitely have bodies in the pews at funerals. Yet, even if there are only a handful that can be physically present, an Orthodox funeral is always well-attended. Orthodox believe in the “Communion of saints” or basically the idea of that “great cloud of witnesses” expressed by the apostle Paul in the book of Hebrews.

[07/01: The friend who made the attendance claim has since wrote to make a retraction.]

I believe someone with Martha’s prognosis could greatly appreciate that she was not alone in her suffering and that there was that “great cloud of witnesses” there to cheer her on to the finish line. That is the beauty of Orthodoxy. The Chruch is bigger than the present suffering of those still “militant” and also includes those “triumphant” who have gone on to glory with God. The icons on the wall are there to remind us of that reality beyond us.

Being An Image (or Icon) of God

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24‭-‬25 NIV)

As is well-known now, I have left my Mennonite religious culture and have become an Orthodox Christian. But until now I have not mentioned theosis and her contribution to that decision. Martha’s peaceable witness was a seed, it was later watered by Fr. Anthony with his similar spirit a and genuinely fatherly care and has been nourished by the Church. It is a life that continues to grow in me. There is a great beauty in Orthodox worship that I have not found elsewhere.

I do not go to church as a family reunion or to hang out with friends anymore. I go for healing and spiritual renewal, to experience God through worship, to be one with Jesus in body and Spirit. I go to be in that “great cloud of witnesses” of a Church that spans two millennia and those icons on the wall are there to remind us to remain faithful until the end.

Orthodoxy is not a “seeker-sensitive” church, we do not change with the winds of modern culture, we do not fill our pews with those seeking entertainment or easy answers. We believe that the Christian life is one of trials, tribulations, loneliness, hardships, suffering, and salvation by way of the cross. But we also find there is a great peace in knowing that our turmoil is temporal and eternal life awaits.

We die to self so that we can live in perfect oneness with God. Martha died, like Jesus, so that I might live. And I must die, so you whom I love may also live.

That is God’s economy at work.

That is poetic justice.

That is theosis.