Solving Conflict in the Church

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

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

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

(Ephesians 4:2-4 NIV)

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

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

Conflict is Nothing New or Unexpected

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

(Psalms 55:12‭-‬14 NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1 Corinthians 5:9‭-‬13 NIV)

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

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

Not All Separation is Sin

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

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

(Acts 15:36‭-‬40 NIV)

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

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

Is Ecumenicalism the Answer?

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

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

(3 John 1:9‭-‬10 NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

How Did the Early Church Settle Disputes?

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

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

(Acts 15:1‭-‬19 NIV)

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

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

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

So Orthodoxy is the Answer to Conflict?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Division Makes Us All Weak

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

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

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

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

 (Ephesians 4-14-16 NIV)

We should not lose our sensitivity:

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

(Ephesians 4:17-25 NIV)

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

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

Oh No, Here We Go Again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Not You, It’s Me

We have met the enemy and he is us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

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.

Broken Records: The Choice To Be Healed

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Adam is a friend of mine.  We have gone out to eat on multiple occasions since being introduced.  He’s a bit eccentric, he carries a notebook everywhere, has humor that doesn’t quite hit the mark, spiritual rather than religious, dresses a little like an old-school hippie and is sort of alt-right conspiracy-minded. 

Adam is also depressed and a broken record.  Time and time again he goes back to his relationship with his father and wants some sort of validation that he never does receive.  His father, his opposite politically, left when he was a child, seems to have some mental issues of his own and can be very degrading when things don’t go his way.  It is quite evident that the sins of the father have visited upon the son.

I have urged Adam to move on, told him that his biological father will never give him what he so desperately wants, and have suggested that he do as I have done when let down.  Namely, I have told him to come to Holy Cross.  The Orthodox have fatherly figures who represent the Heavenly Father for the fatherless. 

Unfortunately, Adam, despite his desperation, is stuck on doing things his own way.  From the first time we met until now there is a wall of resistance that goes up against Christian religion and even what seems like an inability to understand simple explanations.  For example, I used the illustration of Naaman having to dip in the river Jordan to be healed, thought I had explained well, and got nothing but a blank look of his being genuinely perplexed.

There’s truly not much hope for Adam until he is able to let go of his disappointments and hope of some sort of resolution on his own terms.  And, quite frankly, even if his dad would miraculously transform into the father he envisions as ideal, that would not fix what broken in Adam.  He will try drugs, he asks for my “fellowship” with him, but absolutely refuses to dip in those healing waters of the Church.

It’s sad because his repeatedly going back to this makes me feel as if I’m wasting time on a lost cause.  I mean, it’s hard not to do that inner “here we go again” eye roll when there seems to be no progress.  And it does certainly work on my patience too.  But there’s one big reason why I do not write him off entirely.  What is that reason?  Well, maybe because I’m not all that different from him.
 
My Own Skipping Record

In the days of vinyl records there was nothing more annoying than the skip.  It was what happened when the record had been mishandled and the surface grooves scratched.  The needle would travel down the groove, reach the scratched area, and jump back into the prior groove.  The result is that the music abruptly stops and makes an unpleasant transition over and over again.

Being stuck in a rut is not fun.  Ending up in the same place no matter how hard you try will exhaust the strongest person.  Worse, when others try to help pull a mired soul out, and the stuck person goes sideways rather than forward, many will leave concluding that they do not want to be helped.  And sometimes that is indeed the case.  Some do enjoy the pity party attention and are simply a drain of resources that could be used for those who truly want out.

Those who have read my blogs over the past few years have probably started (long ago) to wonder if any progress has been truly made.  And, believe me, some days I do wonder myself as I give a slightly different angle on the same themes over and over again.  I mean, you get it.  I had some really big expectations and ended up really disappointed at the end.  So move on already, right?

And the truth is, I have in many regards.  I’m not the same person as I was a year ago.  I have gained confidence, continue to attend to my responsibilities, and the feelings of loss grow less intense with each repeat cycle.  That said, the recent setbacks, the physical pain, along with the unresolved situation with Charlotte, can very quickly lead to that spiral back into those past hurts.  There was no real resolution or closure there, to survive I simply pivoted to new hopes.   

Completing the transition, out of the wilderness of broken glass to my new promised land, means seeing a fulfilment of the impossibly.  That means Charlotte being here.  Until that moment when we meet in the airport terminal, her safely on US soil, there will be that cloud of uncertainty hanging over me.  It does cause me to skip at times, to go back to those feelings of helplessness and worries that my hopes are still entirely delusion.

I choose to believe. But not because it is easy to believe.

As the man with the sick son who came to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

Do You Want To Be Healed?

A year or two ago, this was the text for the Homily one Sunday morning:

One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

(John 5:5‭-‬8 NIV)

It really struck me, more than ever before while hearing this passage, that Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed.  Imagine that, a man, waiting for nearly forty years, nobody helping this unfortunate man into this healing pool.  He, like Adam, like myself before the pursuit of the impossibly, had been waiting on rescue by the means that he could understand.  His days must’ve passed an increasing nightmare of his own paralysis and being surrounded by other hurting people more concerned with their own needs.

Jesus asks, almost as if knowing the man’s will to be healed is permission.  And the incredible part?  After hearing the man’s complaint about no help, simply commands him “get up” and the man does.  His faith set him free.

That in contrast with this:

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.

(Mark 6:1‭-‬5 NIV)

The disbelief of those who knew Jesus as merely a man, the carpenters son, limited what he was able to do.  Spiritual healing is, and has always been, a matter of our own choice.  So many of us insist on doing things our own way, we refuse to dip in our muddy Jordan rivers because of pride, we wait on rescue believing that our salvation comes from other people, yet all we need is to look up in faith and then healing is possible.

No, this does not mean we will be spared physical ailment or live forever in our current form.  Even Lazarus, raised from the dead, passed from this life.  But we can be made spiritually whole.  That is why I keep writing, maybe I sound like a broken record, maybe this is too much for many people who stopped reading this blog long ago, still I write so that my most faithful friends may someday also share in my joy having known of my sorrows.

What Wears Me Out

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I’ve always been a sort of magical thinker, my hopes always far outpacing my realities, and to the point that sometimes when my dreams would finally come true the pleasure had already been exhausted.

I had so wanted a go cart growing up.  On the school bus ride home my mind would start to wander into the fantasy realm.  I would picture a shiny new go cart, like the ones in the catalog, waiting for me at the end of the driveway and would actually be disappointed when it did not end up being true when we would finally pull up to to my stop. 

That’s not to say that I didn’t love the old go cart that my dad would finally weld up, using a rusted frame as a starting point, and an old lawnmower engine.  Anything with four wheels, that ran on gasoline, that could be slid around corners, definitely scratched that itch.  Still, my vivid world of make-believe did not always end with any fulfillment.

In my adulthood this tendency to be way out ahead of myself did not get any better.  I’ve cried, on more than one occasion, thinking of my beautiful bride walking towards me up the aisle.  And not in sadness either, it was in bliss having momentarily put myself in that wonderful place.  Of course, given that I never even so much as went on one date with this young woman, I pretty much ruined that music.

The world between my ears can be a paradise.  A place where there’s such thing as innocent love and anything is actually possible.  I used this as an escape.  My school years spent doodling and hoping for some kind of rescue from the mundanity of the classroom.

These visions were often grandiose.  A child scaled B-17 would land in the school yard.  I would run out to meet my faithful crew as the teacher and 5th grade class would watch in disbelief, stunned, as we revved the engines and were on our way to the nation (later a planet with two suns) that I benevolently ruled along with my brother Kyle and cousin Mel.

Truly, I had always thought that Kyle and I would always be together, build a house with a chimney in the center, like the ruins that I saw on a Civil War battlefield.  I’m not sure why, but it didn’t seem possible then (despite our fights) that we ever be separated, let alone hours apart, and I really can’t claim to have gotten over that disappointment yet.  He moved on, it seems that I could not.

And I have lived a sort of Peter Pan existence.  Holding on, hoping that some day the love that had eluded me, child-like and innocent, would finally magically arrive to rescue me from my torment for having failed to achieve.  I long overstayed the youth group.  Until I had my happily ever after, what choice did I have?  Get old by myself and alone?

Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy and I lacked the necessary social tools to approach an attractive young woman—let alone convince her to date me.  

Years would go by, where I would convince myself, “this time will be different,” and end up leaving the church retreat no closer to my goals and disappointed.  These beautiful wonderful thought going in would slowly morph into a nightmarish reality as opportunity would pass me by and I would be left with only my profound loneliness again.

It was only in my mid thirties that this optimism would crack and the pattern of hope followed by disappointment would finally overwhelm me.  Brimming with outsized expectations, I would arrive at the weekend, and suddenly shut down.  The wheels came off, I would collapse into the nearest couch, curl up, unable to push myself to try again—eventually ending up a sobbing mess.

The pressure had become too much.  The difference between my hopes and reality too insurmountable. 

Sure, I could entertain my delusions, the right one was going to finally arrive, we would look at our feet, shy at first, we would talk, she would smile at my earnest thoughts, I would finally be at ease and soon enough we would be walking hand in hand out the back of a church.  But the chances of that were as good as Gatsby somehow being able to turn back the hands of time and Daisy would be his.

My collapse from exhaustion came at the tail end of decades of forced optimism and sweeping aside my rational fears.  I did not want a world where my being 5′-8″ tall and rather unathletic disqualified me.  Love, to me, especially pertaining to my female religious counterparts, was supposed to be something transcendent.  Unfortunately, what I got instead was a brick wall of rejection.

Life is especially cruel to those with a high ideal.  If I were less able to see the marvelous maybe I could have more easily moved on to more practical aims.  But I could never get my head out of the clouds nor was I willing to acknowledge the harsh truth about romance.  The young women were also chasing their version of perfection and that perfect man wasn’t me.

Somehow, despite a mind that could span universes, I ended up being thirty years old living in Milton and thus ineligible for that kind of love.  How does a dreamer, still holding to those childish notions of escape, ever recover from that terrible pronouncement?

They don’t. 

It wears me out thinking about it.  

It makes me think of another novel and protagonist, Ethan Frome, an injured ruin of a man.  His house reduced in size as he limped, painfully, through what remained of his life.  Not even granted the merciful end to his suffering of that suicide pack those many years before.  Perhaps my life would have been better had my secret world been a little more stark, desolate and devoid of life?

Caution: Mennonite In Transition

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A couple years ago, upon realizing my life was going nowhere in a hurry and not wanting to settle for mediocrity, I called out for God’s help.  I wanted a truly abundant life, I knew that I was wholly inadequate to bring about the necessary changes to make that reality (God knows I’ve tried) so I begged for the impossible be done.

I have seen many dreams die in my life because of fear of failure, inexplicably poor timing, etc.  I was well-aware of the cliché definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result) but could not seem to break from the patterns of life that limited my potential.  I was what I was and deeply dissatisfied with that.  

There was an undefined something that always seemed to crush my higher ambitions.

I could not beat an enemy that could not be defined.  So I told God in no uncertain terms that I would literally crawl on hands and knees across a wilderness of broken glass to be made right.  Throwing every bit of faith I could muster, like a gambler going all in with a desperate last gasp effort, I prayed “make the impossible possible for me” and then concluded my morning prayer.

It was an hour or two after that when I hopped out of my truck and went down writhing in pain.  My knee buckled under me.  In that moment what had been diagnosed as an MCL sprain became a full ACL tear and I knew that the implications were huge.  I would be unable to perform the duties of my job and with that was facing financial uncertainty.

Still, despite excruciating pain, I was serene and confident.

God had answered.

Or so I hoped.

“It is what it is…”

My faith crumbled against that awful reality.

“You are thirty years old living in Milton.”

It was true and the implications clear enough.

I was a stick in the mud, already past my prime by the standards of some, and certainly not the adventure her heart was set upon.  I simultaneously loved her brutal honesty and hated the harshness of judgment.  My worst fear realized.

I had no defense.

When we finally parted ways I was lost in a haze.  The rug yanked out from under me.  My sputtering attempts to articulate my own heart had no effect on her whatsoever.  Blissful hopes were mercilessly cut down by an otherwise nurturing soul.

My conversation with her end with my mouth involuntarily echoing her “it is what it is” plea and with that accepting the rationality of fatalism that had long dogged me.

A continuing cruel loneliness now seemed inevitable.  I had tried many times before, taken my hits, always got back up again by believing next time would be better—that something greater would come from my suffering rejection.  But this time I could not delude myself with hope.

My faith had lost the day—my hope against hope had failed—and now a terrible fate of a despairingly cold and isolated life was upon me.

My mind, a place normally full of noise and activity, went totally blank as if unable to comprehend any of it.  I was in shock about what had transpired and numb.  

I wandered off aimlessly.  

Into the wilderness of South Dakota.  

Into the dark of night.  

Into oblivion.

The storm brewing in overhead seemed to perfectly mirror the log-jam of conflicted thoughts and swirl of deep emotions.

My delusion of hope that a young ambitious woman might find me desirable enough to consider a romantic relationship was shattered into a million fragments.  My failure to achieve now clung to me like an unforgivable sin.  Very soon I awoke from my stupor into an inescapable nightmare of reality.

The uneasy calm broke when Johnny and Brian somehow found me.  The rain, which had coincidentally held to precisely the moment they carried me to the shelter of an awaiting truck cab, began to pour down in torrents and so did my tears.

Escaping reality was impossible.

Doing battle with the it…

Most people nowadays pursue career first and romance second.  But I had these things in reverse order.  I prioritized relationship and postponed all else.

My reasoning was that it would be better to form life ambitions and goals together as a couple rather than apart.  And I might have pulled it off had I been a bit less socially awkward.  Unfortunately I had this vexing tendency to freeze up as soon as my interest was piqued and thus my early romantic pursuits failed miserably.

Years were frittered away with unfulfilled dreams, chasing one false hope after another and waiting for opportunities that never came.

Not to say that I did nothing of value in that time either.  I gained life experience, slowly built confidence in my abilities, learned to live independently, and gained perspective.

However, it was hard not to feel a failure.

There seemed to be this mysterious “it” that always kept my best efforts from panning out and nobody had the answers for this that I craved.

I’ve heard all the cliché advice I could ever stomach.  One person says try harder and the next will say you’re trying too hard.  One tells you “you’re intimidating” and the next says you lack confidence.  You’re basically wrong no matter what you do.

The same one who says they want someone “mature” rejects your offer and then dates a teenager whom she later marries.  It is incredibly confusing when the same person who says you’ll make a “great husband” refuses to even consider a date.

It is impossible to define exactly what the “it” is.  It was a ball of anxieties, that inexplicably poor timing, a curse of a jealous enemy, the lack of true community and help.

It was many things and yet nothing at all.

It was an invisible monster that chased me throughout my life.  It was the glass wall that seperated me from those who were more able to conquer the obstacles in their way and achieve their goals.  It was my doing too little too late or too much too early.  It was my always being close to the mark and yet never hitting it.

The “it” is not something external to be vanquished.  It is everything from my formative years up until the present moment that I’ve experienced or thought.  It is my home, my genetic and cultural inheritance, the good and bad together intertwined and inseparable as part of my own character.

The “it” is a sum total of what defines me as a person.  

It was inescapable.

It is me.

It is what we make it…

Her certainty about her own direction was why she was so attractive to me.  It was never my plan to grow old in Milton.

However, she seemed to believe that her personal ambitions were something that made us incompatible.  To me our lack of similar résumé was not a disqualification, I saw our differences as an asset, considering her strengths as being complimentary rather than contradictory to mine, but she disagreed.

She was my last remaining escape plan.

I did not eat in the days after because I had no desire to continue as I had and seemingly had no escape.  I wanted to die and would rather starve than keep feeding myself with more false hopes.

I cried, “I have no vision!”

I so desperately wanted free of a mind seemingly incapable of focus.  I had seemed to do fine in a structure.  I was a diligent worker, a loyal friend, responsible and dedicated.  But leave me too free to choose my own path and I would dither indefinitely in indecision.

God provided just enough reason to get me out of bed.  I cleaned up, composed myself a bit, ate the cup of yogurt and glass of water mom provided.  I faced her again, my elusive hope against hope, and then in the weeks following I went under the knife to have the torn ligament replaced with a graft and after that began the months of rehabilitation.  My goal to come back stronger than before and physically I did.

What also happened in my time off of work was a book (written but shelved pending further review) and this blog.  I’ve found some answers in blogging.  Writing my experiences and recording some of my thoughts has seemed to help provide some direction.  The more vulnerable I’ve become the more friends and opportunities to serve I’ve seemed to gain.

Why am I Mennonite?

I have never been the Mennonite golden boy.

I’ve never had the swooning attention of the favorites who better represent the ideals of Mennonite culture.  I’ve always done things a little different.  I was who I was and gave up on being anything besides that.  But still, I longed to gain acceptance in the Mennonite culture.

In Mennonite culture marriage is acceptance and not all are.  Yes, sure, we’ll let most anyone be a member so long as they complete the required steps, but marriage is where the reality of a two tiered system becomes very evident.  There are the kids born in the right homes, the ones able to do all the things that make them popular within their cultural context and marriageable, and then there are those of us who don’t fit the mold.

She represents a direction that I thought my life should go in.  Her Mennonite idealism, her simplicity of role or purpose in life, represented something deep within my own heart and desirable.

However, many who have read my blogs question this and ask… “why are you still Mennonite?”

It is question that I dislike.

I’m Mennonite because I like being Mennonite.

We have such a neat and tidy cloistered existence.  We have beautiful families.  We are the happy Hobbits living in the Shire of Middle-earth.  Everything we do is safe.  Even our missionaries typically go out to all the corners of the world yet never leave the protection of their religious confines.

It has been suggested to me recently that I have “out grown” the tradition.  That is the question that I have wrestled with as of late.  

Can one actually out grow their home?  

I’m running out of arguments why to stay in a denomination that is more about conforming to cultural expectations than transformation of mind and living a life of true faith.

It is hard not to notice that most of the help on my journey came from those leaving the Mennonite tradition or outside of it.  The support I’ve gotten from those within has been grudgingly or something that needed extracted and done as mere religious duty.  I hear brotherly love spoke of by Mennonites, but it seems more relic or ritual than actually reality.  The real brotherhood I’ve experienced, the genuine Christian love, comes from beyond my own Mennonite tradition.

Does a man of faith belong with those who shrug “it is what it is” rather than risk a small step into unfamiliar territory?

Should I have any part with those who eagerly travel over land and sea to win a single convert and yet would never go in a direction they don’t understand?

Still there is a strong urge to remain a part.

I’ve always thought all voices were needed in the conversation and the including mine.  If everyone capable of challenging the cultural status quo leaves it would create even more tunnel vision and further imbalance.  My strengths, rejected or not, would be of benefit to those who think they have all the answers and are confident about the tradition they received.  

Composites make a stronger material than their component parts—shouldn’t the bond of love be able to do the same with two dissimilar people?

Decisions, decisions…

There is a time to wait and there is a time to take decisive action.  I have given up many opportunities for placing my hopes within the context of my Mennonite culture and gone many years without seriously considering the alternatives.

Mennonite is my cultural identity.  Despite my many idiosyncrasies, I’ve always been Mennonite at heart and somewhat proud of my ethnic and religious heritage.  How does one unbind and divorce themselves from their cherished past?

Impossible, right?

It is not like I haven’t ventured out before in search of what I might find only to return again as if drawn by an invisible force that grew stronger the further away I got from whoopie pies and covering strings.  But things do change and there could be a force stronger than that which always pulled me back.

When I asked God to make the impossible possible for me, I had a personal vision that included remaining Mennonite and the young woman that I knew was an impossibility as far as worldly logic is concerned.  But it now seems possible that my vision then was too narrow and that I should look beyond to the other options available.

Being Mennonite is not the be all end all.  God calls us to go beyond the limits we set for ourselves or those set for us by our cultures and that is my intention.  It doesn’t matter what my religious peers or even my blood relatives think—Jesus called us to follow Him and leave our fears, insecurities and inadequacies behind us.

Maybe impossibility made possible for me is something I never anticipated?

That is what have I learned since that day tearing my ACL, in recovery from yet another slap of rejection, and from the battle with the “it” which drove me to extremes in search of answers.  I learned that I do not have all the answers and don’t need all the answers before I am able to step out in faith.

Please pray…

There are many things that will soon come to a head for me and most I am unable to talk openly about at this time.  Many of these things being pivotal life changing decisions that must be made.  What happens in the next couple months will determine many things.

Your prayers to help me through this transitional time are very appreciated.  Pray that the impossible is made possible.