Closer Than Blood…?

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Did you know that mothers actually have the blood of their children (born or unborn) in their veins?

It is astonishing, really, but motherhood isn’t actually a one-way relationship. It is symbiotic. The child provides their own blood for the benefit of their mothers. And once the child is born there’s the release of a hormone (Oxytocin) which leads to that special bonding and attachment that mothers have with their children.

Blood relatives can be our closest friends. We share some of the same genetic material and often intimate experiences as well. My siblings and cousins understand my humor, we think alike in many regards, and sometimes I wonder if I have any true friends that aren’t family. I certainly do not trust anyone, besides Charlotte, the same as I do my own relatives.

Don’t get me wrong either. I know many good people, some who might literally give me the shirt off of their back, and yet I’ve had so many friends like that who have faded out of my life.

The Quote…

The fraternity of Christ, is closer than the fraternity of blood.

St. Ambrose of Milan

Is a statement actual truth or wishful thinking?

This is what the body of Christ is supposed to be. A brotherhood, a group of people who carry burdens and cry together, who cheer each other on and encourage, who have real intimacy rather the superficial, make small talk, kind of relationship. The kind of familial investment that goes to bat for others in the Church, as St. Paul did speaking on behalf of Onesimus:

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains.

(Philemon 1:8‭-‬10 NIV)

When I read that quote of St Ambrose, a couple of days ago, it provoked me to reach out to someone that I love in that way and still did after a sort of falling out. It remains to be seen if that effort, to be a brother, will bear fruit or only widen the divide. But one thing is for certain, no matter how this goes, and that is that relationships that are “closer than blood” have not been my own experience yet.

Sure, the good church people will use weighty words like “brother” and “sister” to describe their relationships, but is it truly reality or is it a faux closeness like those social media scammers trying to exploit religious strangers for personal gain?

Maybe, in this time of social fragmentation and community disintegration, where many children are raised without both of their biological parents, we have lost some of the meaning of these words?

Community, for example, should mean living in close proximity and sharing in common. People used to work and worship with the people who lived in close proximity to them. Now I barely know my next-door neighbors and then drive thirty minutes to ‘fellowship’ for a couple of hours. And then there’s those who watch a sermon at home and make-believe that’s being part of the church. I mean, might as well take it all the way and spend the afternoon gardening, right?

Is It All Fake?

One of my memories, in the church I grew up in, was pastor Sam slapping down a transparency onto the overhead projector, and starting with his wonderful baritone, “You may notice we say brother and sister ’round here…” He was certainly sincere. A fatherly leader in a denomination that neglects such things. Once he caught a hint that I was a fan of high school football he would always ask me about the game. I have fond memories of the times spent in the Corderman’s living room even after leaving my Mennonite roots.

And yet not all there got the memo. We were more glorified acquaintances. Sure, we would smile, shake hands, and make small talk together. There was also that cultural and ethnic component that did give a kind of closeness. There were also those last vestiges of the Anabaptist barn-raising spirit. However, like those veils on the female heads or the foot-washing rituals, it all seemed to be mostly symbolic. A father might set his own son up in business, but no man in the church would ever think of doing the same for a non-family member in the congregation. It was superficial closeness.

Amish community spirit…

I’ve heard it explained before that religious groups hijack the language of family to create a false sense of closeness. At first, I had bristled at this suggestion. It felt like they were trying to discredit this special spiritual bond that people of like faith share. However, if we were close as family, let alone closer than blood, would we even need to use this familiar language? Wouldn’t it just be self-evident, like when Charlotte told me she would rather die with me than go on living without?

It is in that weird territory of language, like when some feel compelled to pray in old English as if this somehow reverences their prayers or those hypocrites that Jesus condemned for their love of important titles. One starts to be able to see through the pretense. There’s a vast difference between the man who treats you as a brother, offers protection, like big Tony Fisher did for me in school, and the people who use the right terms as a way to acquire resources or maintain status.

But, for me, those intuitions only came after being played a fool many times.

And perhaps I learned that lesson a little too well?

It’s Not You, It’s Me

I have trust issues.

And I’m not completely sure why.

It could have something to do with my premature birth and spending my first weeks in a plastic box rather than bonding with my mom. It could simply be a natural disposition. But I do know that I was the one child in my family who had separation anxiety and would go into panic mode if my mom would leave me for a moment to take out the trash. I was clingy and fearful.

Still, I was an extremely trusting person at one time, and long before I knew names like Jerry Sandusky or Jeriah Mast, when I lived in this sort of “Leave It To Beaver” world where people were true as their smiles and everything worked out in the end.

And that’s how childhood should be. Children may pretend, but they don’t put on masks in the same way as an adult and tend to be open about their intentions and accepting of even strangers. It is often easier to talk to eighteen-year-old girls than it is to have a conversation with those that are in their mid-twenties and that’s likely because the latter group understands that male attention usually means romantic interest. We become cagey as we become older, it is a way to protect ourselves from those who might do us harm or simply defile with their hopes of more than we’re willing to offer them.

For me, everything went downhill after puberty and with that gradual (often excruciatingly painful) loss of innocence. One of my earliest memories is walking hand in hand with my cousin when we were five years old. I don’t even talk to her anymore. She’s married to a privileged wackadoodle and didn’t appreciate my opinions of where his far-left politics will lead. Even if that weren’t the case, we probably wouldn’t be holding hands anymore even if we were on better terms. I mean, I would, because I still have fond memories, and yet I’m weird.

Anyhow, my own fear of rejection, a product of my purest hopes being smashed over and over again, has metastasized into disillusionment. I have a hard time trusting. I start to pull away when I sense the slightest bit of phoniness in another person. Call it despair, call it depression, I prefer to think of it as preserving what little sanity I have left, but I don’t want to have fake friendships anymore. I’m tired. Exhausted by it all, truthfully, and simply want to withdraw to the safety of not caring or concerning myself with those who are only going through the motions.

Impossible Expectations, Loving Our Dysfunctional Families

My expectations are impossible. But, then again, they should be. We are told, in Scripture, that with faith all things are possible. And, therefore, if someone declares otherwise, says that they can’t love or live as a Christian ought to live, it is because they lack faith.

Either that or it is all made up.

The thing that has most fed my own fear and doubt, is how people in the church don’t really act any different from people outside of it. In other words, if we don’t act like family then are we even Christians?

My Orthodox parish has a good number of converts and some older singles like me. There is a sort of closeness that came initially, as we traded stories about our experience, and it was very exciting for someone who had looked for depth elsewhere and had come out disappointed. However, there is this class, a sort of misfit club, of converts that is very similar to the Protestant fundamentalists of my past. They are really caught up in getting the Orthodox rituals right and somewhat neglecting as far as the meat of faith which is this self-sacrificial familial love.

My moon shot…

The thing is, I came into this damaged. I had shot for the moon, in faith, and somehow ended up in Williamsport, at Holy Cross, wondering what happened. My expectations were low and it wasn’t about the “smells and bells” to me. There was a combination of things that brought me, excellent theology, Fr. Anthony’s fatherly care, and a connection to the ancient Church. Since I knew no one local who was Orthodox, I went in simply seeking a place to worship and not expecting much. But I did meet many good people there, some who did embrace me as family, I’ll never forget that old woman (I can’t even recall who it was) who warmly told me “welcome home” after my Chrismation.

As with everything in faith, familial love is a work in progress and there are bound to be many failures along the way. At best, we’re a dysfunctional family, like many American families, caught up in our own lives, acting like Protestants when things don’t go our way, and not as truly full of love and grace as we are for our own blood. My want of perfection, and pursuit of the impossibility, must first and foremost mean that I love those who are difficult to love, love who let me down and abandon me, and let God judge those who do not meet my own expectations.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Colossians 3:12‭-‬14 NIV

What Is Love, Friendship, Humanity?

Still, the thought that plagues me most and probably always will is this question of if real love even exists at all. I’m not talking about those passing feelings of fondness we have for another person, but that spiritual bond and willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. As I’ve posited before, there is a selfish component to love. Not only those who say they “love” someone and then kill them in a jealous rage either. But it seems that it is impossible to love without getting something in return.

It is always nice when a server pays attention to me. I would certainly like to believe that they like me. And I’m guessing a few would actually enjoy spending time with me outside of work too. I’m a polite and considerate guy, I also tend to lay a heavier tip when there’s some conversation that comes along with the meal. I do, indeed, go out because staying home would be lonely and alone since it is simply too hard to coordinate plans with friends or I don’t know whom to ask. So I’ll pay for that time with another human. But it can also be unfulfilling. The relationship could have an element of truth and yet really it is centered on the economic transaction or they would be inviting me to hang out when they’re not on the clock.

There is a scene, in Blade Runner 2049, a science fiction thriller about what it means to be human, that illustrates the point. The story follows, K, a “replicant” (or bioengineered ‘human’), and his relationship with his girlfriend named Joi. Except she is not flesh and blood, not even human, but artificial intelligence, software on a computer, with a holographic projection. Still, despite this, the relationship is real. And, when the device containing her (their memories together that made the interaction meaningful) is crushed, he mourns. As the audience, you feel some pain. Yet, later, an interactive sign, with her likeness, uses the same pet name, and it is obvious that the original Joi was programmed to “fall in love” with anyone who wanted companionship.

The part that gets to me is how hormones and the positive feedback loop of emotions is, practically speaking, the same as programming. So how are the emotional responses we receive from others any more authentic than that of Joi?

What about our own friendships?

Why do we favor some people over others?

Do we love people or do we merely enjoy what benefits we get from them and that’s why we show such strong preference. Sure, there are some who are kinder and more willing to give attention to the unattractive or social outcasts. However, as far as real commitment, ongoing investment, we generally spare that for those most likely to produce a return. In other words, we love those who do what we want them to do, have something we want in terms of their physical form, intellect, or other abilities, or simply feel drawn to as a result of our coding and subconscious desires.

And then we expect people to stay at the level of friendship assigned to them. One sure way to make things awkward is to make an expression of love that is more intimate or deep than the level the other person wants. Asking a girl on a date is a good way to get put on her blocked list, to get an industrial strength cold shoulder, and even if she was seeming to enjoy the relationship up until then. Why? Well, maybe the ‘friendship’ was a social obligation more than anything authentic? You just know, when push comes to shove, most on your social media friends list aren’t going to be there for you, or at least not like blood relatives.

The Impossible Love

Still, I’m not comfortable with this mechanistic, bound by programming and mere product of circumstances, perspective. If love is not a choice, if we can only love those who are attractive, have resources we want, or are this sort of enjoyable reflection of ourselves, then we would not have agency or the ability to follow the commands to love God and our neighbors. Can we really do that? Do people ever go beyond and actually transcend themselves by loving those whom they would not naturally love?

I’m not sure, when I look at the Christian experiment, that I see much evidence of these relationships that are closer than blood. I mean, maybe, if we were willing to “fake it until we make it” then we would be able to overcome. Isn’t that what faith is really about, doing things that are uncomfortable, going against our own natural condition, or an exercise? I’m pretty sure my grandparents didn’t always feel like loving each other and yet going through the motions of a relationship, in those tough times, is how their love became such pure gold. Sixty years of marriage is impossible for many today because they’ve decided to be ruled by what is comfortable at the moment.

So when church people say they can’t love, and I’m talking about any kind of love, what they’re actually saying is that they don’t believe. It is agnosticism, denial of the humanity of another, and have refused to see the command of Christ as being actually true. When we decide we can’t love as we ought to love or pretend that we are loving while we truly are not, we are essentially making Scripture into a lie. At that point we are nothing but animals following after our programmed instincts and selfish desires. Do you truly love the body of Christ as much as you do your own blood?

I’m not there yet…

Sunny with a chance of violent death…

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It has been a serious few weeks for me.  I had been cruising along until then ran smack into a brick wall of reality and have been sorting the damage for what I can salvage since.

But, still, amid disappointments and deliberations, I have found enjoyment in various things, from meeting new and interesting people to learning more about quantum mechanics.  I have things to look forward to in the coming months, one right around the corner and that the chance to fly with my little brother.

My little brother actually isn’t too little.  He outgrew me to about 6′-2″ and is a (mostly) responsible adult.  He also followed through on a childhood dream a few years ago by earning a pilot’s license.  However, sad as it is considering he was my first ever wingman, I have not yet taken the opportunity to fly with him.

Well, weather cooperating, I will get my chance to fly with him and I thought those of you with a morbid sense of humor may enjoy are little email exchange.  The plan is for me to join him in flying into a family cabin or rather landing on a small airstrip cut in the woods beside the cabin. 

Here is my request:

I have a proposal that could maximize your use of a small aircraft and increase my risk of dying a terrible death at the hands of my own brother.  My idea is that I meet you in Lock Haven, fly with you to the Moyer cabin and then fly back with you later.  I don’t know how that fits in with your plans, but I put it out there as a proposal and under the condition that you agree to ditch only into trees or rocks rather than water.  Crashing would be terrifying enough without the prospect of drowning with a broken femur while trapped in the crushed confines of a small aircraft.  Burned alive has a far more romantic appeal.  So anyhow, bring a contact with correct legal language and I shall consent.

Joel

His response:

Oh fun! Violent death! Yes, it’ll be way more romantic to share those last, lingering moments with someone instead of slipping away unnoticed.

Lock Haven airport was part of the plan. I was going to stop by to refuel on the way back to Franklin (airport of origin). However, it doesn’t add much to stop there on the way to the Moyer cabin as well. It’ll be nice to have someone along to mutter to while I figure out if it’s possible to get the craft down at the cabin. Worst case, we’ll abort the whole thing and go back to Lock Haven. Or, in a shame-induced delirium at a failure to land, we could take it into the pond. There, amidst a flaming slick of avgas, we’d slip beneath the ripples before the horrified paddle-boaters.

Piper Memorial airport (Lock Haven) has public parking at the end of Proctor Street. Time of meeting TBD.

My response:

The benefit to you is having a backup plan for reaching the cabin.  We already know the Focus can get stopped on that runway…

We could try to cartwheel across the pond wing tip over wing tip, the visuals would be stunning for all observers.  Maybe someone would get our parting moments on video and we’d be a YouTube sensation postmortem?  I could try to flash a peace sign out the window or something…

His response:

Good point. It’ll be nice to have a backup plan. 

You’ll be the perfect right-seat man. We’ll fly over the place at altitude, do a low pass on the airstrip (to scare away forest critters), and then shoot an approach. If the approach is stable, we land. If not, it’s a go-around. Practice landings yesterday ranged from 800-1200 feet. The strip at Ponderosa is 2400, so we should be ok.

Hopefully, enough glory will be won by a successful landing to make a grandstanding exit unnecessary.

 

Wouldn’t it be great if all business could be handled that way?

Despite appearances and the risk inherent in flying, I am quite confident that we will arrive safely at our destination.  I trust my brother’s hands are capable.  But if they and our plans fail, then may our death be glorious!  So, if you are somewhere in the vicinity of Lock Haven and the mountains just north this weekend, keep an eye on the sky and be ready for anything.

Anyhow, pictures to follow…

(That, assuming the camera survives two crazy brothers in an airplane. — If things are looking down while we are up I shall attempt one last parting Instagram post before we become one with nature, intimate with the terrain, a flaming mess of twisted metal and broken bones, etc.)

Our power to influence reality…

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My life would be incomplete without the influence of my brothers.  I was in conversation with my brother Kyle about the book I am working on, about life and faith. That dialogue eventually resulted in the thought that sparked this post.  Much of what we discussed seemed blog-worthy, but one particular thought came that I knew I would need to expand on and that is the idea of our influence.

We influence reality even if we squander the opportunity to exercise that ability in an intentional and directional way.  No matter if you have resigned yourself to ‘it is what it is’ fatalism, or if you live deliberately to change the world, you will have an influence in creating reality and not just reality for yourself either.  We are creating reality for ourselves, but we are also creating reality for those whom we come in physical contact with and possibly even in realms beyond that.

I believe it is easy to understand that if a person shoves another person physically they have altered something about the other person’s physical outcomes.  No, that action will not determine if the person has a good day or bad day, but you might change the way their day plays out if you push them hard enough that they fall and break their arm.  Again, they could be happily in the emergency room despite the pain, but you still have shaped some part of how their day progresses even if it did not break their spirit by your influence.

Good parents attempt to influence the decisions of their children.  I believe it is safe to presume that most parents do not want their children to become violent criminals and would attempt to in some way prevent that outcome.  Parents do have some influence over the direction of their children, perhaps mostly by genetics and not by things taught or at least that is where Steve Pinker suggests the evidence points.  However, parents do have an influence and that true whether or not they have given up on trying or if they stay entirely engaged.

The epidemic of fatherless homes bears out the reality of parental influence.  I would make the argument myself, but fortunately, another blogger has done the numbers for me and you can click that link if you need convincing.  The absence of a father correlates with many things we would consider bad and therefore the opposite is also true.  Statistics cannot tell us the whole story, but there is definitely some sort of connection and I am guessing the type of interaction also would have a part in the outcomes of children.

The influence of our physical proximity to other people is likely not something that is too much dispute.  Our intentional attempts to influence outcomes are a sign also of our belief in an ability to influence others.  But what if that is just the tip of the iceberg?  Could our very thoughts influence the outcomes for our neighbors beyond even our outward actions? Is our influence deeper than the surface level influence of our own physical reality?

Speaking of the ‘tip of the iceberg’ idiom, one could visualize the Titanic streaming the frigid Atlantic ocean and consider the implications of the block of ice it encountered.  The iceberg was visible on the surface and yet the destructive mass of the iceberg was actually below the surface.  The Titanic avoided a direct collision with the above water portion, but it was the underwater or invisible influence of the iceberg that ripped open the hull and actually doomed the ship.

Our influence likewise could be more than our spoken words or even our visible actions.  I speak now of the realm of our attitudes, spirituality, and faith.  We know if we push someone it could shape the outcome of their day, but what if we think well or ill of a person?  Do our very thoughts change reality for ourselves, but not only for ourselves and also for others as well?  I say, if we are more than just physical beings, if we do also dwell in an extra-dimensional spiritual reality, then we certainly do and should exercise that influence with responsibility as well.

My evidence, if you are Christian and accept the Bible is true, is that the ability of Jesus to heal was blunted where he was not believed (Mark 6:1-5 and Matthew 13:53-58) and the implications of this are huge.  If even Jesus, with a more complete faith, was hindered by the faithlessness of others, then how much more will we who struggle with faith be hindered and prevented by those in our midst who do not have faith in our abilities or God’s?  I believe we need to be aware of the influence we wield below the surface of physical reality, take ownership of it and use it for the glory of God.

What does it practically mean?  I believe it means we extend our love for others to our very thoughts about them.  I believe it means we recognize that we might be hindering other people by our very attitudes towards them, severely unfairly limiting the potential they have because of our negativity and perhaps creating them in the image that we have decided for them.  This is serious stuff if we consider the implications.  The words of Jesus equating hate to murder could be more literal than we realize.

At very least, we do have an influence over what other people think of another person.  Things like poisoning the well do actually to some degree shape the opinions of others and could do literal harm to a person by damaging their reputation.  We wouldn’t have laws against slander and libel if our words could not be literally destructive of something of value.  A person’s reputation is a priceless commodity.  Our reputation is what allows us to obtain a job, what another person says about us could be the difference between getting a chance or not.

Do you take seriously how you wield your influence both above and below the water line?  Perhaps you do not attempt openly to shape the opinions of others, but do you realize the potential influence of your non-verbal communication and thoughts about the other person?  Our influence is not only what we do for a person, but our influence is also what we deliberately choose not to do for a person and our very thoughts could be the spiritual power we withhold from them.

Belief is a powerful influence on reality.  Belief is a powerful influence over other people.  If we do not have faith in another person we may be effectively killing their ability to use their spiritual gifts effectively even if we do not realize it.  Belief also seems to hold some influence over God’s will.  The Bible is full of promises for those who have faith, but also gives many examples of where faithlessness influenced outcomes in a negative way and thus we who are spiritual should be aware.  Our doubt may cause harm to others.

We need to think of ourselves less as individuals and more as part of an interconnected whole.  Certainly, I am a big believer in our individual responsibility.  However, I do not see it as an either/or that we are either individual or we are not individual.  I believe reality is often better explained as a both/and, which means we are both individual and also a part of the collective whole.  We should not tend to one extreme or the other in this regard, we need to embrace both and take 100% responsibility for both.

We are, in fact, our brother’s keeper and he is our keeper as well.  In this regard, I am truly blessed to have brothers who care, share and pray for me.  I speak first of my thankfulness for biological brothers who are of shared faith and a similar mind, but also of my spiritual brothers as well.  I am glad for those who understand their influence over my outcomes and exercise their influence deliberately on my behalf knowing they could be the difference between my success or failure, these are the brothers who I seek.

But, lest this blog post be incomplete, the influence of sisters is as great or greater.  In my own religious setting this is an influence downplayed and gender separation outside of marriage encouraged, but to do that is to forget that the best example of love for Jesus was probably the pouring of expensive perfume on his feet by a woman (other than his wife) that drew the ire of his male disciples.  I for certain do not underestimate the influence of women.  My mother is probably the most influential person in my life and I believe the opinions of women go further with me than those of my male counterparts.

So, in conclusion, one should acknowledge their own full range of influence beyond just what they openly say or intentionally do.  One should perceive the potentiality that what is visible on the surface is not the beginning nor the ending of their influence and maybe the smaller part of their influence.  We need to take responsibility for how our influence shapes others for better or worse and exercise that influence in a positive way.  We should never limit the power of good by our faithlessness in our own influence and shown towards others.

If your influence of word, action or hidden attitude can harm or help other people, what has your influence been? Do you love others with more than just your words, but also with the influence of your thoughts (prayers) and actions?  Is your influence positive, do you build the good of others and your own character, or dwell on the negative and destruction?