Turmoil and Theosis

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

A Bull In the China Shop

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

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

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

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

The Calm In My Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Theosis Means and My Journey Since

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

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

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

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

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

Theosis, the True Promise of Salvation

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

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

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

What Jesus promised the disciples:

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

And the day he delivered:

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

How Paul explains this:

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

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

Where is Martha Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being An Image (or Icon) of God

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

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

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

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

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

That is God’s economy at work.

That is poetic justice.

That is theosis.

Discipleship: One Size Fits (Not) All

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Genetic research is a burgeoning field of study.  It reveals the complexity of our physical form in a new way and also my own unique DME genotype. 

For years medication was designed as a one size fits all solution.  However, how my body responds to a medication and how your body responds to the same dosage could be vastly different.  Not all people are created equal when it comes to their genetics. 

One of those differences is DME genotype.  DME is an abbreviation that stands for drug metabolism enzyme.  Most drugs are designed to be metabolized through by a certain set of enzymes. 

There are now labs that test genotype for drug compatibility.  Some of us are “poor metabolizers,” others are “intermediate metabolizers,” and on the far end of the scale are the “ultra-rapid metabolizers.” 

The implications are huge and there might be a day when drugs will be tailor made to suit our own unique individual body chemistry.  Unfortunately, until that day, we are stuck using drugs that are like misfitting hand-me-downs.

Are people created as spiritual clones?

People are genetically diverse and different.  We understand that and it is a reason to test before assigning drug prescriptions to treat people.  But do we apply that same idea spiritually?

One thing I have noticed in my reading the Bible is that no two people were the same.  The similarity of Biblical characters was not one of having the exact same spiritual journey or experience.  Their strengths varied, as did their weaknesses, they also had a wide range of spiritual experiences, life challenges and gifts.  The unifying factor of all was simply faith in God.

Take Abraham, for example, he was an old nomad wandering without an heir until God made him a promise.  His transformative spiritual experience came late in life.  He messed up in his attempt to reconcile the reality of his situation with what God told him and tried to do things his own way by impregnating a woman not his wife.  But ultimately, despite his mistakes, he served the purpose God had designated for him and was blessed richly for it.

David was a young man, he was looked over as a leader for his age and sidelined to tend the sheep.  But later he become symbolic of courageous faith to a nation for his slaying of Goliath.  He went on to live a life full of missteps, he endured personal tragedy (as a result of his own corrupt deeds) and still ended up a hero of faith at the end of his story.  He was described as a man after God’s own heart in the book of Acts.

Women, from prostitutes like Rehab to queens like Esther, from Deborah the warrior-judge to deaconesses to desperate widows, played their own unique roles in the Biblical faith narrative.  They were all faithful in different ways, some were courageous women who shouldered tremendous tasks, some hospitable to prophets in keeping their homes and others were mothers who were favored by God.

Some of the strongest examples of faith were from those who were raised in captivity.  They were exposed at a young age to the best of what a worldly king could offer and yet chose faith in God over the pleasures of princely wealth.  Daniel, those three guys with long weird names who survived unscathed after being thrown in a furnace, and Moses who later led his people, are all examples of extraordinary faith. 

Some of the worse cases of unbelief were found in those steeped in Biblical tradition who rejected Jesus.  Their religious devotion and diligent study of Scripture did not save them.  They were outwardly images of righteousness, they had all the knowledge of theology they knew to have and still missed the truth badly.  Allegiance to rules and roles produced hypocrites.

What does this mean for established rules and roles?

The idea that spiritual journeys must follow a set pattern or time frame does not fit with the Biblical pattern.  Yes, the Bible probably does make more mention of the exceptional characters and there were many faithful besides who were less the exception.  There certainty are statistical averages of people too, but there is no average person and that is the lie of statistics.

Men, on average, are physically stronger and also born with other strengths over women.  Women, on the other hand, also have their own unique strengths and abilities that make them generally superior to men in some areas.  That is what makes men and women a natural pair—they are complimentary (or stronger together) because they are different rather than the same.

People of the same gender also, while having some obvious similarities, are very different.  Paul alludes to this diversity often in his letters to the church.  In 1 Corinthians 12 he draws a vivid analogy between the church and a human body.  He compares people with different parts of the body that are reserved for unique purposes.  He was illustrating that their could be unity (and strength) in our differences when we are connected together by a same love.

It reminds me of the “united we stand” attitude of post 9/11 or the “unite or die” flag of the American Revolution:
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We understand nations do not survive if they are too divided.  We also understand that an economy without diversity of talents and diversity of contributions is probably not going to be very strong.  Thriving depends on cooperation between different parts rather than strict legalistic conformity.  But is that logic applied to the church as a collection of its individual parts?

The unity of the church was supposed to be built around common love and faith, not on absolute monochromatic sameness of personality and perspectives.  The church has unfortunately segregated by ethnicity, economic status, education, extremes of liberalism or conservativism, and along many other dividing lines of application.  In our division we miss an opportunity to see our full potential as a body.  Sadly, many seem to prefer images of themselves and doing things their own way over a commitment to love as Jesus loved.

Too often we create rules (or roles) to serve our own preferences rather than our fellows.  Many complex religious rationales have been created to justify hierarchies of men in fancy array.  Whole Biblical hermeneutics built around dominionism (in the model of the first Adam and Old Testament patriarchs) that serves the needs of selfish men rather than the cause of Christ. 

It is an anathema, it is a horrible distortion of Scriptural narrative, when the example of Christ (the better Adam) who turned down worldly dominion (Matthew 4:8-9) and instead bent low to wash the feet of his disciples.  It is tragic when the better way of Jesus is discarded for worldly dominion, it is selling a heavenly birthright for a bit of porridge.

There are spiritual constants, like love…

God’s love does not change.  I believe one unifying theme of Scripture is God’s constant love for humanity.  It is certainly the main message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ which is summed up eloquently:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)

Belief is love:

“Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.  On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.  Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.  (John 14:19-21)

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.  This is my command: Love each other.  (John 15:12-17)

When asked what is the “greatest commandment” Jesus answered:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22:36-40)

Paul expounded on what Christian love means practically:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.   Love never fails…”  (1 Corinthians 13:1-8)

“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)

“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… 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.”  (Ephesians 4:2-3, 15)

Love is a spiritual concept, not a mere code of conduct, not a blind allegiance to doctrinal statements nor a slavery to traditional application or religious dogmas.  Love is death to selfish ambition, dedication to an eternal goal and lives to serve the good of others.  Love comforts, love encourages, love provides tangibly for needs and rebukes immorality.

Love disciples.

If there is anything most lacking in the church today (and world in general) it is love.  Sure, many love selectively, they love their own family, their own tribe (of race, gender, cultural group, religious denomination, social class, etc) and yet that is not the love of Christian faith.  The love of Jesus transcends tribal difference, it extends beyond biological offspring, and returns multiplied.

One place our love is most lacking is in commitment to true discipleship.  As part of his parting words, Jesus told his followers, “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) but it seems that is a concept often lost.  Discipleship is supposed to be something personal, interactive and ongoing.  But it also requires sacrifice of time, energy and our own pursuits.  Discipleship takes loads of patience and it is too easily replaced by a cheap imitation or neglected entirely.

It is easy to designate the difficult task of discipleship to a few in an effort to absolve ourselves of responsibility.  It is easy for tailored and flexible discipleship to be displaced by one-size-fits-all cookie cutter solutions.  However, having people sign on to a book of regulations enforced rigidly (without love) is not true discipleship and not the example Jesus gave for us to follow.

Ironically, by not disciplining as we ought, we are not only shortchanging those who need an example of love and grace to follow, we are also robbing ourselves of the full experience of Christian faith.  Everything worth doing requires hard work and a dedicated effort.  Loving others enough to disciple them in a way tailored to their individual needs is no exception to the rule.  Real love takes effort. 

People are unique and “fearfully and wonderfully made” according to Psalms.  Programs with simplistic algorithms are not sufficient.  People do not need more generic prescriptions or clunky twelve step programs.  People need genuine authentic self-sacrificial living breathing Christian love and a real investment of faith.  So don’t give what is second rate if you want first rate results.

God bless.