There are some characters you meet online and never forget.
Such was the case with Wayne_in_Maine, who could come off as a sort of cranky or cantankerous old man and yet seemed (even then) to have a golden heart under the bluster. There is a way or an intuition I have, that can cut through the harshness on the surface. I can just know when someone is full of themselves and cruel despite their nice-sounding words or truly compassionate despite their surface-level unpleasantness.
Wayne was the latter kind.
The first thing notable about Wayne was that he was intelligent, he had been a nuclear engineer, could articulate his arguments well, and clearly was not going to be backed into a corner. The second thing was that he had a very unique journey and a different perspective from the other ethnic cultural inhabitants of the MennoDiscuss forum. He had gone from a hippy leftist to a conservative-minded neo-Anabaptist and could speak with authority on matters of science unlike the religiously indoctrinated parroting their fundamentalist teachers.
Initially, I saw him as a sort of threat to my worldview, another person compromised by secular influence trying to get Mennonites to shift to his views, and yet later his perspective would actually strengthen my faith when it faltered against the scientific evidence clearly pointing to the appearance of age in the universe.
Because of Wayne, I learned that young-Earth Creationism (or YEC) is not necessary to have a sincere and grounded faith in Jesus Christ.
In fact, it might actually be a liability and cause many to fall into a serious crisis of faith when they go to university, study biology or almost any science and find out the case for YEC is not as clear as it was presented. That Wayne, a rational mind and well-educated, could both reconcile modern scientific theory and his faith was more useful to me (a critical thinker) than some Hammy tourist attraction put there to feed the confirmation bias of fundamentalist midwits. I came around to his position and haven’t looked back.
I have long respected Wayne despite our sometimes clashing and my occasionally coming away feeling unappreciated by him.
He was a man a conviction. He gave up lucrative career paths, actually tried communal living, literally sold all from what I recall, and had come much further in developing his own perspective than most do.
However, despite my respect, Wayne’s version of Christianity didn’t appeal to me. He had, inadvertently, pushed a friend of mine away from Anabaptism with one of his responses. I still believe his take on the rich young ruler account misses the mark, where he read the response of Jesus as a sort of legalistic prescription rather the same as we understand Luke 14:26 where Jesus says if someone “does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”
I know, for a fact, that he did not take that literally. He came across, from my limited ability to see, as a very loving father and committed husband. I can’t imagine him hating his family to prove his commitment to Christ. Nevertheless, he was adamant about being completely Anabaptist in his perspective about wealth or warfare, an inconsistency of thought that bothers me about him and others of that fold. It did annoy me too when he characterized the Orthodox tradition as “smells and bells” as if worship was supposed to be something other than a beautiful or full sensory experience.
The Cancer and Change
After I heard about Wayne’s cancer diagnosis, none of our previous sparrings mattered much to me. Wayne, despite our differences, was a true friend and someone that mattered to me. It was especially important to me, given my mourning of Uriah, to talk to someone coming to terms with their poor prognosis and yet not giving up hope.
When I reached out on Facebook Messenger, mentioning Uriah and my desire to meet with him, he replied quickly and with more warmth than I had expected. There was no standoffishness, as had kind of been a feature of his personality, he reciprocated the desire to meet and we talked about various matters of faith.
I took a look at some of the MennoNet discussions he was involved in and got a laugh together about the various bad arguments being used. That’s one thing about him, his humor was dry and always fun, or at least fun when you were on the same side.
It was a sort of therapy, talking to this different side of the pragmatic engineer. Truly, it was special, the man that I saw emerge in this final trial was different. My own thought was that this was the Wayne that was always there under the snide comment and cynicism. Men can put up their walls, to not appear vulnerable, and that was no longer there. We were just two old keyboard warriors with nothing left to prove to the other.
And that’s not to take away from anything he said as far as the grace he was given to endure to the end. It was definitely something spiritual. His testimony of faith was clear. As a friend described him, in this transformed version, “It was like he became a totally different person. Happy, cheerful, optimistic.” He would not be defeated in death and I wanted to hear more about how a rational man, such as himself, given my own struggles, could continue in hope of the eternal.
I had to think of this Scriptural passage:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
(1 Peter 1:3-9)
More important than all of his intellectual endeavors and Christian apologetics, theory or theology, is Wayne’s undying faith through trial is of the greatest comfort to those still in the fight. I never did get to have that face-to-face meeting that we had committed to upon his planned move to Pennsylvania to be closer to his daughter and grandchild. We had planned to meet in order to give us both something to look forward to when he did.
Now that meeting will have to change locations. Wayne took his final breaths yesterday evening, on August 12th, a couple of days after his 65 birthday. By God’s grace, in triumph, we’ll see each other on that other side.
I’m sad that Wayne remains a man that I’ve never met, in the flesh, despite our interactions over the years. However, in his terminal illness, there was also a man that I never met, that softer side, and feel blessed have finally met this man. I loved him and believe that he loved me too. I’ll remember our last interactions for much more fondly than our first. It was beautiful to see his golden heart revealed.
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.
One of my favorite love stories, the BBC adaptation of a Victorian era novel, North & South, features two very strong and compelling characters.
The first, Margaret Hale, the cherub-faced daughter of an English clergyman, is forced to move to the industrial North after her father’s resignation over a matter of conscience. The other is John Thornton, a mill-owner, a handsome man with piercing eyes, brooding and intense, and interest in the demure young woman.
Things started fairly well. But, that doesn’t last as the differences in their perspectives becomes clear. Margaret, compassionate and having lived a sheltered life, interprets the actions of John in a negative light and pulls away after witnessing his harshness towards an employee caught smoking. What she sees as just cruelty was actually Thornton’s concern for the safety and wellness of his workers given the extreme risk of fire.
It is in the last and final act where there’s a scene where the tension between the two finally disappears. Throughout the middle-act Thornton’s truly good character is slowly revealed. And, Margaret, having returned South, has reconsidered her own idealistic notions, now sees the merits to living in Milton, and decided to return North again. Meanwhile, John is going South, the two cross paths at a station near the midpoint and cue the music.
There is this wonderful part of the soundtrack in this climatic station scene, Northbound Train (listen here), that so perfectly accompanied the moment. It is understated and elegant, reflective, that builds in waves to crescendo and then slips away as wistfully as it came. Thornton’s steadfast devotion is finally rewarded with a kiss and happily ever after begins despite the painful struggle to get there.
When the Story Goes South…
During my pursuit of the impossibly (a preacher’s daughter, like Margaret) this story brought a little hope with the similarities to my own. It wasn’t that we were so terribly different in our desires as it was she never heard me. Her conclusions formed before the conversation even began. She had pronounced “you’re thirty years old living in Milton” (the actual name of the town) meaning, in translation, that I would hinder her big plans. And could not understand it was her boldness and ability to get out that attracted me.
My thesis then was that a composite of our unique strengths, seemingly incompatible, bound together by Christian love, would exceed what those of similar abilities could accomplish. My thinking outside the box combined with her represention of the Mennonite standard. And, while I’m never good at getting things started (hence being stuck in Milton) I’m extremely loyal and willing to sacrifice for the team. I knew my age and life experience was an asset. But she could not see my value.
Still, for the year or so following her initial rejection I believed. What a wonderful story we would have when all was said and done, right?
Anyhow, that music, Northbound Train, had seemed like the perfect bridal march. Partly in innocent faith, partly to bolster my failing confidence against the deluge of rational fears, this image of the impossibly walking the church aisle dressed in white. As would be the case in real life, tears would stream down my cheeks as the nightmare of the past decade was replaced by this wonderful dream of marital companionship and completeness.
The strong emotions that came with that gentle harp being replaced with one violin and then two, have now disappeared. The music is still beautiful, but my feelings of numbness have long replaced that panging desire for a well-defined conclusion to over a decade of struggle. What I got instead was a world more complex. The cynicism that I had fought tooth and nail was confirmed.
The sunshine through the clouds, endings sweet and perfect are not for everyone. And the reason we tell such lovely tales is probably because they’re so uncommon, the exception, and not the rule. Sure, we can see ourselves as the characters. But the impossibly will likely go on seeing me as the villain in her movie, her conventional guy as the hero, and has never once shared in my fairytale that love would prevail over our differences.
As Far As the East is From the West
It is hard to believe that nearly another decade has passed and I’m still alone. I’ve moved from Milton, left the religion of my childhood behind, even traveled to the complete opposite side of the world twice, and have changed from that guy perpetually unsure of how to find direction. No, I’m not a missionary, but I do genuinely love people and probably accomplish more of actual value than those duty-bound Evangelical types who see ‘the lost’ as their get-into-heaven projects.
More importantly, I’ve found another impossibly, a beautiful Filipina flower, a little lost sheep when I found her (struggling abroad, in Taiwan, to support her son back home) and now the one who keeps me strong despite our torturous wait. Unlike the Mennonite impossibility, we do not share a cultural or ethnic identity, our lives have been very different, yet we have our simple and devoted love in common—which has been just enough to sustain us through these past years.
However, after all I’ve been through, holding on to hope is hard. Could my visions of her arrival at the airport, on American soil, with Y-dran in tow, also be a delusion?
It has been over two years and eight months since we’ve held each other that one last time before we parted ways in Taoyuan International Airport. I had known the immigration process would be difficult, but could not have anticipated the pandemic and travel bans that make it nearly impossible to be with Charlotte. It really does start to bring those worries that I might be cursed to the forefront again and sometimes the despair does win.
The eternal optimism of youth wiped away by the rejection of the Mennonite ideal, now facing my rational fears and the fact that I’ve been hoping longer than Jacob worked for Rachel and without so much as a Leah in between, I can now fully identify with the wife of Job, “Are you still trying to maintain your integrity? Curse God and die.” The frustration is real. How long does one go on dreaming? When is it justified to wither away into bones, with life never to return again?
As far as the East is from the West is an expression, in Psalms 103:12, used to describe an impossible distance that cannot be bridged. And it could seem that, despite the abiding love of my bhest to encourage me onwards, I’ve jumped straight from the frying pan into the fire. We have had a bit of good news since I’ve last published a blog here, the USCIS approved the application, and yet will this impossibly ever become possible?
I see the successful couples. So lovely together. To them it feels preordained, meant to be, a dream come true. For me, on the outside looking in, there is now more uncertainty than certainty, not everyone gets that music at the end.
What makes me a forever tortured soul is that I’m standing on the knife’s edge. On one side my ideal, my hopes, dreams and faith. On the other side my rationality, my anxiety, my knowledge and fears.
The current cultural paradigm tells me the prior things are built upon social construct, the latter upon science. They have first deconstructed meaning and purpose, now moved on to trying to even erase categories built upon biology, constantly destroying the rule by highlighting the exception.
The problem with me is that I’m not able to dismiss one or the other. In many regards I am a postmodern thinker, having rejected modernism, and yet not in the way of those out to destroy every religious tradition or cultural institution.
My own understanding is that social structures, like family, gender distinction or nation, do exist for a reason. Sure, they should not be an excuse for injustice or unfair exclusion. However, those who only see these things in negative terms or as unnecessary are severely mistaken.
There are things that can’t be viewed under a microscope that are as needed for human thriving as oxygen or water. Sure, it is easy to dismiss religion as superstition or redefine terms to suit the current demands of outliers.
But being unable to appreciate the balance of forces that keep a bridge from falling doesn’t mean that someone can keep removing structural members without consequences.
While being a critic of abuses by these institutions of culture and religion, my point has never been to destroy them. Sure, it is not acceptable, for example, that the word “modesty” in the Bible is misused to blame women for male lusts, nevertheless tearing down all expectations is an abuse as bad or worse.
Perhaps there are benefits to promoting healthy masculinity or a distinct feminine role?
Those trying to erase all difference in the name of equality are the most controlling and unpleasant people. In the name of tolerance, they are literally at war with everyone present and past trying to preserve an identity they cherish. They worship the exception while making life miserable for everyone else.
That’s where I differ from the ‘woke’ and the virtue signaling masses that empower their tyrannical edicts. Sure, I believe in recognizing disadvantages of some and making wrongs right. But that’s not what social justice is truly about. It advertises itself as being a solution, yet is only the same evil of intolerance in a new more ‘colorful’ form.
Still, I am not capable of being fully engulfed by the teachings of Christianity either. I tend to be philosophically in alignment rather than spiritually and that’s because I’m continually dismissing my own experience as invalid. I mean, so what if I got the warm fuzzies at a church service, right? I’ve also experienced euphoria on Adderall. Been manipulated by music, a rousing speech or what have you.
I can identify fully with H.P. Lovecraft:
“We all know that any emotional bias — irrespective of truth or falsity — can be implanted by suggestion in the emotions of the young, hence the inherited traditions of an orthodox community are absolutely without evidential value…. If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences. With such an honest and inflexible openness to evidence, they could not fail to receive any real truth which might be manifesting itself around them. The fact that religionists do not follow this honourable course, but cheat at their game by invoking juvenile quasi-hypnosis, is enough to destroy their pretensions in my eyes even if their absurdity were not manifest in every other direction.”
But this writer of horror, who lived in his own existential crisis hell, does not seem like an example to follow. What is the point of being ‘rational’ if it keeps one in a state of constant dread about how insignificant and out of control they are? Is this holding to an agnostic and meaningless interpretation actually intelligence or simply another form of ignorance?
I vote the latter.
Command of language, the ability to pull together a vast amount of information and sift science from superstition, these are things seen as signs of intelligence. And certainly they are measures of a particular kind of capability of mind. But, as a person can be knowledgeable and unwise, saying things that bring us pleasure or purpose are not real is simply ignorant.
Serotonin is as real as the stars in the sky, the feelings this hormone produces are no different from light. It would be stupid to argue that light waves are less important because they lack mass. Likewise, to say that the spiritual is non-existent, because it cannot be weighed or otherwise measured, is not brilliance either. Lack of appreciation or ability to comprehend things of emotional value is not intellectual strength.
Nevertheless, there is a sense in which seeing behind the veil changes things, there are things that can’t be unseen. And those Lovecraftian monsters do exist even if only in the mind of the author.
My own experience, unfortunately, has left me untethered from the comfortable and floating in space. My sincerest hopes rejected as being delusion by the very people who I had thought would appreciate such things. It is difficult to cling to the belief that “with faith all things are possible” when your former pastor’s daughter, encouraged by him, supposedly missionary minded, tells you she can’t love.
It is that disconnect between profession and action that keeps me still precariously balanced on bloodied feet.
Orthodoxy has brought me a firmer foundation than the ever shifting sands of Protestant theology and practice. It is certainly more ancient and authentic than the alternatives. Still, that loss of identity and innocence, that process of degradation of my child-like faith over time, makes restoration of my soul seem as possible as a return to my mother’s womb. How to become less cynical again?
I do envy the simpletons who can ignore such things. They suffer without swaying in the belief that God is in control. Wouldn’t we all live that way if we could?
At some point doesn’t logic dictate we take the advice of Job’s wife, curse God and die, rather than continue to push through the pain against all odds?
This blog site, Irregular Ideation, was a product of my dilemma. That is what to do when the happily ever after and meant to be fairy tales are insufficient to get us beyond our fears. What does happen when those teeth of quiet desperation and endless angst finally gnaw through what remains of the moral foundation. The eternal abyss opens beneath our feet, the inscription over our heads: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Fr. Anthony, the spiritual mentor that met me in my time of need, boiled it down to a choice, either we choose to live a life of meaning or we do not. Charlotte, my bhest, has also urged me to be strong and that likewise suggests that we decide what is worth the effort. But none of that makes the choice easy or pain free. Adam and Eve never lost that awareness that biting from the forbidden fruit of knowledge gave them, the thistles of doubt and despair still remain.
It is both assuring and terrifying that the most notable characters in Scripture were tormented. Elijah, having witnessed literal fire from heaven, fled terrified into the wilderness because a wicked queen threatened him. John the Baptist, suffering in prison, sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3 NIV) And Jesus himself, in angish, speaking of his coming trials, prayed “take this cup away, and on the cross felt forsaken or abandoned by God.
St. Paul, with his undisclosed “thorn in his side,” suggested a division within, the ‘spirit’ being willing while the ‘flesh’ is weak. The book of Psalms and other Biblical poetry, a great comfort to many today, suggests the writers were experiencing travails and torment. In no way were these ignorant people living a life of bliss. They were fully aware, they had their moments of failure, and choose to keep going on in faith despite this all.
As my parish priest reminds us, “If you ain’t struggling you ain’t Orthodox.”
So while my life would be so much easier if I could be agnostic and accept that we’re all products of random chance, biological robots plotting a predetermined course, that everything is about sex and power. But I don’t give in to that existential dread and will stand against those who, with seeming sadistic pleasure, tear at the foundation of meaning and purpose.
I’m tortured soul because I am able to both see the fullness of beauty and also stare into the void of emptiness. I live with keen awareness that many have died, clinging to breath and hope, thinking their salvation was right around the corner. It could all be for naught. Still, I fight. I’m not in control, I never will be, and long for that final peace when my journey is complete. For now, though, I’ll dance on this blade, my persistent uncertainty on one side and strong desire for God on the other.
I can pretty much rationalize around any moral boundaries, maybe eventually embrace a life of self-indulgence and not giving a crap about those whom I’ve stepped on to gain a small advantage. I could, more easily, give in to self-pity or be overwhelmed by cruelty and give up. Lord have mercy! Still, something within, not even sure how to define it, pushes me to endure through hardships.
At some level it makes no sense, why must we go through hell to get to heaven?
It doesn’t make sense.
But then neither does my existence. How did I come to be? If my life is finite and time stretches infinity in both directions, there is essentially zero chance of being on this moment right now. So our existence is not rational nor that we extrapolate, from our pleasure and our pain, that there is something greater. Maybe belief in the divine realm, where all is made right, is merely a survival mechanism—so why then do we question it?
And so it goes on. There is no growth without pain, not triumph without suffering, our moments of glory would not be such a pleasure if there was nothing required to attain. So why not extend this pattern and conclude that our torment, if righteous, will be rewarded…
Being raised in a fundamentalist sect meant taking the Genesis accounts as being a historical narrative. I had been taught, and had for many years accepted without question, the idea that the veracity of the Gospel message hinged on the most ‘literal’ interpretation of the first book of the Biblical canon.
This understanding of this book had worked fine to get me through my school years. I gave my high school biology teacher, Mr. Toohey, an atheist who had once considered the priesthood, a headache debating the textbook claims about mutations, millions of years, and Macro Evolution. At this age, I thought this style of apologetics, debating science using the words of Scripture, was a key to securing the faithful against doubts and winning unbelievers.
Unfortunately, while this understanding may serve well those who do not venture too far from the Young-Earth Creationism intellectual ghetto, against what amounts to strawman versions of secularist arguments, it doesn’t hold up as nicely against a serious challenge and has left many religiously indoctrinated high and dry in their years in a university-level science program. There is a reason why many in my former religious tradition are terrified of higher education.
Even seminary was a synonym for cemetery to one of my childhood Bible-thumping pastors. It should make one wonder. If the foundation of faith is so flimsy that it can’t be tested, that it can only be sustained by ignorance, then what’s the point?
Sadly, it was a false choice, this dichotomy between science and religion, education and faith.
Getting the Cart Ahead of the Horse
The Biblical fundamentalists got everything exactly backward. The truth of Christ does not depend on proving the Scripture, word for word, is completely 100% historically accurate and scientifically verifiable. It is nice when those things do align, sure. And yet, no matter how many mundane parts of the Biblical narrative are established this way, the fantastic claims are never proven.
If a politician lists off ten facts and nine of them turn up true according to the fact-checkers, does that make the final most grandiose claim true?
No, no it does not.
One of the most persuasive tricks of liars is to hide their one falsehood amongst a long list of facts and true statements. And likewise, someone could prove 99.9% of Biblical claims and still not have touched anything of the miracles. The Bible is true because it says it is true might work for idiots and the indoctrinated, but it is always circular reasoning and there being a town of Bethlehem doesn’t mean Jesus walked on water nor establish His divinity and conquering of death.
No rational person believes that a prophet flew from Jerusalem to Mecca, on a half woman half horse with a tail of a peacock, because they read it in a book. I’m certainly not going to wear magical underwear because some dude, a few hundred years ago, claims he received golden tablets from the angel Gabriel. So why would any reasonable person expect someone to believe a book written thousands of years ago? Sorry, Ken Ham, I don’t care how many replica Arks you build, you’re not winning skeptical minds or hearts with this effort.
Human efforts fail.
When Sarai reasoned with Abram to produce an heir through her maidservant, how did that go for them?
We know it didn’t go too well and have the commentary of St. Paul:
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.” Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
(Galatians 4:21-31 NIV)
Here we see the contrast of human efforts “according to the flesh” and those of a spiritual and Divine origin. St. Paul emphasizes the “son” which is “born by the power of the Spirit” as an alternative to the “son” human reasoning that produced conflict and heartache.
It is amazing how many times St. Paul, and Jesus before him, encountered those who believed Scripture word for word and rejected Jesus as Lord. They, in many ways, had a stricter interpretation of the text than many of us do and did not face the strong headwind of modern science and philosophy either. And yet, even meeting Jesus in the flesh, seeing him with their own eyes, taking Scripture as literally as anyone, they saw Jesus as the imposter and rejected Him. So, how then can we be saved?
Fortunately, that question is answered many times over and over again, by St. Paul, and has next to nothing to do with the book of Genesis. The truth of Scripture is established on Christ, and His church, which established the canon of Scripture and does those “greater things” that Jesus promised would come through the power of the Spirit. Yes, we preach and teach, but only God can bring the increase. So, the apologetics industry starts us out on the wrong foot and doesn’t produce true faith in Christ.
Our salvation does not depend on our own understanding of a book. St. Paul, in Romans 9:16, states clearly, that our sonship depends on God’s mercy, not human desire or effort. Scripture is the cart, not the horse. We accept that the Bible is true because we believe in Christ, and His Church, not because we can establish it through our human reasoning or effort. Faith is a work of the Spirit, a gift from God, not a product of our knowledge or works. Those trying to ‘prove’ the Bible are on a fool’s errand. trying to save themselves, slaves to human reasoning, lost and confused.
What Does That Have to Do with Babel?
Hopefully, the Noah rode on a T-Rex crowd is too triggered with that intro, because now we shift to something they may find more agreeable and that being the even greater monument to human reasoning and effort.
But, first, the tower of Babel narrative:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
(Genesis 11:1-9 NIV)
This story is likely the origin of the phrase, “men plan, God laughs.” Actual historical event, ancient myth or both, does not matter, the tower of Babel narrative is so much more. The account speaks to human limits and hubris, a true story told over and over again in history and a lesson repeated in different ways with each passing generation. The moment humans forget their place, begin to rely on their own cleverness and start to see themselves equal to their own Creator, the clock to destruction begins to tick.
These people, in the Biblical account, had somehow overcome the odds, they evidently were a resource-rich civilization, more powerful than external threats, and ready to cement their name in history. But just when heaven seemed within their grasp, the very thing that they had sought to avoid, being scattered, brought the entire endeavor grinding to a halt. Now Babel, the name a play on words that meant “to confuse,” is a synonym for colossal human failure. Sure, maybe it is an origin story for the diversity of language. But, undeniably, it is also a cautionary tale.
Other accounts tell us that this confusion of languages, by God, was to save humanity from the total destruction of another flood. In other words, it was an act of mercy to prevent an even greater calamity to end this project and scatter the people. But, more than that, it is a lesson about not leaving God out of the equation. What does that mean? Well, that means that we can’t see everything and, without humility to reign in our ambitions, we are an existential threat to ourselves. The proud fall because they cannot imagine the factors that they, in their overblown confidence, have missed.
Our Modern Towers of Human Arrogance
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
(Isaiah 29:14 NIV)
History is replete with examples of bold declarations followed by catastrophe. Neville Chamberlain’s quip of having secured “peace in our time,” through a treaty with Adolf Hitler, comes to mind. Hillary Clinton was, according to the experts, most definitely going to win over Donald Trump.
But now it is time to tie all these threads together. The same thing that brought about the Protestant schism, also led to the Enlightenment, spread of Democracy, and, ultimately, the rejection of God.
This “age of reason” got off to a relatively good start, scientific discovery, development of technology, and representive government has enabled us to be more free and prosperous that many prior generations. However, as the tower of our knowledge and independent spirit rose, as we have made leaps in medicine, even landed a man on the moon, when American exceptionalism (the ultimate expression of Protestantism) finally conquered all, and our hegemony was nearly unchallenged, suddenly a day of reckoning seems to be upon us and this colossus, this oversized imagine of human endeavor, seems in danger of collapse.
A couple of decades ago it felt as if we were on the cusp of a new epoch. Racism vanquished, our old enemies irrelevant, the world connected as never before, the internet ready to put all knowledge at our fingertips and the stars seemingly within our reach. Secularism and science had triumphed over superstition and myth, we imagined no religion, nothing to kill or die for, as Coca-cola taught the world to sing. Former seminaries, our universities, forgetting God, became temples of human reason. “We didn’t need church or religion to be good people,” the atheists cried, while standing on the shoulders of theologians whom they dismissed, “in fact, we’ll go further without it!”
However, my own optimism has unravelled over the past decade or two.
Star Trek and the Jetsons still remains, firmly, in the realm of science fiction. The internet is a cesspool, filled with crackpot opinions, censored by billionaires bullies who pretend to be gatekeepers of truth while they spread misinformation, and nothing like a child of the 90s would’ve imagined. As church attendance slips, depression and drug usage has steadily increased—along with suicides and mass shootings.
Our universities, rather than continue to value free thought and expression, now have strict speech codes and safe spaces. The minds that once sought to improve the human experience, now only deconstruct tradition and erode the very ground that their institutional ivory towers were constructed upon, too drunk with nihilism to care. Even Coke brand, that once celebrated human diversity, has joined the graceless cult of woke in attacking “whiteness” and civilization itself—as if they have forgotten what has made their own comfortable ‘privileged’ life possible.
The government, “for the people,” that at least gestured towards the needs of the citizenry, now only serves global corporations, the powerful elites and special interests. The US flag, once a symbol of hope, the American ideal, and our unity as diverse people, something black athletes proudly wrapped themselves in less than a generation ago, has now been reimagined as a representation of oppression and hate. Our faith in our institutions is failing, the left decrying systemic racism, the right suspecting election fraud, nearly everyone feeling unheard.
We’re a civilization consuming itself and maybe it is because we’ve forgotten this:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
(Galatians 5:13-15 NIV)
We don’t go to church anymore, a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated, and “love your neighbor” is now used as a guilt trip rather than a reason to change our own toxic attitudes or be involved on behalf of others. John Kennedy’s call to service, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Those words, spoken today, would likely be derided as some kind of dangerous “ism” in today’s me-first, my tribe, my way or the highway, divisive identity driven, you’re literally a Nazi if you disagree, political environment.
Have we reached new heights only to implode?
What is really going on here?
Pride Cometh Before the Fall
Satan, we’re told, was the very best of the angels. His magnificent greatness eventually led him to believe that he was a rival to God. Jesus warned his disciples, having returned exuberant from working miracles, that he had seen Satan “fall like lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18) and reminded them of their place before the Almighty.
Hubris is the downfall of many and the idea that we can find all of the answers for ourselves is that. With each success, with every innovation and breakthrough, there is a danger and risk of overconfidence.
In the past few centuries have seen our knowledge and abilities increase like no other time in recorded human history. The West threw off the authority of Rome, with the reasoning that every man was able to comprehend Scripture outside of the tradition of the church. Not long after, the authority of Scripture itself was called into question. Why do we need a book of myths written by those who lack our sophistication and understanding of the world? God was erased from our institutions, prayers only a ceremonial and many imagine themselves to be self-made or little gods. It is the height of ignorance:
You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me” Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?
(Isaiah 29:16 NIV)
But it isn’t only the cultural elites, the atheists, the politicians who only pay lip service or liberal theologians whittling away at morality until there’s nothing left. This spirit of self-reliance, and arrogance, permeates through the whole civilization. We are blinded by information, buried in jargon, tangled in complexity, yet think we’re englightened.
We should be pumping the brakes, as technology advances faster than our ability to comprehend the consequences, I see it even (or especially) in those emerging from sheltered religious cloisters. Sure, the are the reactionaries, afraid of all change or improvement, but then there are those who have a little education and embrace it all nof realizing the potential. Our brightest minds are working on things much more dangerous than nuclear weapons, creating biological agents, developing artificial intelligence, considering climate altering measures, all potentially having the possibility of irreversible side-effects, and truly playing with fire.
We believe we are in control but are most definitely not and, with our new power, are one or two mistakes from an unmitigated disaster.
Like the tower of Babel, which likely took years of planning and building layer upon layer, our modern civilization was built. Our confidence has grown and exponentially along with our accomplishments. We’re clever, we found cures for disease, invented means to travel to the ends of the earth and beyond. But the higher we ascend the easier it is to forget what we are and where we came from. We didn’t create ourselves nor do we know as much as we think we know and this should always keep us humble.
Thinking we are God or next thing to God will, inevitability, lead to chaos, confusion and ultimate collapse into disorder. The bigger our collective endeavor gets, the more we live on our own reasoning and strength rather than depend on faith, the less able we are to cooperate, we erode the very foundations of civilization and the destruction will be swift. God, in His mercy, will scatter us before we become too foolish, with our great knowledge, to be saved. Human reasoning is a dead end, we cannot transcend ourselves outside of God’s help. If we reject that help we will fall.
In the world of sports there are the stars and then there are the role players. The stars get the attention, the glory, while the role players work quietly behind the scenes, and yet would Michael Jordan be famous without his supporting cast?
This past week one of those supporting cast men died after becoming infected by Covid-19, having succumbed on Tuesday of this past week, on the same day as another regular during my growing up days, Lenore Miller, 89, who loved to use testimony time at church to sing, and passed after becoming ill of the same disease.
John Kenneth Metzler, 82, better known as just “Ken,” had been in poor health for the past decade and really seemed to be living on borrowed time as it was. He was born in 1938, February 15, in Lancaster County, the faithful husband to his wife of 60 years, Arlene, and proceeded in death by his daughter Brenda.
I almost didn’t write anything about Ken. I mean, the Mennonite denomination is my past and Ken was simply Ken. A deacon in the church. But an awkward and common man. He ran a muffler shop for years, lived in a little ranch house beside it, drove a Chrysler minivan for years (completely practical like him) and spoke with his totally unsophisticated dutchified drawl.
Not really the kind who gets invited to speak in front of the crowds nor mentioned as someone noteworthy, and yet someone always willing to serve.
I’ll admit, as a teenage punk, who knew nothing and prioritized ‘coolness’ over substance of character, Ken was annoying for his self-effacing style. He would literally apologize for himself while sharing a devotional, for his lack of education and many shortcomings.
He also held some odd views, like the time he confessed to enjoying the comics page and acted as if it was some sort of terrible transgression. He would also, while teaching youth Sunday school, ask questions that would be more suitable for kindergarten students, which would leave everyone confused thinking he was asking rhetorically and him frustrated (or “fuss-trated” in his persistent Lancaster dialect) thinking we weren’t paying attention.
But in the end?
Ken was a man with a golden heart, who became more and more endearing as I matured and, despite his slightly stooped posture, had all the true qualities of a hero.
There are plenty of flashy Mennonites, big fish in their small ponds, who act as “missionaries” or “evangelists” and are roundly praised for their efforts. Many of them have the perfect hair, the superior intelligence, the pedigree and popular families. They travel to the exotic places, some have the academic credentials too, they have the wealth (or access to resources) and reputation for their wonderfulness.
Ken had none of that pomp and pizzazz. He wouldn’t want it even if he were capable. Instead he, slow and steady, like the persistent tortoise compared to the haire of children’s book fame, he worked mostly unrecognized for the good of others. If it was to cut someone a break on a repair bill at his shop or consistently running the canned goods distribution, you would hardly have noticed his contribution.
When crowns in heaven are distributed, I believe there will be many surprises. But it will not be a surprise to me if Ken received a reward bigger than that of the known names. No, he did not lead the church outreach, but he supported it wholeheartedly, and remained long after the charismatic movers and shakers chased after that next new and exciting project. He stayed, stayed true to his commitments, and is a hero in a world full of vain and self-serving ‘good’ men.
Ken also died as he lived. He could have, given his poor physical health, cowered in fear and never left his home. Nobody would have criticized him for doing this, he was clearly in that most at risk category and could not be faulted for hiding out the pandemic. But then why miss out on life when you already know that your days are numbered? He got out instead, remained a part of the community, and that is a choice that I respect—even recommend.
Ken’s death was not a big surprise to me. My initial reaction when I heard he had been at church when a visiting chorus was there, basically a Covid super-spreader event, was to think, “oh, Ken,” and question the wisdom.
But, on second thought, Ken made the right and heroic choice. Ken knew that risk of death isn’t a reason to stop living. He had been on death’s door before and made a deliberate choice.
Ken, unlike many in this age, understood life is difficult and every day is a gift. He may have lived a year or two more, possibly, but was not long for this world by any reasonable assessment. Sure, he likely suffered, he spent his last days alone because of nonsense policies created by administrators, but he was a man who never had it easy and lived a life of faith and sacrifice.
Real heroes don’t wear capes or live in the pages of comic books, most of them do not die in some grand saving-the-world deed, many of them pass unnoticed. They quietly play their role, in the background, until it is time to go home.
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns transportation in the Philippines ground to a halt and left Charlotte with a dilemma. She had started a new job and didn’t want to lose her spot in this highly competitive market where the position would soon be filled. But how would she safely get there from her apartment?
A world away, and definitely sympathetic to her plight, I did not want my ‘bhest’ to throw away the time that she had spent training. She has studied for this new job diligently, had made me proud, and it was not an effort that I wanted her to sacrifice. However, I was also very much concerned about her well-being. Baguio City is not like small-town Pennsylvania, her uncle Roland had been murdered a little over a year ago, and it isn’t recommended to walk in the dark all alone.
How was I supposed to advise her?
In the absence of a firm understanding of all of the dynamics of her circumstances, not wanting to impose too much on her autonomy and push her one way or another, I equivocated. My answer was a meandering non-answer where I expressed my thought that she should do what she could, within reason, to keep her new job. But then, I also restated the risk of her attempting to go try to find a way, in the early morning hours, with the uncertainty of the shutdowns.
She would do what she knew was appropriate, all things considered, right?
Then, in the early evening, her morning, I received her call and was greeted by Charlotte’s harried voice. She had decided, interpreting my indecisive words as an encouragement to go, to set off for work by foot, in the darkness, and was now a little spooked. And, obviously, in no position to offer any form of physical protection.
Now I was both worried and feeling guilty, I had failed in leadership, she had sought my direction and my non-committal tendencies had seriously endangered her.
Anyhow, we were debating, should she continue on or go back when the call abruptly dropped. I tried to call and nobody picked up. She did not respond to messages either. Now, service is spotty in some parts of the city, all of those steep inclines and valleys, and we will routinely need to call again. But this time around there was silence. No message, no nothing. What happened? Something horrible, unthinkable? I tried to keep those thoughts minimized, and prayed, as the minutes became an hour.
As it turns out, she had made her way to work, after the cell service had got spotty, and went right to her duties having arrived a bit late.
All is well that ends well?
But that whole episode made me think very seriously about my role in Charlotte’s life. Had something gone terribly wrong that day, wouldn’t I bear some of the responsibility? She wanted my input, invited me to help her to decide and I refused to offer the clear guidance she needed. That is not a mistake that I wish to repeat. Leaders are called upon to make decisions and should not be neglectful of their duties.
What Does It Mean to Be a Man Under Authority?
The blog title phrase, “a man under authority,” comes from this Gospel account:
When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.” Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.
(Matthew 8:5-13 NIV)
There is so much going on in that passage that it is very easy to miss the commentary on what makes this man’s faith, a pagan soldier, greater than that of an entire religious nation. This detail, while overshadowed by the response of Jesus, seems to be an extremely significant and is context completely necessary for understanding the statement about “great faith” that follows directly after it. What was it about this man that made him such an extraordinary and commendable example of faith?
The answer, of course, is that he was “a man under authority,” a soldier able to both give orders and also to take orders. He, a good soldier, understood his place, that he was a part of something bigger than himself and was, therefore, able to submit to those in positions of authority greater than his own. He, unlike the faithless Israelites who rejected the authority of Jesus, saw someone who was doing extraordinary things, had a need, had faith, and went to him for help. He realized that the word of Jesus had authority, like that of a military commander, and trusted.
So a pagan soldier knew more about faith than all of the unruly religious snobs who thought of themselves as God’s chosen people and yet rejected that same divine authority come in human flesh when they should have believed. Unlike the Roman centurion, who submitted to something bigger than himself as a way of life, as a soldier, they were too arrogant, elitist, and pig-headed. These sanctimonious religious zealots claimed to have faith in God, but really only believed in their own authority and supposed right to rule.
It is, incidentally, why these unbelieving rebellious hypocrites would eventually get crushed by Rome despite having the fortification of Jerusalem. They, rather than unite against their common enemy, even fought for supremacy amongst themselves, within the walls of the city, rather than submit to each other and do what needed to be done. Sure, they all may have claimed God as their authority, but they truly lacked faith and, for this reason, were routed by the well-disciplined Roman soldiers who did know how to fall into rank and fight together as a unit. A Roman soldier understood that falling under authority was necessary to win battles. They could overcome superior numbers because of their discipline.
Abuse, Neglect and the Leadership Gap
A man unwilling to submit to those whom God ordained is unfit to lead. There are many who fall on this side of the spectrum in the Protestant church, men who demand that their own wives and families submit to their own “headship” in the home while absolutely refusing to fall under the greater authority of the church. It is very little wonder that women and children, raised under such hypocrisy, end up following in this example of rebellion rather than submit. A true leader is someone who leads by example, is someone willing to sacrifice their own privilege, even their life, both for the greater authority and those under their protection. A man who cannot submit to those above or before him and also demands the respect of others below or after him is in it for his own personal gain. They are not leading as Christ led. Period.
However, there’s another type of man, equally unfaithful, possibly in overreaction to the controlling hypocrites, who neglects his duties. He, in his passive approach, also disobeys the authority of God and leaves those under his roof vulnerable. In reality, this kind of leader is as much (or more) in rebellion against his own head (Christ) than the abusive hypocrites. Sure, he may claim that his easy-going and tolerant approach is to demonstrate Christian love. However, that is a lie. Men who refuse to lead, as commanded, force others into chaotic and dangerous situations.
My reluctance to offer clear direction could be some of my own natural disposition and a tendency to be indecisive. It also could be in reaction to patriarchal abuse. I did not want to be one of those domineering and controlling men. I would rather empower others to make their own decisions. But, that is the positive spin, my equivocating was also a product of not wanting to take responsibility for the decision. Instead of putting someone at ease who was looking for advice, by offering them something concrete, a clear “I think you should stay home to avoid the risk,” I forced Charlotte to guess what I truly wanted and made her vulnerable. It was neglectful, weak, and not any better than the patriarchal abuse on the other end of the spectrum.
Yes, a good leader empowers those under them. But this empowerment comes from their offering a hedge of protection, through loving guidance, rather than throw them to the wolves of anxiety, doubt, and indecision.
This running joke about a man asking his wife, “where do you want to eat?” and getting an ambiguous non-committal answer, demonstrates this. This is supposed to highlight a tendency of women, but also perfectly describes a male weakness. It is actually both a symptom of a faithless people pleaser (ie: Adam disobeyed God to eat the apple because Eve handed it to him) and plain old laziness. It takes effort to lead. Sure, the man could’ve taken some time to contemplate what restaurant options there were, came up with his own preference, and then presented the list to his significant other. But it was far easier for him to put her in the hot seat and then pretend that the indecision was her problem.
Male lack of leadership, at least when leadership requires sacrifice, is a chronic issue. Many men need a good hard elbowing in the ribs, like Mary urging Jesus “do something” when the wine ran low at the wedding of Cana, or they will never step up to the plate. Ironically, it does often take a woman to bring out a man’s strength. And yet the chances of a linguini-spined sad excuse of a man getting married or landing a date is in the negative. Most women want to be heard. However, if they wanted a faithful companion and follower, a creature that waited attentively on their every whim or never offered any kind of loving direction, they would get a dog.
Weak Non-commital Men Need Not Apply…
There is this misconception, in this democratic age of female ’empowerment’ and feminism, that sameness of roles will lead to happiness. Many have confused equality of rights or opportunity with the sameness of roles, responsibilities, and outcomes. Both men and women, in this paradigm, have been done a great disservice.
As a reformed “nice guy” who refused to lead for fear of stepping on toes, then complained how women would choose those arrogant self-serving jerks instead, I’ve learned that there is a third and better option.
Women don’t actually want a “yes man” and will, in fact, run from men with insecurities. Sure, they may complain about the opposite extreme, of an overconfident and domineering male specimen, some of those abused by men will decry “toxic masculinity” and find a pushover excuse for a man to feel safe. But most women long for the security of a man that both listens to them and knows who he is enough to kindly tell them when they are wrong. It is sad, this composite of strength and gentleness, of meekness, is a rarity in this world of feminized men and overcompensating fools, but a man who gets it right is irresistible.
There is nothing in this world more pathetic than a man devoid of passion and, rather than take the risk of responsibility, waits on others to make decisions for him. A man who speaks with authoritative power is attractive. Nobody wants that milquetoast, weasel-worded, and non-committal “nice guy,” and too often this display is little more than a lame attempt to curry favor with the female gender anyway. Women want, and frankly need, a man who can say what he means and mean what he says. No, not an authoritarian, not a man lacking in the humility to be wrong either, but someone with the wisdom and discernment that comes from life experience. The man without passion never goes outside of what is familiar and comfortable, is afraid to fail, and has nothing to offer that is uniquely masculine.
I can most certainly understand the frustration of single men. The world is full of mixed media. On one hand, women are demanding power and control for themselves, on the other hand, they are showing up in the millions to watch movies like “50 Shades of Grey” about the perverse and abusive sexual domination of a woman. Secular women fantasize about a “Handmaid’s Tale,” even wear this weird costume as a protest of the patriarchy, and yet these same women apparently long for a government that can exercise absolute control and will keep them safe. It is contradictory and exasperating. Men are told things like “must be 5′-10″ or taller to ride” and then also told not to objectify women. It is a hot mess.
I ran into a different version of this impossible expectation in conservative Mennonite women. They are reminded, ad nauseam, about women needing to submit to men. They are deathly afraid of being stuck with some dude who will stifle their dreams, is unworthy of their respect, and holds the trump card of submission over them. This pushes normal female choosiness to a whole different level. The only control they have is the veto before a relationship even begins. Like the young woman who lamented not being able to pick her own clothes after marriage. Insane! Is it any wonder that many are terrified to date and some flee to leave this nonsense behind?
Here’s a hint: If your religious culture needs to continually pound instruction to women to submit, then you’re 100% without-a-doubt doing it wrong.
In the end, most women do not thrive with a man who isn’t a man. Sure, some women who suffered abuse may gravitate to weak and ineffectual men, as to be in control. But most men value a man who is strong, who is able to protect them from threats (both physical and emotional); one that both listens intently and speaks with a comforting authority that is rare in this tumultuous time. I mean, not every man is cut out to be Keanu Reeves. We can’t all be six feet tall and appear to be chiseled from rock either. However, a man should learn to be reliable and committed, unselfish, and protective.
Christ the Paradox…
Leadership is not about calling the shots, being the boss, or the big man in charge. It does not stifle or rob others of their autonomy and ability to speak to things that matter to them either. No, rather it is being Christ-like, being the strength, and an example of self-sacrificial love, to those more vulnerable. The kingship of Christ is not tyrannical nor passive, firm or gentle depending on the need, he both knew how to submit unto death and also how to speak in an authority unrivaled. He’s both lamb and lion, teacher of the faithful and protector of the flock, merciful to the sinner, and a judge of all.
One of the most interesting icons portraying Jesus is called the “Pantocrator” (Greek for Almighty) shows his face with two different halves. One half shows the compassionate Good Shepherd, giving a blessing, the other shows a stern expression of a mighty ruler. It is very interesting when you cover one half of his face and see the contrast. Many today seem to follow after their own hippy-Jesus, a “you do you” bro dude, but that is not the man we see in Scripture who confronted and will judge the world. He’s Lord of all. That teacher and judge is the image below:
That in mind, Jesus, while sometimes giving a sharp rebuke, also did not simply bark orders at the disciples while refusing to fall under authority. No, he was also in submission to his own head, the God the Father. One of the most profound statements in Scripture, given the divinity of Christ, is this, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
I’m not sure how all of that works, how someone can be both fully human and fully God. But we do know that Jesus, the man, had to submit to God the Father and with that led by example.
Ultimately, the example of leadership Jesus showed is one of self-sacrificial love. Jesus was a man with divine authority, but also a man under authority and willing to suffer for the good of others. He did not lead in a spirit of entitlement nor use his authority to privilege himself at the expense of those under his leadership. He protects his flock, he is their advocate and defender. He prayed alone while his disciples slept. He suffered and died for our salvation rather than take the easy way out. A man following in the example of Christ steps up to the plate. He does his job without complaining. Taking full responsibility for those under his care. He commands respect due to his character, not because he demands it and, like a good soldier, is a man under authority.
Charlotte needs me to man up, take responsibility and not be a pathetic mess of excuses and equivocation. But I can’t expext her to respect me if I’m simply doing everything for myself, addicted to substances or even just my own selfish ambitions. She should have a man who is confident, in his place, and offers her security rather than leave her feeling uncertain. A good man, a true Christian leader, gives others a place to thrive.
As a final thought, men must be allowed to grow into their leadership role, a man never given a chance can’t show his potential. And sometimes those men who appear to have it all together in their teens and twenties aren’t all that they seem. Look at Judas compared to Peter. Judas had his act together, he was trusted with the money, had all the answers, yet betrayed Jesus at the end and took his own life rather than accept his failure. Peter also denied Christ three times. But, unlike Judas, he repented and became the leader of the church. So, don’t lose hope simply because you are not where you want to be and don’t try to do things on your own strength either. We are not worthless nor are we gods, but we are soldiers of faith and only as ever as worthy as the authority we are under.
My heart sank when I saw the image of Jonathan Price. I’ll admit, while the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake do matter, it is hard for me to identify with those who turn them into blameless victims and saints.
But this was different. Price, according to reports, was a “pillar in the community” and had been intervening in a domestic incident when Tazed, then fatally wounded, by a responding officer.
The officer has been charged with murder and it will be up to the justice system to decide his guilt or innocence. There is no reason for me to demonize him nor to defend his actions. There are always multiple sides to every story, the bodycam footage is likely to tell us more about the circumstances that led to the shooting, and the officer deserves his day in court.
However, the reason I’m writing this is that there some who are now mocking Price for his taking to social media, back in June, to encourage peace with law enforcement officers. They would have you believe that this is some sort of lesson to him or those who would follow in his footsteps.
This is his post:
The glee that this man learned the hard way and that “they will still want to kill yo’ ass” is wrong on so many levels. No, the death of Price does not disprove his advice nor help to prove the narrative that black men are being gunned down for being black. It certainly does not justify the hatred of the police or make anything he said wrong.
1) There is no proof (yet) that the officer acted with malicious intentions. Police officers are human. Humans make mistakes. It could be very possible that the officer who shot Price horribly misinterpreted the situation or that Price himself did something unintentionally that made him appear to be a threat. If he was simply out to kill black men there would be many far easier ways he could satiate those aims without being as clearly identified as the killer.
2) With rare exceptions, it is still far better to cooperate with law enforcement and not see them as our enemies. Most deadly encounters with police involve some kind of criminal behavior and resistance to lawful commands. That is why I can’t see many of those killed by police (or who died in police custody) as being hapless victims as they are often presented. If people did not fight with officers or run there would be very few deaths.
Price, despite his own tragic end, was right. Yes, he was a black man killed by a police officer. But the officer was promptly charged and, more importantly, this case is the rare exception. The fact remains, no matter your skin color, a person who does not engage in criminal behavior or resist the lawful commands of a police officer is at a much lower risk than a person who does those things.
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Those trying to make a positive difference in the world are taking a risky posture. The sardonic quip, “no good deed goes unpunished” pays homage to this reality that being a Good Samaritan is often not safe. Doing the right thing, getting involved, can cost a person their life. A Google search for “Good Samaritan killed” shows many times where those intervening were harmed and that’s why many keep their heads low rather than get involved.
Chris Kyle, the ‘American Sniper’ was one of those go-getter types. He took an active role in the lives of others and with this trying to help made himself more vulnerable. He took a man under his wing who had some serious mental health issues and ultimately paid with his life.
That, above, is precisely why many run the opposite direction from a crazy person. It is a self-preservation instinct. We know when something is off and we run. This man couldn’t even appreciate the fact that the only reason that he was included at all is that the men he murdered cared about him. They took the risk, they were doing something good that very few are willing to do and paid the ultimate price for their courage.
Price too, by getting involved in a domestic dispute, put himself in a position that was very risky to himself and certainly could’ve just been a bystander. He would very likely still be alive today had he not gotten involved. And yet his bravery took him into a confusing circumstance, led to a police officer mistaking him for the offending party and ended up with him being shot.
Price, like Kyle, had their lives together. They very well could’ve avoided dangerous people and risky situations. They could’ve taken the safe position that many people do. But quite obviously they were willing to stand apart from others. Price by humanizing law enforcement and refusing to go along with the easy tribal narrative. Kyle in his willingness to lay aside his privileged life, as a successful warrior and publicly known personality, to spend time with a troubled man that most would avoid.
These stories could be used as a cautionary tale against this sort of faithfulness. The tribal cynics and true cowards now ridicule Price. They will have you believe that being like him will lead to you being shot. And these same people would probably have stood by, as bystanders, laughed, and made a video for YouTube rather than attempt to intervene on behalf of another. Kyle and Price should be commended for not being content to steer clear of danger as many do. They were being peacemakers.
For They Will Be Called Sons of God
The Beatitudes are a regular part of the liturgy and a wonderful reminder to think beyond our present circumstances. It is basically a list of what true righteousness looks like and the rewards of righteousness:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for your reward is great in heaven.
All of those things listed come at a short-term cost. Humility as opposed to arrogance; sobriety as opposed to mindless merriment; taking a submissive rather than aggressive posture; leaving our comfort zone rather than being complacent, all of these things require one to sacrifice something in the present tense. But the promise, in relation to all, is a later and greater reward.
This is completely at odds with the “get mine” attitude and pursuit of instant gratification of this age.
The idea of a “peacemaker” is not to be in denial of the personal risks of involvement. Entering into the conflict-zone is always a risky affair. Those on either side of a divide could easily mistake you for an enemy combatant. In the fog of war, friendly fire or getting caught in the crossfire are very real possibilities and those entering the fray usually are not unaware of this.
It is courage, not ignorance, that drives a peacemaker into danger. A Christian is supposed to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28) of following after Jesus, the ultimate peacemaker, and consider the price of His obedience. Jesus, the son of God, came into the fray, knowing full well of the pain and suffering He would endure, as a means to make a path of peace between us and God.
It is by the God-man Jesus, the word of God made flesh, that we can become the sons of God through adoption. To be a peacemaker at personal cost is to live beyond ourselves, to live by faith rather than fear, and put on the divine. For those of faith, doing what is right will be rewarded in the end and even if it costs us everything in this life.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
Recently a business page erupted over an earlier post that had offended some. The post, a rather mild meme suggesting that we not judge anyone on the basis of outward appearance, was removed and the owner immediately apologized. They claimed that they had not intended to post the meme, that they did not agree with the content, and this explanation was plausible given that the account doesn’t usually post anything besides menu items.
And yet this did not please the mob. These hate-filled individuals continued to assail the business even in response to the post expressing solidarity with their particular cause. There was blood in the water, the sharks circled with merciless indifference to the pleas and the appeasement strategy clearly was not going to ward off the continuing attacks. They were going to be branded as a horrible and insensitive person no matter what they said. No explanation good enough. Nothing they did prior mattered and there was no way to atone. Last I saw they were open talking about closing up shop as the verbal onslaught carried into a second day after another vain attempt to explain.
The perpetually offended can only ever see through the lens of their victimization and can’t ever be pleased. The mistake many people make, like this hapless small business owner, is that they assume they are dealing with someone like them, someone who can be reasoned with, who wants stability and peace. But I knew a few of the characters in this mob. These weren’t all good people trying to make the world a better place. No, not at all. Some, despite growing up in the same community as me and given every opportunity for success, had made a career out of conniving and seem to thrive on creating chaos for good people. They force others to tiptoe around them while themselves being totally uncaring about the suffering they cause others.
Of course, if you call these clingers to grievance out on their hypocrisy they will suddenly find religion and retreat to “only God can judge me!”
Grievance, in the case of this type of person, is a manipulation tool. It is exploitive of a cultural propensity towards compassion. Those who ply the grievance trade are not interested in solidarity or equal treatment, they are miserable people who want supremacy over others and thrive on creating conflict for their own gain. The only way to win is not to play their game.
The Victim Gambit
Years ago I had been invited to join an online discussion forum. I signed up with a sort of naive optimism, thinking it would be a place for intelligent conversation about things pertaining to theology and my religious sect. But my delusion did not last for long. The site was a lightning rod for the damaged and disgruntled, many of them ex-Mennonites or sexual abuse victims, some of them back for their revenge and others to commiserate.
Of course, I had a great amount of compassion for those who had bad experiences. There was no excuse for what they had gone through and I would gladly stand with them against the abuse they had experienced. However, their experience did not reflect my own nor the values I had been taught and I refused to be the whipping boy for things that had nothing to do with me. I’ll take the weight of the world upon my shoulders sometimes, but I’m not one to allow myself to be bullied.
It was in this encounter with grievance personified that I learned an important lesson. You cannot negotiate with those clinging to and defined by their grievance. Even goodwill gestures will eventually be reinterpreted in ways that a normal and healthy mind could hardly even imagine.
Case and point?
There was a woman on the site, maybe ten years my senior, with a slow burning hatred towards men. She had been sexually assaulted years ago and was completely devastated by the experience. But despite this pity me presentation, they struck most people as being a somewhat reasonable voice and who, along with me, had been given moderator powers. Of course it was important to me to have a positive working experience with them for this and other reasons. I did some outreach and very soon learned of her unfortunate experience many years ago and deduced that it still played an outsized role in defining her worldview.
One Sunday afternoon this chronically depressed individual was expressing their misery and woe, again, and I decided I would do something to try to cheer them up. I drove a little over an hour to where they were to chat face to face and had some vague hope that this would help our communication online as well where my voice or intent was frequently misunderstood by them. The afternoon didn’t go badly, as I recall, and she invited me to McDonald’s nearby for a snack. I had thought about paying, but was slow to the draw as I considered how that would be interpreted and decided we should both pay for our own so this would not be misconstrued.
This kind gesture would come back to haunt me. A few years later I did begin to date and things online began to deteriorate. My moderator counterpart had started to act like a jealous lover and I was too dense, at the time, to figure it out. It all culminated with a bizarre accusation from my girlfriend’s mother (also in a very abusive relationship) using the unique semantics of my moderator counterpart. I knew the source and confronted the source. But I was met with denials, they straight up lied to me about their attempt to sabotage my relationship and claimed to not know what I was talking about. However, eventually, keeping up the pressure, they did confess to the nasty gossip they spread and that could have been the end of it.
Unfortunately, that I had caught them did not improve our relationship. If anything, it made them more determined to undermine me. They had the ear of the site founder (someone who was not frequently on the forum and missed much of the ebbs and flows of things) and, over a moderation technicality, playing the victim, petitioned to have me removed. He obliged the request and I was livid. Had I kept my wits and been a bit more coniving or even just explained my side in more measured tones, I would likely have done better. Still, she had far more practice at her gambit and had been behind the scenes undermining me as well.
Now I had a grievance too. I had always taken the role of feeding controversy to help keep up traffic to the forum. It was all harmless fun for the most part, bantering back and forth. But this time I was not in a playing mood, this person had attempted (and failed) to destroy my new relationship, now they retaliated against me for exposing them (in private) by “having my head” as a moderator and so I took it up with the newly minted replacements. It was in this discussion where an accusation came out, from her, that left me completely aghast.
She accused me, on the basis of my goodwill visit to her years ago, of being a “cheap date” because, out of an abundance of caution and as not to mislead about my intentions, I did not pay for her Big Mac!!!
The insane part is that none of these new moderators called her out for this insanity and it would not have gone over well if I too directly explained why she had absolutely no appeal to me. The designated victim always gets special protection. I suppose it would be cruel to say that this bitter, self-pity consumed and misandristic woman was one of the least attractive people I’ve ever met and had absolutely zero chance of a romantic relationship with me? However, with my help, she was able to successfully poison my relationships there and had me flailing without recourse. Little did I know that even a sincere act of kindness could be weaponized against me.
Good Faith Vs Everlasting Grievance
Good faith refers to the foundational assumptions one must make about their counterpart in a negotiation. All relationships are, to a certain extent, a negotiation and we must trust the intentions of the other person or a productive relationship is impossible. If a person always interprets everything you say or do in the most negative light possible there is no way to effectively communicate. If you express sincere intentions or do something friendly, a poisoned person will see this as an attempt to manipulate and essentially bribe them.
Most go along with the victim gambit out of misguided compassion or for fear that they may become the next target of hate if they were to speak honestly against the ‘victims’ own abuses. Many believe that if they continue to give in to demands, if they keep giving special deference to those possessed by their grievance, that over time this special niceness will somehow heal this wounded individual. But the reality is that those looking the other way and excusing the abuses of the abused are not helpful. No, in fact, they are enablers of abuse, they are allowing others to be harmed.
A grievance should always be heard. We should always be willing to address the conditions that lead to abuse and give those harmed by abuse a chance to express themselves. However, there are some with a grievance who are sincerely looking for answers and others who are merely using their bad experience as political leverage and a means to gain power over others. This latter group is faithless and cannot be satisfied.
Those in the grievance industry may claim to be interested in conversation, but are truly out for blood and the conversation is only a means to gain entry, a foot in the door tactic or Trojan horse. Whether they are trying to sell you a bill of goods or lay waste to your city, there is no good faith in their effort. When you refuse to give in to every demand, if you stand up to their abuses, the faithless aggrieved person will lash out in anger, they will make nasty and absurd personal accusations, then blame you for their hatred. You are not dealing with the person, you are dealing with their demon that will never be satiated and must be exorcized.
When even good faith efforts to bridge a gap in understanding, when the perpetually offended person refuses to see that the problem (which was set in motion by something external) is actually originating with them and how they subjectivity process, they cannot be helped before they are able to acknowledge this and there is no option left besides distance. Those who continue to dwell in their grievance, even after being heard over and over again, should be ignored.
What Would Jesus Do?
Let’s talk about Jesus. But not the milquetoast happy hippie Jesus that many superimpose over him. Let’s talk about the real Jesus who made no apologies, who spoke critically about those who harbored resentment in their hearts and are consumed by blinding hate. There is a time to test the spirits and put some distance between ourselves and those who who absolutely refuse to hear truth:
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.
Matthew 10:14 NIV
This idea that love means infinite niceness and refusal to walk away from anyone is wrong. It is because so many coddled those with a grievance, allow them to continue in their self-deception, that these people learn to use pity and guilt as a means to get what they want. As long as there is incentive to use their grievance in this way they will never reach the end of themselves and get the help they truly need.
Again, not everyone is worth our time trying to understand:
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
Matthew 7:6 NIV
Incidentally, that is preceded by this:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Matthew 7:1-5 NIV
Those who are blinded by grievance are always righteous in their own mind. They are so focused on the sins against them (real or otherwise) that they cannot see that they are the same or worse than those whom they accuse. As justified, without introspection, they are free to heap condemnation on others. They, more often than not, project their own cancerous attitudes onto the imperfect actions of others and can twist even the best-intended goodwill gesture into a terrible transgression. If you open the door for them they will see it as a form of abuse.
It takes wisdom to discern between the person lashing out who can be helped with just a bit of love and those who will only use your concern for their well-being as a means to try to enslave you to their putrid grievance demon. Those who mercilessly assail a small business owner for an errant social media post even after the owner apologized and completely disavowed the message, are beyond what normal compassion can help. Don’t allow them to win, do not play their game, their aim is only to destroy you and are only using your mercy as a means to draw you in close enough to plunge their crooked grievance knife.
Leaving those absent of faith, especially those who claim to be Christian yet are unrepentant about their toxic and hateful attitudes, is sometimes the most loving thing we can do. It can be the only way that finally do reflect on their own true spiritual darkness and reach for the light and love of salvation. Or, at the very least, the distance we keep between us and them prevents us from being poisoned by them. Love never means enabling sin.
Good faith begins with living out, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and all people acknowledging their culpability in the mess as a starting point. Those clinging to an oppression narrative, enveloped in grievance culture, cannot truthfully pray that prayer and should not be considered part of the community of faith until they do. Good faith means understanding “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and forgiving our enemies.
There are many things largely forgotten to history, one of them a horrendous tragedy that took place on June 15th, 1904, near “Hell’s Gates” on the East River, which would forever change one ethnic community in New York City, and that being the General Slocum ferry disaster.
What had started as an annual church excursion of German-Americans, mostly women and children, from their community in the city’s East Village to Long Island, ended with terror and over 1000 deaths. The poorly maintained boat caught fire, while underway, fire fighting equipment failed and the wooden craft quickly became an inferno.
Helpless mothers, unable to swim themselves, especially not in the heavy clothing of the time, put life preservers on their children only to see them sink like rocks into the river as the cork in the flotation devices had degraded. The Captain, likely trying to avoid causing a more devastating fire on shore, decided to head for some islands, into the wind, which only made the wooden ferry into a blow torch before it felt apart.
The result of this hell on earth was the eventual dissolution of the German-American community in New York City and one can only imagine the personal torment this left for the survivors and the fathers and husbands left behind.
My worse nightmare is not being able to help those whom I love. I had, in casual conversation with a psychiatrist, been told that I showed symptoms of PTSD after the unexpected death of Saniyah and judging from my current awful feelings and tears right now, from writing this, I would guess that they were right in their analysis.
If only seeing someone I loved deeply wail the loss of their daughter could rip the fabric of my being to such an extent, I can’t even begin to imagine what seeing them roasted alive would do. Lord have mercy!
My Covid-19 Mini-Crisis
Being raised in an American culture that too often confuses health and prosperity with God’s favor, the idea that someone that I love could be felled by a virus seems obscene. But, faith, right? Shouldn’t faith prevent my family members and loved ones from dying prematurely from a virus?
But it seems that the truly Orthodox have no such delusion. True, Fr. Seraphim expressed his belief that one cannot become sick through their participation in the body of Christ. However, even still, that does not preclude the possibility of our becoming sick during the fellowship and interactions afterward, does it?
It is was in the contemplation of father’s words that I ran across the story of early Christians who, unlike their pagan neighbors who fled, deliberately went into harm’s way to attend to their plague suffering neighbors. They attended to the sick, taking the illness upon themselves in many cases and succumbing in as much agony as anyone else.
How could this be?
Did their faith mean anything at all?
My own thoughts continued an ongoing internal discussion about the evidence (or lack thereof) for a God that actually cares. In my American-tinted perspective, they should have been protected from disease to prove God’s sovereignty over all of creation and show the truth of their Christian testimony, that’s only logical, right?
I can’t claim to understand. All I know is that many of them died, yet the stories of their extraordinary faith spread throughout the Roman world and you can still read of their testimony even in Foreign Policy articles published in our time. They died and yet they also demonstrated an example of love that has lived on to this very day and have defied my own logic in that.
We have but one life to live, all people die eventually, yet it is said that all people have two deaths: The first death being their physical death, when their body is put into the grave. Then a second ‘death’ at some point in the future when their name is said for the last time. And, I would argue that, in that light, those who, in faith, sacrificed their lives for their neighbor’s sake have actually outlived those who fled in fear.
It turns out that the Christ of Christianity only ever promised a life of suffering for others to those who would follow him. The ‘faith’ of those seeking health and wealth is shallow and will fall apart in times of crisis. But true faith lives for the good of others, despite uncertainty and fear, the proof is not in their own health so much as their faithful and lasting impact on the world.
No, your faith will not spare you, but if you live in love you will find God waiting on the other side of your suffering.
How I Have Seen God At Work
This may be a strange way to make an announcement of sorts, but I’ve never professed to be anything other than strange. I mean, I’ve tried to act normal, yet it never seems to work out for me. And so I guess I work with what I’m given, right?
Anyhow, I mentioned a bhest in past blogs, including my last blog, and haven’t really explained what bhest really means.
Right now, on the opposite of the world from where I am currently writing, lives a beautiful flower, her name is Charlotte. I found her in a moment of great faith, when my life remained consumed in my Mennonite identity and struggle with the father of a young woman, and had agreed to participate in her life as only an encouragement. She had moved to Taiwan, from her mountain home in the Philippines, as a means to support her son and secure an annulment from the father of her son.
Given her marital situation (along with my Mennonite and purity culture priorities) and my continued faithful pursuit of the impossibility, I told her that our relationship would have to remain platonic (which is something she allowed without any protest) and offered to be her encouragement. My commitment was to show her that someone still cared about her life, despite her being separated from family and not having anyone else to turn to at the time. At the time I was also on the road, away from home, so I understood the loneliness that comes with separation from family and friends.
There was a bit of a pattern that developed. I would be her faithful wake up call, to wish her a wonderful day, but later (with the stress of a high-pressure work environment and conflicts with coworkers) she would come back online with the crying puppy emoticon, which was my signal to get to work, and I would make it my mission to cheer her up again. Soon, by whatever miracle, I would have her laughing and smiling again.
At some point, pretty early on, she asked me if it was okay if she would call me “bhest” and (after a momentary hesitation to consider the potential damage of letting her use a term of endearment in our context) I decided to give her permission. It is a term that I had no idea what it meant really then and still am not entirely sure. But, eventually, it felt dumb to let her be alone in using that term, there was no term and thus she too became my bhest.
Bhest, according to Charlotte, meant this: “the very best best person, who is my friend, who is always beside me, to pray for me, advise me, cheer me up and who really shows care for me.”
Bhest, best explained, is a word mystical in meaning, has become a sort of joint identity and not something my words can easily explain. But I do know that it stands for a commitment to care. And, when my own road reached an end in the Mennonite church, like hitting a brick wall, it was the hand of my bhest reaching through, telling me in a moment of suicidal darkness, “if you go, take me with you,” and demonstrated a level of commitment to me even greater than my mother. It was then that I decided to stay to serve this lost sheep that I had found and if only for her good.
Charlotte’s happiness, I decided, was worth my suffering through another day of this life. The seed of faith that I gave to her months before, in my pure concern for her, grew into a limb that I could hold onto until my own feet again. She was the one who told me to “be strong for her” and gave me the courage to walk through the doors of Holy Cross, in Williamsport, on the road to my Orthodox conversion. And it was Charlotte who finally gave me that reason to no longer be “thirty years old living in Milton” (as the faithless alternative explained) and compelled me, months later, to board a Boeing 747 headed for the other side of the world.
Bringing This to the Present
There is so much I could say about Charlotte and her son. So many moments, from profound moments of sadness together (after the murder of her uncle Roland) to those of our greatest joy and many others somewhere in between. Her family has embraced me, reposed uncle Roland especially, welcomed me with open arms, and made me feel right at home twelve timezones from my current residence. I honestly felt like I had experienced a taste of heaven in Baguio City and in our various excursions.
Now that country, like my own, is experiencing the same Covid-19 lockdown (albeit stricter than my own) and our hopes for the future are overshadowed with even greater uncertainty than before. But at least Charlotte is stranded, for once, with her son Y-dran, whom she loves deeply despite being separated from him for years. He’s a real handful, a biter when I met him (who learned quickly that, unlike his grandma and aunts, I bite back), and has since matured to a bright (while still completely energetic) eight-year-old. His wide smile always welcomed me and I’ve missed him since our first meeting.
More recently, due to his history of illness, and a recent bout with pneumonia (he’s still coughing), along with the spread of Covid-19 worldwide, along with my own struggles due to some history of my own mentioned earlier, it has been exceedingly difficult for me to rest easy and trust God in this moment of chaos.
In one of my silly, more romantic moments, after Charlotte watched one of my favorite movie classics, “The Last of the Mohicans,” I recited to her the words of Hawkeye, “You be strong, you survive! You stay alive, no matter what occurs, I will find you! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!” Which was a promise said with a little smile and laughter, nevertheless pretty accurately represents the commitment that I’ve made to her. I’ve nearly had to make real on that once when she called me after almost being abducted by two men, while in Taiwan, and our current situation has left me wondering what extreme measures might be necessary to bring her here to my side, with her son, our son, Y-dran?
As of today, upon the request of Y-dran (a shortened version of his full name, pronounced yid-run) himself, that I will begin to call Y-dran my son. I had worried a few months ago whether or not a young Igorot boy, with his own biological father, would ever accept this goofy overwrought religious refugee American. But we hardly even speak the same language yet (although he was actually using sign language today and will likely learn English far quicker than I learn Tagalog and his tribal tongue) and yet he has asked me if I could be his father. *gulp* I really didn’t know how to express all my excitement, he had completely pre-empted all of my preparations for the future where I would need to explain this, where I would have to walk gingerly to avoid undermining the man that is his biological father, and now I do not have to worry about that.
And, speaking of prayer, unprompted, Y-dran, after all that, requested that I lead the prayers before he went to bed. So, being as Orthodox Christian as I know to be, I gathered myself and my phone, we went to the prayer corner of my house and led in the Lord’s prayer before praying for our future together, that it may come quickly and that he can remain healthy until then.
Dreams and Prayers
I have big dreams of what to do as a father with his son. But I also have a fear that hangs over me. My own life has been full of hopes ripped away from me right at the time when I thought things were in the clear. Now, before I can have my happy and simple life, with a little broken and repaired family, there is this monster called Covid-19 lurking in the darkness. I have full awareness of the terrible tragedies that have cut down the faithful and heathen alike, sometimes on a bright sunny day, like that day those German-Americans boarded General Slocum before their final hellish terror.
However, come hell or high water, I am determined, as determined as I am to pursue impossibility in faith, to not live my life in fear. I believe that God exists and that God is good because I have not alternative. I believe in God because without God there is no good. Logic and reason cannot explain away the feelings I have for my precious bhest and her livewire son. Even if we are cruelly kept apart for many more years, due to legal nonsense or plague, I know we will be together again and someday soon.
May God have mercy on us!
Only will tell if my dreams for this life will ever come true. It is easier for me to predict a global pandemic than to know if my next few days, weeks, or years on this planet will be happy or harrowing. Maybe my battered faith will finally meet it’s match, in something awful yet to come, and my hopes finally drown in a seas of despair. Nevertheless, as long as I’m alive, let my hymn be this: “Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have set our hope in Thee.” And, in the perilous days ahead, may I cling all the more to the words of St Paul:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39 NIV)
P.s., Y-dran, like his father, is also a fan of Dunkin donuts, which they do have in the Philippines, so the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree!