No, Your Faith Will Not Spare You…But God Is Still Good!

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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.

Crisis averted.

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.

Prayer answered.

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!

Going Full Circle, I’ve Decided to Start a House Church…

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Life is full of strange and unexpected twists.

Upon leaving the denomination of my birth, I had joked that my two choices were to a) start “The Perfect Church of Joel” or b) become Orthodox. But, since I lacked the ambition and other qualifications for being a cult leader, the latter was my only option and became Orthodox.

However, now, only a year and a half after my Chrismation, and due to circumstances that are beyond my control, I am currently in the planning stages of a house church.

Yes, I realize that this might come as a big surprise to many of you, it could appear like a complete one-eighty and reeks of instability, but it is a necessary step.

I know, I’ve always questioned this new house church trend where a few Protestant fundamentalist separatists, willful people who can’t agree with anyone about anything, who claim to be copying the early church and decide they are better off doing church themselves.

Sheer arrogance, right?

I mean, the Amish do this too, I suppose, in that they do not have designated church buildings and meet in homes. Yet, they do it in a completely different spirit, they maintain a real community beyond their own immediate family and are truly accountable to an orthodox tradition that transcends them as individuals.

So how did I go completely from one end of the spectrum, from a church with two millennia of history, with ornate architecture and a strong emphasis on Communion, in a universal sense, to deciding that I need to start a church in my own home?

My Journey to the House Church…

Okay, before I give Fr. Seraphim a heart-attack, I have no plans on leaving the Holy Cross family in Williamsport. None whatsoever. In fact, my decision to start a house church has everything to do with Orthodox tradition and my beginning to comprehend the reason behind a particular practice—that practice being an iconstasis.

Orthodox churches have an iconstasis, it is basically a wall with images of Jesus, Mary, various saints and angels situated between the nave (where the congregation is gathered) and the altar where the bread and wine are consecrated. It is a reflection of how the Jerusalem temple was laid out, where the “Holy of Holies” was separated by a veil, and is symbolic of the connection between heaven and the “Holy Place” of the nave.

I had been contemplating how to incorporate an “icon corner” in my new home (a place on an East wall of an Orthodox home designated for prayer and worship) when I found out that this is also called an iconstasis.

Interesting…

As it turns out, this prayer corner in Orthodox homes harkens back to the real house churches of the early church. Every Christian home is supposed to be a microcosm of the Church, a wedding being basically equivalent to an ordination service, the parents acting as the clergy and the children being the laity of this house church. The designated area for prayer and worship in the home mirrors that of the parish church building and early house churches.

As an aside, it is necessary to note, given currently popular notions pertaining to corporate worship in modern times, that the idea of a house church being a sort of informal affair is entirely wrong. In the early church, when meeting in houses, according to first hand account, the priests and bishops were in a room east of the laymen (and women, who sat separately) with the deacon guarding the door and keeping the congregation in line. It was an orderly liturgical service and not a free-for-all. And, likewise, worship at home today should still be similarly structured.

The Very Protestant Problem of Division

Growing up, as a Mennonite, we would have “family devotions” and prayer before meals. This was always informal, where we were at, and never really patterned as a church service. It was not called or considered house church. Church for me then was the assembling together of the body of Christ on Sundays and on other days of the week—and that church service was a semi-formal affair, with a definite form and structure.

In decades since my childhood, at least in the conservative Mennonite circles that I ran in, it has become more and more commonplace to skip corporate worship services, on occasion, and to “have church” with just the youth, family members on a weekend retreat or what have you. There are some who have taken it a step further and ceased with their mixing with non-biological brothers and sisters, and cousins (or the otherwise impure) altogether and replaced it with a casual around-the-campfire or lounging-in-the-living-room kind of house church affair that can last at least as long as their biological children lack access to a means transportation and escape.

The trendline in Protestant denominations is abundantly and woefully clear. There has been a steady march away from any established order, any authority besides ones own opinion, and Protestantism has played a key role in this development. What started as an attempt at reformation has ended as a fracturing of the Western church into thousands competing and often very contradictory entities. From the dwindling Fred Phelps types on one side to growing “woke” crowd on the other, it is very little wonder that this form of Christianity has led many to abandon the enterprise of faith altogether.

There is no need for a Jerusalem council in the current climate. No, in this denominational chaos, there is no longer a need to even practice a Christian love that is willing to work through differences, no reason to submit or show deference to anyone, you just stay home or start a new even smaller, more pure and perfect group and move on.

It is a classic purity spiral, it is a result of people heading their own opinions over the urging of St Paul:

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3‭-‬6 NIV)

There isn’t much effort towards that end anymore, is there?

The Protestant house church, often billed as a return to the early church, is merely a next step in the direction of individualism and it is little wonder when children raised in such an environment continue down this path of division in search of a new purity on their own terms. Many will find congregations that require less of them, others will join the growing ranks of “nones” who simply stay at home Sundays, but some of the more ambitious will attempt to recreate a perfect church in their own image.

The Church That Spans Dichtomies

Fortunately there are other options, the dichtomies of Protestantism. As it turns out, Christians do not need to choose between participation in the universal church (by attending services in a church building with other spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ) and having a “house church” primarily biological relatives, former denominational cohorts and close friends.

There is a solution to this paradox where you can both have your cake and eat it too: You can (and should) have a house church with your families, but can (and should) also maintain the unity of the faith and be in Communion with the Church body that transcends denominationalism and has an unbroken chain of ordinations back to the time of the Apostles.

In Orthodox Christianity, every man is a priest and his wife co-ordained as the leaders of their own church/home, that is what their marriage implies. But there are also priests over priests, and everyone (man and woman alike) is still accountable to the “priesthood of all believers” (which is to say the Church) and must submit to each other, especially the elder, as St Paul instructs:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)

It is impossible to obey that teaching above while being your own boss.

I’m under no delusion about the Orthodox hierarchy, there are problems there like anything else people are involved. I do not submit to their perfection. I do, however, submit in Christian love, to honor my Lord, and in knowing my own unworthiness. I have no need to be the priest, at least not until God ordains it through his Church, but do see an urgent need for all Christians to submit one to another as we are told many times in Scripture.

You can have a house church and be Orthodox. In fact you should have a house church if you are Orthodox and that is historically well-established.

But you simply cannot be Orthodox or truly Christian and refuse to acknowledge that the church is bigger than you and your own comprehension or ideas.

Orthodoxy, once again, simultaneously occupies both sides of an argument in both strongly encouraging home church while also—at the same time—rejecting the spirit of Diotrephes of those who acknowledge no authority besides their own and set about to create a new pure church in their own image.

Four Mennonite Sons

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There was, one hundred years ago, a Mennonite family with four sons. They lived near a small rural village on the outskirts of a bustling city, with their three sisters, and two parents. Life was simple. They would get up early, milk the cows, then clean the stalls, before heading in for a hearty breakfast at mom’s dining room table, then out for the fieldwork or to cut firewood. The seasons of planting and harvesting were busy times, but there was always plenty of work year-round. There were community events, almost always involving donated labor, to raise a barn or help some struggling neighbor harvest their crops, but life revolved around the daily chores, tending to the animals, the repetitive cycles of the crops, occasional trips to town and church attendance.

In their spare time, evenings before going to bed or after dinnertime on the slower seasons, these boys would read. They had a keen interested in history and current events. The books gave them a window into the world beyond the horizon, beyond the slow pace of his agricultural lifestyle, where great men made important decisions, tales of war, of how his Anabaptist ancestors had suffered intensely for their faith, stories of missionaries traveling to exotic locations, reports the new technology that promised to change everything, and all of this captivated these young men. Their 8th-grade education and sheltered agrarian lifestyle may have left them in wide-eyed wonderment—like the first time they saw that WW1 surplus Jenny JN-4 biplane flying over the family farm—but this did not make them ignorant or lacking in intelligence.

The eldest son, Joseph, was the spitting image of his father, he had seen the farm grow, had participated in the hard work and toil right from the beginning, this simple lifestyle was as ingrained in his heart as the dirt was ground into his calloused hands. He had his dad’s work ethic, would never complain about physical labor, and he had that wiry strength common to farm boys. It is said that once, as a teenager, one of the town boys seeing this naive Mennonite, tried to pick a fight, even landing a blow, before John gave his antagonist a big bear hug, repeated “I don’t want to fight” and then put the stunned bully down. That bully would go on to be the mill owner, a friend, who would always tell that story, but John would laugh and claim that it was exaggerated, a tall tale. John, who had basically inherited his father’s farm, would continue to implement new techniques, was very successful, a respected member of the local community, married his sweetheart and they faithfully attended the church of his childhood.

The second oldest, the ever-inventive Henry, found a way to improve a farm implement, he started manufacturing in the shop on his dad’s farm, but soon outgrew the shop and purchased some land nearer to the city where he built his first factory. By following his passion for business, employing his hardworking heritage, he became very wealthy and could afford to treat his child to luxuries he could not have even imagined at their age. His life was always full of activities, parties, baby showers, vacations (his wife loved the beach, how could he say no?) and, of course, the daily grind of running an industrial production schedule. His life was dominated by the clock, by the calendar of events, the sports teams, politics, etc. He loved technology and one day brought home a brand new cabinet radio/record player that he had purchased at Sears. But, as busy as they were, and despite leaving his father’s old-fashioned church behind, religion still played an important role in the life of his family and he did his best to instill conservative values, his charitable giving (not for attention) made him a noteworthy character and admired amongst those in need.

Hudson was the third of the sons, said to be named after the famed Protestant missionary to China (although it may have been the automobile of the same name), was the more earnest of the four sons. One day an evangelist came to town, despite attendance being discouraged by the church elders, he (with his brothers) was in the audience. The message tugged at his sensitive heart, he rose to his feet shaking, walked the sawdust trail, and had a “born again” experience. Now, truth be told, he had never really been that rebellious, he had had some terrible guilt about seeing some female peers taking a dip in the pond and spending an extra moment observing, but he had always been thoughtful, considerate, and conscientious sort. But now, freedom from his sin, he was determined to serve. He taught at the newly formed Mennonite high school, eventually became a founding member of Mennonite World Aid, an outreach of the conference created to appease those longing to be missionaries, and even did a stint in post-WW2 Europe. He raised his large family to be Anabaptist (although he saturated them with fundamentalist literature) and was followed everywhere by his adoring perpetually pregnant wife.

Then there was Clyde. Clyde was the black sheep of the family, saw John as naive, not too interested in technology like Henry (other than his camera) and certainly far more cynical than Hudson. He didn’t have much appreciation for the farm life. He soon realized that his church was taught by ignorant rubes who got their “ordination” by seeming sincere enough to nominate and then picking up the right Bible. He at first decide to do the Mennonite missionary thing, but he was more or less there to observe and take pictures, and then headed off to university to satiate his hunger for knowledge. Yet, beneath all of this ‘liberal’ smugness, was a compassionate and caring heart. He would go on to write books, people loving to hear about his experience growing up as a traditional Mennonite (although things had really changed significantly before he was old enough to remember) and he was eventually hired as the pastor of the big conference church. Unlike his forebearers, he used his pulpit to spread about social issues, encouraging diversity, reprimanding the “ethnic church” for not caring enough about minorities, the poor, victims, etc.

All of the sons remained Mennonite. And yet all, besides John, had dramatically changed what it meant to be Mennonite. Even John’s life became more chaotic and cluttered than that of his father’s, some of his sons gave up farming (land was too expensive) and worked at his brother Henry’s factory, others (also smitten by an emotional ‘revival’ preacher” carried out Hudson’s vision, but all remained active in their congregations. Henry’s sons embraced the comforts of modern life, they drove muscle cars, listened to popular music and were a little wild before settling down. Of course, Hudson’s sons, all home-schooled (a necessity on the mission field) were a mixture of sheltered and exposed, they all thought of their father as sort of saintly character and were determined to spread ‘Anabaptism’ to the corners of the world. Then there was Clyde’s only child, an avowed feminist, decrying the patriarchy, privilege, police brutality, and basically indistinguishable from the other trust-fund babies who shared his far-leftist views—to him Jesus was basically a political tool, a means to shame his more practical cousins, and a philosopher superseded by Karl Marx.

Nothing about the new generation was the same as their grandfathers. Horses had been long replaced by tractors, the suburbs had encroached on the farmland inheritance and the influence of the ‘liberal’ cousins was having an impact on Joe’s old Mennonite orthodoxy that had been unquestioned for decades, more and more switched from farming to carpentry or manufacturing as economic realities pressed into their communities. More of Henry and Hudson’s descendants (who still crossed paths as conservative Mennonites) became disenchanted with the status quo, some looking for a more lively worship experience, others being disillusioned by the Protestant influence started to question the foundation of their religious tradition, some were angry about hidden abuses, and there were special conferences held to discuss the “Anabaptist identity” crisis. The trappings of modern life had slowly but surely crept into their lifestyle, smartphones were prevalent, pornography caused anxiety amongst many and the austerity of the past would have been appealing if they had the time to stop and think about it.

Confessions of the Prodigal’s Older Brother—the Rough Road To Be Free Of Resentment

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I do not call for the judgment of anyone, but it seems only right that good behavior is rewarded. And yet it is often unruly people who get the loving attention when they do bad and then the accolades when they begin to do what the well-behaved have been doing quietly for years.

The conscientious person feels bound to their duty to righteousness. They are driven by loyalties to people, motivated by moral obligation and take responsibility for the welfare of others. It was not out of a desire to be recognized, it is a burden they’ve been carrying since birth, it is never a choice for them, but rather is something inescapable, a prison and hell.

I’ve been that tortured soul. I’ve always wanted to do everything right and for the right reasons. While definitely wanting to be my own person and entitled to my own thoughts, I had no desire to be a troublemaker or disruption. I tried to be cooperative and compliant, to make the lives of my teachers and authorities easier, because I knew the greater social good was dependent upon this and would not be served by my selfish outbursts.

I could never live this ideal out perfectly. I had a standard for myself, a part of the religious inheritance I received as a Mennonite, that was impossible to live out. My frustration with this reality of my own failure would sometimes come bubbling up. Something would set me off and, in the privacy of my parent’s home, I would rage against this awful predicament and the unfairness of it all.

The carefree (and careless) younger brother…

A week or two ago some resentment returned. This change in mood was likely triggered by two things (or rather two conversations) and one of them being an encounter with David Bercot on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The other thing? I had a run-in with my own Prodigal side.

We claim there are consequences for sin. This is how we convince ourselves that our righteous inclinations are correct and there is really no other way to justify depriving oneself of hedonistic pleasure. If it doesn’t matter what we do, no real score kept for right or wrong in the end, then we might as well just have some fun, right?

I’m friends with one of those “bad boys” who (despite his heart of gold) doesn’t care what other people think and has done things at his age that were unimaginable for me. He is a ladies’ man, he’s that guy the young women (yes, even the ‘good’ ones) feel comfortable playing around with, and is basically my antithesis.

I can’t help but love him. He was my true friend a few years ago, heard me spout venom at those who had hurt me with their self-righteous indifference, and never said a word of condemnation. That said, his recklessness and lack of my seriousness, while I was fighting for all I was worth to stay glued together after a devastating announcement, had also sparked my most violent and evil imaginations.

I can’t hold him accountable, though. I look at his freedom with a bit of envy in that at any moment he could decide to settle down, marry the perfect girl (drawn by his charm) and carry no stigma. Me, however, I was always outside looking in, I wasn’t allowed (by character or circumstance) to partake of that “wild” youth nor given the legitimacy that is his for the taking once he decides to settle down.

I’m not jealous of or bitter toward him. Why should I be? But what I do struggle with is anger towards the religious culture that made me, that fed me a steady stream of false promises and left me feeling completely betrayed in the end. Specifically, I’m still upset with the fathers who dismissed me with their cynical calculations and their daughters who continually rejected my sincerest efforts—while meanwhile crawling all over the reckless and indifferent guys.

It is bad enough to go unrecognized. But we seem to live in a world where no good deed goes unpunished, where caring (when others do not) is mischaracterized as creepiness and doing right for the right reasons is often stigmatized. It seems my obeying conscience doesn’t allow me the freedom of rebellion nor does it gain me the approval of those who told me that my conscientious is a good thing when I do what is right in spite of their opinions.

The daddy issues of the Prodigal’s older brother…

The problem with the older brother, in the parable Jesus told about the Prodigal son who returns home, was deeper than his resentment over the celebration for his wayward brother. His indignation was towards his father:

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:28‭-‬30 NIV)

This anger is likely due to a misconception the older brother had about his father. He obeyed. However, he obeyed for fear of consequences rather than purely as a matter of conscience. His motivation, while in some respects a devotion to his father, was also a desperate effort to secure his place in the family and a mistrust of father’s love. He, like the servant who buried his talent for fear of punishment, couldn’t comprehend being loved for anything other than his performance and had lived in fear rather than faith.

Can you imagine having spent years trying to hold up your own end of the bargain, working hard to produce because that’s how your father’s love is earned, only to have the bubble burst?

In my own case, it was not entirely my own fault that I saw God, my heavenly Father, as this sort of vengeful tyrant. As one raised in a fundamentalist setting there is plenty of reason why I would assume that God’s love is based on my own performance rather than something freely shared to all who accept it and that’s because my earthly fathers often did keep me in limbo. Revivalistic preaching undermined any assurance of salvation, my life could never measure up to their purity standards, and their love for me was limited by what I was able to provide for them.

For years my hopes for love outpaced my resentments. I would tell myself that next time will be different, that my fears of always being on the margins of their paradise were unfounded, and eventually Christian love would triumph over my inadequacies. However that paradigm came crashing down in spectacular fashion when a young woman, someone to whom my hope against hopes (in respect for her professed devotion) were fully invested, said “I can’t love you like that,” which was to say that she really could not love me at all, and destroyed that last hope of a way to her or rather her father’s world.

Trying to please the lawyer’s God…

Over the past weeks, I’ve felt whipsawed. That is to say, I’ve felt pulled between two seemingly opposed views that together undermine my peace with God and the ability to live a victorious life. The first being how the Prodigal gets the embrace while I’ve often been ignored or, worse, had those whose love I had desired recoil as if I was some sort of monster. The second being the inescapable legalistic mindset that is at complete odds with true Christian love.

I have nothing against men like David Bercot personally. In fact, I see them as men very much like myself a few years ago, they diligently search Scripture trying to find their salvation, and yet they are far more capable than I’ll ever be. Their dedication and discipline would seem to be commendable and even something enviable. However, their standard is something I’ve found to be out of my own reach and their religious prescriptions often come at the expense of love.

Bercot, like so many others including myself, is law rather than love oriented. By this I mean we prioritize precise legal interpretation and application of law above the loving purpose behind it. In other words, we are like those religious experts Jesus encountered, who do things like tithe spices, are more concerned with the day someone is healed than the fact that they have been healed, remained as dogmatic even when entering the church and had to be put in their place:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:1‭-‬12 NIV)

Paul’s pun at the end does not take away from the serious warning in his words. Those trying to please God through their careful obedience to the law “have fallen away from grace” and are thus obligating themselves to an impossible standard. They will either end up deluded (like the Pharisee praying loudly about his own superiority to others) or desperately trying to cross all the T’s and dot all of the I’s and ending up in despair when his/her effort falls woefully short of God’s perfection.

Where I’ve found God’s love…

My goal is not to be the rebellious Prodigal son or the one whose careful dedication ended in bitter disappointment. Both of them have fallen short in love for their father or in understanding their father’s love for them and have suffered consequences as a result. The story isn’t intended so that we go out to sow our wild oats, enjoying the pleasures we are afforded us as a result of our inheritance, and then come back to our father’s house again. It isn’t just a warning against a superficial closeness either.

The true meaning of the story is for us to be more like our heavenly Father, who is perfect in mercy and loves even when His love is not reciprocated. Yes, there is a law, not the kind of law that pleases a sanctimonious religious lawyer, but a law summed up by Jesus:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37‭-‬40 NIV)

When we love God we do not worry about being stigmatized like Jesus and his disciples were for breaking with the harsh and unloving application of the law. We stop trying to please those impossible to please, stop believing God is some tyrant finger over the “smite” key waiting for us to slip up, and start doing what is possible to do out of love for our neighbors. It is in remembering that Jesus came to save and not to condemn the world—that through his love even the vilest of sinners can find eternal life.

I still struggle with my hurts despite God’s grace towards me. I still find myself trying to please people who have made pretty much zero real investment in my well-being spiritual or otherwise—who absolutely refused to reciprocate my love for them. I could easily become unsettled again, reject the greater blessing I’ve received by pursuing the promises of those who attempt to live by a standard impossible to please.

But I choose to love those whom God has entrusted to me instead and even if it costs me what little remains of my Mennonite reputation. I would rather lose it all for sake of the kingdom than to return to the bondage of fundamentalist expectations. Jesus loved despite the disapproval of his religious peers and that’s the love that will overcome my feelings of resentment as one who followed the rules and got burnt. It is a rough road some days, but we are called to suffer rejection and carry our cross.

Orthodox Christian Response to the Descendants of Anabaptism

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Fr. Anthony Roeber, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, and a Professor of Church History, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Yonkers, New York, and a friend of mine, had agreed to answer some questions asked by my Mennonite friends.

Before getting to those questions and his answers, I want to express my gratitude to him, to those brave enough to ask questions, and also for those of you lurking in the shadows. And, while I would much prefer that we could all meet over coffee together, I am still grateful for the opportunity to virtually introduce you and pray that this dialogue is beneficial.

So without further ado…

Question: How does Orthodox Christianity make worship more about God’s glory than Anabaptists do?

Fr. Anthony: I would not suggest that any version of Protestantism neglect’s the glory of God, but the real question that has to be asked is what is Orthodox worship all about. The central focus of the Liturgy involves hearing the Word of God “rightly divided in truth” as well as the reception of the Eucharist—which means Thanksgiving—for the gift of his continued presence in all the Mysteries of the Church, all of which are critical to our on-going journey toward union with God. Right worship always includes acknowledging our privilege as the royal and priestly people who as adopted sons and daughters of God are able to worship him in spirit and in truth. That means that right worship involves the whole person—all the senses, the intellect, the emotions, bodily postures. But that worship also, and always confesses our failures both individual and collective to respond to his grace and the gift of faith. This is why our lives, including the Liturgy, continue to involve living under the Cross—and the need for constant repentance—turning back to God—and the change of heart that is our daily struggle, both individually and collectively. The Liturgy the Orthodox believe is a participation in the eternal Liturgy that is constantly being offered before the throne of God where the bodiless powers of heaven, Mary, the mother of God, and all the saints who have been well-pleasing to him from the beginning already share in a more intimate way in that praise and thanksgiving that will achieve its final shape and fulfillment at the resurrection of the dead and the Second and Final Coming. Liturgy, for the Orthodox, is therefore always eschatological—we are looking forward to his return. And, the Orthodox can claim that this is the way we have always worshipped, even if specific customs and rituals are slightly different in different cultures and places.

Question: I’m bothered by what happened with we Anabaptists in the Reformation (rebellion) 500 years ago. As a group, is there hope for we who left to be reunited back to an ancient branch of the church? In a collective way, can what has been done be undone? Would it take individuals journeying back to a Catholic church, or could some sort of collective reconciliation be made?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox identify themselves as the Church that acknowledges the unbroken Tradition of the Church from the very beginning of apostolic times. The Church has been forced by error to articulate aspects of that same faith in the form of the Nicaean Creed for example, and by other general councils of the Church that had to address false versions of the Gospel—the presbyter Arius’ claim that the Son of God was a created God, that there was a time when He was not—and so on. No one in any culture and in any tradition is automatically excluded from the communion of the saints that is the Orthodox Church. But since the Anabaptists were a 16th-century innovation of how the Gospel is understood, and they broke with the Latin Church whose bishop in Rome had already left the communion of the Orthodox. So the Anabaptists were never in communion with the Orthodox, and hence it is probably not correct to talk of “reconciliation,” but rather of how and whether the Anabaptists individually or collectively can accept the unbroken Tradition of Orthodoxy which in some aspects, would understand why for example, the peace testimony of the Anabaptists attempts to do justice to the early Church’s desire to witness to Christ’s own teachings as the God who forgives, who is merciful, who does not wish the death of any sinner.

Question: Since the Reformation, Anabaptist churches have been plagued by schism. How/why is the Orthodox church free from this? What does she have that we don’t?

Fr. Anthony: It would not be honest to say that the Orthodox Church has always succeeded in keeping everyone within the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. The Church of the East broke communion with the Orthodox by refusing to acknowledge Jesus’ mother as the “God-bearer” thereby casting doubt on whether Jesus of Nazareth was and is fully God. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 finally could not persuade the Coptics, Armenians, and some Syrians that the Church’s attempt to say that Christ is one person with two natures, one fully divine, one fully human, in perfect communion with each other, unconfused, unmixed—was correct or sufficient. And finally, the Roman Church broke communion with the Orthodox by altering the words of the Nicean Creed unilaterally—in violation of the consensus that had been arrived at in council and to which Rome had signed its support and assent. Nonetheless, the Orthodox continue as they always have, confessing, and worshipping as they always have, neither adding nor subtracting from what they have received from the witnesses of the Resurrection. It is this insistence upon an unbroken Tradition that is confessed and sustained wherever the bishop with his presbyters, deacons, and people are gathered around the Mysteries of the Church that has sustained Orthodoxy in the face of persecutions and martyrdoms that continue right into the present day.

Question: What does Orthodoxy desire from Protestants and Anabaptists? Does she have an ideal vision for us and our future? Is she OK with us being alienated from our spiritual past?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox pray that all people in all places and times and cultures find their true home in the Orthodox Church. No, the Church is not “okay” with the inadequate—however sincere—confession of the fullness of the faith that it sees in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In short, the Church prays that those who have never been part of the Church or have strayed from it find their way home. It is the obligation of the Orthodox not to put obstacles in the way of those who wish to be members of the Church—but because the Church is made up of fallible and sinful men and women, this has not always been done as it should be.

Finally, one of my own questions: Mennonites and other Anabaptists take a firm stand against violence and cite the Sermon on the Mount as the basis for this. First, what is the Orthodox view of “non-resistance” as described in Matthew 5:39 and elsewhere in Scripture? Second, do the Orthodox have their own version of just war theory?

Fr. Anthony: There is no “just war theory” or theology in Orthodoxy. The Orthodox recognize not merely the scriptural teaching you mention but the witness of the saints, many of whom have suffered martyrdom rather than respond to violence with violence. At the same time, the Orthodox recognize that situations arise when the failure of an Orthodox Christian to defend the weak, the helpless, the innocent, would itself be hard to justify before the Judgement Seat of Christ. But the taking of human life—in any form—is sinful, and must be repented of with a firm intention not to repeat such a grave sin in the future. There may be circumstances when the individual or the community of faith feel compelled to defend themselves or others, but the Orthodox do not spend a lot of time trying to work out systems of “justification” for acts of violence, and increasingly have distanced themselves from actions of individuals, communities, or even states, that continue to commit such sins. But the Orthodox do not see a simple response to this problem nor are they prepared to reduce the entirety of the Gospel to a peace testimony only. Some Orthodox will therefore in good conscience serve “honorably” in the armed forces, or in the police, or other forms of law enforcement—and others will decline to do so. There does exist a Peace Fellowship among the Orthodox and perhaps it is with these Orthodox that Christians from the Reformation Peace Churches should take up contact.

My Visit to St. George Orthodox Church

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I wrote this blog over a year ago. Originally it was one of a three-part series about different churches I had visited and was intended to be a comparison. However, much has changed since then and bringing this blog off the shelf seemed like a good way to introduce my next post.

When a friend (ex-Mennonite) invited me to attend an Orthodox baptismal service a couple years ago I had no reason to refuse. One of his college professors was the priest who would be performing the rites and had invited him to witness the event. So we met on a cool crisp October morning for the trek to St George’s, an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Altoona, PA.

Full disclosure: I’ve always considered myself to be an unorthodox guy and at one point probably wouldn’t have set foot in a liturgical church having pre-judged it as stuffy, stifling, etc. I was completely committed to my Mennonite ideals and had no intention of changing church affiliation. My visit was a nice opportunity for a different perspective and nothing more.

First Impressions: The building exterior had a foreign and very non-western appearance to my eyes. It could actually be confused with a mosque. On top of the building in a place where one might expect a pointy steeple there was a golden “onion” dome.

Inside there were three main rooms, a fellowship hall on the end where we entered, a sanctuary in the middle and then a kind of inner sanctum. There were paintings (or “icons”) of an ancient style were depicting various saints, Mary and Jesus on the walls.

We met Father Anthony, a man with glasses and a gray beard, and were warmly received by him before he went about his duties.

We had arrived a bit early and waited a few minutes for the service to begin. Soon we were worshiping as Christians had for thousands of years. Fr. Anthony leading out melodically “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages,” and the congregation giving their musical response.

The words of the liturgy were rich with meaning, the gowns, regalia, ancient rituals, intricate ceremonies, and incense burning had my mind whirling about the origination of these practices. Surprisingly, as one typically a cynic of formalities, I was oddly at peace in this service.

The Message: Be On Guard Against Spiritual Pride. (That isn’t the official title to the sermon, but it is what the message was about.) The text came from the Gospel of St Luke:

The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

This exuberant moment for the disciples was met with the sobriety of Jesus. While listening to this passage being spoken I had a flashback that made the message especially profound.

My mind went to a vision I had during a spiritual high point a year before where I was on a ladder, having climbed far up into the clouds, and the perspective I had gained was exhilarating. However, the lofty height also made me fearful. I was afraid I would lose my grip, slip, and fall. Which was exactly what happened, I was discouraged and feeling that bitter taste of defeat.

The message spoke to me. I repented my attitude of the last while and marveled at how this text and message could reach my own heart so directly.

The Good: I was surprised. I really enjoyed the service and especially the fellowship afterward. Fr Anthony possessed a wealth of knowledge about church history and articulated Orthodoxy in a way more compelling than the explanations I’ve heard prior. For a well-educated man, he was completely humble. He has remained in communication with me since.

The Bad: The congregation was small and the church we attended at a significant distance from home. Also, as a conservative Mennonite accustomed to children and young people, there was a conspicuous absence here. I wondered where the families were. It made me a little sad because there was a depth of tradition here that makes Mennonites seem contemporary by comparison.

The Ugly: While I’m being brutally honest, the iconology did make me a bit uncomfortable. It was something completely foreign to me and it seemed like their depictions could easily become idols. However, when considering the Bibliolatry common in fundamentalist Protestant congregations, perhaps we are also guilty of ourselves? Anyhow, wherever the case, it is one of those things that made me hesitant about this most ancient of Christian traditions.

The Verdict: Ultimately our salvation depends on God and I have a great appreciation for the Orthodox acceptance of this as a mystery of God. This is a welcome relief for someone tired of the contrived (and unsatisfactory) answers of religious fundamentalists. Orthodoxy is about proper worship of God and their perspective is that worship should be about God’s glory—not our personal preference.

What questions do you have about Orthodoxy?

Paradox of Faith and Believing Before You Believe

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A few years ago, having finally fully embraced the promises of Jesus, I set out on a journey of faith and pursued the impossible love only possible with faith.  I wanted to transcend that “it” that always kept me just short of success and finally put to rest the fear of being the servant who buried his talent.

My mom had always told me that God had saved me for a special purpose.  My name, she told me, meant strong-willed and the name was appropriate given that my first week of life was a desperate fight to survive.  But my fierce determination and persistence could not have kept me alive.  It is only because of the dedicated care of physicians (including my uncle Elam) and nurses, along with the prayers of relatives and friends, that I am writing now.

Still, that was a battle that didn’t end without some scars both physical and otherwise.  I was the late-bloomer, notably smaller than my same-age peers, often riddled with anxieties, and seemed perpetually stuck trying to catch up—but never able.  There have been many times in my life when it felt like one of those nightmares where you know what to do but your reaction is slowed and you can’t avoid the disaster.

Failure and Moving Forward

Over the years I began to doubt my mom’s words.

What great purpose could I have, a thirty-year-old living in Milton?

But, spurred by faith, I decided it was now or never; I put aside feelings of inadequacy and began to write.  I wrote a book, “Paradox of Faith,” and then started to blog here.  I decided to say “yes” when asked to speak at church and my confidence grew as a result.

However, I still wanted to trust God more; I decided to go all in on faith and reach out for something impossible for me.  I thought I should be a missionary overseas (an activity very encouraged in my church) and yet knew that it was something that I would need some help to do.  So I prayed earnestly for a way to overcome my limitations and then reached out to those whom I trusted were my brothers and sisters in faith.

What I got in response was a cold shoulder and harsh dose of the faithless reality behind their well-polished religious facade.  Not only couldn’t they help me, but they smiled to my face then slandered me behind my back, and drove my faith into the rocks with their complete indifference.  I have to wonder how many of them realize that I’ve stopped attending their church six or seven months ago?  I’m obviously not needed there, nor do I feel especially wanted or truly cared for by most who attend there.

I hit the rocks again.

If it was not for one person, someone on the opposite side of the world, who told me, “if you go, take me with you,” I would likely have ended my life by my own hand.  But, I had helped them through their own time of despair and desperation, I believed they would be thrown back into chaos and confusion if I failed them—I could kill my own hope, but I could not rob them of theirs.  My faith had been ruthlessly murdered by those who were supposed to help it, but my precious bhest was determined to pull me back from the grave.

It has been a real struggle, despite all the good things going on in my life, to see past this failure of faith in my church.  I’ve always been a Mennonite, I wore it on my sleeve, it has been my identity both religious and cultural, where I sought acceptance and validation—but there’s no way to remain there after all that has transpired over the past couple years.

But how do you go forward when you lost your faith?

I cared and yet I didn’t.

I was angry and simultaneously indifferent.

I continued living on the outside but my hope inside was dead.

I wanted to forgive those who had hurt me—but, without faith, how was it possible?  Why would I?

One of the reasons I continued writing was because of the unconditional love of a good stranger, now my editor and friend.  They came to me like the angel that ministered to Elijah, telling me that my writing had spoken to them and offering to help.  This wonderful person offered to be my faith when I had none and didn’t abandon or harshly judge me.

I began attending a church of another older Christian tradition.  That choice was the result of a fatherly figure who came into my life about a year prior and had gained my trust with his humility.  I was amazed by his prompt and detailed answers to my inquiries.  For the first time in years I left church feeling renewed.

But then something happened.  I spooked.  I looked back and became mired in those questions nobody could answer.

I did not attend any services for a couple months.  However, a few weeks ago, because of my special someone, my bhest, telling me she needed me to be strong in faith for her, and a timely meeting with my wise fatherly friend, I decided to follow the paradoxical advice given to John Wesley who also doubted:

“Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

As someone who sought to be authentic, that advice (basically “fake it until you make it”) bothered me when I first read it years ago.  It seemed dishonest to me.  It also seemed silly and irrational.  If we must fake something being real for it to become real in our mind, then what’s the point?  Isn’t that the very definition of delusion? Why not only believe what is real instead?

But now the choice wasn’t about me anymore, it was about the one that I loved, my bhest, and to love them properly required me finding my faith again.  I could not find it in those who took it, nor produce it of myself.  I was already reaching down as deeply within myself as I could to find faith and coming up empty.  And yet, right at the right time, right before a meeting with my fatherly adviser, my mind was ready to receive some council.

We met to discuss my “God problem” and first agreed that there is no rational means to prove the existence of God.  With the mystery of God established, he broke my dilemma down to two options: 1) accept a life void of deeper meaning and purpose—nihilism, or 2) live with the assumption of something greater to come, embrace the mystery of God, and have faith.

He encouraged me to attend services again and that’s what I did.  My questions are not all answered, but with his help I’ve established the right trajectory again, and—oddly enough—my feelings of faith have begun to return as I act in faith for those whom God loves.

What is the paradox of faith?

Jesus, according to the Gospel of Mark, came upon a crowd in an uproar and asked what was going on.  A man, the father of a sick child, explained that the disciples could not heal his son.  To this, Jesus tells the crowd, “You unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you?” and then requested the boy be brought to him.  The father explained the boy’s condition then gave his plea:

“…if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus.  “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22b‭-‬24)

This father seems to have both belief and unbelief in him.  His initial plea is so weak that Jesus repeats it back as if to test the man a bit.  At this the exasperated father beautifully expresses a contradiction that only a person who has truly ventured out in faith can know: “I do believe, so help me to believe!”

It is this father’s contradiction that has become real to me as I ventured out in faith, the deeper we go the less we can rely on ourselves and must reach for something bigger.  Here are three paradoxes of faith I have encountered:

A) True faith is acting in faith before you have faith.  Faith is setting out in a direction, even when the outcome is uncertain, often while facing controversy and even despite some self-contradiction.  Faith is not the absence of doubt.  Faith is taking the first bold step in spite of your fears, anxieties and doubts.  Faith means deviating from what is our natural inclination, letting go of our own human understanding and reaching for what is only possible with God.  Faith, from a practical standpoint, is courage in the face of the impossibility.

Faith requires different things of different people.  It could mean swallowing pride and dipping in your own version of the river Jordan like was required of Naaman.  It could mean selling all you have, giving up your awesome plans and leaving your family behind.  It could mean marriage or remaining single.  There is no one-size-fits-all prescription in faith.  But faith is never passive, nor does it mean being placid; it takes persistence, and requires that we step out of the boat, like Peter:

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:27‭-‬31)

That is an astonishing story.  Peter is both believing and disbelieving at the same time.  He challenges Jesus to prove that he is who he claims to be: “Lord, if it be you…”  Peter, bold as ever, asked for a miracle that applied to him.  There is no passivity or hesitation there, either.  Peter is willing to get out of the boat and attempt the impossible.  He is actually putting to practice the “take courage” part.  He, like the father with the sick child, is asking Jesus: “I believe, so help me believe!”

There are many religious people who avoid the humiliation of coming up empty-handed by re-branding their true faithlessness as “godly contentment” or being “realistic” or not testing God.  But the truth is that it takes no faith at all to sit on your hands, take life as it comes and do nothing.  Faith aims for the impossible at risk of failure.

You don’t have faith unless you practice faith and to practice faith means to love as Christ loved.  Faith is like a muscle that must be exercised to become strong and atrophies when unused.  The exercise of faith is to love your neighbors and especially brothers and sisters in faith.

Faith comes from praxis of faith.

B) Faith is acting in love before you feel love.  Anyone can love as the world loves.  Anyone can “fall in love” with someone who is attractive, adventurous and otherwise convenient to their own personal ambitions.  It is easy to love those who have already proven their value or have what you want, but loving only those who are like you and only because you anticipate getting something in return is not Christian love.

The church of my childhood is good at loving their own and especially good at loving those who represent their ideals.  (I know, because I am like them; I have shared their ambitions, I wanted a Mennonite wife and friends.)  But we are not good at loving those who are different.   We do not love courageously or in faith.  Sadly, with few exceptions, the love I’ve received at my church seems primarily to be a very explicable human kind of love (for biological family or for their religious cliques) and not the exceptional kind of love that transcends differences.

Why don’t we love as Jesus commanded?

The problem is when feelings lead rather than faith.  Many go through the motions of outreach and missions.  However, it is too often only a do-gooder project, a chance to prove our religious chops, a way to feel good about ourselves, and not sacrificial or done in sincere love.  The problem is not that we are bad people.  The problem is that it truly is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to love those who do not produce feelings of love within us first.  We may excuse our lack of love as “being a good steward” and wise use of resources, but could it be that we simply do not have the faith to go beyond our own calculations of another person’s worth?

We use what we know about other people as a reason not to invest in them.  We treat idioms like, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” as if they are truths.  We use our past and prejudices as guides rather than give freely to those who ask (Matthew 5:42) and trust God.  We do not act in an open-handed way towards others when we presume to know the future based on what we know of past performance.  Unfortunately, in doing this, we too often feed a self-fulfilling prophecy and are actually contributing to their failure.

The paradox?

Sometimes feelings of love come only after you practice love first.  Sometimes it is only after we have invested significantly in another person’s success that we begin to care about their circumstances.  Faithful love is not based on feelings.  Faithful love is doing more than what we are able to rationalize or justify as prudent in our own minds.  Faithful love means loving even when you may never see the results.

Faithful love is only possible for those who know that they did not deserve love themselves and act accordingly.  We were saved by grace and therefore should show grace to those who need salvation.

C) Nobody can save themselves.  Some of us can live in an illusion of independence, but even those without my traumatic birth experience needed the life support of a mother’s womb to survive and could not exist otherwise.  We are not self-creating nor self-sustaining creatures and all have gained through the work of others.  Nobody gives birth to themselves—not even a hermit in Alaska or Chuck Norris.

The same is true of our Christian life.  No man has saved themselves through their own efforts.  We cannot come to faith and remain faithful outside of Christ and the church he established.  I did not come to faith by my own efforts nor has anyone else.  Even the Bible is a written testimony of faith given, compiled, preserved, translated and interpreted by the church.  We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8) and this means that someone else acted graciously on our behalf to even give us a choice to act in faith.

I could get more into the theology and theory here.  But cutting to the chase…

Here’s How the Theory Played Out For Me

My own journey of faith started a new chapter a few years ago.  My faith was stronger than ever, but still could not overcome that invisible enemy that always seemed to keep me just short of success.  So, putting it all on the line, I prayed, “God, make the impossible possible for me” and believed (despite my unbelief) that faith would prevail.

But I did not sit and wait around doing nothing.  I resolved to be an answer to prayer before getting my answer to prayer.  I began to say “yes” (despite my feelings of inadequacy) and became more willing to take on new friendships with strangers that my religious peers would consider risky or dangerous.  I decided to love as I wished to be loved and not worry about my image so much.

Meanwhile, as I reached out in faith, my own hope against hope hit a wall of opposition and from the very people I had trusted to be faithful.  These were supposed to be the ones who would stand up for me, give me a chance, and show me love, but instead I got betrayal and lies.  It was confusing to me.  They would all say that they believed that the extraordinary claims of the Bible were true, but they sure didn’t act like it.

Eventually their doubts became mine.  My experience over the past few years seemed to be only a delusion.  The promises about faith written in the Bible seemed untrue; the existence of God isn’t something we can prove, and I just wanted to be free from the commitment that had just drug my heart through the mud.

Two Are Indeed Better Than One

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.  Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9‭-‬12)

It was because of the words of one very precious person that I didn’t act on my suicidal ideations.  A year before it was my turn to save them from their despair.  She was a single mother at the end of her rope, a little lost sheep, in a cold, dark, indifferent world, and not sure where to turn for help.  In her first message, after I accepted her friend request, she basically apologized and told me she was unworthy to be my friend.  My heart was instantly filled with compassion for her and I made it my mission to restore her faith.

Little did I know that a year later she would be acting as my Jesus and refusing to let go of my hand as I slipped beneath the waves.  She was my only reason not to throw in the towel on life.  I lived for her because there was nothing in myself left worth living for.  Later it dawned on me, in my faithfulness to her over the past year, I had sowed the seeds for my deliverance from despair.  In my love for her I found just enough meaning to the fight when I needed it most.

Around the time I had given up on faith, I got a friend request out of the blue.  This person, someone of admirable conviction and unusual love, was excited about something I wrote in a blog about an unnatural love only possible with faith.  Unbeknownst to them, the paradigm of faith that inspired my words was crashing and burning around me.   As much as I wanted to, I could no longer believe my own words anymore and had given up.

I more or less told this inquiring reader, albeit in different words: “the show is over, I was a peddler of nonsense, so move along now and don’t trip on the wreckage of my hopes and dreams.”  But, this new friend, instead of taking my advice, offered to be my faith, to be as Hur and Aaron who held up the hand of Moses:

As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. (Exodus 17:11‭-‬12)

They believed in the mission even when I was too exhausted to continue.  More than that, they offered the love that could only be explained by faith, they loved me through some of my most unlovable moments, and have not once failed in their commitment to be my editor.  It is probably their encouragement that kept me plugging away and writing my experience.

Angels, Transition and Forgiveness

This is where the story gets interesting.  To me, offering to edit my blogs was something only an angel would do.  So, to express my gratitude, while feeling beleaguered like Elijah in the wilderness, I announced on Facebook that I had found an “angel” and that choice of wording would become significant a couple days later.

But just before all that, not having a clue what would soon transpire, before my faith ran into a road block, I had blogged about a job transition that I knew was coming and also a premonition that something else bigger was lurking ahead.  Since posting that blog, the word “transition” had indeed been a big theme of my life.   That is why I clicked on a link about transitions that came up on my news feed.

The video, posted by a Christian friend, was one of those prophetic speakers that play to confirmation bias in the same way that fortune cookies and horoscopes do.  Basically, if you keep an insight vague enough it can be personalized by the reader and applied to almost any situation.  I’m pretty skeptical of these things and normally don’t pay too much attention.  However, the word “transition” in the title had hooked me.

I listened, nodding, as he talked about the difficulty of transition, he compared our transitioning to how an army is vulnerable when moving and explained how God would send an angel to guard over the transition.  Suddenly he had my full and undivided attention.  His advice?  He stressed the importance of forgiveness as necessary for success in the new endeavor—which is a message hit me right in the heart and, after hearing that word, forgive is what I wanted to do.

I had been given someone as an angel to guard over my transition.  I’m not sure if it is just a coincidence or not.  Maybe I’m reading meaning into it that isn’t there?  But the message was a profound reminder that the only successful way forward is the path of forgiveness.

Some Final Thoughts About Faith, Doubt, Encouragement and Love

No man, no matter how strong in faith, talented or independent can do it alone.  We need each other and often more than we know.

Maybe you are too proud to ask for help?  Perhaps you believe faith means stoicism?  If that is the case, then please consider that even Jesus wanted companionship in his hour of tribulation and that some of the most noteworthy characters in Scripture were sometimes cowards even after seeing amazing things directly from God’s hand.

If Jesus literally could not carry his cross without help, why do we think we can bear our burdens alone?

If our Savior struggled with anxieties in the garden of Gethsemane, why do we feel like we have failed because of our own fear and doubt?

There may be times when our faith is tested while we are alone and we must do our best to stand.  But that doesn’t mean we should leave others alone in their trials and tribulations.  Being a member of the body of Christ means “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26) and James tells us that our faith is expressed by how those in the church help each other:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing for their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  (James 2:14-17)

There will be times where we all stumble and fall in faith.  We should encourage each other.  Do not be impatient when someone does not respond instantly to your love.  Sometimes it takes time for the water and nutrients to soak in.  Healing does not happen overnight for those who have been abandoned or severely wounded by the betrayals and indifference of others.

Who have you encouraged today?

Who have you helped?

My prior investment in others was the only thing that gave me the will to fight on.  The investment of others in my life is the only reason I am here writing today.  Do not neglect the important work of being your brother’s keeper.  Love those nobody else loves.  Love those that are unlovely and require faith to love.

Help With My Impossible Task

The church of my youth is full of nice people; a few did call to check in and probably more do care about me than took the time to inquire.  Most of them are very decent people, in my opinion.  However, I still found myself too often feeling spiritually malnourished while with them and I can’t live with settling for mediocrity or going through the motions.  A final act of betrayal by those in the group whom I trusted most left me spiritually dead and has convinced me of a need to change.  I would not have survived had not God provided ministering angels (in human form) to guard over me and I won’t ask for that again.

Thus, I find myself needing to do the impossible.  I am forced to transition from the church where I spent nearly four decades of my life to an orthodoxy that still feels foreign to me.  It is not my first choice, it has not been easy for me, and yet it is what I must do to remain faithful.  Big chunks of my identity, if not my entire identity, were caught up in my Mennonite denomination and letting go of that is difficult.  And not just that, the church is literally full of my family members; aunts, uncles, cousins and only remaining grandparent.  Until recently it was easy and comfortable to be there just putting in time.  But I know that I must live in faith and Jesus said to leave all behind and follow him.

So, as a final request, please pray for me to have a spirit of forgiveness.  I must do the impossible and move on from the denomination that I loved, but cannot move on while hanging onto my hurts or carrying bitterness.  My sincere faith was treated as garbage, the help provided by those I regarded to be my brotherhood for years was too often given grudgingly and seemingly always too little too late.  It is hard to forgive those do not take responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof) and should do better, but…

“Father forgive them for they know not what they do!”

What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:5-12)

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The world loves distinctive dress and titles.

If I wear an expensive suit and fancy tie to an event, that will probably result in my being treated differently than if I show up in street clothes.  Having “PhD” behind my name would earn me more respect in some circles.

The world judges by outward appearance.

People rank and categorize other people based on what clothing they wear and what positions they hold.  Wear the wrong dress to an occasion and expect to be shamed in the gossip columns.  The climb up the social ladder can be brutal.

The church, unfortunately, is not much different.  The expectations and dress standards might vary, but the harmful focus on distinction of title or outward appearance is the same.

What did Jesus say about obsession with dress and titles?

Jesus, continuing his rebuke of unhelpful religious elites, said…

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called “Rabbi” by others. ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:5‭-‬12)

The religious elites were obsessed with what other people thought and how they appeared.

Jesus mentions the “phylacteries” and “tassels” they wore, meant as symbolic reminders of their devotion to God, became about drawing attention to themselves.  They pranced to the front benches, loved to be noticed when out in public, and sought titles to impress their religious peers.

Jesus was unimpressed.  It is apparent that their religious devotion was not about God’s glory and honor as they would claim, it was all to draw attention to themselves and prideful.  Jesus again alludes to the tables being turned and roles being reversed—a time when the first shall be last and last shall be first.

But how is this applicable today?

Nobody I know wears phylacteries or tassels.

However, I believe the warnings against obsession with appearance still apply as much to religious people today as it did then.  We have different versions of the same prideful behavior in our churches today.

Here’s what we are doing:

1) Seeking the important seats:  I sit anywhere in the church because it does not matter.  There is nothing wrong with sitting in the back benches in an age of microphones and amplifiers.  Socially awkward people do not enjoy parading up to the front of the church; they don’t want the attention.  And so what if the rebels sit in the back, at least they are at church, right?

Funny how some Mennonite leaders have apparently not gotten the memo about those who love the “place of honor” and “most important seats” in a religious setting.  From the way they commend people who sit in the front benches you might be led to think that Jesus said that makes a person special or better.

Yes, there is something to be said for accommodating visitors and mothers with young children.  There’s also something to be said for not creating a distraction by yukking it up with your buddies.  We should always be considerate of others.

That said, seating position is no indication of spiritual condition.

2) Loving important titles: There are some people who use the letter of what Jesus said as a means to bash Catholics for their use of “father” in reference to church leaders past and present.

Unfortunately they entirely miss the point being made and in their arrogance are potentially slandering those who appropriately use these terms.  The admonition against calling anyone “teacher” or “father” is not about the specific words used, but about how and why they are used.

How do I know this?

Well, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as “father” (1 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:22) and I’m doubtful he did it in ignorance of or contradiction to what Jesus said.  I believe he used it as a description of his true fatherly love and affection for the children of the faith and not vainly as a means to secure unearned respect from others—which is what Jesus was speaking about.

Sadly, those who turn the words of Jesus into a legal code miss the spirit of what he is saying.  Sure, they might never use the words he mentioned to describe themselves, but they do use words like “reverend” or “evangelist” in the same way as a Pharisee.  With different words they embody the same self-seeking spirit of the religious elites condemned by Jesus.

And we do this too.  We may not seek fancy titles outright.  However, I was turned down by a young woman who wanted someone who used “missionary” or “pastor” to flaunt their ambitions and I was uncomfortable describing my calling in those terms.  Love of religious importance is not unusual amongst Mennonites even if not as openly stated.

There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to spiritual pitfalls.  As my sister would say: Same manure, different piles.  Except she doesn’t use the word “manure” when she says it…

3) Dressing distinctly: It blows my mind how far off the mark people can be when it comes to matters of dress.  There are some churches where people will frown on those who do not wear a suit and tie (while some conservative Mennonites will frown on those who do) and for some reason carrying a big leather-bound Bible is important too.

It makes me wonder what these proper religious people would do if a man like John the Baptist showed up in camel’s hair.  They might be suffering from the same ailment as Saul’s daughter; Michal, when she saw David dancing in a “linen ephod” and called him a “vulgar person” for it (2 Samuel 6:14-23).  Apparently God was not impressed with her judgment of propriety according to what I read.

That is not to say we should intentionally draw attention to ourselves and dress in a provocative or ostentatious manner.

Which leads to my next point…

Many conservative Mennonites look to distinctive dress as a means to be a witness.  They claim this is an act of “non-conformity” and taking a stand against “worldly” fad and fashion.  And I do appreciate the idea of not being jerked around by every whim and fancy of the mainstream culture.

Unfortunately, this non-conformity of outward appearance does not always reflect change at a heart level.  We might not look like our “worldly” neighbors in the way we dress and yet many of us are even more obsessed with fashion than they are.  The smallest differences (the number of pleats in a dress or the collar of a suit coat) can lead to venomous accusations and division.

Distinctive dress has become a stumbling block for conservative Mennonites.  We judge each other based on our differences, we shut people out for not meeting our own dress standards, and forget to love each other as Christ commanded.  We have taken Scripture that instructs Christians to be focused on inner change rather than outward adoring (1 Peter 3-4, 1 Timothy 2:9-10) and turned it into a fixation about outward appearance.

Perhaps we forget what Scripture tells us about pride and clothing?

Peter describes the true distinctiveness of being “clothed” with sincere faith:

All of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourself, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6)

We are told to be distinctively dressed.  However, that distinction of dress means to “clothe yourself with humility” and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:27, Romans 13:14) rather than with our own religious works–that is a far deeper distinction than mere outward appearance.  Our distinctiveness should be less about what we wear on the outside and more about being a manifestation of this:

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34,35)

Distinguished titles and distinctive outward appearance is vanity when it causes strife or leads to a pecking order.  We must embody the character of Christ by loving each other as he commanded.  It is not about looking different or having a fancy title, it is about being different in heart.

If a person professes faith in Jesus, then accept them as a brother or sister and don’t be a religiously pretentious snob.  Jesus, as far as I know, did not dress like a Mennonite, Amish man or Baptist.  I’m doubtful he was much concerned about solids or stripes and the size of floral prints.

Jesus Assails Unhelpful Religious Elites (Matthew 23:1-4)

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I’ve always respected my father as a leader.  I consider it a privilege to have his example of Christian leadership in my life.  He’s a man who leads by example.  He does his best to get the job done right and always treats those under him with respect.

We all interact with leaders.  Many direct from behind by telling others what to do rather than leading by example.  We know of the parents who demand that their children do as they say and then do not live up to their own standards.  We know about politicians and celebrities who lecture about social responsibility while living in mansions.

Jesus is a man who led by example.

Jesus never asked anyone to do anything for him that he would not do for them.  He asked only, “Follow me” and then provided his example as a means to lead those he called to salvation.

For this, Jesus was also a threat to the established religious and social order.  There are always those who are privileged by the established regimes and governing institutions.

A hierarchical system serves those at the top.

And yet Jesus (after sending a rich young ruler away disappointed) promises his followers in his kingdom that the current roles would be reversed:

Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:28‭-‬30)

Jesus repeats this maxim, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” at the end a parable in the next chapter.  In the parable, there are workers in the vineyard show up early and then cry “unfair” when those who show up later receive the same compensation.

That is not a message the religious elites and privileged classes want to hear.

I mean, they (and their ancestors) put their time in, and therefore they deserve the place of recognition and respect.  Follow the rules, earn the prize.  God was obviously blessing them for their careful religious devotion… right?

Then here comes this agitator, this Jesus, who dares to challenge and rebuke them.  Not only that, this provoker, he tells them the tables will be turned, roles will be reversed and their kingdom will be left desolate.

Jesus begins his sermon in Matthew 23 by taking direct aim at the unhelpful religious elites.

The text…

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:1‭-‬4)

There is a derisive tone to those words.  In one line Jesus tells his audience that they must respect those in the position of power and then in the next, he describes those who hold those positions of power in a way that could be considered disrespectful.

I do not take the advice Jesus gave to, “be careful to do everything they tell you,” as an endorsement of the rules.  I believe it is simply an acknowledgment of the real power they held.  To “sit in Moses’ seat” meant they could have you killed and that is pretty good reason to pay attention.

These religious elites, who saw themselves as better than everyone else, did not “practice what they preach”, according to Jesus.  They heaped on a “cumbersome loads” of standards and yet were not living up to what they preached.

This could mean a simple double standard: one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other people.  It might also indicate that they loved the “letter of the law” more than the Author of the law.

I believe it is the latter.

The “experts of the law and Pharisees,” we are told, “diligently” studied the Scriptures, thinking that in their to devotion to them they had eternal life (John 5:39) and the rich young ruler also claimed to have kept the commandments from boyhood.  There is every indication that these were devout and sincere people.

However, where the Pharisees went wrong was in what they prioritized.

Jesus prioritized people over the letter of the law.

Read Mark 2:3-283:1-6.

When a man was forgiven and healed, the Pharisees were more concerned with their interpretation of blasphemy laws than they were in the miracle.

The Pharisees were more concerned with looking righteous in the eyes of their religious peers than they were in the well-being of those of lower position who needed healing and salvation.

In questioning why the disciples of Jesus did not fast along with everyone else, there was a lack of understanding that unique circumstances can demand a departure from the normal religious routine.

Regarding the Sabbath they saw a rigid true-for-all-time black and white standard, but Jesus reminds them of when David’s servants violated the Sabbath and points to the humanitarian intent behind the law.

Jesus, in his anger against the legalistic thinking of the religious elites, heals a man on the Sabbath.  For this defiance of their tradition they began to plot how to kill him.

The law of the Pharisees is described as a “heavy” and “cumbersome load” by Jesus.  But, in describing his own way, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

While the religious elites would not risk contamination (as depicted in the story of the Good Samaritan) and were “not willing to lift a finger” to move the burdens they put on others, those who followed after Jesus were instructed:

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

The self-righteous elites were about preserving their status and image by following a religious code and demanding others live up to it, while Jesus led by his example self-sacrifice and urged his followers to prioritize love for others over their tradition.

The letter of the law is indifferent to the real needs of people.  The law is uncompromising and cruel.  It does not care about the impossible burdens it placed on those less privileged and powerful.  The law condemns all people to death.

The Spirit, on the other hand, is a comfort and helper in our time of need; he brings grace to those who will receive it.  A true follower of Jesus walks according to the Spirit (Romans 8, Galatians 5) and will help to carry burdens and bring newness of life.

Jesus speaks against the attitudes of Mennonite religious elites today.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve been spared the worst that the Mennonite religious culture has to offer.  Yet, a lighter dose of the same wrong attitudes does surface from time to time.

My own experience with the uglier side of the denomination is pretty tame compared to what others have experienced.  In the conference I’m a part of (Keystone), we didn’t have the control-freak bishops playing “religious policeman” and constantly adding to the rules or micromanaging and excommunicating people who don’t fit the mold.

However, we do have the complacent unhelpful attitudes of those Jesus rebuked and the same resistance to change.  Many will only help in their religiously prescribed ways (words of encouragement, offered prayers, etc) but do not offer much burden-carrying outside the range of our established protocol.

Mennonite employers will often use their position to privilege themselves, nobly willing to move heaven and earth for their own families, but too often at the expense of employees and their families.  I know first-hand accounts of men who work less than bankers hours (for good pay) while expecting those under them to pick up the slack.

There can also be the attitude that those who aren’t as successful as we are did not try hard enough or otherwise “deserve” it.  We too often hold those raised outside of our communities to a standard we are only able to achieve because of our home and heritage.  We expect others to rise to our own level when we should be bringing ourselves down to theirs.

To follow Jesus means to give up our special privileges for the good and welfare of others.  It means to humble ourselves and lead the way he did in when he left heavenly glory to live and die for us.  We too must step down to meet people where they are and help them to carry their burdens.

Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)

That is how to be a Christian leader.