“Whether by word of mouth or by letter…”

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The US Constitution is a prime example of how the same words can be interpreted in many different ways. Sometimes this is just a way to get around the clear meaning and other times it is simply a problem with language. There are many cases, with this founding document of a nation, that it would be nice if we could have some further explanation. Sure, you can read some of what the writers and signers said elsewhere in order to try to fill in the blanks. But, in the end, without them here, we don’t truly know how they would respond to the demands of our modern economy, technology, and needs.

This only gets murkier when dealing with Scriptures written two millennia ago. Yes, every Bible-thumper and their brother thinks they have a clear understanding while everyone else is just making things more difficult than they really should be. I mean, “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It,” right? And yet, if I were to answer that with, “do you bury your poo outside of your property, in a hole you dug with a trowel, as instructed in Deuteronomy?” I’m guessing that suddenly what the Bible says would become a bit less settled as those using this phrase made some sort of theological exemption and that’s okay, there are things in Scripture that aren’t perfectly clear without some further explanation.

But what is more intriguing to me is what is completely left out that would be so obvious to early Christians that it wouldn’t even be worth mentioning in the letters. As the saying goes, more is caught than taught, and sometimes the most important things never do get written out. In other words, if we were writing instructions on how to drive a car, we would probably assume that the person knows how to get into the vehicle or sit facing forward. However, from the Bible, do we know how the early church structured their services or generally lived? Would they even recognize us as Christians? The reality is that there are gaps that many today just fill in with assumptions and it is usually these different extra-Biblical assumptions that lead to many divisions.

In the Protestant world “extra-Biblical” is practically a curse word. How dare you ever have a rule, custom, or tradition that goes beyond the written text! That’s false religion or something! This is why Orthodoxy is often dismissed by those seeking to strip down Christianity to the Biblical bare bones. It is a special kind of ignorance.

A good illustration? In World War II there was a study of returning aircraft and the damage that they had to determine how to better prevent future losses. The Center for Naval Analyses concluded from this that the aircraft needed more protection in these most heavily damaged areas. However, Abraham Wald, a Hungarian mathematician, begged to differ. He reasoned that the aircraft returning had survived and those that had been hit in more critical areas did not. In other words, what needed to be done was the very opposite of what the others had concluded. They needed to better armor those areas that weren’t damaged in the returning aircraft. This tendency to misinterpret evidence, based on what we have rather than what is missing, is called “survivorship bias” and can lead to woefully incorrect ideas.

This is what the Bible says about what is written versus what is not:

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

(2 Thessalonians 2 NIV)

The “letter” is what we have received in Scripture. These are the books of the Bible, canonized by the Church and believed to be truly inspired writing for this reason. But the “word of mouth” is where things are more interesting. What of the Apostle’s teaching (or tradition according to the KJV) is not written in their letters and how do we know what is missing?

The Orthodox, of course, say that this is the tradition of the Church and tie their legitimacy to the fact that there is a line of secession going all the way back to the Apostles, by the laying of hands and ordinations, and this only makes sense. The Church (note, not an individual or even the institutions) is what keeps the spoken teachings of the Apostles preserved like it did the Bible, and also serves to provide the correct understanding of Scripture. Because we should know, as Peter warned, that the Bible does not provide its own interpretation: “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16 NIV)

However, it isn’t just the non-Orthodox that fall victim to their own bias. There are parts of the Church tradition, whether spoken or written, that slip through the cracks. We all have blind spots. We all have our distortions of concepts and errant assumptions. The difference is, that the Orthodox, if they are truly seeking to be Orthodox, are at least making some effort to incorporate the sayings of the Fathers and have a grasp of those “word of mouth” traditions not necessarily ever expressed in Scripture. In doing this, in understanding how Christianity was practiced by the faithful throughout the centuries, it becomes that much harder to distort the words of the Bible.

In the end, Christianity is about Communion, not easy textbook answers, not following an instruction manual, not standing alone, but real relationships. The more important being that between ourselves and God. However, a relationship with God implies love for our brothers and sisters. It means we are rubbing elbows with other Christians and the Saints. As Fr. Anthony put it, in his fatherly council to me, “there are no Lone Rangers” in Christianity, we can’t put the words of Jesus to practice in solitude or isolation. It’s not in removing ourselves that we are purified, it is in our getting messy and involved in the life of the Church of imperfect people (like us) that we are changed. That is taking up our cross. That is the hard part of Christianity we would rather run from.

Learning never stops in relationships. Christ Jesus did not come so we could house church with the few other perfect people who have the proper understanding of a book according to us. Instead, the very act of Incarnation was God choosing to be around those undeserving and impure, to identify with them and their suffering, which should be the impulse of those filled with the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit, St Paul tells us, that will bring “unity” and a “bond of peace” which should span centuries or the current divisions because: “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 4:4-6 NIV)

Laws of Love and Attraction

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There is only one kind of love.  Hate to break it to you.  But, once the special categories, warm fuzzy feelings experienced and those pesky mystical overlays are removed, love is attraction.  When we love something we will want more of it, to keep it for our selves, and to protect it.  If we love ice cream, we will work for the opportunity to spend more time with it, there will be cravings and desire.  If we love a fine piece of art we will take great care to preserve it, so we can continue to enjoy it long into the future.

We love other people in the same way—we are drawn to the people we love.

We perform complex rituals to make ourselves more attractive to the target of our affection and in hopes of gaining their attention, thier mutual affection, and possibly a longer commitment.  It is like the pangs of hunger when this is denied.  If only they could see past my shortcomings and see my heart.  Of course, they never do.  Had it been possible he/she would have already been digging into a conversation like a bowl of their favorite ice cream.  I mean, no, that’s not to say that you couldn’t be an acquired taste, as in the asparagus and lard a la mode that just happens to be delicious. But generally if something looks disgusting most will avoid it.

We do not control what we love anymore than we do what we find revolting.  Do you hate snakes?  Did you choose that intense feeling of disgust and that initial recoiling reaction at the first sight of this beady eyed slithering creature?  No, it’s just an instinct.  A primal fear.  And this reaction was probably to the advantage of many generations prior that had avoided the encounter with the deadly venom by their appropriate response to the stimulus.  It is good, as in very beneficial, to be triggered by dangerous critters—having a little anxiety and fight or flight response to something that can and will kill you is a healthy response.

So, love is what triggers the feelings of love and what does this is those things we find to be delectable.  Sure, we can love at different levels.  We often start by loving the object of the person.  Is he tall?  Is she beautiful?  Do they inspire our confidence, motivate us and give a reason to be a better version of ourselves?  Most people, honest about it or not, start romantic pursuit by loving what is visible outwardly, on the surface, and only after that progress onwards to those things of spiritual substance.  We love what gives us the most and despise what only takes from us. 

We will donate our time and devote our energy—be completely okay with delayed gratification—if that final prize at the end of our commitment seems big enough.

Why does absence makes the heart grow fonder?  It is because love is all about things we want to have more of and limited access to. This is why we crave sugar and salt (to our own peril) they were once hard to acquire in the quantities we needed. We don’t love oxygen until we are without it, gasping for breath, and a person who has whatever they want without any effort and sacrifice can’t truly cherish or love anything.  I mean, the saying, “familiarly breeds contempt” points to the reality that availability deceases love and scarcity builds it.  If you happen to be one of the last two humans on the planet there is more reason to spend time with the other one.

If people love you they want to spend more time with you.  Love means willingness to sacrifice one thing for another.  If someone claims to love another, yet avoids them completely or rejects a deeper relationship, then they are a liar.  Sure, we might love people for their appearance, we might love them for their soul, but love is always about attraction and who we want to spend more time with.  This is why I never care about the profession of love some make. I only ever care about the actuality of love. If a person loves us they will call us to make sure we made it home safe.  And it is because they are attracted and want to see you again.

This is why “love your enemy” is really an oxymoron.  If we truly love someone then they aren’t an enemy anymore.  We can’t actually force love, it comes off as fake, all we get is that uncanny valley of niceness and people will see right through it.  Having seen how vicious that the Christian ‘faithful’ can be, I would settle for loving our brothers and sisters.  But I’m not sure we can, we love our own ideologies and sectarian divisions more than we do unity or seeing our own sin or faults as equal to their’s.  If I could see the impossible love that bridges the divides that are within the Church, I might see loving our actual enemies as being possible.

What is more evident is that we’re in love with ourselves   Opposites attract is more or less reserved for the world of sex, at least for those of urge to do what is needed to further the species, otherwise the rule is that birds of a feather flock together.  And it is because we’re mostly in love with ourselves and thus love those who reflect our own base values and/or have things we see as being valuable to us.  The reason why most Christian missions ultimately fail is because the people ‘evangelized’ are a mere tool to get to heaven and not truly loved.

When we love we are attracted.  We want to spend time together, not as an obligation or a religious duty, but as a real impulse.  The divisions of romantic versus familial, or that of crush as opposed to committed, are really not all that important.  What matters is if our love is genuine or a counterfeit that we use in hope of scoring points.  We can mimick loving actions, like a psychopath, but not actual love.  

While there are certainly different ways to love each other, there are no different levels of love.  Without exception we will always want more of what we love, more in quantity, closeness or intimacy, and less of what we do not.  We’ll never say no to a visit with family, our beloved, or those things that we truly love.  We have cravings and a need for the things that we love.  If you don’t love someone like the food you eat, then you’re probably not really all thatloving of them.  If we love someone we’ll fight for them, long to be with them and let nothing come between.

When It Is Better To Do Nothing

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Have I mentioned that I’m tired of religious people and the prescriptions they give?

The real Jesus was defiant.  He upended the systems and standards of his time.  He was intentionally offensive to the self-righteous religious elites and then completely gentle with those who were broken.  There was no one-size-fits-all, no attempt to simplify the process.  Salvation is a walk of faith, not our ability to keep a set of fixed rules or pray a certain way, it is about our heart.

No, I’m not saying this as favoring the more libertine amongst us.  Being “free in Christ” is not a license to do whatever we want.  It is not about being ‘spiritual’ rather the religious either.  Rather it as about love:

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. […] You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”

(Galatians 5:1‭, ‬13 NIV)

A great deal of my social media connections are unregenerate social conservatives.  They love those fading structures that once kept people bound to their moral standards and yet lack any comprehension of grace or their own need of it.  They may see themselves as being righteous, for their exceptional ability to keep up certain cultural conventions, but they are very much like those rebuked and condemned by Jesus.

But still the alternative is not to go in the complete opposite direction.  It is not better to have no structure, to completely defy all cultural convention or use Christian freedom as an excuse to do whatever we please.  No, rather it is to serve and save others:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

(1 Corinthians 9:19‭-‬23 NIV)

Which is to reiterate the example of Christ:

…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

(Mark 10:43‭-‬45 NIV)

Our love for God is always, always, a matter of how we treat each other.  If we can’t love the people we see, specifically our brothers and sisters in Christ, then our claim to love God is a lie. (1 John 4:20)  Therefore, to be free in Christ, is not to shirk responsibility to each other.  It is not worshipful, at least not of God, to go to church (or not go) for own sake:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

(Matthew 5:23‭-‬24 NIV)

This is putting reconciliation with each other, true reconciliation. before or ahead of the ritual worship that religious people do.  No, it is not negotiable.  This is the command of Jesus.  And yet it is so often reversed.  It is acceptable to act or go through the motions of righteousness, but not to ask for the same authenticity that put Jesus at odds with the religious authorities.

Had Jesus just followed the rules and did what was expected he would never have been a threat to anyone.  The reality is that he saw through the empty gestures.  He was not impressed with those pious people who had their performative religion.  His call was for genuine love, to be merciful as our Father is merciful:

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

(Matthew 9:12‭-‬13 NIV)

That’s our true worship, to truly forgive and love those undeserving and broken.

Early Christians had a saying “unus Christianus, nullus Christianus,” which is to say that one Christian is no Christian.  This is to say that our Communion together, in Christ, needs to go beyond merely sharing the same physical space for a few hours or it is fake.  True Christianity can’t be reduced to mere individualistic pursuit of the Divine.  It is not an “only God can judge me” freedom from duty to others.

I could quote two dozen other texts and it would not matter.  So many are caught up in their own corrupted ‘traditions’ that they’ll always miss the forest for the trees.  But I’m not interested in dime-store Christianity, the kind that only loves in prescribed ways.  I want the real deal, the kind that frees and truly forgives.  I want what is alive, what has the true Spirit of truth and love in it, not the lifeless self-serving counterfeit form.

It’s not that the wonderful symbolism and designated acts of ‘Christian’ service are unimportant or useless either.  But it’s just that none of it really matters if it is not a part of something genuine.  As Jesus said, in Matthew 23:15, a person can “travel over land and sea to win a single convert” and only be successful in making their new convert “twice as much a child of hell” as themselves.  In that case it would be better to do nothing at all.

Even the mystical “cup of salvation” can be our damnation if we drink unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:29) or in disregard and without care for His body. The body of Christ meaning, at times, our fellow members of the Church or the people we encounter who are in need of love:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

(Matthew 25:35‭-‬36 NIV)

The Shocking Truth About Diversity and Strength

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Composite materials are stronger than their component parts.  When two or more materials of unique strengths are blended together the result can be a composite that has the ideal characteristics of all the parts.  This is what makes concrete and rebar a formidable pair.  The combination gives both the compressive strength of concrete and also the tensile strength of the steel.  It is inarguable that diversity is not strength or at least when it comes to material science.

However, as all topics go, it does not end there.  Boeing, like all builders of commercial airliners, has two primary goals (besides safety) in their designs: Lightweight and reducing costs.  One of their innovations is the use of carbon fiber in their aircraft.  The problem with carbon fiber is that it reacts with or is corrosive of aluminum.  For this reason, they must use a separating layer of expensive titanium as the solution to this bad material pairing.  It works in this case, but diversity is also a source of conflict and potential systemic failure.

Diversity: Good and Bad

First, the good.  We’re all unique.  I go to work with a group of people with slightly different abilities and backgrounds from my own.  It is what allows us to specialize and thus be stronger as a team than if we tried to do it all by ourselves.  I would rather Patty do the bookwork, the members of our sales team talk to our customers and stick to my role of designing trusses.  This is where diversity is a great strength.

Furthermore, men and women are different, both physically and otherwise, which can make them an ideal pair.  Only a male and female can produce offspring together.  We can argue over the particulars or against sexist generalities, but there is something special about any diversity of characteristics that can lead to the creation of new life.  It is ideal in other ways as well.  One of this special partnership can provide and protect from outside threats, the other can nurture their children and organize their shared space.  It can be the best of human arrangements.

Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad, and what can be the best of things can also be the worst.  The gender wars, that endless battle for control between abusive men and their feminist counterparts, is how the most wonderful kind of diversity can go very badly and be anything but strength.  Diversity is, therefore, also a source of deep division and strife.  What can make a strong composite can also lead to corrosive interactions and unwanted drama.  Sparks flying.

Homogeneity is our strength?

While the West, the ‘woke’ Anglosphere in particular, is obsessed with “diversity and inclusion” as the highest order of priority, not all in the world do.  

Japan, for example, is very happy to remain Japanese and feels no need to host foreign refugees on their own ancestral lands.  This homogeneity of their culture and ethnicity does seem to help to reduce the friction in their society.  Crime is extremely low.  During the disaster at Fukushima older engineers were willing to sacrifice themselves for sake of their younger kinfolk.  And there’s just a sort of harmony that exists with everyone pulling in basically the same direction.

This has never really been the case in the United States   There were wars between the natives and new arrivals.  With every new immigrant wave arriving there was mistrust and contempt between these groups.  It is what led to sentiments like this:

Only a damn fool can expect the people of one tradition to feel at ease when their country is flooded with hordes of foreigners who — whether equal, superior, or inferior biologically — are so antipodal in physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup that harmonious coalescence is virtually impossible. Such an immigration is death to all endurable existence and pollution and decay to all art and culture. To permit or encourage it is suicide.

H.P. Lovecraft

It is notable that Lovecraft, the famed atheist writer of existential horror, had his strong opinions about various races, including Italians and Jews.  His racism, xenophobia, disgust over the intermixing of people or fear of contamination, has the markings of an obsessive-compulsive disorder.  And yet he was not entirely wrong about the “melting pot” being chaotic and creating a place that’s lacking social cohesion.

It is no big surprise that after a decades long assault on policing and national symbols that, with the ‘woke’ takeover, military and law enforcement recruitment is falling off a cliff.  Nobody, in their right mind, would ever sacrifice themselves for a country or cause that doesn’t represent them and their own values.  Participation requires buying into the common vision and is not possible when there’s competition for that spot.  Nobody wants to die for those who lack appreciation or are completely divorced from what matters to them.

Unequally Yoked: Understanding Biblical Warnings

There is a sort of distain, even amongst professing Christians, towards the Old Testament law.  The various cleansing rituals, dietary prohibitions and other restrictions can seem to be quiet arbitrary our modern ears.  Why does it matter if we mix several materials in our clothing, plant diverse seeds or crossbreed different animals?   

First, I believe this was more about teaching a concept of Holiness or being set apart for good.  

Second, it is a completely practical point about our greater potential when being of the same mind or spirit:

Can two walk together, except they be agreed?

(Amos 3:3 KJV)

Third, this principal didn’t end in the Old Testament:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

(2 Corinthians 6:14‭-‬16 KJV)

The whole point of Old Testament law was to reinforce the things that St Paul explains above, we cannot expect good results when we are paired with those who are pulling in a completely different direction.  It’s simply reality, we need to have a boundary between ourselves and those who have nothing in common and want to destroy us.

Is Diversity Our Strength?

It depends.

I don’t think complete segregation of sexes or making all people androgynous is a good solution to gender difference.  Nor should we erase subcultures in the name of unity either.  We want diversity, we want people of different strengths.  But there needs to be some kind of common identity or bonding agent, otherwise we end up with a bunch of competing identities and a fight for the supreme position.  It takes a powerful adhesive to make composites work and this can mean a national identity that overrides all others.

Christ: The Ultimate Bonding Agent 

All composite materials rely on some kind of bonding agent to work.  And early Christians, likewise, were also trying to bridge some vast cultural differences.  In fact, much of the struggle, in the early church, came down to the difference between the Jewish born and Gentile coverts.  Should those newly converted, from non-Jewish background, be required to follow same requirements of faith or be exempted?

 There was plenty of compromise, a new vision (Acts 10:28) and joint identity formed in Christ:

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

(Ephesians 2:11‭-‬18 NIV)

It is Christ who eliminates old social barriers:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

(Galatians 3:26‭-‬29 NIV)

So, diversity, if bonded in Christian love, can be an amazing strength.  But, when lacking any kind of joint identity it is a horror show, it is corrosive.  It leads to a bloody and violent competition for supremacy between rival groups.  Without Christ it becomes man versus woman, black versus white, class versus class, and there is no strength in this kind of arrangement.  The ‘strength’ of diversity is only possible when all, despite differences, are seeking after the exact same overall goal.

It is okay to have our own separate identities, even to celebrate our own cultural or ethnic heritage. But, when are being black or white, male or female, rich or poor, puts us at enmity with each other, when it is corrosive and causes is to react with hostility to those of a different perspective, then it must be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and repented of rather than to be a source of pride. This is the higher order priority: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” (Romans 14:19 NIV) And, “over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:14 NIV)

The Truth in Substance

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As abstract minded as I am, always living in my own head, the only evidence of the Gospel narrative that works for me is that which is experienced or practical.  I know the apologetics and intellectual arguments, but none are able to bridge the gap or overcome the reasonable doubts.  

This idea that we can find God by climbing a tower of human knowledge is very appealing and especially for those of us in this age of information.  It is a feature of Protestantism, where the soteriology is centered around the text, an individual’s ability to comprehend and then accepting certain propositions, which ends up being very Gnostic.

The blog, a few weeks ago, that questions resurrection apologetics, left things hanging as far as an alternative.  If we can’t prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus died and rose again, as an actual historical event, how can we believe anything in the Gospel?  Of course, we can’t prove the resurrection or any past event, how could we?

But is truth really about the past tense or some kind of intellectual theorem?  Or is it something we relate to personally, that we must experience for ourselves?

Truth in Narrative

The most compelling evidence for the Gospel is the truth of the narrative itself and by that I mean how the older I get the more I realize that people behave exactly as those in the parables Jesus told and the accounts of his ministry.  No, it doesn’t absolutely prove the extraordinary claims, but the Bible as a window into human psychology and sociology is quite fascinating.

Jesus started his ministry with a broad appeal, people wanted change and he quickly developed a following.  It is very easy to gather a crowd by proclaiming to be the source of hope and change.  But, as his teaching progressed, and it became clearer that his kingdom was not about the political power the masses wanted, and he started to say some weird stuff as he got to what would be required, the crowd thinned.

People don’t want the truth, they want their truth, to be validated for what they already believe.  But Jesus taught the way to truth was by partaking of his body and blood, to make the sacrifice play, relying on faith and God for their sustenance rather than their own human reasoning.  That’s why it was impossible for the Rich Young Ruler to attain eternal life—he was relying on his own goodness to save him.

Truth in Symbolism

It is interesting what freaked out the crowd in Jesus day also is a bridge too far with many who profess to be Christian:

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

(John 6:35 NIV)

And he doubles down when the audience begins to grumble:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.

(John 6:53‭-‬56 NIV)

This is what followed:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

(John 6:60‭-‬66 NIV)

This was a rejection of materialism.  He was pointing to something mystical, something that transcended their understanding of reality, their version of the universe and thus they fled from him.  It is also very interesting that the coming betrayal of one of the twelve is mentioned by Jesus in this context, that perhaps this is where Judas Iscariot became disillusioned?

My own Anabaptist religious roots, given the Zwinglian influence, is very agnostic as far as the Mystical Supper.  While being strict fundamentalists otherwise, like insistence on a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Creation narrative, in the book of Genesis, they will deny the substance of the words that Jesus said (above) that caused so many to fall away from Him.  To them being a “follower of Jesus” takes a very practical turn and too practical in that it ignores the mystical in favor of the rational.

But, if one believes that Jesus actually walked on water or really turned water into wine, why would they ever question (or try to reinterpret) when he says “this is my body” and claim it means something other than what he said?

The thing is, yes, there is a practical, even a humanist, component to Christianity and yet it all must be in this context of Communion with God or it is only human effort.  And, to go a step further, no, it is not all about barn raising practicality either, it is about truth in worship.  We don’t do what we do in a spirit of utopian idealism, we do it because we believe their is a substance of bread, a bread of heaven, greater than what we can sense with our taste buds.

Truth in Action

There are many who are into the pageantry of religion, wearing the ‘right’ colors or cut according to their tradition, yet not willing to live out the actual substance of faith and Communion.  Yes, the Orthodox understand that Christianity centers on the mystical, that there is no spiritual life outside of partaking of the body and blood of Christ.  Still, it is a denial of Christ, and not true mysticism, when the rituals are not a reflection of real love of our family:

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 a 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 about 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 NIV)

The book of James was inconvenient for Martin Luther and also for all of those who would rather keep their religion between them, their own understanding of a book, and God.

But the truth is not about our own personal knowledge or judgment.  Judas could quote the words of Jesus as good as any of the other disciples.  And yet it takes more than our understanding a set of propositions or a mental exercise.  As Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”  That is where the truth is, in our coming together, in our loving each other as Christ first loved us:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

(1 John 4:7‭-‬12 NIV)

In the parables Jesus told, in the accounts of the ministry of Jesus, there is truth.  Also, in our partaking in the mysteries of the Church, in our Communion together as the body of believers, there is truth.  But the truth that us most significant, and the only real Christian apologetic there is, is the truth of our love for each other.  That is the truth of Christ Jesus, who came in the flesh to demonstrate the love of God.

Going Through the Motions

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A person can attend every church service, faithfully tithe, and beneath this righteous public display be concealing an adulterous affair.  One can go through the ritual of Holy Communion without being truly reconciled with their brother or right with God. False religion makes a mockery of the Church and the true faith of the Saints.

It is because of that fake devotion that many do throw the baby out with the bathwater and conclude that all religious practice is useless.  My generation, for better or worse, longs for authenticity and has rejected the motions of religion on that basis.  We all know hypocrites, those who dressed in the correct prescribed manner, who acted right and abused, neglected, or mistreated us.

This is likely one of the reasons why church attendance is dropping.  People had a bad experience (or many) and decided it is better to stay home than to simply show up for sake of appearance.  Why hang out with people who are phony, who do not truly live out what they claim to believe, yet will judge you because you are sincere and don’t follow all of their forms?

This is, after all, what Jesus did during his ministry, he challenged the pretentious, the religious elites, and brought the focus back to being genuine in love for each other.  And yet this is not to say that he was not an observant Jew or irreligious.  We know he was taken to the temple as a child, we know he was active in his own synagogue and kept the feasts.  

Sure, he chased out the corruption.  Sure, he corrected the misuse of the law.  And there was also the condemnation of those who were circumcised and imposed their tradition on new believers.  But that doesn’t mean that Christianity was without ritual or religion, it certainly does not mean we would be better to practice our faith only when we feel like it or completely agree with the application.

Authenticity is a good thing.  However, as an artistic cousin of mine (employed as a writer and musician in Nashville) once told me, you must practice even when you do not feel like it.  That is why I write almost constantly, and whether I feel like it or not, because regular practice is the only way we get better at anything.  If we always waited for the right amount of inspiration before going to work we would severely limit our potential.

Practice makes perfect and going to the gym every day, the repetition of various motions with the right amount of intensity, will allow us to build strength over time.  That is the power of religion.  It is not vain repetition to go through the motions of prayer or treating others with love, that is what builds muscle memory and leads to gain.  Had we just stayed home, to prove our authenticity or whatever, we would miss out on the opportunity for growth.

The danger of taking authenticity too far is that we never show up because we don’t feel like it.  My natural disposition would be to attend St. Mattress on Sunday morning and not have to face some people and their hurtful behavior that is inconsistent with their Christian profession.  It is triggering, it feeds deep-seated doubts and makes me uncomfortable.  Still, I go to work in the morning or the gym despite feeling unmotivated.

That is why we go through the motions of religion.  Faith is what it does.  And, if you want to move mountains or slay giants, then you need to show up for the small tasks as well.  David was a good shepherd who tended and protected sheep before he became king of his people.  Daniel prayed, faithfully, three times a day, before he faced down the lions.  Religion, going through the motions, can strengthen us.

However, at the same time, we can’t expect any gain through the ritual alone, at some point this must translate into tangible acts of love or it is fake. The Pharisees, we are told, were diligent in their religion and yet unloving in their actions. The church should never be a toxic environment where problems are never adequately addressed. St. Paul was brutal in his letters in addressing neglected issues. James too makes it clear that profession without concern for our brothers and sisters is not enough:

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 a 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 about 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 NIV)

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

(1 John 3:16-18 NIV)

Religious discipline, without love for each other, is only ever a dead work.  It is false security for those relying upon their own strength.  We’re not saved by the number of prayers we pray nor by our participation in the rituals and tradition of the Church.  All of this, without genuine love, is “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,” a hollow act, worthless noise, and meaningless.

Maybe do not have any unmet material needs anymore, like those mentioned in the passages above, but we do have emotional needs and a need for real connection. And, let’s not forget that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, we can even go through the motions of intimacy and love. The truth of our faith depends on the authenticity of our love one for another; what we withhold from our brothers and sisters we withhold from God.

It is disappointing when the church is like a social club, people go through the motions of relationships, and there is no true depth or commitment to real love. It does seem that many lean towards this idea that Christianity is a “personal relationship with Jesus” or something between them and God alone, basically impractical religion, but that is not the attitude of those in the true Church. There is no love for God required to sit alone at home.

Worse Than An Unbeliever

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But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.

(1 Timothy 5 KJV)

I had to think about that verse when reading an article about terrible dating advice given out by an Evangelical superstar shared by a friend. The article itself may be a bit unfair, in that we can rip quotes from a book and make almost any point we want. But I do believe that it raises an important point. A man who does not provide for their own family (and wife) is worse than an unbeliever.

There are so many highly motivated religious men that should never be married. As cited in the article, St Paul gave this advice:

I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided.

(1 Corinthians 7:32-34 NIV)

In Orthodoxy, a priest must be married prior to ordination or remain single. Bishops are unmarried. This, I believe, is to help prevent conflicts of interest and so they remain ministry focused. Of course, if someone is so completely ‘sold out for Christ’ then they should not marry at all. And yet there are some who seem to want both the pleasure of marriage and also credit for their ‘missionary’ devotion. In other words, they neglect their responsibilities at home because they must be seeking their own personal vision. They want to have their cake and eat it too. Someone is getting shortchanged:

He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)

(1 Timothy 3:4-5 NIV)

Red flags should go up when a church leader’s children do not respect their authority or leadership. It reminds me of the pastor that I knew, all of his children seem to be sexual addicts at a young age, they were totally wild, and most not in the church anymore. But, when this man was approached about stepping down or even taking a sabbatical, he would always find justification for not doing what Scripture clearly instructs. He reasoned that his leaving the pulpit would mean Satan win, and yet I’ll have you know that Satan won because he refused to repent or be humbled.

No, that is not to say a parent is completely responsible for the choices of their children either. However, there is influence there. And, if his example wasn’t working at home, why would he be so sure that it was beneficial to the church? He should have obeyed the word of God, that he would preach of so vigorously, and focused on the salvation of himself and his own children.

Being Truly Devoted To God

For those married being truly devoted to God means caring for those entrusted to us. The King James translation of 1 Timothy 5 may be use “he” and yet other translations do not. When men and women are too focused on career or climbing the social hierarchy, even if it appears righteous, they are betraying Christ. Even to neglect care of our elderly parents is in opposition to the word of God:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ a and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

(Matthew 15:1-5 NIV)

This rebuke reminds me of a man that was always so devoted to beautifying the parish. An Orthodox of Orthodox, by appearances, and yet had emotionally and otherwise neglected his home. In fact, he had once bought a Christmas tree for the church and, meanwhile, left his wife fending for herself to decorate their home. I know this may seem insignificant. Still, it reflected some seriously screwed up priorities and, while his hidden infidelity was a disappointment, it was also not a big surprise. A righteous man should, first and foremost, be the priest of his own home.

So, in conclusion, devotion to the cause of Christ that results in a man who does not devote himself first to the needs of his own family is false devotion. It is the same spirit of the Pharisees (passage above) who would set aside care for their elderly parents and use it for a visible religious purpose. They would claim these resources were ‘devoted to God’ and yet God had told them to honor their parents first and foremost. In the end they were only virtue signaling and deceiving themselves, but Jesus was not fooled.

A More Wonderful Love

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What is the highest form of a loving relationship? Many would probably say marriage. Marriage is the recognition of two committing to oneness, involves physical intimacy, and is supposed to last “till death do us part.” What could be more wonderful than romantic love?

But, truth be told, people get into romantic relationships for some very biological reasons. As in pheromones and sexual attraction play a large role. It is why Mennonites marry young, they burn for sexual gratification, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, while this can develop into something deeper, it does not always and marriage can very quality become an unwanted obligation. Divorce rates would be much lower if people married for deeper reasons than merely getting something for themselves.

And that is why marriage and romance is not the ultimate expression of love. Admitted or not, it usually centers on sexual appetites, this special person may become your best friend and yet that does not negate the start. It began with physical attraction and is tied up in our reproductive instincts. So what is more wonderful?

The Love of David and Jonathan

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.

(2 Samuel 1:26 NIV)

This lament of David, in the quote above, the phrase “more wonderful than that of a woman” in particular, is supposed to stand out. It is a comparison for sake of showing how special and significant this relationship was to David.

But what made it so wonderful?

David, the Biblical character known for his fight with a Philistine giant among other things, had been secretly picked and annointed to be the next king of Israel. King Saul, despite his unusually tall stature, was a cowardly man and poor leader who blamed the people for his own incompetence. He was jealous and identified David as a rival for the throne.

But Jonathan, Saul’s son, who potentially had more to lose than his father immediately showed fondness towards the newly arrived giant slayer:

After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.

(1 Samuel 18:1-4 NIV)

They were “one in spirit” and made a covenant to express their love. Which became more important as David’s popularity, as a heroic military leader, grew:

When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang:

“Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”

Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?”

And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David.The next day an evil a spirit from God came forcefully on Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand 11and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.

(1 Samuel 18:6-11 NIV)

King Saul was, quite evidently, a very insecure man and couldn’t stand being shown up. Despite David being loyal, rage would get the better of Saul, as in the account above, and this would become a theme.

But Jonathan warned David and stood up to his father on behalf of his friend:

Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. But Jonathan had taken a great liking to David and warned him, “My father Saul is looking for a chance to kill you. Be on your guard tomorrow morning; go into hiding and stay there. I will go out and stand with my father in the field where you are. I’ll speak to him about you and will tell you what I find out.”

Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him, “Let not the king do wrong to his servant David; he has not wronged you, and what he has done has benefited you greatly. He took his life in his hands when he killed the Philistine. The Lord won a great victory for all Israel, and you saw it and were glad. Why then would you do wrong to an innocent man like David by killing him for no reason?

(1 Samuel 19:1-5 NIV)

Jonathan, unlike his spiritually corrupt father, Saul, recognized that David had done no wrong and had actually secured their power. He put his neck out for David by standing up to his moody and unpredictable father. He had as much reason to be threatened by the rise of David, he could have simply kept his mouth shut to save his own skin, but instead he risked being the next to have a spear chucked at him defended his spiritual brother.

What Made This Love More Wonderful?

Some modern commentators try to pervert and sexualize the love between David and Jonathan. To them any intimate relationship must revolve around gratification of physical desires. But there is nothing in the text that suggests this was the case.

The fundamentalist religious types also dismiss love and intimacy that does not revolve around romance. They may not try to redefine the relationship of these two characters, but it is also an anomaly and mystery to them. Where I came from, there was no true brotherly or sisterly relationship, it was expected that people find their intimate connection in biological family or marriage.

David and Jonathan had a spiritual connection. It was a love that wasn’t self-centered. Jonathan was loyal, he eventually died beside his father in battle. Likewise, David had solid character, he absolutely refused to kill king Saul, the Lord’s annointed, despite being unjustly hunted and having to run for his life. Their love was more wonderful because it defied expectations, it went beyond the typical and was deeper connection.

Freedom In Christ, Consistency, and Conscience

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It is often disheartening to see differences of application within the Church. I’m not only talking about the tens of thousands of Protestant denominations either, no, even those within the Orthodox tradition see things vastly different at times.

A few weeks ago, and adding to my consternation over the past weeks, which included an estrangement from a close friend, another trusted friend caught in his double life, as well as my continuing wait for Charlotte, still indefinite due to Covid restrictions, impending neck surgery, and other painful physical ailments, I had reached out to Fr. Anthony for council.

Now, I have suspected (but do not know and do not need to know) based on hints, that Fr. Anthony’s politics are a little different from mine. So when I shared about my own struggles with relationships within the parish family he shared a bit of his own. It turns out that his diocese is pushing vaccines (oops) and, evidently, he is in full support. My own bishop, by contrast, and fortunately for me, has issued a don’t ask don’t tell policy and basically forbade it from being an issue.

The thing is, I would never argue with Fr. Anthony over something like this, he is a wise and humble man, I have nothing but respect for him. Still, that doesn’t change my own opinion, my own hesitancy is not without good reason and I’m certainly not comfortable with this kind of medical decision being imposed on anyone. So there is a bit of cognitive dissonance while contemplating this difference in perspective. Can I have it both ways?

This was on the back burner until the other day, when a good friend, asked me to parse this:

I’m assuming you’re aware of the sentiment running around right now that Christians are supposed to be compassionate and care for their community.  Therefore they should gladly submit to the vaccinations.  Assume the vax is as effective as they think it is.  What is the CORE philosophical/theological/moral flaw in that thinking?

I never actually answered the question. I honestly don’t know how to answer. But I suppose caring can cut many different ways and including being compassionate with those concerned about the risks of vaccines. My mind immediately went to that email exchange with Fr. Anthony where I had wanted to reconcile the opposite positions on vaccines, within Orthodoxy, and didn’t have the mental energy at the time.

My own rough position was that the whole debate, to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, was a secondary issue and there were others of primary importance.

Early on, last year, aware of the disease, still uncertain about the deadliness, I had stayed home a couple of Sundays because of my feeling sick and wondered about the wisdom of partaking from the Chalice. I’m not ignorant of virology and everyone being served from the same cup seemed to be a potential super spreader event in the making. Despite some saying otherwise, that we can’t get sick, I’m not completely convinced that disease can’t be communicated in this manner.

However, at some point, I decided that life or death, partaking of the body of Christ is more important than my own understanding of the spread of contagious disease. Besides that, my own risk of dying was relatively low, so why give up the practice of my faith on the basis of this risk? To live is Christ, to die is gain, right?

Why worry?

So, here’s the thing, if my parish did require me to vaccinate in order to partake, again, why worry? If faith means not being afraid of disease, then doesn’t it also mean not being fearful of vaccine side effects? New virus or new vaccine, we should not fear death.

But still, how do we reconcile one group using conscience as a reason why we should not even ask others about the vaccine status, while another uses it as a reason why all should vaccinate?

Why can’t Christians agree on this simple matter of application?

Christian Conscience and Meat Offered to Idols

Sometimes it is best to take a step back to gain some perspective. It is very easy to prioritize our own reasoning (and self-righteous indignation) above relationships and should remember what the Christian life is truly about. Is it about winning debates? Having our own way? Can we be technically right, as far as our own position, and wrong in spirit?

Looking back to St Paul, as far as how to handle the vaccine debate or other hot-button issues, I do believe that the answer is clear. In his first letter to the Corinthians he speaks to one of these issues of disagreement, pay attention to how he starts, what he priorities:

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “Lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

(1 Corinthians 8:1‭-‬13 NIV)

We have many knowledgeable (and proud) in the church today, they studied theology, they have all the answers and will use “freedom in Christ” to exempt themselves from anything they don’t like. They have their “rights” and don’t you dare tell them otherwise. But they seem to have completely missed on the love part.

St Paul picks up on the meat theme again and drives home the point:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

(1 Corinthians 10:23-10 NIV)

Those who went to the discount rack, who bought the meat offered to idols, had logic and reason on their side. Meat is meat, right? Why not save a little? So it was offered to some false god and the proceeds go to pagans, what difference does it make? He even gives Psalm 24 as a proof text of this position.

However, he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that we should respect the conscience of those who do have a problem with the cheap meat and therefore abstain when the origin of the meat is known. In other words, our own personal freedom is secondary to the good of others, and even when our own position is more rational, or even Scripturally correct, than those of a more sensitive conscience.

He never says to argue our side or condemn their lack of knowledge. It’s not even something considered. His focus is on being respectful to others where we agree with them or not. Live or die, we yield in love, as St Paul writes in Romans:

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt?

For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:

“ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’ ”

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

(Romans 14:1‭-‬23 NIV)

The ‘meat’ of St Paul’s point is that the other person’s conscience must be honored over our own, so that we do not create a “stumbling block” through our exercise of freedom. Even though he believes that there’s nothing unclean, in Christ, he strongly argues that we respect the conscience of others. In fact, he says it is sin for those who have a conscience against eating, and therefore we would be causing others to sin through our inconsiderate exercise of freedom.

To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate?

We no longer have controversies over meat offered to idols. But we have had some intense debate over vaccines and there are reasonable points made on both sides of the argument.

Generally speaking, vaccines have saved lives. We have, for the most part, eradicated some debilitating and deadly diseases through traditional vaccines and, therefore, we could offer protection to those most vulnerable by being first in line. It could be an act of Christian service to get vaccinated.

However, for some, the idea of using a vaccine derived from aborted fetal cells is completely reprehensible, a terrible evil. Would it be Christian to force these people to comply with our own understanding of science and violate their own conscience?

Is it ever right to tell another person to take on the risk of a medical intervention against their will?

My own position on the new Covid vaccines is that the risks outweigh the rewards and especially for those who already have antibodies through infection. According to some estimates, at least a third of Americans have natural immunity to the virus, and therefore the new vaccines (with the serious side-effects some suffer) are an unnecessary risk for these people. Why would we ever require these people to put their own health at risk for sake of our own conscience? Let people choose for themselves.

At the same time, are the moral objections we have to the vaccines actually as important as we make them. I mean, so some of the vaccines (not all) were tested on a cell line called PER.C6, would we ask as many questions about donated organs or if we should inject blood from another person? Do we raise the same ruckus when shopping for an iPhone, refusing to buy so much as a T-shirt if it may have been manufactured by sweatshop labor? Do we apply the same level of scrutiny to other products that enter our bodies?

Is it actually conscience or is it selective outrage, finding any excuse to be defiant, to stand on the ‘principle’ of our position because we need to win the debate, that keeps us from cooperating on vaccines?

This can cut both ways. One could say that we should never let a bad substance enter us, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and yet Jesus, in Matthew 15, says very clearly that what enters our bodies cannot defile us. Furthermore, in Mark 16 we read an assurance of what is possible with faith, “when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.” So should we really be so fixated on accounting for every molecule that enters our body? Are we not going to die eventually regardless? If you weren’t afraid of Covid, why be so terrified of a relatively safe vaccine?

Why do you oppose St. Paul when he says to put the other person’s conscience above your own?

The “You’re Not the Boss of Me” Attitude

If you’re an independent American, who wants to always do things your own way, then you probably won’t like my answer.

Nobody wants to be told what to do and especially not by those whom we do not believe are up to the task of leadership. It is not unusual, amongst siblings, for a child being ordered around by another, for the phrase “you’re not the boss of me” to rise in protest. And, it is true, in most circumstances it is not the role of one child to tell another what to do.

That attitude carries into adulthood, We don’t want to be told what to do. How many times have we heard “this is a free country” and people declaring their rights, as Americans, especially over the past few years?

Early in the pandemic, a security guard was murdered for his enforcement of a state mask policy in Detroit by a man who would not have his girlfriend suffer the “disrespect” by being told what to do. It was one of two shootings that I know, another in Denver, where a simple request, in a private business, was treated as if it was an unpardonable offense and a reason to murder.

Now, to be clear, I do not believe that government officials have authority over the law. It seems that many have a misconception about the structure of our government and seem to believe that Presidents or state governors are the equivalents of kings. They are not, this country is supposed to be one where rule of law trumps any official in government. There is nothing ungodly or rebellious about challenging illegal use of power in the courts. St. Paul himself took Roman jailers to task for their abuse of his rights as a citizen.

However, the Church is not a democracy, like it or not, and is ruled by a benevolent dictator with His ordained ministers. It is simply astounding to me that so many people take their understanding of American civics and apply this to the Church. The Church is (and always has been) patriarchal with Christ as the head. And just as a parent may give an elder child the authority to act on their behalf, as a stand-in, the same is true in the Church as well. No, this doesn’t mean that these ministers can rule in a manner different from their Lord. Indeed, they will give a greater account. Still, we are to obey those who are given charge over us:

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)

When Peter spoke, and the Jerusalem council decided, that was what the Church did. They overruled those who were trying to apply Jewish law to converts and, unless you want to throw out this part of New Testament canon, the book of Acts, then this was within their authority to do. This is what Jesus was talking about, in the Gospel of Matthew, as far as giving the Apostles “the keys to the kingdom” and authority to bind and loose. It is the role of the Church, the collective body, led by those ordained by Christ, to help guide us. Many individualize the work of the Holy Spirit and I do believe that it does lead individuals, yet Jesus said where two or three are gathered I am in their midst.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

(Ephesians 5:21 NIV)

It is not submission if we only go along with what already agrees with us or goes along with our own conscience.

Church shopping to find one that suits you is not obedience.

Ultimately, I’m okay with contrary positions on vaccines from diocese to diocese. For those concerned only about the kingdom, this should amount to little more than a toilet seat up or down type of preference. It should be spiritual death that is our concern, prioritizing those things on a higher plane and not being so caught up in having our own way that we can never submit to those of a different conscience.

Christian love solves the paradox. It doesn’t actually matter vaccinate or unvaccinated. What matters is that we respect each other, that we submit to the conscience of others even when we do not agree. For some this means we love by not imposing a newly developed pharmaceutical product against their objections, for others it means obeying those who are given the responsibility to decide such things.

Many say that they would do anything God asks of them and yet aren’t willing to give an inch in love for their brothers and sisters, maybe they don’t hate and yet they certainly don’t love:

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

(1 John 4:20‭-‬21 NIV)

Closer Than Blood…?

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

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

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

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

The Quote…

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

St. Ambrose of Milan

Is a statement actual truth or wishful thinking?

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

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

(Philemon 1:8‭-‬10 NIV)

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

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

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

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

Is It All Fake?

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

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

Amish community spirit…

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

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

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

And perhaps I learned that lesson a little too well?

It’s Not You, It’s Me

I have trust issues.

And I’m not completely sure why.

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

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

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

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

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

Impossible Expectations, Loving Our Dysfunctional Families

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

Either that or it is all made up.

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

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

My moon shot…

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

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

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

Colossians 3:12‭-‬14 NIV

What Is Love, Friendship, Humanity?

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

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

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

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

What about our own friendships?

Why do we favor some people over others?

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

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

The Impossible Love

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

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

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

I’m not there yet…