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…

The Hypocrisy of the Nice Guy Angle

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The traditional male is supposed to be a little aggressive. There is something women love about swagger, the confident risk taking persona, and maybe because these men get things done. The bigger bolder man is going to give them more of what they want. They are the star athlete, they can dance, and (by outward appearance at least) are greatly endowed with those attributes most pleasurable. It doesn’t matter if he is entitled, arrogant, emotionally distant or otherwise a complete douche, nor that he’ll be bald with a potbelly at fourth, in his youth he’s that picture of masculine strength that immature women crave.

Success is a positive feedback loop. Even the tall handsome dude is going to have some approach anxieties. However, that self-talk goes a bit easier for the guy who has had his arm squeezed by an ogling female admirer or has never been turned down for a date. Men are not the choosers. Women make themselves available to the desirable men, they smile and laugh for him, will literally crawl into their pick-up truck, all he needs to do is make the move and very soon this flirtation leads into intimacy and meant to be. It didn’t require any faith or great courage on his part. He barely had a speaking role. Like men confuse beauty for virtue, women love that strong silent type for the character they can project onto his frame.

Outside looking in? The Nice Guy. That guy never picked first for any physical contest. The one who is a little timid or shy, awkward or clumsy, the late bloomer, and generally stayed out of the spotlight. He might have been on the receiving end of bullying or, at the very least, was disgusted by the insensitivity and crude sexuality of his male peers. If he’s lucky, women like him because he’s sweet and sincere, respectful and never a threat. While she gets the benefit of his companionship, he is lives under the delusion that if the girl simply gets to know him then she’ll see his golden heart and move him out of the friendzone. It never happens. And, worse, he betrays platonic assurance that gave him access to her.

I ran into this fair description of the infamous ‘Nice Guy’ while looking into the 9 to 10 attractiveness scale:

Recently, women took to Reddit to tell their scariest stories about “Nice Guys” — what our own Miles Klee described as a dude “who claims he only wants to be a woman’s friend, then gets mad about being ‘friendzoned’ and cruelly judges her for dating anyone who isn’t him.” The Nice Guy believes he lives outside of sexism and toxic masculinity, yet his schtick still hinges on the idea that basic decency toward a woman entitles him to sexual access.

The ‘Nice Guy’ wants the same things that any other male wants. But, because he is not 5′-10″ (or over) nor charismatic enough to gain her love, he plays the only angle that he has and that is to be ‘better’ than those other superficial losers. Except the reality is that he’s no different in what he actually wants and that is a relationship that ends in more than polite chatter. The whole thing of dating and romance is crass (a desire for sex hidden under a layer of sophistication) yet, in the cases of attractive men, the base desire for sex is categorized as wanted attention. However, in the case of ‘Nice Guys’ this desire is only ever a betrayal of friendship.

It is one of those all around loathsome things. Not being one of those cool sexy men doesn’t mean that a man wants to remain a celibate. However, to the women who wanted him as their pet rather than a partner, his bitterness and jealousy only confirms his status as an inferior man. In her mind, he was simply to take his place as supporting cast, the enuch to her queenly court, and that’s his only value to her. He’s the sounding board for her complaints, not even really a human with natural hopes to her, and therefore when he imagines himself as more she is appalled. How dare he be a sexual creature like her and the men that she prefers? How dare he mislead and be like those guys who she would allow in her pants!

I mean, she’s right, had she had an inkling that he ever sexual desires she would never have given him the time of day. Women might be best known for their nurture, but they sure can turn the cold shoulder to a guy who doesn’t meet their qualifications. And, again, who can blame them? If the top tier of attractive women could never say “no” or deploy that RBF shield, they would never be able to escape all of the unwanted male attention.

And yet, I’m also sympathetic to those who play that ‘Nice Guy’ angle, in so much that it is not entirely a lie and that they do often hear all of the complaints from women. Why did she go right from that abusive jerk to the womanizer who obviously only sees her as a fresh piece of meat? Why wouldn’t she at least give him a try, acknowledge his passion as valid, and stop denying him what she so freely gives to these others? It is insanely frustrating, especially in this age of equal opportunity politics, as his choice in stature and personality is no different than skin color. In the end his indignation is the most dignifying thing he has left after the rest of the world, including the ‘compassionate’ kind, have left him in the dust and trampled under their own ambitions.

The real problem with the ‘Nice Guy’ is that underneath his self-righteous facade lives a hypocrite. He lives in denial of his own sexuality, as a means to attain access to female attention, and yet is still pursuing the beauty queens like the jocks. He may have no choice. His lack of confidence could be the result of many rejections or simply disposition. It is entirely unfair too that his better qualifies are overlooked as well. And yet the only answer ever is for him not to be like those who are superficial and find one of those many women (truly his own counterpart) who aren’t the 9.5 on the 1-10 attractiveness scale. Because his sanctimoniousness and toxic entitled attitude is certainly not going to secure love.

The harsh reality is that we all, whether we hide it in religious babble or sophisticated explanation, want the same things. There are traits universally attractive and some are born with more of them. It’s not fair. It is most definitely superficial. But we’re all guilty and would be better to take responsibility for our own part. My own beautiful sister remains single, often overlooked by those guys pursuing those perfect 10s (who often lack character despite their angelic appearance) and has as much right as any guy to be upset. So maybe the first step is a little honesty? Both men and women are absolutely superficial and willing to overlook many things if someone scratches that itch. Love may emerge, but nothing after puberty is absolutely pure.

Note, not at all saying that truly platonic friendships do not exist between men and women. Many of my best friends are women. But to be in denial of our base level sexual attraction is the beginning of spiral into insanity, it is self-deception, and will eventually come bleeding out. We need to be real. People don’t date or marry as some purely spiritual experience, so why would our friendships be any different? We spend time with those who we are attracted to and often it is more complicated than mere common interests. It is a matter of maturity to a) fully acknowledge our sexual attraction to another person and b) also be completely fine with the friendship.

The Man I Never Met — Remembering Wayne_in_Maine

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There are some characters you meet online and never forget.

Such was the case with Wayne_in_Maine, who could come off as a sort of cranky or cantankerous old man and yet seemed (even then) to have a golden heart under the bluster. There is a way or an intuition I have, that can cut through the harshness on the surface. I can just know when someone is full of themselves and cruel despite their nice-sounding words or truly compassionate despite their surface-level unpleasantness.

Wayne was the latter kind.

The first thing notable about Wayne was that he was intelligent, he had been a nuclear engineer, could articulate his arguments well, and clearly was not going to be backed into a corner. The second thing was that he had a very unique journey and a different perspective from the other ethnic cultural inhabitants of the MennoDiscuss forum. He had gone from a hippy leftist to a conservative-minded neo-Anabaptist and could speak with authority on matters of science unlike the religiously indoctrinated parroting their fundamentalist teachers.

Initially, I saw him as a sort of threat to my worldview, another person compromised by secular influence trying to get Mennonites to shift to his views, and yet later his perspective would actually strengthen my faith when it faltered against the scientific evidence clearly pointing to the appearance of age in the universe.

Because of Wayne, I learned that young-Earth Creationism (or YEC) is not necessary to have a sincere and grounded faith in Jesus Christ.

In fact, it might actually be a liability and cause many to fall into a serious crisis of faith when they go to university, study biology or almost any science and find out the case for YEC is not as clear as it was presented. That Wayne, a rational mind and well-educated, could both reconcile modern scientific theory and his faith was more useful to me (a critical thinker) than some Hammy tourist attraction put there to feed the confirmation bias of fundamentalist midwits. I came around to his position and haven’t looked back.

I have long respected Wayne despite our sometimes clashing and my occasionally coming away feeling unappreciated by him.

He was a man a conviction. He gave up lucrative career paths, actually tried communal living, literally sold all from what I recall, and had come much further in developing his own perspective than most do.

However, despite my respect, Wayne’s version of Christianity didn’t appeal to me. He had, inadvertently, pushed a friend of mine away from Anabaptism with one of his responses. I still believe his take on the rich young ruler account misses the mark, where he read the response of Jesus as a sort of legalistic prescription rather the same as we understand Luke 14:26 where Jesus says if someone “does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”

I know, for a fact, that he did not take that literally. He came across, from my limited ability to see, as a very loving father and committed husband. I can’t imagine him hating his family to prove his commitment to Christ. Nevertheless, he was adamant about being completely Anabaptist in his perspective about wealth or warfare, an inconsistency of thought that bothers me about him and others of that fold. It did annoy me too when he characterized the Orthodox tradition as “smells and bells” as if worship was supposed to be something other than a beautiful or full sensory experience.

The Cancer and Change

After I heard about Wayne’s cancer diagnosis, none of our previous sparrings mattered much to me. Wayne, despite our differences, was a true friend and someone that mattered to me. It was especially important to me, given my mourning of Uriah, to talk to someone coming to terms with their poor prognosis and yet not giving up hope.

When I reached out on Facebook Messenger, mentioning Uriah and my desire to meet with him, he replied quickly and with more warmth than I had expected. There was no standoffishness, as had kind of been a feature of his personality, he reciprocated the desire to meet and we talked about various matters of faith.

I took a look at some of the MennoNet discussions he was involved in and got a laugh together about the various bad arguments being used. That’s one thing about him, his humor was dry and always fun, or at least fun when you were on the same side.

It was a sort of therapy, talking to this different side of the pragmatic engineer. Truly, it was special, the man that I saw emerge in this final trial was different. My own thought was that this was the Wayne that was always there under the snide comment and cynicism. Men can put up their walls, to not appear vulnerable, and that was no longer there. We were just two old keyboard warriors with nothing left to prove to the other.

And that’s not to take away from anything he said as far as the grace he was given to endure to the end. It was definitely something spiritual. His testimony of faith was clear. As a friend described him, in this transformed version, “It was like he became a totally different person. Happy, cheerful, optimistic.” He would not be defeated in death and I wanted to hear more about how a rational man, such as himself, given my own struggles, could continue in hope of the eternal.

I had to think of this Scriptural passage:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

(1 Peter 1:3-9)

More important than all of his intellectual endeavors and Christian apologetics, theory or theology, is Wayne’s undying faith through trial is of the greatest comfort to those still in the fight. I never did get to have that face-to-face meeting that we had committed to upon his planned move to Pennsylvania to be closer to his daughter and grandchild. We had planned to meet in order to give us both something to look forward to when he did.

Now that meeting will have to change locations. Wayne took his final breaths yesterday evening, on August 12th, a couple of days after his 65 birthday. By God’s grace, in triumph, we’ll see each other on that other side.

I’m sad that Wayne remains a man that I’ve never met, in the flesh, despite our interactions over the years. However, in his terminal illness, there was also a man that I never met, that softer side, and feel blessed have finally met this man. I loved him and believe that he loved me too. I’ll remember our last interactions for much more fondly than our first. It was beautiful to see his golden heart revealed.

What Wears Me Out

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I’ve always been a sort of magical thinker, my hopes always far outpacing my realities, and to the point that sometimes when my dreams would finally come true the pleasure had already been exhausted.

I had so wanted a go cart growing up.  On the school bus ride home my mind would start to wander into the fantasy realm.  I would picture a shiny new go cart, like the ones in the catalog, waiting for me at the end of the driveway and would actually be disappointed when it did not end up being true when we would finally pull up to to my stop. 

That’s not to say that I didn’t love the old go cart that my dad would finally weld up, using a rusted frame as a starting point, and an old lawnmower engine.  Anything with four wheels, that ran on gasoline, that could be slid around corners, definitely scratched that itch.  Still, my vivid world of make-believe did not always end with any fulfillment.

In my adulthood this tendency to be way out ahead of myself did not get any better.  I’ve cried, on more than one occasion, thinking of my beautiful bride walking towards me up the aisle.  And not in sadness either, it was in bliss having momentarily put myself in that wonderful place.  Of course, given that I never even so much as went on one date with this young woman, I pretty much ruined that music.

The world between my ears can be a paradise.  A place where there’s such thing as innocent love and anything is actually possible.  I used this as an escape.  My school years spent doodling and hoping for some kind of rescue from the mundanity of the classroom.

These visions were often grandiose.  A child scaled B-17 would land in the school yard.  I would run out to meet my faithful crew as the teacher and 5th grade class would watch in disbelief, stunned, as we revved the engines and were on our way to the nation (later a planet with two suns) that I benevolently ruled along with my brother Kyle and cousin Mel.

Truly, I had always thought that Kyle and I would always be together, build a house with a chimney in the center, like the ruins that I saw on a Civil War battlefield.  I’m not sure why, but it didn’t seem possible then (despite our fights) that we ever be separated, let alone hours apart, and I really can’t claim to have gotten over that disappointment yet.  He moved on, it seems that I could not.

And I have lived a sort of Peter Pan existence.  Holding on, hoping that some day the love that had eluded me, child-like and innocent, would finally magically arrive to rescue me from my torment for having failed to achieve.  I long overstayed the youth group.  Until I had my happily ever after, what choice did I have?  Get old by myself and alone?

Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy and I lacked the necessary social tools to approach an attractive young woman—let alone convince her to date me.  

Years would go by, where I would convince myself, “this time will be different,” and end up leaving the church retreat no closer to my goals and disappointed.  These beautiful wonderful thought going in would slowly morph into a nightmarish reality as opportunity would pass me by and I would be left with only my profound loneliness again.

It was only in my mid thirties that this optimism would crack and the pattern of hope followed by disappointment would finally overwhelm me.  Brimming with outsized expectations, I would arrive at the weekend, and suddenly shut down.  The wheels came off, I would collapse into the nearest couch, curl up, unable to push myself to try again—eventually ending up a sobbing mess.

The pressure had become too much.  The difference between my hopes and reality too insurmountable. 

Sure, I could entertain my delusions, the right one was going to finally arrive, we would look at our feet, shy at first, we would talk, she would smile at my earnest thoughts, I would finally be at ease and soon enough we would be walking hand in hand out the back of a church.  But the chances of that were as good as Gatsby somehow being able to turn back the hands of time and Daisy would be his.

My collapse from exhaustion came at the tail end of decades of forced optimism and sweeping aside my rational fears.  I did not want a world where my being 5′-8″ tall and rather unathletic disqualified me.  Love, to me, especially pertaining to my female religious counterparts, was supposed to be something transcendent.  Unfortunately, what I got instead was a brick wall of rejection.

Life is especially cruel to those with a high ideal.  If I were less able to see the marvelous maybe I could have more easily moved on to more practical aims.  But I could never get my head out of the clouds nor was I willing to acknowledge the harsh truth about romance.  The young women were also chasing their version of perfection and that perfect man wasn’t me.

Somehow, despite a mind that could span universes, I ended up being thirty years old living in Milton and thus ineligible for that kind of love.  How does a dreamer, still holding to those childish notions of escape, ever recover from that terrible pronouncement?

They don’t. 

It wears me out thinking about it.  

It makes me think of another novel and protagonist, Ethan Frome, an injured ruin of a man.  His house reduced in size as he limped, painfully, through what remained of his life.  Not even granted the merciful end to his suffering of that suicide pack those many years before.  Perhaps my life would have been better had my secret world been a little more stark, desolate and devoid of life?

The Privilege Paradox—What Jesus Taught About Fairness

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Remember that viral video, from a few years ago, that has a bunch of young people lined up in a field?  

As the music plays, we hear an announcer tell participants this is a race for a $100 bill and  then proceeds to list off statements that will allow some to advance.  If both parents married, if they had a father figure, if they had access to private education, if they never had their cell phone shut off or had to help their parents with bills, and the list goes on.

For those of us who have studied socioeconomic issues, and have long pointed to things like fatherless homes as being predictive of outcomes, this is no surprise.  In fact, fatherless homes have a stronger correlation with negative outcomes than race.  Many mass shooters come from broken homes.  We should be talking about such things.

However it seems many of my former religious peers, raised in conservative Mennonite cloisters, prior to watching this video, had been completely unaware of this ‘privilege’ of family structure.  Suddenly their ignorance had been revealed.  But, some, rather than simply ponder and reflect, used this new knowledge to bludgeon others and suggest that anything less than feeling deep shame equal to their own is somehow sinful.

One problem with being raised in a religious culture where indoctrination and conformity is preferred to open discussion is that many coming from this background are nearly incapable of critical thought.  A media presentation like this dazzles them and there’s no reason they can imagine to question the conclusions.  They see what they’re supposed to see, what was carefully edited and prepared for them to see, and what the lecturer tells them to believe.

The video, unfortunately, frames things in terms of race.  The one announcing even explicitly saying “if this was a fair race…some of these black dudes would smoke all of you.”

It’s ironic that this man plays on racial stereotype, the perceived athletic advantage that some have, while simultaneously making the case that privilege is about getting the money at the end of a race.  He undermines his own thesis.  If some young people, as a result of their athleticism, can get into a prestigious university, how is that not also privilege?  

More importantly, where does that leave those of us who neither had the athletic prowess nor the academic chops nor wealthy parents to provide for our education?

My father was absent, out on the road weeks at a time, I went to public school because my parents couldn’t afford the Mennonite school tuition, I never had a cell phone growing up and also eventually had to pay rent to my parents for the privilege of living under their roof, is that unfair?

Who is to say that a person raised in single parent home is truly at a disadvantage to someone with a learning disability?  

And is it actually true that those with non-athletic scholarships didn’t earn any of that reward through their own hard work?

A big problem with the presentation is how it frames privilege in a very narrow and misleading way.  The list of factors is extremely selective.  He never mentioned the many other disadvantages (or advantages) that can shape outcomes, things like physical stature or gender, affirmative action and health.  There is also no attempt to explain why these factors should be weighted as they are.  Ask different questions and the completion of the results may completely change.

Breaking Down Privilege 

The problem with the privilege narrative is not that it highlights the advantages that some have over others.  We all know that an athletic tall guy is more likely to dunk a basketball, and have a girlfriend, than the 5′-5″ tall perpetually last-picked dude.  All of the things listed in the video may very well have an impact on outcomes and yet there are so many other things people overcome that never got mentioned.

The message is right, in that we should be aware of the disadvantages others face, but does a disservice in framing privilege almost entirely in terms of race.  And, with that, feeds insecurities, builds upon division, encourages animosity or guilt—all without providing any actual solutions.

To get to solutions we need to break down the framing:

1) Not About Race

The irony of the “white privilege” claim is that, when we get to specifics, the advantages some have are often not actually about race.  

Fatherless homes, for example, have nothing to do with race and everything to do with the choices of a prior generation.  My dad took responsibility, he provided for his children, my mom remained loyal to him despite his shortcomings, and us children benefited.  

Do you know who else had that privilege?

The daughters of Michelle and Barack Obama.  

Not only that, Sasha and Malia, had access to private school, prestigious universities, and other opportunities that a working-class child (such as myself) could only ever dream about.  Sure, they may have similar skin color to Trayvon Martin, but that’s where the similarities end and to say otherwise is to be absurd.  The average blue collar white person has more in common with racial minorities than anyone in the ruling class.

My school friend, Adam Bartlett, the one who eventually killed himself and another man, was a victim of sexual abuse as a child.  Not only that, but he wasn’t all that athletic, wasn’t a great student, had nothing given to him by his parents, yet we’re supposed to believe that he had this thing called “white privilege” and was actually better off than the daughters of the President?

This idea that privilege is about color, that fatherless homes and poverty is a matter of race, is the very definition of prejudice.  It is a message bad for the racial minorities whom it both disempowers and discourages.  It is also wrong, an injustice, to the many people deemed privileged who face the exact same challenges and never get as much sympathy or help.

The truth is that statistics never tell us about individuals.  There are many born into poverty and poor conditions who do overcome their circumstances.  It has as much to do with attitude, the things we believe and are told to believe about ourselves, as anything else.  The very things that can be a disadvantage in one case can be motivation in the next.

2) Let’s Address Culture, Not Color!

If we’re truly interested in changing results then we need to talk about the elephant in the room.  Why do some children grow up in single parent homes, in poverty, while others do not?  More importantly, what can we do to prevent this from repeating?

Woke nationalism, a far-left Marxist political movement adjacent to this sort of privilege propaganda, would have people believe that more money (in form of reparations or government programs) is the solution to disparities in outcomes.  Rather than address the root cause of disparities, they blame-shift and promote acceptance of toxic behavior.  

Black Lives Matter, for example, doesn’t support the reestablishment of traditional families.  And, worse, many promoters of the “white privilege” narrative would have us believe that things like work ethic are somehow related to skin color.  They are explicitly encouraging the very things that the video would have us believe hold people back from success.

Just today, while writing this, a BLM leader in London, was shot in the head.  Her story not all that uncommon in the inner-city, where gang warfare and honor culture, a criminal underground, leads to many violent ends.  

Are we truly supposed to believe this is black culture?  

Should I celebrate that the majority of shootings in my little corner of the world are perpetrated by a rather small minority?

My answer is a hard N-O to both questions.

No, we should not accept fatherless homes as normal nor be an apologist for the honor culture that so often leads to violent outcomes.

No, skin color does not, should not, should NEVER determine our behavior.

Many things that are being framed in terms of race are actually cultural and a direct result of choices.  A man, no matter his color, does not need to murder his ex-wife because she is with another man, or shoot someone over a borrowed hat, there’s no excuse.  My little town does not need drive-by shootings, we don’t need more bodies dumped in remote locations.  And, yes, we need to ask why the ‘disrespect’ of a mask requirement was a considered a reason to murder a security guard, why a successful NFL athlete took a former friend to an industrial lot to execute him for talking to the wrong people.

It is culture, not color, that is shaping outcomes.  And to conflate color with culture is the very epitome of racial prejudice.  Seriously, saying that black people must act differently, must be more expressive, must prefer particular kinds of music, must talk a certain way, is the same kind of ridiculous thinking behind minstrel shows.  We should be beyond this, we should be judging by content of character rather than color of skin, stop promoting foolishness!

3) Life Is Not Competition

The most egregious presumption in the video is that life is a competition and ending up with more money is the goal.  Talk about spiritual rot posing as enlightenment!

Sure, your bank account may be somewhat a product of the home, community and culture that you were raised in.  Hunter Biden certainly has an advantage over me in terms of earning potential given his father’s high political profile.  And, trust me, it has very little to do with anything he’s done.  For sure, if he were the average Joe, if the 1994 Crime Bill applied to him, he might be in jail for a long list of crimes.  But that ‘privilege’ doesn’t mean he’s a success compared to me, does it?

Some extremely wealthy and visibly successful people are extremely unhappy with their lives.  No amount of access to private education, cell phones, health care, or whatever, is going to solve a feeling of inferiority or self-loathing.  And, if anything, more wealth in the hands of a disgruntled person will only enable them to do more evil.  I mean, was Hitler, a struggling artist and disenfranchised military veteran, improved by the power eventually given to him?

No, not at all.

This idea, in the video, that life is a competition, that more material wealth equates to success, is completely wrong and deserving of the severest rebuke.  What is truly shameful is that those religious folks sharing this message never once stopped to consider the metrics of success presented.  So much for the first being last and last being first, as Jesus taught, apparently to them life is all about the accumulation of stuff and political power.  

Sad.

Maybe if we would, instead of pitying and patronizing people, start preaching the truth, start telling dead beat parents, or anyone making excuses for themselves, to repent—then we would see positive change? 

But that would require us to see others as being our equals, capable of choosing good behavior.  It would require being unpopular and to stand at odds with the virtue signaling of the social elites.  Those who are honest about matters of culture, who confront woke nationalism and racist lies, they are the only people systemically oppressed.

Jesus Defies Privilege Narrative

No, matters of bad character and toxic culture are not fixed by more money, consider this parable:

“Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. “ ‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 

(Matthew 25:14‭-‬30 NIV)

Of the parables that Jesus told, this one has to be one of the most harsh and counterintuitive.  I mean, who can blame this servant, given so little, for burying his talent?  

Was it fair that, before the investment phase even began, the “wicked” and “lazy” servant was already at a severe disadvantage?

While this parable affirms the idea that what we’re born with has little to do with what we’ve done.  However, it departs radically from the central notion of the video that success at the end of life is “nothing to do with what you’ve done.” 

This flies completely in the face of the social justice gospel and, frankly, everything that comes naturally to me.  As one who always felt like the servant given little and thus was fearful of God, this parable confounded me.  Didn’t the initial disadvantage, the unequal distribution of wealth, shape the outcome?

Are we now going to say that Jesus lacked understanding, compassion or sensitivity?

Should we cancel Jesus?

We could replace the wealth or talents of the parable with “privilege points” and not change the message.  Jesus who said, “to those much is given much will be required,” also said those who are given less by God should be appreciative and invest well rather than make excuses.  

In other words, if you have no father, you can wallow in the disadvantage or choose to invest in the next generation so they do not suffer as you did.  If you were excluded, as I was, on the basis of lacking stature and athletic abilities or other things not within your control, you can harbor the grievance, let it take over your life, or you can use it as motivation to do unto others what wasn’t done for you.

The reality is that Jesus was being far more compassionate in addressing the spiritual matter at the heart of many negative outcomes and ignoring questions of fairness.  Furthermore, life is not a competition for material gain, it is not about the rank we attain in society either, and to frame it in such a way only shows a complete lack of discernment.  The privilege narrative is not only racist to the core, it is also at odds with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Instead of chastising innocent people for their alleged color privilege, trying to burden them down with guilt.  Instead of telling some people that they lack the ability to be successful simply on the basis of their outward appearance or place they were born, which is a total lie.  We should love our neighbors, rebuke this notion that life is a competition for money, and call all to repentance.

On Topic of Dogs and Dismemberments

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“The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” (Hebrews 12:6 NIV)

The other day someone commented, in response to a blog, that it was a “vicious attack” and then thumped me with a Scripture reference that I promptly forgot to read. But they couldn’t have read much more than that particular proof-text because, otherwise, they would be doing less Bible-thumping about my lack of their religious refinement and their protest sounded remarkably similar to those offended who stopped Jesus to ask him if he realized that his words were insulting to them.

My words were not slanderous nor untrue and not written to be meanspirited either. In fact, I never even mentioned a name, because my point was not about the person, it was about the behavior and errant ideas behind the behavior. Sure, it was a rebuke to those who engage in this sort of thing, but certainly not as severe as the preaching of Jesus and definitely not as scathing as what St. Paul had to say to these sorts of religious bluebloods who were trying to influence others to live by their standards:

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 was taking direct aim at the Judaizers (equivalent to the “good Mennonite” or others who hold their mastery of a particular tradition as a point of pride) for burdening others down with their rules and employed a very crude double entendre to make his point. I mean, circumcision is literally to “nip the tip” of the male genitalia, as part of the Jewish tradition, and Paul is telling them he wishes that these men would cut off the whole cucumber to prove how superior they are. Of course, he’s also saying he wishes they would leave the church, compares them to a contaminant, and is definitely not mincing his words to be polite.

Jesus would not have tickled the prissy ears of the pretentious. He was provocative. He would likely be called a racist today for using “dog” in reference to a Canaanite woman. St. Paul too, he would surely have made the religious prudes blush then and would have enraged our social police. Both men threw their rhetorical bombs at those who felt too secure in their self-righteous positions and they made no apologies for it. The truth is sometimes harsh. Waking people from the stupor of their pride can take some colorful persuasion. Yes, absolutely, we must keep our own pride in check, but passive and mealy-mouthed men are not living the example of Jesus.

In the end, the opinions of some clucking hen, taking offense on behalf of a man quite confident in himself already, means nothing to me. As the old saying goes, “Throw a rock into a pack of dogs, and the one that yips is the one that you hit.” Feel free to shatter my “glass house” of hypocrisy if you see where I do not live up to my profession. It is better that I am insulted today than be forever damned. Niceness is not a synonym for love and Jesus was not some “you do you” hippy either. And this insulted woman would know that if she would read (or was able to comprehend) the Bible. Jesus didn’t come so that we can be feckless and ineffectual, he came to upset the status quo and the religious elites were his favorite targets.

It is better that I rhetorically cut false teachings to pieces now, while those holding them can still be saved, than allow anyone to go unwarned to final their final judgment and be cut to pieces, thrown in a fire, and destroyed. The yelps of those insulted and offended are proof that the message is true enough to not be laughed off as a joke. Those using the Gospel of Jesus to sell their political-ideological Social Justice wares, trying to enslave others to their repackaged Marxist philosophy, will find no quarter here. I will whip them, and whip them good, with the truth of God’s word.