God, Suffering and Salvation

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I have complete sympathy for atheists and agnostics.  I’ve wrestled with questions my entire life and whether or not there is a God is always one of them.  But the one thing that I can’t understand is being angry about human suffering, from a rational basis, if God does not exist.  If there is no ultimate good, no greater purpose or meaning to life, on what basis do we make a moral judgment about suffering?

Okay, let’s back up a second.  I’m here at my local establishment drinking another Long Island, one of many since the death of Uriah, and it hasn’t given me an answer as to why he would die of cancer at twenty-four.  The medical diagnosis is simple enough.  He had cancer.  The aggressive kind.  It started with the lump on his ankle during boot camp.  I still have the picture on my phone taken out of morbid curiosity and never dreaming it was a death sentence.

Uriah and I, despite our difference in age, got along in a way that only cousins do.  He was like me.  We didn’t simply accept those easy cliché answers.  He was someone who was both determined and also full of doubts.  He was also the six-foot tall and better version of everything I ever was.  The best part was that I could claim some of his success for myself given that I had encouraged him to continue his college education, telling him that it was better to keep going than to live a life of regrets.

Watching Uriah sacrifice a leg only to have the cancer be found in his lungs a year later. It was a gut punch.  I think I stopped praying, at some point, because I just knew what the prognosis was.  

The hardest part, however, is that Uriah was not the first of his family that I had to carry out of the church on a cold winter day.  His parents had already lost one of their children to a seizure disorder.  His two other siblings are severely disabled and will need constant care.  Judy, his mom, is an incredible woman and has extraordinary faith.  Ed too has great strength of character.  And neither of them wastes any time feeling sorry for themselves despite losing the one healthy child they had to this terrible disease.

Where was God?

When my little Saniyah died, unexpectedly, it was a really big struggle for me.  It took me years to get my feet back under me again, spiritually and emotionally speaking, and I had both doubted my own faith along with the existence of a loving God.  The death of Uriah, along with my disappointments with those whom I put my trust in, and my long wait for Charlotte, have really tested me the past few years.  But, I have those who need me to be strong this time around and, for this reason, have had to push back against falling into despair again.

Nevertheless, I totally get why someone who has encountered suffering in a personal way is angry and denies the existence of God on this basis.  I mean why would this kind of pain and loss be allowed if there is an all-powerful good in the universe, right?  Why would God not intervene and stop this all rather than let us go through such terrible experiences?  It doesn’t make much sense, does it, that we should be left so lonely and struggling if God is good.

However, if we eliminate totally God from the equation, then we dismiss religious morality and must acknowledge that there is nothing written in the fabric of the universe that says our existence entitles us to good feelings.  I mean, as far as evolution goes, pain is more or less a survival tool, a feedback system to tell us what to avoid.  Feeling sad about the death of a friend or family member is, by this logic, a malfunction. 

In this harsh environment, where everything is out to kill us, why would we ever expect anything more than suffering?

The moral reasoning that makes this bad, if you are truly an atheist, is nothing other than a construct.  In terms of pure biology, it is good that fire hurts or we might burn our arms off.  That is pain for a very practical and utilitarian purpose.  Undeniably good if there is such a thing.  But what reasonable good is there in mourning those already dead?  No point in crying over spilled milk, right?  A totally rational being would simply move on to the next social resource and not be so attached or sentimental.

Being upset over suffering and death, if there is no God, is irrational.  And, if there is a God, like that of Christianity, then suffering and death are exactly what we’re promised in this life.  Sheesh.  Did you read the story of Jesus and how he was betrayed, beaten, and then unjustly killed in the most brutal fashion all as part of a redemptive plan?  If you actually believe in eternity then why be angry about a few years living out this rich narrative we call life? 

At the very least, how can we judge anything, especially a fictional character, on the basis of a moral standard that doesn’t exist? 

If there is no God, then there is no basis for morality either.  That too, including the idea that suffering is bad or pleasure is good, is entirely a construct.  Pain is good in some circumstances, it protects us from injury and causes us to change behavior in ways that are beneficial.  In other words, without the discomfort of hunger or thirst, we would not correctly prioritize our life.  Pleasure can be bad when it makes us eat too many donuts and become diabetic.  So how does one truly know that their own interpretation of these signals is the correct one?

From what I’ve observed in myself and in others, unbelief stems from disappointment when things do not go as expected.  It is about who is in control.  We can cling, in our own arrogance, to this notion that the universe should bend to our will.  Or realize that our own perceptions, based on senses which are not very reliable and a brain prone to making mistakes in judgment, are not infallible or ever actual truth.

The thing is we only ever know if suffering is good or bad if it is properly contextualized if we understand the end.  For example, feeling the burn of exercise is good pain because it is what accompanies muscle development and so we embrace this.  So what is the real context of our life?  To what end, or for what reason, did we become conscious?  What is behind this ‘accident’ if it is one? 

How do we contextualize our existence enough to judge what is good or bad?

If there is such a thing as an eternal reward, that would change the calculus, right?  It would mean that all pain can be gain, and all suffering can draw us closer as much as it drives us away because defining the moral character of any experience depends on the end.  I am willing to subject myself to many hardships if the reward is big enough.  No, this doesn’t take away the question of why we must go through here to get there.  But seeing past our immediate feelings is pretty much the only way to make progress.

Angry is a feeling, not a guide for life…

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

C.S. Lewis

People don’t walk away from Christianity for rational or scientific reasons.  Sure, they may guard their emotion-based unbelief behind a wall of post hoc justification.  But the reality is that they’re upset about something.  They had expectations and are now disappointed and acting as wounded people do.  It’s just strange that anyone at all Biblically literate would suddenly lose faith over our suffering when that’s literally the only we’re promised in this life.

What really doesn’t make any sense is why anyone would rather suffer with no hope at all of eternity.  If God is dead, then nihilism is the logical next stop and that life has no real meaning or purpose.  But the suffering does not go away simply because we’re angry at the giver of life.  No, it will only intensify and become a spiral of despair.  Our salvation is in our understanding that, smart as we may think we are, we’re truly quite ignorant and even our most ‘concrete’ reality is not real:

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you. 

Werner Heisenberg

For those who don’t know who that is, Mr. Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1932, for the creation of quantum mechanics.  Materialism, despite the zombie corpse of this thing staggering on, died with the discovery of things in defiance of this entirely too simplistic conception.  Sure, this kind of physics is well-beyond most, but it does support a notion of reality that requires a Universal Perceiver (as described in this article) and we could call that God.

So, if you’re actually serious about science, then the hard science of physics is the place to start and, with its mathematical origin and proofs, is much less likely to be clouded by emotion one way or another.  We can’t run from God.  But we may need to leave behind the baggage of our own misconceptions and learn the value of true repentance.  Maybe Uriah died, and went to his reward, so some of us would have our flawed thinking broken and seek our salvation in Him?

Maybe some of us are just too stubborn, or too needing of control being in our own hands, to admit we can’t save ourselves?

I’ll tell you this.  The universe, without God, is an infinitely dark and lonely place.  It is that starring abyss of which Friedrich Nietzsche warned, the existential horror H.P. Lovecraft describes.  Highly intelligent men, both of them, and understood the implications that come with true unbelief in God.  You will not escape your suffering simply by denying that the Divine all-powerful good exists.  No, rather you will just remain in that hell of your own creation.

Postscript: Questions Remain

I still grieve Uriah, as I do Saniyah, uncle Roland, and others that seem to have been taken before their time. I’ve long struggled against sources of trauma much more basic, the lack of unconditional love in the church that could make up for my shortcomings, and much of that is unresolved. At the time of my writing, the impossibility is something yet to be fulfilled. I do not have answers for any of this nor do I expect to. I’m not the arrogant kid who argued with his high school biology teacher, not a Bible-thumping fundamentalist at all, and yet must believe.

Seeing the Truth — Who Are the Real Christians?

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There was a 1980s cult film about a man who finds a pair of sunglasses which allows him to see subliminal messages in mass media.  In this science fiction movie, “They Live,” the protagonist learns that world is run by aliens, along with human collaborators, who use billboards and television to control the population.  The protagonist, now that he is awakened to this truth, goes on a mission to free people.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever watched the entire movie.  It was before my time.  But, from the bits and pieces that I’ve seen, it is basically a commentary on our mind-numbing American consumerism and political propaganda.  It is trying to show how mass media is used by social elites to manipulate and manage people.  

Anyhow, for a moment, yesterday, I thought somehow I had landed in that movie and posted the following on social media to describe the experience:

“Was out on the road today and saw a billboard with the word “Obey” in large print.  I thought, for a moment, that I was in the 1980s movie, “They Live,” in which the protagonist finds special glasses that allow him to see what really is.  In the film the world is controlled by aliens who manipulate people to conform.  As it turns out this was not my new vision that could see through the propaganda, but was a Christian Aid Ministries (Mennonite) evangelism effort aimed at professing Christians that do not live to their standards.”

Now, given that much of my friends list is still conservative Mennonite, who live mostly in their own religious cloister, I knew the risk of some missing the meaning and intended humor of the cultural reference.  However, what I had not expected was the personal attacks against me and bizarre accusations of bashing CAM for stating the plain truth.  What led to this severe reaction?  Apparently, that last sentence, that this message was “aimed at professing Christians that do not live their standards,” which offended.

Standards are a sore subject for conservative Mennonites and most especially for the neo-Anabaptist types.  Perhaps, had I used the word “doctrines” the howls of protest may have been more muted.  Why?  Well, the word “standards” is often associated with that multitude of extra-Biblical rules that some argue aren’t a matter of salvation and yet, despite this claim, are somehow important enough to be the cause of their countless church splits.  But the bizarre part is that I didn’t say anything about their extra-Biblical standards and that’s what made the boisterous denials so interesting.

What does “Real Christians” actually mean?

The billboard proclaimed “Real Christians OBEY Jesus’ teachings,” citing Luke 6:46 as a reference.  At face value that is the goal of all Christians, to obey Jesus, right?  But it is this qualifying word “real” that indicates this is a loaded statement and more than just a reminder to be good Christians.  The writer doesn’t want you to just be any kind of Christian.  No, they want you to be a “real Christians” and quite obviously, unless this writer is at odds with themselves, it means to be like them.

There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment, St. Paul urged, “follow me as I follow Christ,” (1 Corinthians 11:1) and that would certainly mean to be a part of the same church body as him.  It shouldn’t be a big controversy, when a Mennonite puts up a sign saying to be a “real Christian” they mean to be more like them, an Anabaptist.  This would not even be a question if a billboard, with a similar message, were put up by a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness organization.  So it is beyond disingenuous to insist that this use of “real Christian” has nothing to do with being more like Mennonites.

As someone who has spent decades of their own life amongst conservative Mennonites and other Anabaptist types, this notion that “we’re the real Christian” oozes out.  And, more precisely, when they say “obey Jesus” what this ultimately means is agreeing with their Mennonite ‘doctrines’ of “non-conformity” and “non-resistance.”  To them, this is just Biblical teaching, the clear extension of the commands of Jesus and, therefore, the most essential part of what it means to be real Christians.  

So why deny it?

Why do some get up in arms over someone speaking this truth?

Why not be Mennonite and own it?

The real issue goes deeper.  Mennonites, for various reasons, do not like to be identified as Mennonites.  The term turns them into an ethnic tribe or mere subculture rather than the purer form.  Whereas they would rather see themselves as simply being the only genuine Christians.  The Holdeman Mennonites, calling themselves the Church of God in Christ, were more forthright in this regard and believed themselves to be the only true church.  Other Mennonites aren’t as bold as to outright say that they’re the remnant church, but also do not fully embrace their common denominational label either.

The worst of the deniers try to discard the word “Mennonite” completely, despite this being their religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage.  Modify the veil a little, ditch the capedress for another style of conservative dress, change the language, and suddenly they’re now the more authentic ‘Anabaptist’ who arrived at this particular emphasis by their own study of Scripture.  This faux conversion is something born of insecurity from knowing that their own religious form is inherited. And yet, despite this, holding to a dogma of “Believer’s baptism” that causes cognitive dissonance if their being Mennonite isn’t completely a choice.

There’s also another possible reason why someone might deny their religious heritage and that is to fool their potential converts. In other words, a bait-and-switch tactic: 1) Tell inquirers that the group is all about following the example of Jesus, 2) shower them with attention and get them invested in the local fellowship, then 3) slowly shoulder them with those expectations that aren’t explicitly stated and yet required to be in Communion with them.  This way they can use the established emotional connection as a tool for manipulation to later bring the new person into full compliance.

Let’s talk about those Mennonite doctrines…

What was most striking, and absolutely disturbing, about this recent encounter on social media, was how completely willing some were to question my faith and even to bear false witness to my face.  For my infraction of saying that Mennonites are what they are, that they generally promote keeping their standards as being the definition of what it means to be a true Christian—for being an ex-Mennonite—one of their number went as far as to question if I was even a brother in Christ.

This, of course, is the grandest of ironies and starkly illustrates the disconnect between what adherents claim versus the reality of the practice. 

First, they (two or more) wrongly interpreted my post as bashing CAM. But, instead of show love or turning the other cheek (as would be truly obeying what Jesus, right?), they attacked me personally and lied.  Rather than address me directly and honestly, they would attempt to knock down strawman versions of what I said and pigeonhole me.  Which is another reason why I don’t buy into the Mennonite ‘doctrine’ of non-resistant.  It seems almost entirely about avoiding military service, giving them something to hold over other believers, and not all that practical or sincere.

In response to this empty non-resistance, it would be better to be the Roman Centurion that Jesus commended for his “great faith” than be the person who is a “conscientious objector” as a matter of cultural inheritance or convenience.  It is noteworthy that Jesus, in the “Sermon on the Mount,” says not a word about wars between nations or about police doing their work, the examples given are what amount to insults and it seems to be about how we respond to our own personal enemies.  So how this gets reversed, as part of Mennonite ‘doctrine,’ is strange.

And, so far as “non-conformity,” taken from St Paul’s “be not conformed to the world,” (Romans 12) the rest of the context does not at all support the most common ‘Anabaptist’ interpretation or application.  In that context, there is no mention of clothing or style, but rather what this means is summed up in the second half of the verse where he says “but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  He goes on in the chapter to define this further, describing what this looks like in practice.  It is about looking intentionally different or in-your-face billboards.

The Truth sets free!

The fictional “They Live” speaks of the reality that is hidden beneath political messaging and commercial advertising.  It is almost routine now that the name of a new piece of legislation or branch of government is nearly the opposite of what it does.  For example, the Defense Department leads the absolutely most aggressive military in the world.  The Inflation Reduction Act has nothing to do with reducing inflation and will likely only increase costs as all subsidies tend to do.  The ‘right’ words are always manipulation and cover their agenda.

But the reality is, most of us, and especially those brought up in a religious home and community, have great difficulty telling the truth.  No, it is not that we set out to lie or mislead people, rather it is we have difficulty fully comprehending how corrupted our own hearts can be.  We tend to see ourselves as being righteous and forget that even our Sunday best is filthy rags by comparison to true Holiness.  We do not realize how much we are bound to our own confirmation bias and prejudices.  This could be why Jesus said we leave behind even our families to follow Him:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26 NIV)

Taken literally this would be a contradiction with the many admonitions to love found in Scripture and the Gospels.  I’m pretty sure the “hate” means to not be encumbered by or unable to see beyond our own heritage and most familiar to us.  This means accepting that we may ourselves have an incorrect understanding of the Biblical texts.  When Jesus spoke of those who cry “Lord Lord,” he isn’t speaking to those other “nominal Christians,” but to those who are sure that they represent His truth and do not.

Jesus said, in John 8:32, “the truth will set you free.”  And, for this reason, it would be far better that Mennonite-borns embrace, rather than deny, the influence of their culture and tradition so far as the Christ that they are able to see.  In doing this, in our understanding that what we received in doctrine or practice is not plain unadulterated Christianity, there is a far greater possibility of discovering our own blindspots and growing in faith.  It is more comfortable to assume that we’re the real Christians.  It is much harder to deal with our pride and repent.

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…

My Apologies For Not Being Flashy Enough, I Guess?

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Years ago, in the parking lot of the Mennonite church, one of the cool youth guys told one of the pretty teenage girls to do something.  I’m not sure the exact lead-in, he probably suggested it was impossible to do, but he instructed her to simultaneously grab her ankles and spell the word run three times.

To my horror, this young woman, my first real crush, in traditional Mennonite dress, voluntarily did exactly as he said.  She bent over, and with her dainty ankles in hand, actually spelled out “R-U-N, R-U-N, R-U-N!”

At the time I had regarded her as a completely innocent party and being exploited.  It has to do with this notion, especially popular in patriarchal purity cultures, that men are more sexually interested and women simply wanting of emotional support.  Therefore it was not possible that she would consent to this sort of activity knowing what his actual intention was, right?

This heroic offense that, no doubt, my reserved conservative Mennonite male readers will likely take on her behalf is trust misplaced.

In retrospect, given the various activities that she would later quite willingly participate in, even after marriage, some that included the jokester from the story above, my own assessment of what was truly going on there has changed.  I mean, had he not been an athletic six-foot built, I’m pretty sure she would have decided to be a little more aware of his intentions.  But the reality is that she was enjoying the attention whether or not she knew exactly what game was being played.

Beauty and Godliness

Many men (and women) confuse feminine beauty for godly character.  One of those shattering realizations was that the virtue that I saw in conservative Mennonite women was one of mere outward appearance and not really an indication of their being truly different under the surface.  Sure, those of us raised in this culture are better trained, our lusts are hidden under more layers of religious garb, but this demure and righteous front conceals passions that are no different from those found in all people.

In ‘worldly’ hookup culture, it is all about the physical.  It is blatantly superficial and makes no attempt at hiding this.  Sure it is discriminatory, sayings like “must be 5′-10″ or over to ride” are common, only the hottest guys and girls are going to be especially successful, but it is also honest.  It is a meat market and that’s what you should expect going in.  

But, raised in the sub-culture that I was in, there was this idea that character mattered most and what was being sought after.  Some of us believed that.

My first crush, the girl in the account above, was someone that I had assumed was of impeccable character.  Compared to those high school girls, like those cheerleader friends who (while at McDonald’s sitting with this blushing Mennonite kid) had fun taking turns saying the word “penis” a little louder each time, she was a saint and basically sinless.  Or so I had thought.  However, as it turns out, those ‘bad’ girls went on to be faithful to their partners, and the girl that had left me feeling unworthy ended up being fondled by that R-U-N guy a few years down the road—despite both of them being married.

I had assumed that my crush was of better character because of my bias towards those who dressed and acted a particular way.  I had her, so pretty and pristine, high upon a pedestal.  She had no dirty thoughts like me.  She would love me for my heart rather than my stature or appearance.  And yet my doubts began to grow, she had become unapproachable to me, too good, too pure and too perfect, how could someone with my stumbling words, painfully awkward, ever add up compared to this angelic being?  It is easy to see why my effort was doomed from the start and especially since she was as horny and completely carnally minded as any other young person her age.

Men, at least those in traditional cultures, want to defend the damsel in distress.  So, women, in turn, will play that part.  They are agreeable, they will accentuate their vulnerability and it is all part of the game to attract a mate.  Maintaining an appearance of ‘godliness’ is a part of this trying to be desirable in cultures where such things are valued.

And that’s not to say it is knowingly a pretense either.  It is simply how we frame the experience.  We don’t need to admit to the sexual motivations like the crass (yet wonderfully truthful) young ‘worldly’ women—like those schoolmates who had delightfully, with giggles, defied my own teenage expectations as far as propriety and appropriateness.  Us born into religious subcultures, especially a purity culture, confuse our merely following the rules for actual righteousness.  It is virtue signaling.  We hang onto that wonderful image, because it is valuable, a social advantage, and yet are as superficial as our ‘worldly’ counterparts when it comes to the true motivation behind our choices.

I’ve learned since that I was lying to myself, this Mennonite girl was a complete knockout no matter how ‘modestly’ she dressed at that time.  That physical beauty most definitely played a part in my attraction and the virtue that had been projected onto her physical frame.  And, while being genuinely horrified during the parking lot incident, there was also that fascination about what was happening, a curiosity like how we can’t take our eyes off of a trainwreck.  Yes, I might have even enjoyed it in a weird way, so was I actually any better than the instigator?

Seeing Through My Own Projections

The “R-U-N” crush was never a saint to begin with.  I had projected my own ideas of her purity onto her, assumed that her inner composition matched her flawless exterior, and thus had turned her into more of an idol than a real person.  Not excusing her eventual infidelity and recent divorce, but would it really be any surprise if some do break under this pressure to perform and be her daddy’s perfect daughter?

My disappointment with things not being as they appeared to have long since worn off, I’ve come to accept that even the ‘good’ girls (even those who would never dare cheat on their husbands or even say anything out of turn) aren’t as spiritually oriented as their outward show would have many believe.  Their faith is often shallow and a means to stay relevant or appear as righteous to their religious peers.  I mean, it isn’t all for show either, we’re always a mixed bag of motivation in even our best moments, but ultimately they are as flawed as anyone else and as oriented towards that strapping physique as much as their hook-up culture counterparts.

Still, it was this realization that left me feeling betrayed by my idealism and needing to let go of this falsehood of their loftiness compared to my own shortcomings.  They were no different from me—not better, not worse. 

This sinless young woman myth is as harmful and as completely patriarchal as the idea that a woman being ‘undefiled’ is her only value.  Being beautiful, not being openly aggressive or disagreeable, does not make an outwardly well-behaved woman a better person.  And, truly, at this point, I would rather deal with the ‘slut’ that is real than the ‘saint’ that is only skin deep and fake.  It is much better to start with the baseline that all have sinned and fallen short of divine glory than to treat anyone as somehow above or beyond.  Religious women may not sin in the same ways or as openly as their male or secular counterparts, but they still do.

People certainly looks at the outward appearance, but Jesus said this concerning the deception of those who kept up appearances:

You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

(Matthew 23:27b‭-‬28 NIV)

What I’ve found about myself and others raised in a culture with high expectations is that we tend to keep two sets of books.  One to keep up the prescribed cultural standard and impress our peers, and another hidden account book that contains our more carnal imaginations and base desires.  Pretty on the outside does not mean a pure heart.  It could simply be manipulation or a way to benefit from the protection provided to those who conform and not evidence of good character.

Character Is More Than Skin Deep

So, anyhow, once burned, twice shy, right?   And, having learned that exteriors do not always match interiors, when stumbled across Charlotte’s profile, saw this shy and adorable looking woman beautiful amongst the flowers, I asked:  “Are you as beautiful on the inside as you are on the outside?”

I know. 

Not much of a pick-up line, right?

Nevertheless, it was exactly the right question for someone struggling.  It signaled to her that I actually cared about more than her physical form and wanted to know about her as a whole person.  Of course, her beauty is indeed more than skin deep.  And, although she confesses that I’m a good person while she’s my “imperfect bhest,” she’s golden.  Her humility alone, in realizing that she is flawed and admitting it, is proof of her beautiful godly character.  And, as our relationship progressed, it was her soul that I wanted to protect and not merely some projected cultural ideal.

Charlotte, for her part, is also well aware that I’m not the epitome of manliness.  She knows that I show my emotions, sees me as a little soft compared to those stoic Igorot men, and had to make some adjustments to my dress style in Taiwan so I didn’t look as much like a dweeb.  There’s very little pretense with her.  Maybe she’s more plainspoken being that English is a second language?  But it’s also cultural.  Or, rather, a lack of the cultural facade where people have learned to say the right things and yet lack actual substance.  She is refreshingly real and appreciates me for my character rather than care too much about my missing-in-action six-pack abs.  

I’m not flashy enough to attract the Tinder date nor the goody-two-shoes who conceals her carnal appetites under layers of sanctimonious bullshit.  And yet do have enough of something to keep from giving up on true love despite the painful distance and wait. I’m not her perfect bhest, but I do love that she is more concerned with my faith than my physical perfection.

Diary Of A Tortured Soul

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What makes me a forever tortured soul is that I’m standing on the knife’s edge.  On one side my ideal, my hopes, dreams and faith.  On the other side my rationality, my anxiety, my knowledge and fears.  

The current cultural paradigm tells me the prior things are built upon social construct, the latter upon science.  They have first deconstructed meaning and purpose, now moved on to trying to even erase categories built upon biology, constantly destroying the rule by highlighting the exception.

The problem with me is that I’m not able to dismiss one or the other.  In many regards I am a postmodern thinker, having rejected modernism, and yet not in the way of those out to destroy every religious tradition or cultural institution.

My own understanding is that social structures, like family, gender distinction or nation, do exist for a reason.  Sure, they should not be an excuse for injustice or unfair exclusion.  However, those who only see these things in negative terms or as unnecessary are severely mistaken.

There are things that can’t be viewed under a microscope that are as needed for human thriving as oxygen or water.  Sure, it is easy to dismiss religion as superstition or redefine terms to suit the current demands of outliers.  

But being unable to appreciate the balance of forces that keep a bridge from falling doesn’t mean that someone can keep removing structural members without consequences.

While being a critic of abuses by these institutions of culture and religion, my point has never been to destroy them.  Sure, it is not acceptable, for example, that the word “modesty” in the Bible is misused to blame women for male lusts, nevertheless tearing down all expectations is an abuse as bad or worse.

Perhaps there are benefits to promoting healthy masculinity or a distinct feminine role?

Those trying to erase all difference in the name of equality are the most controlling and unpleasant people.  In the name of tolerance, they are literally at war with everyone present and past trying to preserve an identity they cherish.  They worship the exception while making life miserable for everyone else.

That’s where I differ from the ‘woke’ and the virtue signaling masses that empower their tyrannical edicts.  Sure, I believe in recognizing disadvantages of some and making wrongs right.  But that’s not what social justice is truly about.  It advertises itself as being a solution, yet is only the same evil of intolerance in a new more ‘colorful’ form.

Still, I am not capable of being fully engulfed by the teachings of Christianity either.  I tend to be philosophically in alignment rather than spiritually and that’s because I’m continually dismissing my own experience as invalid.  I mean, so what if I got the warm fuzzies at a church service, right?  I’ve also experienced euphoria on Adderall.  Been manipulated by music, a rousing speech or what have you.

I can identify fully with H.P. Lovecraft:

“We all know that any emotional bias — irrespective of truth or falsity — can be implanted by suggestion in the emotions of the young, hence the inherited traditions of an orthodox community are absolutely without evidential value…. If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences. With such an honest and inflexible openness to evidence, they could not fail to receive any real truth which might be manifesting itself around them. The fact that religionists do not follow this honourable course, but cheat at their game by invoking juvenile quasi-hypnosis, is enough to destroy their pretensions in my eyes even if their absurdity were not manifest in every other direction.”

But this writer of horror, who lived in his own existential crisis hell, does not seem like an example to follow.  What is the point of being ‘rational’ if it keeps one in a state of constant dread about how insignificant and out of control they are?  Is this holding to an agnostic and meaningless interpretation actually intelligence or simply another form of ignorance?

I vote the latter.

Command of language, the ability to pull together a vast amount of information and sift science from superstition, these are things seen as signs of intelligence.  And certainly they are measures of a particular kind of capability of mind.  But, as a person can be knowledgeable and unwise, saying things that bring us pleasure or purpose are not real is simply ignorant.

Serotonin is as real as the stars in the sky, the feelings this hormone produces are no different from light.  It would be stupid to argue that light waves are less important because they lack mass.  Likewise, to say that the spiritual is non-existent, because it cannot be weighed or otherwise measured, is not brilliance either.  Lack of appreciation or ability to comprehend things of emotional value is not intellectual strength.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which seeing behind the veil changes things, there are things that can’t be unseen.  And those Lovecraftian monsters do exist even if only in the mind of the author.  

My own experience, unfortunately, has left me untethered from the comfortable and floating in space.  My sincerest hopes rejected as being delusion by the very people who I had thought would appreciate such things.  It is difficult to cling to the belief that “with faith all things are possible” when your former pastor’s daughter, encouraged by him, supposedly missionary minded, tells you she can’t love.

It is that disconnect between profession and action that keeps me still precariously balanced on bloodied feet.  

Orthodoxy has brought me a firmer foundation than the ever shifting sands of Protestant theology and practice.  It is certainly more ancient and authentic than the alternatives.  Still, that loss of identity and innocence, that process of degradation of my child-like faith over time, makes restoration of my soul seem as possible as a return to my mother’s womb.  How to become less cynical again?

I do envy the simpletons who can ignore such things.  They suffer without swaying in the belief that God is in control.  Wouldn’t we all live that way if we could?

At some point doesn’t logic dictate we take the advice of Job’s wife, curse God and die, rather than continue to push through the pain against all odds?

This blog site, Irregular Ideation, was a product of my dilemma.  That is what to do when the happily ever after and meant to be fairy tales are insufficient to get us beyond our fears.  What does happen when those teeth of quiet desperation and endless angst finally gnaw through what remains of the moral foundation.  The eternal abyss opens beneath our feet, the inscription over our heads: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Fr. Anthony, the spiritual mentor that met me in my time of need, boiled it down to a choice, either we choose to live a life of meaning or we do not.  Charlotte, my bhest, has also urged me to be strong and that likewise suggests that we decide what is worth the effort.  But none of that makes the choice easy or pain free.  Adam and Eve never lost that awareness that biting from the forbidden fruit of knowledge gave them, the thistles of doubt and despair still remain.

It is both assuring and terrifying that the most notable characters in Scripture were tormented.  Elijah, having witnessed literal fire from heaven, fled terrified into the wilderness because a wicked queen threatened him.  John the Baptist, suffering in prison, sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3 NIV)  And Jesus himself, in angish, speaking of his coming trials, prayed “take this cup away, and on the cross felt forsaken or abandoned by God.

St. Paul, with his undisclosed “thorn in his side,” suggested a division within, the ‘spirit’ being willing while the ‘flesh’ is weak.  The book of Psalms and other Biblical poetry, a great comfort to many today, suggests the writers were experiencing travails and torment.  In no way were these ignorant people living a life of bliss.  They were fully aware, they had their moments of failure, and choose to keep going on in faith despite this all.

As my parish priest reminds us, “If you ain’t struggling you ain’t Orthodox.”

So while my life would be so much easier if I could be agnostic and accept that we’re all products of random chance, biological robots plotting a predetermined course, that everything is about sex and power.  But I don’t give in to that existential dread and will stand against those who, with seeming sadistic pleasure, tear at the foundation of meaning and purpose.

I’m tortured soul because I am able to both see the fullness of beauty and also stare into the void of emptiness.  I live with keen awareness that many have died, clinging to breath and hope, thinking their salvation was right around the corner.  It could all be for naught.  Still, I fight.  I’m not in control, I never will be, and long for that final peace when my journey is complete.  For now, though, I’ll dance on this blade, my persistent uncertainty on one side and strong desire for God on the other.

I can pretty much rationalize around any moral boundaries, maybe eventually embrace a life of self-indulgence and not giving a crap about those whom I’ve stepped on to gain a small advantage.  I could, more easily, give in to self-pity or be overwhelmed by cruelty and give up.  Lord have mercy!  Still, something within, not even sure how to define it, pushes me to endure through hardships.

At some level it makes no sense, why must we go through hell to get to heaven?

It doesn’t make sense.

But then neither does my existence.  How did I come to be?  If my life is finite and time stretches infinity in both directions, there is essentially zero chance of being on this moment right now.  So our existence is not rational nor that we extrapolate, from our pleasure and our pain, that there is something greater.  Maybe belief in the divine realm, where all is made right, is merely a survival mechanism—so why then do we question it?

And so it goes on.  There is no growth without pain, not triumph without suffering, our moments of glory would not be such a pleasure if there was nothing required to attain.  So why not extend this pattern and conclude that our torment, if righteous, will be rewarded…

A picture I snuck of my grandpa, Uriah and myself…while contemplating life…

The NEED For Loving Touch

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A few years ago mom and sister, sensing my need for physical touch, made giving me a hug on Sunday evenings as I left for home and another week out on the road. It was a small gesture, a single suture on a gaping wound of loneliness and years of an unmet need for more intimate human relationship, but—nevertheless—it was something that kept me at least partially sane.

Not everyone is the same in regard to how they handle isolation. However, it is known that solitary confinement is extremely detrimental psychologically and is equivalent to torture for some. It is even worse for children deprived of healthy touch and, according to research, babies in orphanages with inadequate human interaction die at a rate of 30 to 40% and even survivors of the negligence often suffer terrible life-long consequences as a result.

We live in a culture that celebrates connectivity and social media. Unfortunately, those things, seeing words on a screen or having a “friends” list of thousands, do not fill the void or need for real physical interactions and touch. When my hopes of meaningful human connection faded away with another crushing rejection my mind slid back into solipsism—the ultimate aloneness, a disconnect from belief in anything outside of my own mind or imagination—the nightmarish hell put into words by Trent Reznor:

Yes I am alone
But then again I always was
As far back as I can tell
I think maybe it’s because
Because you were never really real
To begin with

I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
And it worked
Yes it did

The reality is that healthy people live for connection and survive periods of aloneness on their hopes of future intimacy and interactions. We were created for relationship, both with each other and with the one who walked with Adam in the garden. It is through relationships that we gain our personhood and purpose. The lack of real community, of physical touch and healthy interaction, has come at a great cost and, sadly, few seem ready to take the necessary action to change this for those most in need.

Some of the reason for this neglect is a misconception about the true meaning of the Gospel message…

“All you need is Jesus”

This is one of those religious clichés that is true in one sense, yet is completely untrue the way some people use it and is often nothing more than an excuse for their real indifference.

People need more than words to thrive.

Yes, we do not live by bread alone and we always depend wholly on God’s grace at all times. However, that doesn’t mean we do not have need of food, clothing, shelter or many other things that make our life complete.

Those who spiritualize and who dismiss the human needs of others should be locked for a week in a box naked, without food or sunlight, and then they can discuss what “all you need is Jesus” means to them as someone who was without anything else.

For those who think their offering mere words about an abstraction of Jesus are an indication of their faith and is doing enough, I will offer the words of James:

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)

If I could have a dollar for all the times that people expressed sympathy for my circumstances, and then assured me that things would magically work out for me without doing anything to help, I would probably be a millionaire. The whole book of James tells me that such people who do not offer anything in the form of concrete help, despite what they might profess, do not really know Jesus and are still in need of salvation themselves. Christian faith that does not express itself in meeting needs both spiritual AND PHYSICAL is not real Christian faith.

“The word became flesh…”

One of the deficiencies of the theological indoctrination that I received in the denomination of my birth was a lack of explanation for the full significance of incarnation. Incarnation tends to be explained as a historic event, that Jesus provided an example to follow, and yet very little is said about the what this says about the human condition and need for touch.

The incarnation, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, is the centerpiece of what John says at the start of his Gospel account and is something that has great significance as far as how it relates to church life. Jesus came so that the Spirit, something not physically defined and the same Spirit “hovering” over the waters in the Genesis creation narrative, could be made one with human flesh and so that through that we also (the church together as the “body of Christ”) could become the incarnation of Christ.

This idea that the Gospel is about an abstraction, some kind of spiritual experience or journey and theological/theoretical construct that has little to offer in physical substance, is wrong. It is part of the issue that early Anabaptists would’ve had with Luther and Protestantism. It is also something Orthodox Christians cannot accept. There is no salvation without incarnation. We cannot live the Chrisitan life alone or without real and tangible love for other Christians.

Christianity is something that must be communal, it must involve actual physical interaction with other members of the body and our partaking of the real flesh and blood of Christ together with other believers, or it is not real. Faith is, as James clearly says, something that changes how we interact with each other in the material world, it should remove barriers (like favoritism or separations within the body between higher and lower social/religious/economic tiers) and make us do something about the physical needs of other Christians.

Feeding people with platitudes does not make you Christ-like or spiritually-minded. No, it is only living in denial of the needs of others, profoundly unloving and disobedience. Yes, certainly, the point of Christianity goes well-beyond mere humanism or making the world a better place to live for others. The kingdom is something that cannot be defined in the material world. That said, Christianity without any fleshing out or being an incarnation of the Spirit ourselves, like Christ, in our Communion together and providing for the physical needs of others is truly not Christianity anymore.

Those who spiritualize physical needs really should consider the question of why Jesus came in the first place. Why didn’t God just send his good news message on tablets of gold from heaven?

The answer is that our body is not something bad or that God has given up on. We are not a mind with a body as many seem to perceive themselves. No, the body and mind are as interwoven as soul and spirit. Sure, you may be able to intellectually conceptualize things like love and theorize about salvation. But the reality is that we do have physical needs, what happens to our bodies does have an impact on our minds, and thus we should take care of our own bodies and also be concerned with the physical well-being of our fellow Christians. The incarnation is important because we are creatures of flesh and with real physical needs. We need other Christians to flesh out Christ today for the same reason Thomas needed to touch the wounds of Jesus to know that he had truly conquered death.

Not just talk, touch…

There is no shortage of advice in the world and much of it unsolicited. Tell a person about your needs and you are bound to get an earful of their opinions. They, like those who claimed faith without works, think that they can talk away your problems and/or need a way to dismiss your needs when you do not take their bad advice. They can say, “Well, he should just listen to me and then things might go better.”

Jesus condemns this sort of aloofness:

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

That is not to say that we should never give any weighty advice. However, when our advice is not accompanied by helpful action, then it will simply be adding another burden to someone already struggling under the weight of life. Having real faith, embodying Christ, means offering real substantive help to those who ask. Again, there might be a place for speaking against sin, there is also a good case to be made for teaching people how to help themselves, yet we also need to get our own hands dirty sometimes and help to dig people out of the mire they are in or at least lift their load until they can get their feet under them again.

Jesus said, “Give to those who ask” (Matthew 5:42) And, given that he does offer himself to anyone who asks, it is very likely meant those words take be taken literally. He didn’t say only to give what rationally makes sense to you at the time, he doesn’t say to give only money or time, he tells us to give and our willingness to give is the true measure of our faith. It is our job, as Christians, to give of ourselves for the salvation of others, that is what marriage is about and why we should attend church—and be all the more involved when those in the church need Jesus more than we do.

The point of Christianity is to be part of the body of Christ, to do what he did for others and the “greater things” he promised would come as a result of his leaving. We are to touch and heal the wounded like he did.

The need for non-sexual physical touch…

In many parts of the world, it is not unusual for men to hold hands with other men nor a scandal for men and women to exchange a familial kiss. But somehow here, in the United States, we have managed to sexualize everything and this is especially true fundamentalist Mennonite/Protestant sects. In fact, I have had a young woman from such a setting, in her early twenties as I recall, worried about somehow defiling herself just to be in my physical presence and unsupervised. And that, needless to say, made the conversation extremely awkward.

This aversion to touch does not seem to be found in Scripture. Jesus healed using physical touch, he allowed a woman to wash his feet with her hair and there is (at least according to less sanitized translations) a description of a disciple “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13:23) while they ate in a reclined posture. There is no indication in Paul’s letters that the “holy kiss” was a gendered practice, he mentions both men and women in his list of those to greet, nor that it was only for their time. It certainly doesn’t seem like physical touch was such a big deal for Jesus and early Christians.

Consider the following:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. (Matthew 9:27‭-‬30b NIV)

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12‭-‬13 NIV)

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:15‭-‬16 NIV)

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. (Matthew 17:5‭-‬8 NIV)

And did I mention that Jesus touched?

That last passage, in particular, may give us some of the reason why the incarnation matters. We need more than an abstraction, more than a book or voice from heaven, we need touch. The church, as the hands and feet of Jesus, needs to be physically intimate in the same way that Jesus was to those he loved. There is healing in touch, it is healthy to touch, and Jesus touched.

Touch is good and right.

The need for good old-fashioned sex…

The person, responding to my prior blog about a failure in faith and relationship, had mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (something that I alluded to in an early blog) and how people, to reach their full potential, need food, water, shelter, clothes, and sex. They put special emphasis on sex because it is something that the spiritualizers (aka modern-day gnostics) would say sex doesn’t matter much and/or is something almost bad even in the context of marriage.

I recall being upset with a psychiatrist for describing my interest in a young woman as being sexual attraction. It was jarring to me at the time. How dare they describe my pure and lofty intentions in such a base manner? I’m not an animal! As obvious as sexual motives are now, looking back in retrospect, I truly was in complete denial then and still have difficulty now being honest about my strong desire for sex.

In fact, I had to be reminded recently that sex, within the marriage context, is something scared and thus my desire for that is not something to be ashamed of or hide.

So why did I hate and conceal this desire to the point that I didn’t even consciously recognize my motivations anymore?

Talk to anyone outside of a religious purity culture and they will be dead honest about their sexual desires. I too would never say that sex is a bad thing even while in denial of my own motivations. But, because sexuality is often discussed in negative terms, and because there was no healthy outlet for my sexual urges for all these years and also knowing that many conservative Mennonite girls share this same shameful view of sex, burying these desires seemed the only option. I mean what kind of God-fearing woman would marry a guy who openly admitted his mixed sexual and spiritual motives?

Unfortunately, this view of sex as being bad (or a shameful compromise) is completely unhealthy and needs to be addressed.

Scripture tells us “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22) and, it is important to realize, marriage is a sexual union. The idea of “two will become one flesh” includes sex and part of that “good” a man finds in a wife. The apostle Paul, while encouraging celibacy for some, says (in 1 Corinthians 7) that those who “burn with passion” should marry rather than fall into sin. He also said that married couples should not deprive each other of sexual relations for an indefinite period of time. So maybe it is time for a more affirming and positive presentation of sexual desire?

Dividing sexual touch from the sacred is unhealthy and wrong. The marital bed is sacred. Sex, in the right context, is not shameful. Most people need this kind of physical intimacy to reach their full potential and thrive. It is not lustful or a sin to want sex. Sex is something we are made for, it is part of God’s original design and something good—we might as well be open and honest about it!

True connection is a human need…

Not everyone has the same need for intimacy and touch. However, a person doesn’t really know their need of something until it is taken away along with any hope of it. Those who minimize the importance or need for real physical connection with other people probably aren’t those who have been without it for long periods of time.

I believe, as a nearly forty-year-old virgin and one who has experienced years of physical isolation, that this is a big problem that is not being addressed. I believe it is especially a problem for men who have no healthy outlet for physical touch. It is not as culturally taboo for women to touch or at least it is not unusual to see teenage girls hanging all over each other. However unmarried men, who need touch to be healthy just like a woman does, are often left to their own devices—alone, unneeded and unappreciated.

But I digress, both men and women need physical touch and to feel loved.

For those with their own physical needs met, even just keeping singles/widows/widowers involved and regularly invited to dinner with your family is a good start. I know that this, even as a token gesture, helped me have a more positive outlook on life as much as it happened. In fact, my being welcomed into homes in this way by a Charity-ish church every time I visited was nearly enough for me to overlook my differences with their perspectives of theology and application. Something real and tangible is better than nothing at all. And love—genuine, self-sacrificial and materially real love—truly does cover a multitude of sins:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:8-10)

It is not enough to wish a brother or sister well who is starving or naked. Likewise, it is not enough to tell those who desire to be needed and appreciated that all they need is an abstraction of Jesus. Jesus came in the flesh so that he could physically interact with and touch people. We too need to incarnate the intimacy that we desire with God through our willingness to be physically connected and intimate with those whom God loves. We need to love others and not with empty words or in religious forms. We need to love them in a way that meets their real physical human needs and in the same way as we want our own spiritual needs to be met by God.

The real need is for meaningful connection. We need adequate relationships to keep our minds from falling into dark and dangerous places. Studies show a correlation between addiction and lack of adequate social connection. We are not self-sufficient, we are not mere minds in a body, we need each other, to be loved and to feel the love of others.

This is why the word became flesh and why we must flesh out the Gospel with healing and healthy touch. It is on us to be the hands and feet of Jesus—faithful love requires that we do more than talk about abstractions of love.

Will the Real Anabaptists Please Stand Up…

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We are all familiar with that guy—the high water mark of his life being his senior year of high school—who is always looking back on that one moment when he was actually relevant and longing for those glory days to return, right?

It is the tendency of some to romanticize the past and something very easy to do when things aren’t going as well as we’d like in the present.  Occasionally this sentimentalism about the past is useful reflection, but oftentimes it is no more than our fear of a future that seems uncertain and keeps us from the greater fulfillment of our potential as an individual or together as a group.

We read about those who rejected what would have brought them into the promised land who “in their hearts turned back to Egypt” and “worship the symbols of their former greatness rather than understand” (Acts 7:39) in Scripture.  Because of this idolatrous preference for things past-tense a generation of Israelites escaped the bondage of Egypt only to wander aimlessly in the wilderness because they did not trust God to overcome the giants of their time.

It is fashionable nowadays in some conservative Mennonite or somehow otherwise related circles to use the word “Anabaptist” as a means to distinguish themselves.  This resurrection of Anabaptist identity seems to both be a response to a perceived lukewarmness in the established tradition and also a rejection of what is often labeled Evangelicalism.  But what it often amounts to is no more than a change of window dressing and nothing more.

In many cases it seems these new Anabaptists are simply another hybrid/remix version of conservative Mennonite standards with Biblical fundamentalism, Revivalism, Pietism, along with many other more recent innovations and influences.  These self-proclaimed Anabaptists may actually be more at odds with their ancestors than their Old Order cousins whom they consider to be their spiritual inferiors.  There is no new life, only rewarmed leftovers of yesterday’s meals and a new distraction.

Early Anabaptists did not spend their days in obsessive omphaloskepsis or in preserving a religious cultural identity.  They were men emboldened by the Spirit to question the authority of their own human teachers and break from tradition passed to them.  They were rebels, branded as troublemakers and thought to be dangerous heretics. 

If your primary goal in life is raising your quiverful and maintaining a respectable image in church or society in general, then you, my friend, are no George Blaurock.

Are modern day Anabaptist wannabes doomed to wander a spiritual wilderness?

The short answer is, no.  

We all have choices to make in the present that will shape our future and the choice is still in front of us all. 

Here’s your choice: Will you be like those who stubbornly clung to the past for security and missed out on the promised land because of their lack of faith?  Or, will you this day choose to stop burying your talents in fear, invest fully in trust of God’s grace and rest completely in the Spirit’s ability to lead you as it did Jesus? 

Jesus, when his authority was questioned, pointed to John’s Baptism (Mathew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8) and a moment of special spiritual anointing recorded in all of the Gospels. 

We are told the sky was “torn open” (Mark 1:9-11) then the Spirit of God descended upon him “in bodily form like a dove” (Luke 3:21-23) “and alighted on him” (Matthew 3:13-17) and immediately after this: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness…” (Luke 4:1)  I believe those writers wanted us to know what gave Jesus authority and direction—what say you?

This is what I read: Jesus appealed to an authority greater than the experts on Scripture and theology back then could duplicate.  He points to something spiritually significant that accompanied his physical water Baptism.  An anointing by God that immediately leads him to the wilderness where he is tempted and then emerges to read from Isaiah “the Spirit of God is upon me” claiming it to be fulfilled that day in him to a stunned and incredulous audience.

But, besides that, there is another Biblical accounting of the Baptism of Jesus with an added detail of great importance, the testimony of John:

“I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is Godʼs Chosen One.” (John 1:32-34)

Jesus did not only live as an example and die as a sacrifice for our sins.  No, according to the passage above, he came to deliver on a promise.  That promise was a spiritual anointing like his available to all who believe. 

That promise being “the Spirit of truth” that the world (including many who falsely claim to believe Jesus) cannot accept as real (John 14-17) and is only known to those who have been anointed or “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) and is what was experienced on the day of Pentecost in an event Peter claims was foretold by the prophet Joel before preaching a message of repentance:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)

What is the first step out of the wilderness?

#1) “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, Mark 1:15) Which means turning away from our sinful attitudes and behaviors—be Baptized, then live in obedience to the teachings of Jesus as we know them.  The Baptism of repentance is something we do as both a symbolic gesture and also as part of sincere effort to put to practice the self-sacrificial love of Jesus.

This is the most difficult step for those raised in a Christian religious tradition.  We know how to follow the rules or behave ourselves and act right.  However, this is often a commitment without sacrifice and an occasion to stumble over our own pride.  We become like the prodigal son who never left home yet was far from repentance.

Keep repenting as need be.

#2) “Ye must be born again.” (John 3:1-21) This was something perplexing to Nicodemus and still mysterious to us.  Jesus says “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” then adds that only the Spirit gives birth to the spirit.  As surely as you didn’t give birth to yourself the first time you will not give birth to yourself spiritually.  For man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

There are many spiritual infants in the church today or those who rely on their own human reasoning and not the power of God.  There was recently a man, ordained in the Mennonite church, who confessed to his not being spiritually born when he started as a preacher.  We send missionaries out full of themselves or a religious indoctrination and youthful ambition rather than tell them to wait on the fullness of Spirit to come to them as Jesus urged his disciples.

#3) “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.” (1 John 2:20)  Do you have that confidence?  Or are you like those Paul encountered who were Baptized in water of repentance and yet…

“While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’ ‘Johnʼs baptism,’ they replied.  Paul said, ‘Johnʼs baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” (Acts 19:1-6)

There are many who have been Baptized with water of repentance who are still not quickened in Spirit.  There are two Baptisms, one physical and the other spiritual, one is to show our repentance and another is of God clothing us.  I pray God sends the willing of this generation to lay hands on those who are Baptized yet still spiritual powerless and that through prayer they are anointed in the name of the Lord Jesus.

#4) “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint…” (Proverbs 29:18)  The word revelation (also translated as vision) is about spiritual foresight and leadership.  When there is no spiritual vision people cast off restraint, run wild, perish, etc.

Vision is not about looking backwards for answers.  This is not medieval Switzerland, you are not George Blaurock, I am not Conrad Grebel, and we can’t recreate the 1500’s today nor should we want to.  Tent meetings, Sunday schools, VBS (or any of the other innovations of a prior era) do not need to be preserved ad infinitum either.  We have work to do, work God has given us to do in this present moment using the advantages we are given.

Yes, the witness of faithfulness past-tense should not be forgotten and is a great encouragement.  Take these translated words of “Gott, dich will ich loben” (God, You I Will Praise) a hymn written by Blaurock before his martyrs death have great value:

“Lord God, how do I praise Thee
From hence and evermore,
That Thou real faith didst give me
By which I Thee may know.
Forget me not, O Father,
Be near me evermore;
Thy Spirit shield and teach me,
That in afflictions great
Thy comfort I may ever prove,
And valiantly may obtain
The victory in this fight.”

But putting those words to actual practice does not mean we should be consummate historians, full of knowledge of the past and light on vision for the future.  We should not be like those obsessed with their former glory, trying to be great again by looking backwards, rather we should be full of the Spirit and a vision for today.

The real Anabaptist is the one who does as they did and recklessly pursues the truth regardless of personal cost.  We need a radical faith, one that uses the technological means and media of today, that reaches the world with authentic self-sacrificial love.   We have tools at our disposal that give of us capabilities that our ancestors could hardly even imagine.

Ultimately, however, for any of our tools, technology and historical knowledge to be useful, we need a spiritual awakening.  Real Christian vision is not a product of human ability or effort, it comes from the Spirit of God—For any of our advantages to matter we must be born again.

Those who walk in the Spirit look forward with a positive vision and a great hope for the future.