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.

Sowing Ideas, Sticking Up For the Underdog and Getting Started

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Have you ever wondered how organizations like the Red Cross or Salvation Army got their start?

You can watch this video about the Red Cross for details. But the short version of almost every organization is that it always starts with an idea and an individual willingness to take initiative. A person sees a need to be filled, takes action, tells others and the effort continues to build momentum towards a solution.

Or at least that’s how it is supposed to work.

It doesn’t always work out. Sometimes an idea fails because it was poorly conceived. Other times the person with the idea lacks the motivation to see it through and loses interest themselves. Still, on some occasions, there may be times when the person with the right idea arrives at the wrong time, fails to make the necessary connections, and the thing fizzles on the launch pad as unrealized potential.

Soil and Seeds of Faith

In the context of ideas, the parable of the sower Jesus told comes to mind:

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:3‭-‬9 NIV)

The interpretation of the parable is provided later on in the same context. Jesus is referring to his own message, that of the kingdom of heaven, and how the growth potential of this seed depends on the receptivity of soil. Bad ideas oftentimes spread like weeds while the good news is trampled underfoot by the disinterested masses. But we sow should sow good seeds, all the same, knowing that some will find the right soil.

And so it goes with any inspirational idea, even the best ideas die where there is no faith. Many ideas fail when they are faced with a challenge and the commitment is shallow. Other ideas are drowned out in the marketplace of ideas—their appeal is drowned out by the better positioned and yet inferior aims.

You get the picture.

We are both soil and sower. We can allow ideas, good or bad, to take root in our hearts, and from those ideas spring actions. Sometimes it is a seed someone else plants, sometimes we are the distributor of the seeds, but the mystery is in what causes the seed to grow. St Paul speaks of this in trying to explain who should get credit for the spread of the Gospel saying “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3 NIV) And that is the mystery that is perplexing to me.

Sticking Up For the Underdog

I had always been a bit undersized for my age. Not sure if it was a result of my premature birth or if I was out-competed at the dinner table, but on my first license (at 16 years old) I was just 5′-3″ tall and weigh only 112lb (50.8kg) as a senior in high school.

But I never lacked for grit and determination. My name, at least according to the placard that had been placed under my baby picture, means “strong-willed” and I’ve always done my best to prove myself worthy of the description. Mom called me her fighter for my surviving a traumatic start to life and that resolve, for better or worse, is a defining part of my identity and perspective of the world.

That’s why I’ve always been on the side of the underdog.

I’ve always been interested in the person who has more to overcome than others, the one who works harder than the rest and still does not necessarily come out on top in the end. It is easy to recognize and celebrate the winners. But if the effort could be measured, then the underdog is the one who has put forward the most effort and has shed the most blood, sweat, and tears. In any context or conflict, I’m always cheering for the one in the game who has to overcome the most disadvantages.

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I suppose that is why I had a deep respect for a particular classmate, a Filipino-American who stood about 5′-5″ tall and yet was the starting point guard on the high school basketball team who would put up 20 points some games. He had incredible ball-handling skills and could score in the paint, in traffic, against the trees like our own version of Allen Iverson. For someone who always thought of his own stature as standing in the way of athletic success, this was inspirational.

And maybe that is the reason why the Philippines has intrigued me?

Finding the Right Cause

I’ve always been cause-oriented or at least as far as causes pertaining to people that I care about. I have plenty of passion. But passion alone is not enough, passion needs direction and too often—given my chronic difficulty with focus—I’ve struggled to know what direction.

Some of my pursuit of the impossibility was in search of finding that thing that I lacked as far as a specific mission.

I did not find that direction where I had hoped to find it. However, in the aftermath of that severe disappointment, something did rise from the ashes and provided a path where none had existed before. With the stability brought about by a committed relationship, it gave me a reason to travel to the far reaches of the world and with that came some thought about the potential. I had first traveled to the Philippines and then a year later had an opportunity to spend time in Taiwan.

It was in that travel experience that I became well-acquainted with the hardships faced by overseas Filipino workers (OFW), began contemplating the economic reasons for this unfortunate circumstance and the potential solutions. Many seek work abroad because they have no other good options available and despite the stories of exploitation and abuse. Many become victims themselves after having borrowed money to travel to their new employer only to find things are not as promised.

I actually wrote out the strategic vision for an organization months ago. But I got caught up in the details of how to do it the right way (was thinking of getting a special website made) and it ended up on the back burner where it stayed. It was a story about an OFW “domestic worker” who had jumped out of a window and broke both of her legs to escape her captivity that finally drove me to take action. At that point, the particulars didn’t matter so much, the idea needed to be put out there, it was the right cause and something worth my fighting for.

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My hope is that the idea sown will find good soil to grow in, that others will join me in this righteous cause and that eventually, we can help to bring OFWs home. My hope is that someday those in the Philippines will not have to decide between gainful employment and their families. I especially want to make it so that fewer young women put themselves in situations where they are easily exploited. If the effort only helps one or two that is a success as far as I am concerned, but there is great potential.

So, all that said, you are invited to join me at the newly launched Filipino American Coalition of Trade blog site or the accompanying Facebook page.

Joachim and Anna and the Curse of Childlessness

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For those raised in the conservative Mennonite culture big families are a given. There were nineteen children in my dad’s family (sixteen biological, three adopted) and, while that is the extreme, it would be very unusual for a married couple not to have any children. In a culture where blessing is practically synonymous with children, a childless home would likely produce some whispers and infertility a very unpleasant matter.

Children have traditionally been a retirement plan and marriage commitment the first step. A person without any offspring would likely have nobody to care for them in their old age. Even in a time when the state has taken over that role of social security there is still need of a new generation of children to keep that kind of system solvent. As many industrialized nations have below-replacement fertility rates, childlessness could soon be the crisis for us that it would have been in the ancient times when this was written:

Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court. (Psalm 127:3‭-‬5 NIV)

Indeed, who will contend for the childless?

If you think that democratic institutions, in the hands of young people raised in a culture that values youth, will continue to provide for the elderly who have no familial connection to them then someday you’ll have a rude awakening. If anything the elderly are seen as a political obstacle in our modern times, a waste of limited resources when we have Google to provide our answers, and many of these youthful ignorant social engineers—rather than contend with a bunch of has-beens they don’t care to know—would delight in giving you a push to an early grave.

The Childless In Scripture

In ancient times, perhaps for the reason that there would be nobody to care for you in old age without children, there was a social stigma attached to being childless. In the case of Saul’s daughter Michal, who was critical of her husband David’s celebration antics, and her childlessness is expressed (2 Samuel 6:20-23) as if being a punishment. We are never told if that was simply a result of her relationship with her husband or not, but either way she did not produce an heir to David’s throne—which would be a serious setback to say the least.

There are patterns in Scripture and one of those patterns being that those most notably childless early on are often the most greatly blessed later. The most notable of those couples with a deferred blessing is Abraham and Sarah. They were elderly and had remained childless. We are told “she was not able to concieve” (Genesis 11:30) yet Abraham was promised to be “the father of my nations” (Genesis 17:4) and this seemed plain ridiculous given the advanced age of the couple. But, they were blessed by God, Sarah did bear Issac and was childless no more.

There is also the account of childless Hannah. In the first book of Samuel we read how she was treated especially well by her husband (who had two wives) because he loved her. And yet her rival would torment her over the fact that she could not bear children and this made her miserable to the point she couldn’t eat. Finally she cried out to God, weeping bitterly, she vowed:

Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head. (1 Samuel 1:11 NIV)

In other words, she promised her son would be a man dedicated to God.

The account goes on to say that Eli, the priest, who was watching her pray yet couldn’t hear her words, thought she was drunk and tells her to put away her wine. But she responds that this isn’t the case, that she is simply deeply in anguish, to which the priest tells her: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” (1 Samuel 1:17 NIV) This answer seems to have consoled Hannah who we are told began to eat again and would later become pregnant, bear a son Samuel—a name which basically means “heard by God” and he would, as a result of her commitment, become a great prophet.

Finally, before we move on to Joachim and Anna, there is this assurance given to the childless who remain faithful:

And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. (Isaiah 56:3‭a-‬5 NIV)

There are many who would love to have children and cannot. This is one of those terrible ironies given the numbers of abortions and abused or neglected children in the world. We will never know, at least on this side of eternity, why some who long to be mothers and fathers are denied the blessing of children. However, we do see that those who suffer this despite their righteousness will be rewarded in the end and therefore should always put their hope in God who will make all things good for those who love and obey Him.

Who Are Joachim and Anna?

These two, mentioned at the conclusion of each liturgy, “the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna,” despite being mostly forgotten in the religious tradition I was born into, have one of those great stories.

Joachim was from the tribe of Judah and a descendant of King David. His wife, Anna, was from the tribe of Levi, the same as the High Priest Aaron and the daughter of the priest Matthan. They had lived fifty years, as a married couple, and were unable to have children despite their devotion to God.

Joachim had faithfully, since his teenage years, given two-thirds of his income, one third to the poor and another third to the Temple, and were financially blessed for this. However, their childlessness finally became a cause of harassment. The High Priest, Issachar, confronted Joachim and told him, “You are not worthy to offer sacrifice with those childless hands.” And, with that pronouncement, he was pushed back by others, who had children.

Rejected and despairing in this disgrace, Joachim studied and found that, indeed, every righteous man in Israel had been blessed with children. He and his wife left with Jerusalem with profound sadness because of this. They began to pray for a miracle, like that which happened for Abraham and Sarah, him going into the mountains with his flocks and Anna returning home. Then the archangel Gabriel visited them both, promising them “a daughter most blessed, by whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed, and through whom will come the salvation of the world.” The picture is of them meeting again, at the city gates, upon hearing this.

Their daughter, Mary, the mother of Jesus our Lord, was specially dedicated to God and, like Hannah’s son Samuel, was brought up at the Temple at the age of three to be raised with other girls there. Their righteousness was finally rewarded having waited those many years. Their story is one that is a good reminder to those who have been faithful yet have not been blessed like others. They are the grandparents of our Lord and Savior.

Anyhow, by coincidence, the conception of Mary is celebrated today, December 9th, which is something I didn’t know when I began writing this blog.