Solving Conflict in the Church

Standard

Conflict is everywhere, anywhere there are two are more gathered there is potential for conflict.  We currently watch the lingering hostilities between the West and Russia unfold into open war in Ukraine, between people of a common Kyivan Rus’ religious and cultural heritage.  The reasons are complex (watch this video for a deeper dive) and beyond the scope here.

Nevertheless, the same things that cause wars between nations also lead to schism and splits in the church, and despite the exhortation of St. Paul to make every effort to maintain unity:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 

(Ephesians 4:2-4 NIV)

If we would ask most who profess Christ, they would probably agree that the Church should be united, there should not be rifts or denominations, yet that’s probably where the agreement would end.  The body of believers has split hundreds of different ways, over matters of theology, history, structure, worship style, politics, or personalities.

But, before we get to the broader conflicts and division within Christianity, I’ll confess that I’m currently in my own conflict.  This is why I am both the right and the wrong person to write about this topic.  I am the wrong person because the impasse has not been resolved yet despite a small gesture on the part of the other person.  My anger has exasperated the issue.  And yet I’m also still wanting to find peace with this other person and honest resolution.

Conflict is Nothing New or Unexpected

If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers. 

(Psalms 55:12‭-‬14 NIV)

I believe we can all identify with the text above.  We expect an enemy to do us harm and will find ways to maintain distance.  However, when someone that we trust acts in a deliberately hurtful way, exploiting our vulnerabilities, the betrayal of a friend is the worst kind of pain.  It is hard to come back to the table when someone professing Christ, who worshipped with us, seemingly close in spirit, totally destroys our trust.

That said, restoration of what is broken is part and parcel of Christianity.  Indeed, we’re told that if we can’t forgive a person who owes us, then we will not be forgiven by God. (Matthew 6:4,5)  This is something that Jesus expounded on in the parable of the unforgiving servant, a man who begs for mercy for a vast sum of money he owed, is forgiven, and then turns around to demand from a fellow servant. 

And yet, no teaching of Jesus should be taken out of context either.  Jesus was not, I repeat, was not telling us to sweep sin under a rug or not hold people accountable for their abuses.  This  certainly was not unilateral and unconditional forgiveness without repentance:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15‭-‬17 NIV)

So many conflicts within the Church could be solved if we would go directly to the other person who had caused our offense.  This process above is prescriptive and may keep a mere misunderstanding from blowing up into something that leads to separation or divides a congregation.  First, before consulting anyone else, we should try to settle the issue amongst ourselves.  Then, if that doesn’t work, it is time to seek the counsel of others and confront together.  And, if that fails, if they refuse collective council, we should part ways.

It is similar to this explicit command from St. Paul:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” 

(1 Corinthians 5:9‭-‬13 NIV)

Forgiveness is not the same thing as tolerance for unrepentant sin.  The church cannot be a hospital if we let the infection of sin to spread, like a superbug, untreated and ignored.  The antiseptic is to confront the issue, to give opportunity for confession and repentance to begin the healing process.  But, if the limb refuses treatment, then (as an absolute last resort) it must be amputated to save the body, as St. Paul had asked rhetorically in the lead up to the verses above: “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?”

In cases of actual unrepentant sin, conflict is entirely appropriate.  The church cannot be allowed to become an incubator for sin.  The toxicity can quickly spread and destroy the fellowship and health of a congregation.  It takes proactive pastoral involvement, like that of St. Paul, to keep things from spiraling out of control.  Yes, we should pray about all things.  Sure, we should not judge without mercy and willingness to forgive the repentant.  Still, we must confront sin, endure the discomfort of effective conflict resolution, and not simply resign to fate.

Not All Separation is Sin

Too many seem to skip over the book of Acts and miss the opportunity to see how Christianity played out in the early church:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. 

(Acts 15:36‭-‬40 NIV)

This seemed like an amicable separation between Paul and Barnabas.  Nevertheless, it was an unresolved conflict and they parted ways over it.  There is no indication that either of the men was harboring an unforgiving spirit or in the wrong for this and, in the end, it probably helped the Gospel to reach more people than if they had stuck together.  That is why with my own current conflict I may simply move on rather than make an effort to settle things.  It is sometimes not worth the energy to continue with someone that does not see things the way we do.

Going separate ways, rather than trying to push through a conflict, may serve a greater purpose.  At the very least, as with Abraham and Lot who parted ways over the turf wars between their respective herdsmen, we’ll gain a little peace.  The key is that we don’t harbor ill-will or bring any hostilities with us   Note that Paul and Barnabas did not go out and start competing church groups.  They stayed within the same body of faith, carried on the same tradition, and simply moved in a different direction.

Is Ecumenicalism the Answer?

A church unified in teaching and mission should be the desire of all Christians.  Some achieve this by declaring themselves the remnant and carrying on the great tradition of Diotrephes who turned away even the Apostles:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

(3 John 1:9‭-‬10 NIV)

Declaring yourself to be the true church and everyone else imposters is certainly convenient and yet not really employing be completely humble.  I mean, sure, when I was Mennonite I wanted a church unity built around the doctrines that I was taught.  It is easy to assume that the ground that we stand on is sacred simply because we’re standing on it.  However, that is not an attitude or spirit that will ever overcome our existing conflicts.

Many are tempted to see ecumenicalism as the better alternative.  Let’s all just give up on the particulars, find our common ground in Jesus, sing kumbaya while holding hands together, and move on, right?

But this is a race to the lowest common denominator, we would need to throw out almost everything to reach some kind of consensus.  We would end up with a vague picture of the real Jesus and only end up creating one more faction.  That’s the grand irony of universalist, non-denominational or ecumenical efforts, they never do actually solve the divisions and only end up creating another group of those willing to compromise for sake of creating a kind of unity that doesn’t really amount to much.

Pope Francis greets Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople outside the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy, July 7. The pope met leaders of Christian churches in the Middle East for an ecumenical day of prayer for peace in the region. (CNS photo/Vatican Media) See POPE-ECUMENICAL-ENCOUNTER-BARI July 9, 2018.

Eccumenticalism tends to be a denial of the reasons why the conflicts exist.  It glosses over serious differences in theology and practice.  It appeals to a “can’t we all just get along” sentiment, it is modeled off of the democratic process that many in our time embrace rather than the Gospel, and is not the way of the early church. 

How Did the Early Church Settle Disputes?

The early church was not conflict-free.  And had a fair amount of heretical teachings and false prophets that needed to be addressed.  But one of the big disputes was between the Judiazers, those of Jewish background who wished to impose Jewish law on all new converts, and those who did not see this as necessary:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “ ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— things known from long ago. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 

(Acts 15:1‭-‬19 NIV)

This conflict was not solved by democracy or popular vote.  No, it was decided by a council of elders and Apostles, who then told the rest of the Church what the right approach would be.   It also went against a strict interpretation and application of Scripture.  It was both hierarchical and required submission.  We might not like that this dispute was decided from the top down.  We can question the authority of this council or those that followed after, nevertheless, this was how conflicts over theology and practice were settled.

The Embrace of the Apostles Peter and Paul, Cretan school, Angelos Akotantos, 1st half 15th century

This is the strength of Orthodoxy; Orthodoxy centers on the Orthodoxy rather than hierarchy and that does mean the tradition of the Apostles, passed on “by word of mouth or by letter,” (2 Thess. 2:15) a canon of teachings (including Scripture) that have been established as authentic through councils of the Church, and has been held fast by the faithful throughout the centuries.

So Orthodoxy is the Answer to Conflict?

Many Orthodox Christians will tout their unbroken lineage all that way back to the Apostles.  Our way of worship goes back over a millennium, the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom celebrated from the 5th Century on and is unrivaled in terms of the beauty of the content and structure.  We are the ancient Church tradition and, indeed, Holy Communion is a mystical experience when in the presence of all those through the centuries who have participated.  Such unity!

We’ll talk about the Great Schism and do some of that necessary handwringing about the literally thousands of divisions within Protestantism.  I mean, judge for yourself, is there any civilization more divided against itself than the West?  Even Roman Catholicism, with its progressive Pope and sex abuse scandals, is quite at odds with itself despite having a defined hierarchical structure.

Had I entered Orthodoxy with blind idealism, expecting the perfect church, I would probably have left even before getting started.  The Orthodox may have the richest of Christian traditions, it is certainly a treasure trove for those who appreciate history and want to participate in a Christianity recognizable to those in the early Church.  There is also a defined hierarchy to settle disputes.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong?  And yet the same conflicts of personalities and politics happen here as much as anywhere else.

Pretty much simultaneous to my entering the fold, the Ukrainian Schism took place.  The gist of the dispute was that the Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew decided unilaterally to grant autocephaly (or independence) to the Ukrainian church.  The problem was that this overstepped canonical law and violated the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.   For sake of context, Bartholomew is pretty much the patriarch of a city that no longer exists, is supported by American churches, and is acting outside of his authority in a way reminiscent of the very Papal abuse that led to the Great Schism between East and West in 1054.

And then there were those families that left my own parish, led by a homeschooling mom from a Protestant background, who made some vicious (and completely unfounded, I was on the council and reviewed the books) accusations against the new priest.  This woman, one of those pious and outwardly perfect types, the kind that can fool all of the frivolous old ladies, sends up all of the red flags of a classic manipulator.  Things didn’t go her way and, therefore, that was proof of abuse and fraud.  I tried to be her friend.  I don’t completely connect with our new priest myself, and yet she’s way out of line. 

Of course, I come from a Mennonite background, where no dispute is too petty to divide over.  We would part ways over hairstyles.

The most disappointing fissure, however, other than my own personal conflict with someone that I thought was a real friend, is that between Abbott Tryphon and Ancient Faith Ministries.  Tryphon, a convert to Orthodoxy, is a great writer and a favorite of my parish priest.  I follow him on social media.  He had a falling out with Ancient Faith over his more overtly political content.  Of course, the accusations fly between sides, some say that one side has been compromised, has connections to this industry, or that, while the other would say it was over someone getting too entangled in worldly politics.

In other words, both sides are making essentially the same claim about the other and it probably does stem from both sides holding slightly different partisan perspectives.  I can understand the perspectives that both sides have.  I do not see worldly politics as being a good mix with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and yet I also see that a prophetic voice must speak to the issues relevant to the time.  Still, Tryphon, though very eloquent, seems the more butt-hurt of the two parties and even alienated some of his own audience with his lashing out.

I would actually side against Tryphon, based on his visible conduct, if it weren’t for one thing and that thing being that I’m just like him when hurt.  He’s a passionate man, someone who speaks with conviction, a bit black and white, and completely like me.

Division Makes Us All Weak

There is no religious system or culture that can prevent conflicts.  We can go through all of the correct motions, speak all of the right words, have a perfect understanding of Christianity at a theoretical level, and yet totally fail to resolve conflicts. 

Returning to the passage from Ephesians, from the start of the blog, the “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” is preceded by “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”  That’s the hard part.  When hurt or offended we don’t want to wait, we want to speak out rashly and let them feel a little of our own anguish.

And yet St Paul does not tell us to bury our grievances in the name of keeping unity and peace either:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

 (Ephesians 4-14-16 NIV)

We should not lose our sensitivity:

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.  That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.  You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.  Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 

(Ephesians 4:17-25 NIV)

Instead, we need to find a way to navigate through conflicts, to speak truthfully and reject falsehood, while still being completely gentle, humble, and patient at the same time.  It is both prayerful and proactive.  The potential growth of the church is stunted both by those aggressively confrontational and overly passive in their approach.  Again, what good is a hospital that only ever talks about infection without ever treating it?  Likewise, who would go to a hospital where they a browbeaten and belittled constantly?

Having the right spirit is the start to resolving (or even completely avoiding) conflicts.  There is a need for open and direct communication.  We should also not let things stretch out too long, where we let things stew, as Ephesians 4:26‭-‬27 says: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”  The more that I think about something the more upset I can become.  I tend to soften up very quickly when face-to-face with someone, it is harder to hold on to the grievance.

Oh No, Here We Go Again!

When I entered Orthodoxy, trying to put the deep disappointments behind me, and already having the romance question answered by Charlotte, I was determined to remain friendly, and yet aloof and impersonal enough not to get hurt.  The people were nice at the small parish, a good mix of ages, coffee hour conversations could go deep and I very quickly warmed up to most of the regular attenders. 

In the intervening years, there has been some change and conflict.  The long-serving Fr. Dan, who helped to build the parish, retired (his last service my Chrismation) and the search was on for a new rector.  Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the choice and almost immediately set to undermine the new priest.  I tried to steer clear of those politics, choosing to remain faithful to the parish community despite my own personality conflicts with the burly bearded Harley riding Baptist convert.  He’s a gruff man with a golden heart.

It was in the midst of the pandemic, after that initial quarantine phase in the spring of 2020, that a new person started to attend.  She looked like someone who could be cradle Orthodox, with dark curly hair, and her veil with a long dress reminded me of the traditional Mennonite style that I loved.  So I pretty much had to introduce myself and make them feel welcomed.  I can’t really remember how that went, she was reserved and a little standoffish, and yet Orthodoxy provided a bond that allowed us to develop what seemed to be an authentic brotherly and sisterly relationship.

We spent a fair amount of time talking about our long-distance love interests, we became a sort of two-person support group for those waiting on their significant other to arrive, comforting and encouraging each other, and I found the greatest joy when her tall handsome man arrived one evening for vespers.  I was so excited, in fact, that I offered to play the part of the photographer to make sure that this moment was captured. 

I didn’t realize then that this would be the high point of the relationship.  Uriah’s death meant I needed some space to process and mourn.  I pulled back.  And pulled back even more after a sarcastic remark was directed at me.  It wasn’t meanspirited or meant to hurt, but I simply didn’t have the emotional armor for it and decided to let her be with her new nihilistic Ortho-bro Millennial buddies.  A church isn’t supposed to be a social club or clique of cool kids snickering at everyone else, I could find more neutral company until I got my feet under me again, and that’s what I did.

It was mutual avoidance at this point.  I wanted space, she never really loved me anyway (later revealing that our friendship was fake when I did try to reconcile) and this was fine.

However, eventually, this arrangement started to wear thin for me.  It seemed dishonest or out of sorts with the loving claims we made with our mouths during worship together.  It was too reminiscent of those cold shoulders Mennonite girls give when they want the pudgy less than hygienic misfit to get the hint and not Christian.  So I did what I thought I do well, wrote an email, shelved that one, and wrote another less emotionally charged version that I sent. 

Unfortunately, the signals that I got back were not conciliatory and some of the comments seemed to be very intentionally aimed at my known vulnerabilities, I was falsely accused of being romantically interested (100% not the case) and pretty much had everything thrown back in my face.  It was at this point some of my past started to bubble back up, seeing her would trigger severe discomfort and a flight reflex.  She did gesture to try to make it right and try I have not seen much evidence of a change of heart either.

Rather than reconcile with me directly and be honest, she seems determined to maintain the distance by getting intermediaries involved.  And my initial anxiety attacks have morphed into intense feelings of anger from what feels like a betrayal and lies.  I don’t trust her anymore and I don’t trust anyone to mediate.  I can’t see platitudes or empty motions as being a way forward and would rather stick to the avoidance strategy.  So the one triumph for true brotherhood in Christ ends in a messy quagmire.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The truth is that my interpersonal conflict, like all in the Church, is a problem with me as much (or more) than it is them.  I have trust issues and an impossible ideal, the initial estrangement was my fault, she has her own baggage to deal with and is now moving to protect herself from me.  In her mind, and in the mind of her allies, I am the unstable and manipulative party in this conflict.  She is, no doubt, being encouraged to write me off and move on.  I’ve given her reason (like telling her “stay away from me”) to never talk to me again.

So,  what is my reason for spilling my guts in a blog once again?

Maybe so that someone reading can offer a solution or that those who are prayer warriors can help by begging God to remove those blinders from our eyes and free us from the bindings of fear.  I had initially loved this person because they appeared to be sincere and that (during a sermon about martyrs and contemplating my own weakness of faith) I decided it would be worth dying beside her rather than leaving her to face death alone.  It is tragic that we should end up dying now in opposition to each other due to our past.  Please pray for me, a sinner, that I can learn humility and live a life of repentance.

This brings me to the final point and another reason why I’m sharing this openly: We cannot solve those broader schisms and divisions within the Church if we can’t even love those who are right in front of us enough to lower our defensive posture or give a second chance to those undeserving.  Healing, within the body of Christ, can only be accomplished by working locally to resolve our own conflicts with humility, gentleness, and patience.  We cannot conquer the world for the Kingdom when we’re at war with ourselves.

Furthermore, it takes being at peace with who we are as individuals, petty, unworthy, afraid and broken, to solve our own inner conflicts, before we’re going to do much good in our communities.  My own insecurities, no doubt, are what cloud my judgment and lead to the wrong kind of response.  The Gordian knot that I project onto this situation is less an external reality and more a reflection of my internal state.  I am frustrated with my lack of progress.  I did find great comfort in this friend who is complex and conflicted like me. 

Now my true character has been revealed.  I’m not this wonderful even-keeled guy.  My emotions do get the best of me.  I’m not at peace with myself all of the time and sometimes do look outward for a resolution to this inner battle.  Unfortunately, looking to others for security and stability, will leave us further hurt. They have their baggage too, they respond wrong, misunderstand, misrepresent, manipulate, lie and will otherwise disappoint. That’s why spiritual healing has to start with mewith getting my own conflicted heart right.

When To Give Up?

Standard

The past few weeks have been painful.  I had a bad toothache on top of my chronic neck issues.  Sleeping and eating became extremely difficult.  Like a city that still hasn’t been able to repair the flood walls after the last devastating storm, it did not take much time before waves of despair washed over me.

Yes, I knew that eventually this round of suffering would likely end.  Antibiotics did finally do their thing for the infected root after a few days of excruciating pain.  But I’m also more keenly aware than ever of my own deteriorating condition.  I have gone to the gym faithfully for years, live a generally healthy life, and yet it is all simply a matter of time before I’ll succumb to old age.

It’s been a rough year, maybe even a rough decade, as the strong have fallen and yet another romance seems to be up against impossible odds.  The death of Uriah, despite my best efforts to prepare for the outcome of the terrible prognosis he received, is still difficult.  And now the unexpected circumstances of the pandemic are a real threat to my most successful relationship.

It has been over two and half years, early January of 2019, since Charlotte and I have been physically together.  I had visited her over the holidays two years in a row and might have done the same had a contractor, remodeling my house, not overstayed their welcome.  So, thinking the immigration process would soon be underway, I had promised Charlotte that I would visit the next year if she was not here.

Unfortunately, as December of 2020 approached, it soon became very clear that I would not be able to keep my word.  Travel into the Philippines, for a foreigner like me, had been banned.  It was, to say the least, a huge disappointment.  And, obviously, having not come through, my own credibility also took a huge hit.  Sure, I could not have known, but then how do you assure of anything in times like these?

I’m still not allowed to visit my love and there’s no end in sight to our wait.  The Philippines is unusually strict as far as allowing noncitizens into the country and the immigration process, already arduous, has slowed to a crawl in the current pandemic era.  In any year prior to 2020 there’s a good chance that we would be buying plane tickets right now for her and her son.  Now everything is uncertain.

It is torture.  What has remained of my hopes is being severely tested.  Sure, the first step of the K-1 Visa process may soon be underway (we submitted our paperwork at the start of the year) yet the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) hasn’t even started to review it.  The estimated start of processing is 6 to 8 months, we’re on month 8, and they could deny our application.  And that’s just the start, then it moves on to the US Department of State.

Very recently I’ve heard that the Embassy in Manila isn’t even doing the interviews right now and, if true, this would mean a tremendous backlog of cases.  They’ll likely force Charlotte and Y-dran (her son) to get the experimental vaccine or at least make it exceedingly hard otherwise.  I’m not completely comfortable with that and yet what choice does one have?  They basically have us over the barrel.  Even with full compliance we’re looking at possible years of additional waiting.

It is so completely unnecessary that Y-dran has to wait even longer to have a father in his life, so absolutely unfair that Charlotte’s patience continues to be punished with one more year of waiting, and that’s not to mention my own distress trying to decide what is best considering the circumstances.  It seems every path I try to ease our suffering is met with a new obstacle.

Just today, as I further explored our options to visit or meet somewhere, I found the ticket prices for my go-to airline have about tripled from last time that I looked and are pretty much prohibitively expensive.  I do not even mention that sort of thing to her right now because it is too depressing too talk about.  Maybe I’ll do a GoFundMe to raise funds if there is actually an option for us to see each other.

At this point nothing else in my life matters besides my obligation to Charlotte and Y-dran.  If it weren’t letting them down, it would be easy to jump off of a bridge given the current outlook.  I’ve been stuck in this nightmare of having my most sincere romantic hopes be dashed by things unforeseeable for decades.  I’ve already endured complications that extended our seperation for years and now this.

Prior to the pandemic we would likely have everything processed by now and would be purchasing tickets.  Now it is perhaps foolish to believe that we’ll ever be together or at least not for many years.  Which, given our current ages, and the ticking biological clock, could mean that we never have children.  At the very least, I’ll be even older and in less favorable condition than I am now, which is a very hard pill to swallow for both of us.

I’ll admit that my resolve is being strained to the max.  Given my physical battles and my history of seeing everything possible go wrong in pursuit of happily ever after, there is this nagging fear that the past couple of years have been wasted on a lost cause and that I’ve dragged down to other people with my own delusional faith.  I know Charlotte could find another man.  Am I selfish to hold on?  How long do you keep dreaming before giving up?

The problem is, if I give up, I’ve given up on life and love—I have let cynicism win.

Then again, it does feel that the odds are stacked up against us.  Why would this all happen right now, when we already had such a tough journey?  We’re up against the world, a cold-hearted system that doesn’t care about our story nor our love.  Those making these decisions, processing our paperwork, can hold out indefinitely without feeling an ounce of our pain.  We’re not giving up although maybe we have picked a battle that can’t be won.

Why Was the Real Jesus So unChrist-like?

Standard

Jesus was an extremely divisive figure. He said insulting things, routinely called out the religious elites, and was ultimately nailed to the cross for the inflammatory things that he said. Some of what Jesus said, if taken in context, would make Donald J Trump blush. And, lest someone say that this role was reserved for him, as son of God, Saint Stephen was cancelled by an enraged mob for doubling down on what Jesus said and St Paul literally told his religious rivals to emasculate themselves in one of his rebukes.

When someone uses “unChrist-like” to describe something another person did that offended them, it immediately flags that person as an unthoughtful and reactionary person. It is a favorite term of Mennonite religious snobs, with an extremely black and white perspective on everything, and seem to think that Jesus was some kind of Marxist hipster douche, like them, rather than a man who could throw a rhetorical punch, call people out for their hypocrisy and made many enemies within the ranks of the self-righteous religious elites.

If Jesus were in the flesh today he would enrage the ‘woke’ social justice left like he did the Pharisees. He would violate their speech codes, intentionally, like he did by healing on the Sabbath and allowing his disciples to ignore the cleansing rituals:

“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”

(Matthew 15:2‭-‬9 NIV)

These studious religious experts, looked up to within their own religious circles, point out that the disciples of Jesus are not behaving correctly according to their standards. But Jesus, rather than apologize, instead uses what would now be called a “whataboutism” by those trying to deflect legitimate criticism. He goes after their own crafty violation of the law, their legalistic approach that neglected the spirit or intention of the law, and then attacks them personally, calling them hypocrites, with empty words, who merely follow after human rules.

Ouch!

However, what is most interesting about the Gospel account is that those who loathed Jesus couldn’t condemn him on the basis of his inflammatory rhetoric alone. No, they still had to connive to misrepresent the actual intent of his words to paint him as violent and a threat to the powers that be. They maliciously twisted his words to suggest that he was planning to lead a violent insurrection and should therefore be condemned:

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’ ” Yet even then their testimony did not agree.

(Mark 14:55‭-‬59 NIV)

That passage (above) would, if they had social media then, would likely be rated as being false by the fact-checkers. Why? Well, Jesus did indeed say that the temple would be destroyed:

“Destroy this temple…”

(John 2:19 NIV)

See! Right there it is! Incitement to violence! Jesus, speaking to the crowd, with his followers listen and willing to obey, says “destroy this temple.” Clearly a madman, speaking in a fit of rage after assaulting money changers on sacred ground, attacking established institutions, and a man clearly leading an insurrection, right? No wonder the frenzied mobs wanted him dead, permanently removed, his followers purged from polite society, they were being misled and used as pawns by the powers that be who saw Jesus as a threat to their own religious/political racket.

Follow the Real Jesus—Reject the Leaven of the Pharisees

Christianity, real Christianity, did not parrot the popular narrative. It was extremely divisive, although not along lines of gender, race or superficial difference, and it was those with the blessing of the established institutions who pursued and persecuted his followers. The followers of Jesus, for their part, were defiant like Him, they refused to stop speaking the truth even against the orders of governing authorities. These weren’t no limp-wristed mealy-mouthed educated folk, trying to position themselves for the approval of others.

The followers of Jesus today, as simple blue collar workers, would be called ‘deplorables’ by the elites who despised them. Some of them, as Romans or former collaborators with Rome, would be hated “fascists” or any other of a long list of names used by social justice activists to silence, marginalize or dehumanize their political opposition.

And, yes, the hypocritical religious elites of our day will use “unChrist-like” in an attempt to discredit and shame legitimate critics. They see themselves as being the pure and undefiled arbiters of truth. And you? Well, you’re the unwashed masses, those not privileged with their superior intelligence or education. No, they are, in their own minds, more truly compassionate, those who listen to and represent the downtrodden, while you are too dumb or hard-hearted to comprehend. Of course, it is all hogwash. Nevertheless, they do have a power to lead silly women and weak men astray with their nonsense.

Ultimately, contrary to the myths of the sanctimonious Mennonite progressives, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a divisive message. It calls all to repentance, it stands in opposition to all tribalism and identity politics, and offends the elites who are not accustomed to being put in their place. It is not all kumbaya, linking hands singing “praise and worship” around a fire while shaking a tambourine, or unity around the lowest common denominator. No, sometimes it is harsh, raw and divisive truth, like this:

“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

(Matthew 16:6‭ NIV)

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.

(Luke 12:1 NIV)

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

(Matthew 10:34‭-‬36 NIV)

Those of the prideful social justice mindset, like those of any other errant ideology, the Pharisaical “leaven” of our own time, should be called to repentance. They, themselves, are not arbiters of truth, who can declare a person as not Christian for belonging to a group not their own. No, they are like the self-righteous religious elites who confronted Jesus for his incorrect, according to their own rules of conduct, teachings and example. The religious ‘progressive’ today would imagine themselves on the “right side of history” the same as Jesus sarcastically and very caustically condemned:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

(Matthew 23:29‭-‬32 NIV)

And continued…

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.

(Matthew 23:33‭-‬35 NIV)

Religious elites today never understand that the words of Jesus address them, personally, as much as anyone else nor are capable of understanding that those who were called “you brood of vipers” were the polished, the educated, those of correct pedigree and how dare this uncouth uneducated man tell them otherwise! They were completely justified in their own minds and this man had no business name calling! I mean, how unChrist-like can you be? The real Christ, according to their own experts and expectations, would be a religious bigot like them, would talk down to those lacking sophistication, and endorse them as rulers.

Let My People Go!

The sanctimonious never mind their own business. No, they’re always out to prove themselves more righteous, thus must pursue and destroy anyone who stands in their way, points out their egregious doublestandards or otherwise triggers the privileged religious elites. They are entitled, they have the credentials, who are you to stand up to their bullying and abuse?

They need a captive audience.

They need to have you around, as their whipping boys, to feel better about themselves.

Cutting to the chase, after years of seeing good rural people belittled and falsely accused, having their grievances ignored by the coastal elites, I decided to start a Facebook group to highlight this growing divide. It was a semi-serious solution, where urban and rural people, with their vastly different needs, would be governed separately and in a way better matched to their own needs. The key operant words words being “peaceful partitioning” of the two divergent Americas as a means to avoid violence.

Unfortunately, and predictably, while enjoyed with light-hearted amusement by the rural folks invited, it was soon met with an extremely vicious response. As aggressive as those men in Sodom knocking on Lot’s door, demanding access to his angelic guests, and not taking “no” for an answer, the assault was on. By the direction of a few agitators mischaracterizing the group according to their own blinding prejudice, many in the social justice mob (or sympathetic) began to stalk the group and harass me. How dare rural people seek to be separate and safe from them! [Insert popular false accusations here.]

“You’re unChrist-like!”

It was “unChrist-like,” they cried, with a collective banshee howl, and heaped condemnation.

And yet, those who tell you that there is no Christian precedent for peaceful separation between disagreeing parties are either ignorant or liars. In Scripture there are multiple times when conflict between parties led to separation, as a means to keep the peace, starting with Lot and Abraham who went their different ways to end conflict between their parties. And, even in the New Testament, there was a time when St Paul and St Barnabas, had a severe disagreement and decided to go their separate ways.

The only time where this sort of separation did not go smoothly was when Moses asked Pharaoh, “let my people go!” Evil Pharaoh had initially balked, he didn’t want to lose his source of cheap labor and felt he had all of the power on his side. But Moses persisted, and God assisted by visiting Egypt with a series of plagues, until the tyrant was forced to loosen his grip. Finally, only when the cost became too high, the beleaguered abuser of the children of Israel allowed them to go—only to go against his own word later and pursue them to his own peril.

Maybe Pharaoh is the Christ of the social justice Mennonite?

I’m sure he was polished and prestigious.

Whatever the case, insisting that every American be under the same national flag has nothing to do with Christ or his teachings. I have worshipped in foreign nations, amongst those who didn’t share my political affiliation, and it never ever took away from unity in Christ. No, only when Christianity is corrupted, turned into a political ideology, does this difference in national identity become an issue. And it is not coincidence that those influenced by Marxist political ideology cannot see the vast difference between the two kingdoms. They profess faith, they condemn us as nationalists, yet are the ones who are truly blending religion and politics.

Lastly, there’s something deliciously ironic about a bunch of religious separatists, proud of their Anabaptist heritage, lecturing peaceable folks about keeping unity in the church.

You’re joking, right?

These are people who have no desire to reconsider and reunite with the historic church, that transcends nations, is timeless and complete.

No, they see themselves as superior-minded, able to discern for themselves what is correct ‘Christ-like’ teachings. There is zero self-awareness or introspection as they parrot popular leftist slogans and copy cancel culture against those who dissent to their rule. They are always looking outward, at the Publican over there, praying in his unsophisticated humble manner, trying to justify themselves. They see themselves as the gatekeepers of the kingdom and yet, if they do not repent, they too will be shut out and condemned to outer darkness.

Some day Jesus will divide the sheep from the goats. I ask everyone to consider what side they want to be on in that final judgment. Rural or urban, none of us are in a position to decide who belongs in the church or does not. Those suggesting that being a part of a Facebook group they disapprove of are any less Christian than them? They are delusional. Full of themselves. It is cultural imperialism at best (no surprise some of these are in that special self-congratulatory ‘missionary’ class, who travel over land in sea like those addressed in Matthew 23:15) and is an attitude that will only drive the wedge deeper.

Nobody wants to stay in a toxic relationship. Nobody wants to share a home with their unrepentant abusers. If these elites want to be heard by those of us who have listened to them lecture and condemn year after year, then it is time for them to start listening to our grievances too. If not, if they are incapable, then the most Christ-like thing they can do is let us go our separate ways. It is not peaceable to demand that others see things your own way, there is no reason why Christians can’t go their separate ways, and being in two different nations doesn’t mean we should be at war with each other.

Depressed, But Not Desperate…

Standard

It is supposed to be the most exciting time on the Christian calendar, the time when Jesus rose from the dead, and here I am. Meh. The shut down, tolerable at first, is starting to weigh down on me and I just feel a bit down.

I mean, not that anyone should worry about me, I’m fine and have a good support network. And yet the excitement of something unprecedented has worn down. My routines of work, the gym, eating out, and going to church, have all been disrupted and I barely need to leave my bedroom.

And then there’s the stupid politics, on both sides, TDS on one side and conspiracy theorists on the other, and I’m even starting to doubt my own perspective. I felt I had covered all angles. But, then, I’m no different from anyone else, I’m working with my own set of biases and blind spots like anyone else in the discussion.

So here I am, walking alone, down a windy rural Pennsylvania road, everything turning green despite the cool air, a couple cars on the road, and did I mention that I’m alone?

Today is the day that I typically (yes, even now) spend at my parents house, with my sister, and enjoy a Sunday dinner. But they decided to go to a State Park for the day and I stayed home because that’s what Charlotte wants. Well, I’m not home, actually, I’m at my parents house, for the change of scenery, the bench press, and the sandwich and pie my mom left in the fridge to show her love.

Charlotte, for her part, is doing okay in the Philippines, despite the lock down in her country (far stricter than our own) and has even found a way to get to her new job. She was tired of being cooped up in her little apartment, with Y-dran and her sister, and refuses to accept that I’m fully capable and willing to backstop her until this is over. That said, I’m completely proud of her and her determination to support herself and her son. I think I found someone even stronger willed than I am!

The bleh and blues come somewhat due to the lack of progress in bringing my little family together. With government offices shut down there, in the Philippines, the indefinite time frame of the whole process of her coming her has been stretched even longer. And, given my luck romantically, my doubts about the happily ever after loom always and even larger now. Could this pandemic be part of that invisible barrier, that impossible to overcome obstacle? For now, and as long as I am able, I will cling to my hopes.

What else can I do?

Last, and probably least, the one thing that could have brought me a little smile only left me a few hundred dollars in the hole and that’s only the first week. For the first time in my life, I decided to put some money in the stock market. There’s practically no interest earned by savings, I wanted to help along my goal of financing a kitchen remodel, what could possibly go wrong, right? Since then I’ve run into nothing but negativity, that the market may drop by another 50% and that’s just typical for me: Too little, too late. Too much, too soon.

But then again, I’ve made it this far down the road and at least I’m not going through this one alone. In a few more weeks things will begin to be a bit more normal again. My plans to visit Charlotte in December will hopefully work out and I’ll even be able to stay longer now that it is a proven fact that working remotely is possible. It does make me sad that everything seems to take so long, that those whom I love are stuck on the opposite of the world from me, but them being here with me some day soon will make it all worth the wait!

Even the economy, bad as it seems now, will eventually come back. Most of us will not die from this virus (or the misguided policies to keep us safe from it) and the world will likely come out better on the other side. There is no need to panic, no reason for despair, this too shall pass and everyone will soon find something else to complain, theorize and argue about. The world is not ending, or at least not that I know, and the sun is still shining…

Filipino Christians Forced To Convert, Raped.

Standard

In an article, “Filipino Diaspora: Modern-day Missionaries of the World,” the plight of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) is put in a positive light as a way that the Gospel is being spread throughout the word:

Mary Jane Soriano, a 25-year college-graduate Filipino domestic worker, has been working in Hong Kong for some years. During her stay there, she always made a point to attend the Sunday Mass in a local church, even if her employer and his family belonged to another religion. Besides Mary’s humility, simplicity, hard work, honesty and other human qualities that inevitably impressed her employer is her indomitable Catholic faith the way she practiced—simple ways to keep her life and faith going and always trusting in God and pray daily, and be good and do good to others.

Indeed, God moves in mysterious ways, Christianity swept through the Roman empire as “a religion of woman and slaves” (probably because it gave hope to these disenfranchised people) and in that way this diaspora of Filipinos is bringing Christianity to the world. The message of Jesus, and the cross, is that we will suffer for the sake of his kingdom—but that, in the end, the sacrifice we make is going to be rewarded:

“So the last shall be first, the first last.” (Matthew 20:16 KJV)

I have deep respect for those who aren’t missionaries as an extension of their privilege, living in behind compound walls, and entirely supported by the generosity of others. OFWs may indeed be the greatest missionaries of our time.

However, there is also a flipside, according to AsiaNews.it, in an article from 2010:

“In my tens in Saudi Arabia, I have witnessed several Catholic or Christian Filipino migrants accept Islam under duress,” said Joselyn Cabrera, a Filipino Catholic nurse working at Riyadh hospital. Because of high unemployment levels in the Philippines, more than ten million Filipinos have left to seek jobs abroad. Every day, about 3,000 leave the country. Recently, a majority has gone to Arab countries—some 600,000 in all, 200,000 in Saudi Arabia alone.

And continues:

The most recent case involves a woman who was raped at work. Because of the incident, Saudi authorities accused her of unlawful extramarital sex and on 11 September jailed her in the capital.

That doesn’t sound much like missionary service. It sounds like the vulnerable being exploited, forced to convert under duress, and is unacceptable.

Yes, the New Testament is full of stories of Christians ensuring terrible persecution for their faith. Yes, by their example of suffering example Christianity did spread to the world. But, no, that reality does not mean there is not a terrible cost nor does it absolve us of our own responsibility to intervene.

Suffer With Those Who Suffer

We should never allow our brothers and sisters to continue to endure hardships due to our own negligence or lack of compassion. No, as Christians, we are called to be their advocate, to care for them as we would for a member of our own families, and act on their behalf of them—like St Paul did in pleading for 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)

St Paul, in taking action on behalf of this runaway slave, was practicing what he preached:

If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. (1 Corinthians 12:26 NIV)

This is what it means to be Christian:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. (Romans 12:9‭-‬16 NIV)

Incidentally, the description “low position” in the passage above means those who do menial tasks. That is to say the domestic worker, the migrant laborer, and all those toiling away in the factories, that make our electronic gadgets, for wages a fraction of our own. We should love them, suffer with them, and share out of our own abundance as need be. Those of us living in peace and prosperity have an obligation to help those who are currently endure terrible circumstances and especially those of the household of faith.

To be a part of the body of Christ means not being too busy with our own lives to care. It means being willing to intervene in love on behalf of OFWs around the world, to carry their cross and be an example of Christ.

Carrying the Cross of the Overseas Worker

We live in a culture that has been Christianized to the point that even secular artists now encourage Christian values. We now act as if compassion for those who are not part of our own biological families, national identity or ethnic tribe and race is something normal. That we should care about these others rather than use them as had been common prior to Christ. Take the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s, “On the Turning Away,” for example:

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand
“Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away”

A Christian should never turn away from those in desperate need. We should feel the loneliness of an OFW, as those who are far from home and are separated from their families (including their own young children) for years at a time, and share their sadness. We should think about their fears, mourn the trauma of those who have been sexually assaulted and are being held captive, as slaves, by their abusive employers. We should pray, encourage and absolutely—by all means available to us—work to deliver them from their captivity and bring them home to the families they love.

Sure, it may be the job of the OFW to be a witness to the world of Christ’s love. But it is also our responsibility as fellow Christians, their brothers and sisters in Christ, to be a witness of the Gospel to them by helping to carrying their cross. If Christ himself, according to Scripture, needed help to carry his cross—then how much more does an OFW need our intervention for them? It is for this very purpose that Jesus told the disciples he would go, so that we (who are part of his body and filled with the Holy Spirit) will do greater things in his name.

But What Can We Do?

Many do have compassion. However, the problem is, how do we effectively do anything to change the circumstances for millions of people on the opposite side of the world? Even if we spent every nickel and dime we earned trying to support them and their families it would only help a fraction of those who are in need and it would do absolutely nothing to solve the actual underlying causes of this grim reality for countless Filipino people.

There is not much we as individuals can do as individuals. However there is much we can do in our working together towards a particular end. It is my hope that in my bringing awareness to this issue that others will partner with me, willing to contribute in their own small part, and together we can bring an end to the abuse.

That is why I’ve started the Filipino American Coalition of Trade (FACT) to give opportunity to those who want to make a difference for those who bear the cross as the truest missionaries of our time.

Like and follow FACT both on Facebook and also at the new blog site.

Pray for those who will spend this Christmas as slaves, sojourners in foreign lands, and victims of circumstances beyond their own control. Pray for the well-being of the OFW and their families, pray for their freedom from the economic conditions that keep them bound and separated from their loved ones, and may God be glorified in us all.