The Patriarchal Protection Paradox

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The order and protection of patriarchalism and purity culture could appear to be the alternative to the chaos, confusion, risk and hurt of sexual liberation.  We know that women are taken advantage of all the time by men who have no intentions of making a commitment, they do naturally bear the higher cost of sexual promiscuity and therefore it does make sense to offer them some special protection, right?

Men should be protectors.  This is a role that men are well suited for and, in correct form, actually enables women to thrive and be the best version of themselves.  Does this mean that women can’t do what men do?  No.  But it is simply optimal, in a trade relationship, that both parties specialize and do what they are better suited to do.  For the betterment of the whole and ultimately for themselves.  My grandma kept the books for the farm while my grandpa ran the equipment and did the field work.  Why?  Well, it’s simply what worked for them. 

The patriarch, the elder man of a household or a community, should indeed protect those who are under his care.  That’s what he is there for.  He can provide food, shelter, shepherding and defense for the vulnerable.  His age and experience, his humbly knowing his own place under God, can give him perspective valuable to his children and appreciated by the woman that he has committed to love.  This may be patriarchy, I’m not sure, but the good kind.

Unfortunately, patriarchalism, like that often found in religious purity cultures, tends to be the wrong kind of protection.  It elevates women while simultaneously not treating them as equals.  It protects some women, but not all.  And, while framed as a male advantage, because it does privilege some men, actually hurts men.  It may prevent some promiscuity, but it doesn’t protect people or truly show Christian mercy to anyone.  Worse, since it never gets to the heart of the matter, it often only covers for abuse.  That’s the paradoxical part: Below the surface it is not really any different from the degrading and demeaning alternative. 

1) Paradox: Both Elevates And Demeans Women

Patriarchalism is often framed in terms of dominant men who think women should follow two steps behind, which is certainly one part of it.  But it can also be much more subtle than those notions of women remaining barefoot in the kitchen, pregnant, submissively waiting on their husbands. 

In fact, many men who identify with feminism are very often unwittingly patriarchal in their overzealous protective and preferential treatment of women.  Coddling or patronizing women, assuming their motives are always pure, is ultimately another form of patriarchal protection.  This is, incidentally, the reason why some feminist women resent having the door held for them.  Is it a kind gesture or is it an assumption of her inferiority and need for male help?

What I’m talking about is this idea that a woman can do no wrong, that assumes that she is always a hapless victim of male abuses and basically lacking any agency or discerning capacity equal to a man.  

I know women like this, who look adoringly at their husband as he compliments her (patronizingly) for her being able to pick the drapes.  He gets to make all of the real decisions and she can live comfortably without the stresses of adulthood. 

And, not surprisingly, some women are completely fine with this arrangement.   Why not stay on the gravy train if you can?

However, many more women are uncomfortable with this protection.  They sense this treats them as if they’re not fully formed humans and, in the end, will stifle their God-given potential. 

Of these backhanded insults that intelligent and capable women face constantly in this current social paradigm is that they are either a) in need of some crusty politician to help them or b) they are some sort of faultless Mary Sue, with no need of character development, who only had to show up to dominate men.  Nobody truly wants to be treated as special simply because they have a certain type of genitals.  Putting women on a pedestal (even if called feminism) is patriarchalism.

The protection of patriarchalism is the wrong kind of protection.  It treats women sacred objects, idols, faultless and not real people with complexity or depth.  It protects the female body, at least in theory, yet neglects her soul.  It objectifies.

2) Paradox: Protects Some Women, But Not All

In purity cultures (both secular/political or traditional/religious) only those who meet a certain standard or subscribe to a particular ideological agenda are actually protected.  Those who do not conform the cultural expectation are not valued or respected.

In the religious culture which I was born into, the woman who follows the rules (kept up outward appearances and acted the part of innocent) is always treated as pure-minded and virtually incapable of evil.  A young woman, who outwardly obeys, is her daddy’s little angel, practically divinity, and subject to unceasing praise.  Women are protected, but not as equal to a man, and only so long as they represent the ideal.

Perhaps this ‘protection’ is motivated by guilt and a way to make up for the extra pressure put on women to conform and submit?  Or simply a way for some men to advantage themselves over other men by playing the hero?  Maybe it is just a bias of those in a culture where everything is judged by outward appearances and men can’t imagine their female counterparts as being anything but porcelain dolls, where it is unimaginable that a beautiful young woman, from a good home, wearing the prescribed attire, could be anything but sinless and a saint.  Whatever the case, it is real and is a privilege (albeit perverse) that women enjoy in patriarchal purity cultures.  

This privilege, and pedestal, of course, does not apply to ‘worldly’ women.  No, only the girl who meets the patriarchal religious standard is sort of viewed as some kind of unattainable perfection.  A woman is either a paradigm of virtue, a Madonna, or she is a Jezebel, a Potiphar’s wife and temptress, with very little room in between.  An too often, the woman who stands up for herself a bit or defies their cultural expectations, to the patriarchal men, are comparable to a prostitute and totally debased.  They need women to be weak so they can feel strong by comparison.

The patriarchal paradox is that it does elevate and protect women, but not in a way that humanizes or allows women to have the same fullness of character as a man. Patriarchalism doesn’t protect women as people, but rather as they represent an image of femininity and cultural ideal.  This is revealed or exposed, in the reality that patriarchal men do not protect all women.  No, they only protect their women and only so long as they fit the cultural prescription. 

Furthermore, the protection patriarchal purity culture is mostly focused on defending the physical body of a woman, managing her outward behavior, rather than her actual spiritual well-being.  She is the trophy on a man’s shelf, a conquest, but not recognized as a fully formed person.  Women are valued for their virginity and only protected if deemed pure by some cultural standard. A woman is only worthy of protection if his purity fantasies can be projected onto her feminine frame.

This ‘protection’ (or at least as it is combined with purity culture) labels those who fall short as “defiled” and treats them like damaged goods rather than broken people to be loved. The paradox is that patriarchalism protects a cultural ideal for women rather than protect women.  It offers condemnation, not care, for those who fall short.

3) Paradox: Hurts Rather Than Helps Most Men

Patriarchal treatment of women also leaves many men feeling inadequate amongst women who are truly their equals and not perfect as imagined.  In my own life, I’ve put Mennonite women so high on a pedestal that their rejection felt like a judgment from God.  That is unfair to the men, it is unfair to the women, and yet is very common in patriarchal religious purity cultures.

Again, in patriarchal purity culture, so long as a woman dressed and acted in a particular manner she was basically immune from criticism.  I’ve seen very patriarchal pastors side with a wife against her husband, when she was as much at fault, and suspect it was a matter of sexual preference.  And I do mean “sexual preference” in the crassest and literal manner, in that they were protecting women to preserve their own sexual status with her.  Somewhere, in their reptile brain, they needed to impress the woman, play savior to the damsel in distress, and did a terrible disservice to both sides with their prejudice.

Young conservative Mennonite men, unlike the females within the culture who are treated as blameless, are frequently called out for their more open expression of their lusts and pornography addictions.  It is as if it never registered to them that Jesus called out those who appeared to be righteous more harshly than those caught in their sin.  Mennonite women sin.  They have their vices, even if less obvious.  Anyhow, when some are left feeling dirty and irredeemable rather than sinners in need of God’s grace like anyone else, this is patriarchal purity culture and unChristian.

Men in patriarchal purity culture, rather than love other men, enjoy eliminating competition.  By highlighting and haranguing about the more visible weaknesses or inadequacies of other men they hope to increase their own social stature.  This is even more pronounced in purity cultures where polygamy allowed.  The “lost boys” of fundamentalist Mormonism, where young men are accused and run off, a clear example. 

Other men are a far bigger threat to abusive patriarchal men than women.  And this is why Biblical fundamentalist (Protestant) men demand submission to themselves and yet absolutely refuse to fall under any authority other than their own.  It is not so much about women or purity as it is about protecting the overblown ego of some men and comes at the expense of all.  It is actually about power not protection.

4) Paradox: Patriarchal Protection Often Covers For Abuse

The great irony of patriarchal purity cultures are that they are as focused on sex as the ‘worldly’ whom they condemn.  Even in their condemnations of promiscuity there is this “methinks thou dost protest too much” feeling and sense that this constant bluster is for their titillation or pleasure.

But, more than that, this display doesn’t mean these moralizers are free from sexual sin themselves. 

No, they are as obsessed with the physical bodies as anybody in the world outside their cults. 

And, while they consider themselves to be moral authorities, they often blame-shift responsibility for their own lust onto women.  From pulpit pounding sermons about “immodesty” (in front of an audience of women wearing  long dresses) to men who literally blame the young girls they molested for the abuse. 

However, the worst part is when those in these cultures are more concerned about the victims remaining silent than they are about the abuse.  This is probably not so much about keeping individual abusers from justice so much as it is about protecting the culture.  To feel good about themselves, to keep up the “holier than thou” show, they must conceal the impurities.  It is about protecting image not people.

Purity cultures are about preserving an outward image of purity and avoid looking inward at all costs.  They need to externalize blame, keep the focus on the sins of those outside of the group, or it would be impossible to sustain the system.  So deny the extent of their own problems, to try to keep their sins secret, is a means to protect their special identity and culture. 

The Wrong Kind Of Protection

In the end, patriarchalism protects the cultural ideal of purity rather than actually loving people.  It is concerned primarily with a woman’s body, or outward behavior, not her being.  It is centered on the physical rather than the spiritual.  It stifles women who don’t fit the cultural mold, does not protect their dreams or ambitions, and also gives cover to bad behavior that flies beneath the radar of dress standards and superficial obedience.  It protects the power of a few men at the top, but does not serve many (or most) of the males within the culture very well. 

It does not follow the example of Jesus, who did associate with prostitutes and others who did not keep up their righteous image according to the standards of the religious paradigm of that time.  He intervened on behalf of a woman accused of adultery and condemned the sanctimonious elites.  They Pharisees were obsessed with maintaining an outward image, creating physical separation between themselves and those deemed impure, yet knew nothing of spiritual transformation or even their own need of an inner change.  They loved status and outward image, they protected a religious ideal, but not real people.

The problem with the patriarchal purity culture protection is that it protects women like property, as sex objects, and not as people.  It is dehumanizing in the way that it puts women on a pedestal.  The problem is not male leadership.  The problem is any leadership that does not protect other than for it’s own benefit.  Despite what it claims, patriarchalism is about defending the status of some men, keeping their lust satiated, rather than Christian love.  It is ‘protection’ of the wrong spiritual source. 

And, thus unlike what popular mythology would suggest, this is not a problem that would be solved by replacing men in leadership with equally domineering women.  That is the one big absurdity of our time, we are told that women would be better more empathetic leaders than men and then given purple-haired Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo berating a subordinate man as an example.  That’s not an empowered woman, that’s a woman that is dangerously entitled or so uncertain of her own command that she needs to make an example of anyone who dares to question.

It is the spirit of patriarchalism that’s wrong and why it creates such resentment.  Most of us would fall willingly behind a fatherly figure that we trusted was not in it for himself and had our best interests in mind.  If we knew that our unique personhood was being protected rather than how we fit into their own cultural ideal and scheme then we would be less skeptical.  More would fall into place as God intended if we would all start here, with humility and a truly serving spirit:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

Philippians 2:5‭-‬7 NIV)

Redefining Our Scarlet Letters

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Many of us are defined by the hurts we have experienced.  Truly, how we interact today, the anxieties we have, are often a product of something in our past, injustice or injury, that has warped our perceptions.  

For many years of my life, I felt unloveable.  

I had gotten off to a bad start in the romantic realm.  After some failed efforts, stinging rejections, my confidence fell off a cliff, I would self-sabotage even when I had chances and spiraled even further into fear and doubt.  With every “not interested” answer came increased feelings of shame and the stigma of being someone not good enough for even a first date. 

I still apologize, sometimes, or actually more all the time, when asking to have dinner with a woman.

Why?

Well, not because I’m a terrible person.  I’ve always been a good friend and respectful of boundaries.  I have much to offer even in terms of platonic relationships and have proven myself in this regard over and over again.  But still, because of the value others have assigned to me, I look at myself as possibly being a burden to the person I’m asking and that hesitancy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because it makes the person being asked uncomfortable.

If you see yourself as being worthless it shouldn’t be a big surprise when other people agree.

Breaking free of these cycles can feel impossible when stuck in them.  The most frustrating advice I’ve ever received was “be confident” as if I was simply choosing to see myself as garbage for no reason whatsoever.  I mean, I had been confident enough to express interest, even overcome the oppression of my social anxieties, only to be swatted down one more time by young women who had their eyes set on 5′-10″ or over.

Of course my plight, as a shy person on the shorter end of male stature, was not at all helped by the conservative Mennonite culture that had been overcome by purity culture teachings.  Young people had it drilled into them that dating that didn’t lead to marriage equated to defilement.  So, if you didn’t have the superficial tools, there was really no means of building a relationship or mutual respect that could lead to a deeper commitment.

The Letters We Are Forced To Wear

The Scarlet Letter, a novel written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, is set in the 1600s, in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, and follows a woman, named Hester Prynne, who—through an out of wedlock pregnancy—was found guilty of adultery and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for her sin.  It contrasts her plight to that of the child’s father, the town’s minister, whom she protects with her silence and lives in constant fear of being exposed for his concealed sin.

Like Hester, some of us wear our shortcomings more visibly than others.  Those who obviously lack something according to the prevailing social standard, whether exposed to public scorn and ridicule or simply excluded from institutions and driven to the margins, are forced to deal with feelings of humiliation.  Of course, that’s not to say that those who appear to be outwardly pure and undefiled are free of pain, those with less visible faults often live with a tremendous fear of being discovered and guilt. 

We all want to be accepted and yet have those letters to wear.  It could be that we’re typecasted, “oh, that’s George, always big talker!”  We have heard the labels, the declarations, “she’s a flirt” or “he’s desperate,” and sometimes it is hard to know if it is that person or the group making that reality what it is.  It is not all completely negative, it could be “they’re meant to be” or any statement that builds an expectation, but it certainly can keep a person confined and limits potential. 

Once you fill a particular role, in the minds of the group, it is often difficult to break beyond it. 

For example, my biggest fear, when I took a job driving truck, was that I would be branded a “truck driver” and thus not eligible for other work.  My concerns were fulfilled, years later, when I talked to a business owner friend about my desire to get off the road and they offered that maybe I could drive a truck for them.  

These kinds of things aren’t necessarily even spoken.  But we know there are those individuals or that don’t quite live up to the ideal of the group, who have a blemish visible or invisible, and are tolerated more than embraced.  In some ways, it would be better if our chests could be emblazoned with these symbols of shame, that we could be told exactly you get told by an eligible young woman “you’ll make a great husband someday” and yet nobody (including her) seems to want that greatness.

However, not all of this is imposed.  Some of this punishment, if not most of it, is self-inflicted.

Shamed No More

The most brilliant theme of The Scarlet Letter is that that this symbol of shame is transformed over the course of the novel.  This letter intended to stigmatize eventually becomes a badge of honor for the protagonist and something she wears willingly rather than because she must.  The letter “A” because of Hester’s diligent work, her charity, and listening to those lower social status, comes to mean “able” or “angel” as the story progresses.  She, for her proven virtue, becomes well-respected as humble and wise.

My own life journey, with the investment of love and care of a few, has begun to take that turn as well.  

I have begun to realize that my romantic failures were a reflection of a broken courtship culture and not my own lacking.  Because of the drip drip drip of Charlotte’s confidence in me, I have become stronger.  Not only that, but as a result of my struggle, I also have deep compassion for those who suffer and a desire to free them from the bonds of their insecurities.  Now, even when snubbed, because I know who I am and don’t depend on this external definition of what I am for security, I barely care.  It is on them, not me.  I know I’m a good friend and focus my effort on those who appreciate what I offer.

The reality is that I’ve become a different person.  I behave differently than I did when ruled by my anxieties and thus have become more attractive.

No, that doesn’t make what others did to push a person down a dead-end road any more right.  The love of Christ should compel us to invest in the salvation of others and especially to help those who want to be helped.  Things like slavery and denial of rights to people on the basis of outward appearance certainly do hurt and hinder.  And yet, there’s also a way to live beyond our typecasting. to not be confined by the expectations of others, and transcend our circumstances.

For me, there was never that final triumph nor day of reckoning with those who hurt me.  My hopes were shattered.  My identity crushed.  Those who caused my torment continued along their merry way and probably not with a second thought of how their attitudes impacted me.  They never did listen to me when I tried to escape from the box they had put me in.  But, nonetheless, I did emerge.  

The Scarlet Letters others forced us to wear may remain emblazoned on our chest.  However, we do not need to accept the meaning others have created for the symbol.  In the novel, Hester’s daughter, Pearl, became upset when her mother didn’t wear the letter.  For Pearl, the letter represented something other than shame.  It represented her loving mother, not sin.  That was a seed and very likely helped Hester to see her value beyond the opinions of the judgmental townsfolk.  And, eventually, what Hester became changed the meaning of the symbol even for those around her.

Our Perfection Is Not Purity

One of the inspirations for writing this blog was a conversation about matters of sexuality and shame.  My contention that the suffering of sexual abuse victims is a product of social expectations, as much as it is about the violation itself, and would be far less painful if we put less weight on perfection in terms of being ‘pure’ in a physical manner.

That’s where the shame comes in.  It comes from this idea that by being physically violated, or even touched consentingly by another person, we have somehow become worth less as a person than we were prior.  Of course, this is nonsense.  Our value does not come from physical purity, a person who was raped is no less beautiful or virtuous even if she does now feel differently about themselves as result.  It is this, this change in belief about oneself, that lingers long after the assault and is the real cause of suffering.  We are conditioned to see those who have been through this as damaged or defiled.

And that’s not to say that the assault does not do real lasting harm beyond what is physical either. No, rather that a rape survivor is going to be re-traumatized hearing a sermon about saving yourself for marriage. It is going to add to their fears of being disadvantaged and may actually stigmatize them when they really should be loved and treasured. That’s what purity culture does, it heaps shame on those who themselves may have done nothing wrong and often forgives those who should be held accountable.

While holding sexual abusers accountable, like we would anyone who takes what isn’t theirs to take, maybe we should also take on this idea that someone is forever tainted because of sexual intercourse and therefore a perpetual victim?

It isn’t the abusers that define the worth of a person as being their virginity nor is it the abuser who assigns the value to what happened.  No, we do that.  And one of the reasons why sexual abuse is so painful for those who were raised in a purity culture is because they are convinced that their own value is somehow decreased because of something that happened to them.

Jesus, even in dealing with those who had willfully sinned sexually, was completely gentle. 

Why? 

Well, it is because Jesus valued the individual for more than their physical ‘purity’ and past behavior.  Yes, he told the woman at the well, “go and sin no more,” but he did that for her sake.  Her lifestyle was not good for her and, unlike the proud religious elites who can admit no wrong, she was already humble enough to know her own shortcomings and want the change.

So, if Jesus could forgive those who sinned of their own volition, why should those who were violated by the sin of another feel as if they are somehow damaged goods?

If we actually believe that our righteousness comes from being clothed in Christ, made perfect in him, then why do we place so much value on the physical and the past?

To be clothed in Christ means that our negative experiences can be redefined.  No longer should the sins of the past (our own or by others) define who we are.  Instead, we are new creatures.  No, these things we have gone through are not removed, yet they can be redeemed and no longer a burden of shame that we carry, no longer a cause for self-pity or self-loathing, because our perfection does not come from our own abilities.  Our purity comes from the inside, through spiritual transformation, and no longer by the reputation others give us or regrets we have.

The Symbolism of the Cross

When Jesus was stripped naked, his flesh cruelly shredded by scourgings, battered and bruised, finally mocked under a sign “king of the Jews” while he suffered unimaginable anguish, the whole process was intended to humiliate and shame. 

He did not deserve the mistreatment nor was it a pleasant experience.  It was the sin of others that put him there.  It was a cross and a horrendous image of despair and death.  There nothing worthy of celebration in that.  But even this, intended to destroy him, could not.

Most of us, put through similar abuse, may curse God or at the very least we would not be in the mood to forgive those who torment us. 

Jesus, by contrast, did not let the circumstances define his character.  What they did to him was not a reflection of him nor could it be to his shame.  And, most importantly, they could not keep him in the grave as much as they tried.

As a result, the cross, this symbol of their hatred and abuse, has now become something we can look to for healing.  It is in the cross of Christ that we can see our worth as being more than what the crowd yells, more even than our broken physical body, and to have faith in God’s perfect justice.

Those ensnared in the world of sin and death, whether victims of abuse, self-declared advocates for victims or the abuser, cannot accept the message of the cross.  It is foolishness to them.  They are slaves of their twisted passions, prisoners of the past and bound to their own reasonings. And, for the victims who harbor grievance, their answer to being mistreated is always the same as what they feel was done to them. They want to take the marker of shame off of themselves and place it on those who harmed them.

But the message of the cross is that even shame itself can be defeated by the grace of God. Those clothed in His righteousness no longer have need to rank above their peers, no longer live for the acceptance of other people, and live for something altogether different from what many others strive for. No, rather than shrink in fear or fall into self-pity, they see their cross as something that is purifying, as the proving ground of their faith, and opportunity to serve.

If something as awful as the cross can be redefined to become a story of salvation, those letters we wear can also be changed in meaning and redeemed. We can be the Hester, in our own story, the one who proved that her character was about more than that one act those many years ago. In the end she was the better person, for what she went through, than those who had looked at her in judgment.

The Beauty Of Orthodox Faith

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A thought occurred to me, while lamenting my persistent unorthodoxness, that eventually the point of any religious practice (with emphasis on practice) is to color outside of the lines a bit.  From art, to athletic endeavors, being spontaneous, unpredictable, and original, there is advantage in harnessing some of that creative chaos.  So ritual and rigorousness has taken a back seat to emotional expression.  Many call themselves ‘spiritual’ for their abandonment of church tradition.

However, an art teacher will tell you and a good writer knows, that there is no natural talent so good that it can’t benefit from studying the masters.  Before one can reinvent the wheel, it might be good to at least know what the wheel is and understand the basic function of the thing before improving upon it.  No basketball player does well to ignore all of the established fundamentals of their sport nor is it recommended that a weightlifter abandon good technique.  Doing things your own way can lead to injury, can limit potential and be a tremendous disadvantage.

Yes, some do “shoot from the hip” and still manage to score some points.  My own writing has improved from simply writing and not from having read every style manual written in the past few centuries.  And yet I would be remiss, as well as incredibly arrogant, to not give complete credit to the teachers, the many writers, the coiners of terms and all those who have contributed to the descriptive wealth of the English language.  And if my desire is to improve, then reading the greats, absorbing their knowledge of the craft, is only going to enhance my own creative efforts.

Only a fool would enter the ring relying only upon their natural and unimproved fighting abilities.  Absolutely, Mike Tyson would knock me out without having spent a day training, God gifted him with a heavy weight’s frame and musculature.  But, no boxer, no high level competitor, would last a minute against a person who studied form, who learned all they could from the best, practiced hours and came prepared.  It is religious devotion that pushes even the elite to the next level.

Jesus is the foundation of the church, that is true, yet this doesn’t mean we should strip it bare to the bedrock each generation.  Do we forget that Jesus himself, God in the flesh, was a practicing Jew for three decades before, while reading Isaiah 61, the prescribed text at the synagogue, announced “today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  We know that Jesus would go on to push the boundaries, to correct and build upon the established religion, yet never claiming it was worthless.

What Is Orthodoxy?

This word “orthodox” refers to correctness.  

It is the same root used for terms like “orthopedic” or “orthodontist” and basically implies straightening out, correctness.

Orthodox, as the Orthodox Christian uses it, is an adjective and not a noun.  Orthodoxy is not a denomination.  No, it is an unbending pursuit, a desire to live out the fullness of the faith, it means uncompromised worship and devotion to Christ and the Church.

Unlike Protestantism, that has whittled away at tradition, the Orthodox continue to practice as Christians have for over a millennia.  We celebrate the liturgy of St John Chrysostom or St Basil and not because it is required to be a Christian, I’ve never heard those Orthodox proclaim those who profess Christ outside the tradition to be lost, yet we do see established tradition as a useful aid to the Christian.

Orthodoxy is built upon the foundation of Christ.  And yet it is not in denial of the history of the Church nor dismissive of the written and unwritten tradition that the Apostle Paul admonished the church of Thessaloniki to keep:

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.  So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings (or traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

(2 Thessalonians 2:13‭-‬15 NIV)

The first thing noteworthy is that the church had a tradition and the second is that this tradition was passed down by the Apostles both in letter and spoken word.  But, more significantly, in the same context of keeping tradition, St Paul also speaks of things of the Spirit.  The idea that spiritual is odds with traditional is the great delusion of our time and trying to sustain one without the other is proving to be an overall failed experiment.  Tradition, passed down by the Church both in written and by “word of mouth” is for our spiritual benefit.

Orthodox tradition is about carrying forward the practices sustained, and that sustained, generations of the Church.  It pertains most particularly to the traditions of corporate worship.  And, like the tradition of Scripture itself, gives a voice (or vote) to the many faithful who have gone on before us:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

(G. K. Chesterton “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy)

To be Orthodox one must appreciate that the Church is bigger than their own individual perspective.  The Church is bigger than this generation.  Yes, we, the Church militant, are still in the the fight and yet undoing the contribution of the Church triumphant is foolishness.  It is a special kind of ignorance in an age where ‘progress’ too often means replacing an old church building with a Dollar General.

Christ is the foundation of the Church, but much has been built, from the Apostle’s time forward, that is beneficial to our spiritual growth and also very beautiful.

The Beauty of Orthodox Worship

There is something incredible about participating in a tradition of worship that has passed the test of time.  The basic form of Divine Liturgy has endured, despite the severe persecution of the Orthodox, and in to join in this is to join in the choir of all who have worshipped in this manner.  

To those who have never been to an Orthodox service, the first experience may feel foreign, especially if there is some ethnic flavor mixed in, and yet why would we expect the Church (which is universal throughout time) to be a reflection of our modern American culture?  Are we truly that arrogant to believe that our own practices, built from the clay of Modernism, is superior to the gold refined over the centuries?  We’re better than the entire Church spanning the millennia?

Before going further, consider for a moment that every Church has a liturgy, an order to the service, their own unique traditions, and there’s a reason for this.  Protestants, from revival meetings to special mother’s day services, have formed their own traditions to replace those more timeless.  I’ve heard about conservative Mennonite churches where at least one elder would insist that the ordained men enter in order of their respective ranks.  

And, lest my ‘contemporary’ friends see themselves as superior.  Not everyone is up front leading the service.

Order is good.  St. Paul spoke to this need for order in worship as an alternative to the chaos and confusion of everyone talking over each other.  We are creatures of habit, when brushing our teeth or taking a shower, rather than go through the wasted mental effort of finding a new way each time, we repeat a liturgy of a sort.  We can get more done when we finally cease these useless arguments over worship style and move on to things of more substance.

Before I had ever entered an Orthodox liturgical service, I (like most or many Protestant borns) would’ve believed it to be stuffy and boring.  I mean, how can something prewritten, predetermined, be as authentic or real as my own concept of worship?

However, upon reflection, considering the many times of Mennonite deacons begging for testimonies and prayer requests to a deafening silence or the same requests over and over again from the same people, the liturgical form that covers everything in prayer makes much more sense.  Every service the priest leads us in prayer, through a list that covers pretty much everything, and I’ll often think (and pray) for a specific reason while crossing myself to physically confirm my inner thoughts.

Which is the one beauty of Orthodox worship: It is immersive, involves all senses, we love the beauty of the house we share, our temple, that is divided in a similar way to the Biblical places of worship.  There is rich symbolism, incense rising as prayer (as is described in Scripture) and an altar, behind the Iconostasis, where the Communion is prepared.  Better yet, the entire service is participatory, a sort of call and response style, with the entire Divine Liturgy service centered around our partaking of the body and blood of Christ.

The second thing I have found, as beautiful, is that this repetition of Scripture in song is spiritually like the muscle memory formed from any other practice.  I can’t count the times when the music and words of a liturgical service will pop up during the week, either as a comfort or a challenge, and how these phrases have started to shape my perspective.  For example, “put not your trust in princess or sons of man in who there is no salvation.”  What a great reminder in this time when the institution of government seems to be failing, right?

Well worn pathways are not confining, they are freeing.  Why hack our way through the jungle of life, being ‘authentic’ in the way of every other person in this age who has lost both religion and depth, undisciplined, when there is a rich banquet of tradition to draw upon?  Does reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over again ever take away from the meaning of the words or cause you to want to rewrite it for our own time?  I should pray not!  

No, we need good ritual in our life because it helps us to focus.  Everything in Orthodox worship is founded upon Scripture and a beautiful expression of obedience.  It has richness and depth, from the Lenten journey of fasting and reflection, to the icons, incense, vestments, altars, oil, candles, hymns, recitations and processions.  It connects is to centuries of the faithful, in our participation in the Church that they built together on the foundation of Christ and is wonderful.

Dismiss “smells and bells” all you want, but it is worshipful and beautiful.

In the end, as Father Seraphim reminds us often in his homilies, we are not saved by our church attendance, we can read Scripture, sing, give tithes and it all be for naught.  If there is no spiritual fruit this is all empty and utterly meaningless as far as salvation.  However, as St Paul speaks of the law being a guardian, the established prescription and pattern for worship, once catalyzed with sincere Christian faith, is an invaluable asset.  It may not be necessary for salvation, the repentant thief on the cross beside Jesus was never Baptized, and yet it does greatly enhance the life of the believer.

Lastly, Orthodox worship doesn’t take away from our ability to worship spontaneously, in the spur of the moment, like King David dancing as the Ark of the Covenant was being processed through the city of Jerusalem.  This is not an either/or thing nor have I found the tradition to be onerous or confining in the way one may fear coming out of a legalistic tradition.  There is a sort of casualness to our formality, an allowance for imperfection.  So simple even children participate.

Structure We Need To Thrive

Us creative types loath structure.  We like to color outside of the lines, right?  And yet, despite this umbrage, we often live as beneficiaries of the structure that others provide.  Many artists would starve, or be overrun, unable to do their work, outside the structure that others have diligently maintained for them.  And many would do better, even in their passionate pursuits, if they would acknowledge their need.  

The framework that Orthodoxy provides, likewise, for me has been that missing element that I didn’t even know that I needed.  This idea that tradition is somehow bad is corrosive, it is creating a generation desperate to find their place, suicidal, distorted and unfulfilled.  We are better when plugged in, when a part of something bigger than ourselves.  Tradition brings us together and Orthodoxy enhances rather than take away from worship.

As we Orthodox like to say…

“Come and see!”

Of Violent Mobs and Prophets

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A smug and sanctimonious religious person, shockingly from Anabaptist background, tried to hijack a point about loving individuals (rather than groups) by using an example of Old Testament judgment. They literally took the other side in a post explaining the kind of dangerous tribal thinking that led to the Holocaust. This individual really ought to be ashamed and repent of this perverse use of Scripture.

Before I go too far, it is very clear, to anyone who has read a history book or the Bible, that tribe in tribe violence and genocide were the norm. In Europe, North America and around the world, all lands have been conquered from the prior inhabitants by the current occupiers. The rivers, lakes and oceans would likely be filled with blood of our ancestors and those whom were violently removed from the gene pool by our collective ancestors.

That is the natural state of things. In an age prior to society life was, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes, for his part, credited the formation of strong central governments for the transformation. An observation that made sense in 1651, before the use of modern governments to commit horrendous acts of genocide, I suppose?

Nevertheless, there has been been a shift of thinking from a time when it was okay to completely destroy an enemies tribe and the present. Many today, at least prior to Marxist indoctrination and regression of the past decades, would find it morally abhorrent to use one crime by one individual as an excuse to raze an entire village, steal the possessions of every inhabitant, kill all of the men and take the women captive, as was the case over and over again in the Old Testament of Scripture.

Something took us from the brutality of the Old Testament, where it was okay to judge an entire tribe based on the transgressions of a few or even one, to the idea, that underpins Bill of Rights, that all individuals should be granted rights. What took us from the time when only members of our own genetic or religious tribe have rights to the present? What led to the abolishment of slavery, something that had been practiced on all Continents, by people of all skin color designations against all other people at some point in history, before becoming unacceptable?

The answer, of course, is the one man, of the Jewish people, who started his ministry like this:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

(Luke 4:16‭-‬21 NIV)

Jesus began with a declaration of the fulfillment of the Old Testament, after reading a prophecy about the blind being given sight, the oppressed being given their freedom, the poor having some good news and stunned his religious audience. Of course his message had a strong appeal to the Jewish people, who were looking for a tribal Messiah who would set them free from Roman rule. It is no surprise that in these discontented time such a man would quickly find a cult following and become a threat to the established religious order.

But Jesus continued to defy the expectations of his religious tribally-minded followers. He subverted their expectations by expressing admiration for the faith of a Roman soldier, an occupier, by going to the home of a Jewish tax collector (and collaborator) and by using the despised Samaritan people, the “deplorables” of the smug and sanctimonious religious people in his audience, as his examples of virtue. Not only did extend the boundaries of “love your neighbor” to those outside of the tribe, he also did it using it a person from a group that they despised.

The idea of a “good Samaritan” or a Roman with faith greater than all of Israel, common parlance today to many of us, would be repugnant to them. How dare he! How dare Jesus compare them, the self-proclaimed elites of their own ethnic tribe, to these unwoke heathens? How dare he criticize their measures of righteousness, their loud public proclaims of socially acceptable displays of sacrifice, defy their rules of ritual cleansing and then call them hypocrites! It is no wonder these hateful bigots tried to cancel Jesus.

Jesus, by praising the equivalent of a police officer and a “flyover country” Trump supporter who rendered aid to a traveler, defied both their tribal identity focus and oppression narrative. They were the good guys with the right to rule. And at first they concluded that Jesus was confused, they asked his disciples why he ate with the bad people, the privileged tax collectors and alt-right trolls. He couldn’t be all that wise if he didn’t know what side of the social justice fence to be on, could he? Of course Jesus had never turned anyone away, but some excessively proud hypocritical people did reject him and his teachings.

The role of underdog and social elite has flipped at many points in history. First the Christan Jews were persecuted by the anti-Christian Jews, then the Romans destroyed the Jewish center of culture, and took up persecution of the Jesus cult spreading in their own ranks, before converting to Christianity themselves. We can mention the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land and Europe before being pushed back by the Crusades. Constantinople was a bulwark of Christianity before becoming overrun by the Turks, who never were held accountable for their Armenian genocide and that eventually the inspiration for an underdog artist and war veteran seeking a “final solution” named Adolf Hilter.

The one constant during two millennia of turmoil, of nations rising and falling, of a brief period of European domination of the world (after shedding their own tribalism) leading to the present time, is that Christianity has always been force for outreach across tribal lines. Yes, some did wrap themselves up in the name of Christ without actually applying his teachings. Progress does seem to always be a matter of two steps forward and one step back. And yet this idea of tribes coexisting, the imperfect tolerance of those who look, worship or act differently from us, is the rare historical exception.

Tribe against tribe violence was and is the norm. God even directly ordered the destruction of rival clans according to the Biblical narrative. But those looking to see Ninivah destroyed, like Jonah angry and disappointed on the hill, should stop seeing themselves as God and repent. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. So those hoping for the world to burn, especially the system that has benefitted them more than most, should be warned. Jesus didn’t come so that tribal grievances could be redressed violence against a rival tribe. He came to free us all from this cycle of sin and death.

Those promoting or justifying intertribal conflict and contempt are antithetical to Christ. While Jesus sought to erase these artificial boundaries, to free us from our mental prisons of prejudice and give us sight that sees beyond race and socal status, these impostors are like Judas. They envy rather than love their neighbors and would leave a man bloodied on the side of the road if he wore the wrong skin color or may even beat him themselves. They may couch their in the words of Christ, as compassion or concern for the poor, but their real aim is social status and political power.

Those who seek to divide the church (and countries) into competing identity groups, privileged and oppressed, have betrayed the cause of Christ and seek to bring people back into captivity rather than free them. They are spiritually blind despite declaring themselves to be ‘woke’ and have nearly the entire backing of the corporate and institutional system behind them despite flaunting a victim status. They are like the Pharisees, perpetually offended, and seek to destroy anyone who would expose them for the truly toxic people that they are.

Sure, Jesus did divide, but not along lines of ethnicity, gender or social status. He subverted, not by targeting the brutal Roman rule (or laws) nor by “down with the hierarchy chants” against Jewish religious leaders. No, instead he urged compliance, he told his followers to “turn the other cheek” when insulted and to go the “extra mile” when compelled by the occupying Romans to carry their gear. Even when delivering a withering criticism of the religious authorities, he acknowledged they “sat in Moses seat” and taught that the position itself should be respected even if the occupants were unworthy and corrupt.

Those comparing an unruly mob to an Old Testament prophet (even one as contemptuous as Jonah) and suggesting the current destruction is somehow God’s judgment have no theological or moral leg to stand on. The teachings of Jesus do not give anyone licence to judge nations, that is the work of God and the saints someday, not ours. Jesus, however, did stand up to the social elites then and they hated him. They whipped a mob into a frenzy with their false accusations, an ineffectual leader bowed to the demands of the mob and that’s why Jesus was crucified.

Sorry, Revivalists, Personal Relationship Implies Religious Devotion

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There are many who claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus. This profession, which never appears anywhere in Scripture, has become a popular cliché amongst revivalists (over the past century) and is often used as a means to distinguish themselves from other Christians.

Those of this Protestant persuasion will, as part of their evangelical effort, ask strangers, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”

The question, a litmus test, suggests that they do have this personal relationship and that you must be able to mirror their own language or you are not a real Christian like them.

Those asking have a religious devotion to a particular kind of relationship for a particular reason. The reason is that they are reacting to something, namely dead religion, and they are not totally wrong for saying that religious devotion is not enough. I’ll go further into the reasons for their emphasis later on. But if you break it down, nor is a personal relationship without religious devotion enough. No, in actuality, a person needs more than a personal relationship with Jesus to be truly saved.

Judas, for example, had a personal relationship with Jesus. Judas, in fact, spent years in the inner circle of the disciples, physically right beside Jesus all the time, and was close enough to Jesus to give him a betrayer’s kiss. The relationship of Judas clearly lacked a necessary component. He was literally in the presence of Jesus, having actual conversations with Jesus, yet that personal relationship did not equate to salvation. Judas was with Jesus, he had a personal relationship with Jesus, but he was not religiously devoted to Jesus.

So why is a personal relationship important if it does not mean salvation?

Relationships can be good or bad. Relationships can start well and sour later on. Relationships can be based on a misunderstanding, an idea that we share something in common with another person, and then fall apart as the disparate reality sets in. We have many personal relationships, but what we really need is a good relationship, a relationship that can stand the test of time and bring us closer together.

What Is A Good Relationship?

Many young people “fall in love” with another person and get married. They are in love with each other, but more than that they are in love with an idea of what that other person represents. They have become closer through dating and eventually, through their physical intimacy, become one flesh. But this kind of love does not last, the initial feelings fade, the responsibilities increase, and many quit the relationship altogether once it starts to require more of them than they are willing to give.

Good relationships are self-sacrificial. Is it enough for a husband to tell his wife he loves her once, on their wedding day, and then go on with his life as he pleases?

No, relationships take work, they take a kind of religious devotion, an effort to remember special days, consistently doing things in a manner that respects the other. For example, if she wants the toilet seat down, then putting that seat down becomes a test of the commitment to love and cherish her. And, conversely, if a woman constantly undermines her husband, treats him as unworthy and pathetic, is her love real?  No, love prefers the other person, it encourages and strengthens.

A good relationship means a loving relationship and a loving relationship is always self-sacrificial. A personal relationship, without a religious devotion to love, is not enough to sustain a marriage and it is not enough in the context of Christian faith either. No, Jesus asked for far more than a personal relationship. In fact, he asked for religious devotion as a prerequisite to a true relationship:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:15‭-‬18 NIV)

Jesus said, “if you love me, keep my commandments.” It is then, and only then, does he promise that the Spirit will come. In other words, the personal relationship is contingent on our keeping the commandments, a religious devotion to be a fulfillment of his words, and not simply on our profession of having a relationship. Indeed, Jesus warned of those who never knew him, despite their use of his name, and it is because they did not put his words to practice. Having a good relationship with Jesus implies having a religious devotion to keeping his commandments.

How Do We Keep the Commandments of Christ?

Many are turned off by Christian tradition when the rituals and religious practices become separated from real love. They, rightfully so, see this sort of devotion as lacking a critical element and that being the indwelling of the Spirit. That is where the emphasis on “personal” and “relationship” came into the revivalist’s lexicon, they were confronting a kind of devotion that was separated from spiritual life and had a good reason for this.

Unfortunately, this newfound freedom from religion has often come at the expense of needed accountability and a true understanding of what a true commitment to Christ really is. Too many who claim a personal relationship, they claim to love Jesus, but do not keep his commandments and thus this personal relationship that they claim is really nothing more than the feedback of their own ego. A relationship with an imaginary friend based on their own personal ideas and not on the true person of Christ as they believe.

I’m not here to judge the authenticity of any commitment to Jesus Christ. However, like a marriage union produces children, there should also be signs of our commitment to Christ being more than something superficial, more than something we talk about. Those who truly love Jesus do not simply profess his name or claim to have a personal relationship, but they will also keep his commandments.

But what does that even mean?

What does it mean to keep the commandments of Christ?

I know some, from my Anabaptist roots, who try to turn the words of Jesus into a new law. When they say “keep the commandments of Jesus” they mean being duty-bound to a particular legalistic prescription (based on their own understanding of his words) and totally miss the point. In the end, those who do this, who exclude and refuse accountability to anyone besides themselves, are no different from Diotrephes who refused to fellowship with the actual Apostles of Christ. Legalism, a concern with words that supersedes relationships, is not keeping the commandments of Christ.

Rather, keeping the commandments boils down to simply this:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34‭-‬35 NIV)

Ah-ha!

To truly keep the commandments of Jesus means to love as he loves and to love those whom he loves. In other words, to have a good relationship with Jesus means to have a good relationship with his Church and your fellow man. Can a person who claims to love Christ, but can never get along with their brother and sister, be telling the truth?

True Relationship Bears Fruit Of Love

I’ve struggled recently over things related to money and relationships. We do not wish to be taken advantage of, especially not by other Christians, and I was beginning to have a bad attitude. I mean, am I not entitled to compensation, an explanation, a better attitude and more appreciation from them, etc?

In was in the midst of this that various family members, asking nothing in return, allowed me to use their vehicles, even accompanied me and gave hours of their time. Upon reflecting on this, and recalling the story that Jesus told of a man forgiven a great debt who goes on to try to get a little owed to him, I have endeavored to correct my attitude. If I were to demand everything owed I would be showing my lack of appreciation for God’s mercy towards me and set myself up for judgment.

My knowledge of that story of the ungrateful servant did not come to me through Jesus personally by some special revelation. No, rather it came to me through the religious devotion of those who taught me that story and by my continued desire to live by a Christian example, that this story was able to bear spiritual fruit. The seed was planted, it was watered by the work of the Spirit in me, and bore fruit in my actions. It is this kind of fruit that indicates a true relationship with Jesus, that which is described by St Paul:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22‭-‬23 NIV)

It is interesting to note that Judas, despite his personal relationship with Jesus, did not demonstrate the fruit above. Instead, he was sharply critical of a woman for her extravagant display of worship, for her pouring out a year of her wages onto the feet of Jesus, and even used the words of Jesus in his rebuke, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” But this was not out of genuine love for the poor nor was it born out of true love for Jesus. To Judas, the commandments of Jesus were merely a political tool, a way for him to prove his superiority to others or gain resources for himself, and a disguise for his true corruption.

Those who truly love Jesus bear the fruit of his love in their lives and that spiritual fruit is manifested in their personal relationships with those whom Jesus loves. It means esteeming others to be better than ourselves and having true humility (Philippians 2:3-5) rather than always be right. It also means being accountable to each other, holding fast to the traditions passed both in word or letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and being in Communion together with each other. We cannot claim to love God or have a true relationship with Jesus if we do not heed this warning:

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:20‭-‬21 NIV)

Can we really claim to love those who we want nothing to do with, refuse to associate with, etc?

True Relationship Means Real Communion

The one potential issue that I have with the “personal relationship with Jesus” emphasis is where it reflects the individualism of our current age. Not everyone preaching Jesus is preaching the same Jesus and there are many who use their own personal version of Jesus as a means to their own ends.

To some, it seems “personal relationship” means they do not need to answer or be accountable to anyone besides themselves or those who mostly agree with them. They have a personal relationship with Jesus and, therefore, don’t dare ever question their understanding of Scripture or lifestyle choices! Nope, no matter how far their interpretations deviate from what has been long-established, they believe that their authority (as an individual) trumps all Christian tradition before them.

For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. (2 Corinthians 11:4 NIV)

Ultimately, this claim of a personal relationship too often implies that an individual need not answer to anything besides their own personal interpretation of the Bible and/or feelings. It is indeed strange, given how even revivalists claiming personal relationships with Jesus can’t agree, that Jesus seems to tell his various personal friends contradictory things. But that’s not a problem, I suppose, those with a personal relationship can simply assume that others who disagree with them don’t have the same special connection that they do, that other people who disagree are either deceived or lying and go on believing their own Jesus?

This idea that Christians are all independent contractors, accountable only to their own personal Jesus, flies directly in the face of what the Apostle Paul taught about Christian love and the need for unity in the Church:

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 4:3‭-‬6 NIV)

And goes on to explain:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 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. (Ephesians 4:11‭-‬15 NIV)

A true relationship with Jesus should bring a person into the body of Christ, which is the Church, where they can become mature and reach that unity in the faith that. But you can’t do that while playing lone-ranger or imagining yourself to be some special remnant and claim to “love one another” as Christ commanded. Unity requires agreement and agreement requires seeking each other out, it means submission to the entire body of believers, especially our elders, and being accountable to more than ourselves or only those who agree with us.

A person can profess anything, they can claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus all day long, but the truth of their profession rests on their keeping the commandments of Christ and that is to love those whom he loves, to humbly submit to each other in love, and realize that the world does not revolve around us or our own understanding of things. We should prefer unity over having things our own way, love requires sacrifice, love means religious devotion to the good of another (as in a marriage) and even admitting that we need other people in our lives to be accountable to for our own good. Our love for Jesus is expressed in our love and devotion to those whom he loves.

The short version is that we need each other to be strong, so we are no longer tossed about by every new teaching (or repackaged heresy) that comes along, and that is how we (the body) are connected to Christ, our head. In other words, it is through our Communion with the body of Christ, the Church, by our religious devotion to study and pray together, that we have our real relationship with Jesus. Therefore, it is through our partaking Communion together, by our real connection to the body of Christ, not only our professing of a personal relationship, that we show our love for God, our Father, his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

The Rationalist’s Delusion and the Most Fundamental Problem of Fundamentalism

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Those born into decent homes and immersed in a particular ideology have no reason to question what they’ve been taught. I was no exception in this regard, as one raised in a functional Mennonite home, and had believed the whole “we-aren’t-perfect-but-are-better-than-the-alternatives” (a self-congratulatory mantra repeated when anything bad comes up as to prevent a full examination of our fundamental assumptions) until that paradigm became untenable for me.

This assumption of being right in our foundation, even if the details are not quite right, is not only something true of Mennonites. No, it is a feature of those indoctrinated into religious systems or political ideologies of all types. The college educated ‘progressive’ is not any more free of bias than the average Amishman—both reflect the cultural institutions that created them and, if anything, the ‘smarter’ of the two is likely more subject to bias than the humbler or that is what the current research indicates. At very least, nobody is completely free of bias and oftentimes our most base assumptions are the most difficult to honestly examine—most difficult because we have so much invested in them emotionally or otherwise.

My ‘Rational’ Foundation

Of these foundational assumptions, in Western culture there is one assumption that stands out above the rest and produces the strongest reactions when challenged. It is an assumption that is especially hard to root out of the most intelligent and knowledgeable people. It is a sincerely held belief about the nature of reality that is so prevalent that it underlies the most secular ‘progressive’ or religiously conservative and fundamentalist thinking of our times—from those espousing climate change and those pushing flat-earth theories, both share this same underlying assumption in common.

This assumption being the idea that we (either individually or as humanity collectively) are rational creatures, able to determine truth for ourselves and can essentially save ourselves through our capacity for logic and reason.

If you would have asked me, as a Mennonite, what my foundation was I would have likely answered by saying, “Jesus Christ, of course!” That, after all, is the theologically correct answer to give, something easily reference in the Bible, and a reasonable conclusion based on the available evidence, right? Of course, as an adherent to Anabaptist “believer’s baptism” and Arminianism, I would insist that my church membership was a choice. It couldn’t be any other way, could it? I mean, it couldn’t possibly have been because I was raised in a Mennonite home, born in a nation where most people identified as Christian and was fully immersed in a culture where even non-believers affirm Christian values, right?

Nah, it had to be my own careful consideration of the evidence that led to an inevitable conclusion and from that I made a rational choice to believe that man, born two millennia ago in some Palestinian backwater to a teenage virgin mother, who was actually the creator of the entire universe, allowed himself to be brutally murdered, offering himself as a means to spare us from his own wrath and then, according to those most invested in his teachings, rose from the dead and that not believing this is a one way ticket to eternal torment.

And I believe all this for reasons… [Insert circular reasoning here]

Hmm…

When Christian apologetics fail to provide satisfactory answers, which they inevitably do for anyone beyond the intellect of an adolescent, those steeped in rationalism must either abandon the enterprise of faith entirely or live in denial and ignore the cognitive dissonance.

For example, there is no way to prove the resurrection account in Scripture through rational scientific means, it is completely irrational and yet the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ rests on this miraculous event being true. How does one reconcile such an extraordinary claim with science? By a reasonable standard this is impossible to believe, right?

Is Christianity Rational?

Some, like St Thomas, who would not believe until he saw the risen Christ in the flesh, doubt until they have personal experience and thus choose what is entirely rational. Many others, however, are content to compartmentalize, they partition the miraculous to another time and place (to history or the future) and try to have things both ways.

Truth be told, the resurrection of the dead is not a rational proposition and never will be, it is logically, reasonably and scientifically impossible and thus is, by definition, totally irrational. There is nothing rational about the central premise of Christianity, where a man who is actually God’s son is born of a virgin woman to save the world from sin, and you did not acquire this belief through rational means either. No, according to Scripture, the means used are irrational in terms of material reality and from a normal human logical perspective.

Faith, according to Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus, originates from an immaterial spiritual source and does not follow our own rules of logic and reason:

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? (John 3:3‭-‬12 NIV)

Nicodemus is being entirely rational and rightly perplexed. Jesus presents a riddle, he tells Nicodemus he “must be born again” (in reference to a spiritual second birth) but then tells him the Spirit is like the wind and goes wherever it pleases. However, earlier in the passage Jesus does tie the work of the Spirit to being “born of water” or Baptism.

So, does entering the kingdom start as something rational—as the product of a human choice to believe something they’ve been told—or does it originate from a source inexplicable as the wind and as involuntary as our physical birth?

For years I believed what I was taught, that Christianity started as an intellectual acceptance of a particular proposition, that one should recite the “sinner’s prayer” (often in a moment of emotional upheaval) and later, upon their confession of faith, would be Baptized. There was no reason for me to question this indoctrination, it made sense to me, I mean how else does someone change except they make a deliberate choice? And how else do we make a choice besides through the faculties of logic and reason?

Unfortunately for me (and others from my fundamentalist/Evangelical background), that’s not what the Gospels tell us. For example, when Peter reveals the identity of Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” he is told directly, “this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 16:16‭-‬17) If the true identity of Jesus was revealed to Peter through normal or rational means, why do we expect anything different for ourselves?

Or, explain why the unborn John the Baptist “leaped” in the womb when his mother Elizabeth first encountered Mary who held the incarnate Logos within her own body as we read at the beginning of St Luke’s Gospel—Was that response a rational choice, this leap of joy due to John’s careful study of the available evidence and coming to a reasonable conclusion? Of course not! The unborn do not have the freedom or cognitive ability to weigh the evidence and make a rational choice.

This assumption that Christian faith is something of rational origin simply does not comport with what we see recorded in Scripture nor does the idea that conversion is the product of an adult choice to believe. It goes completely contrary to what Jesus said about those who would and would not enter the kingdom:

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Luke 18:16; NIV)

We believe we are motivated through rational means of the mind, that is a foundational assumption of modern thought, and have turned Christianity into something it was never intended to be: merely an intellectual proposition. But this is wrong, the human mind is never described as the prime mover, the choice to follow Jesus is never said to be an adult decision or even something born of human will. Yes, certainly we are to participants in our own salvation or St Paul would not urge Christians to “work out” their salvation with due seriousness in Philippians 2:12, but there is something about it all that goes beyond all human rationality and this is a truth not hidden in Scripture.

A Fundamentally Flawed Perspective of Faith

Many Protestant fundamentalists seem to see themselves as a fusion of rationality with faith, they paint themselves as objective and their religion as something a reasonable person should accept but are neither rational nor faithful. No, they are compromised and inconsistent. They do not strictly follow the scientific method, having arrived at their conclusions well in advance of their studies, nor are they faithful for trying to prove something beyond the realm of science with their extra-Biblical theories. They show, with their actions, that they do not actually comprehend science or the rational nor do they truly accept spiritual and supernatural things.

Fundamentalism is, in essence, the bastard child of modernism and the Protestant religion. Both modernism and fundamentalism are products of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason (so-called) that arose from Roman Catholic Scholasticism. And this Scholasticism, much like modern Protestant fundamentalism, started as a means of “articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context” or, in other words, is an appeal to a person’s intellect and mind rather than their heart or soul. It has since developed into what amounts to a denial of the latter things that becomes completely absurd in the Christian context.

While there is little doubt that the turn towards science and reason has led to the development of technology and understanding of the physical world, we can be thankful for modern medicine based in experimentation for extending our life, this shift has done absolutely nothing for spiritual well-being or our pre-rational human needs. A gaze into the night sky through a telescope, for example, could be awe-inspiring and yet it can’t answer those existential questions of meaning and purpose. And, unfortunately, rather than stick to the means of love or the “greater things” that Jesus promised to the faithful, fundamentalists try to compete (albeit fail miserably) with their secular counterparts in the realm of science and reason.

Fundamentalists, as Protestants, have put all of their eggs in the Bible basket and also—as knee-jerk conservatives—cling to an untenable version of literalism that puts their religious dogma in direct conflict with modern scientific observation. But, as an end around to their paradigm being made obsolete, they turn to pseudoscience and apologetics that barely keep their own children let alone convince anyone outside of their circles. They have no choice, they’ve painted themselves into a corner, they believe that the Bible must be completely reliable, but in the same way as a scientific textbook rather than reliable for spiritual truths, and try to rationalize around the many obvious problems with that perspective.

Meanwhile, while insisting on a young Earth and six days literal days of Creation despite the mountain evidence to the contrary, these same fundamentalists become dismissive when speaking of things like sacraments. This, unfortunately, is a tradition that dates back around five hundred years to a man named Huldrych Zwingli and others who with him lowered the status of such things as Baptism and Communion to mere symbols—reasoning that things of spiritual import originate in the mind, as intellectual acceptance, and with this completely reasoned away possibilities beyond their rational capabilities.

The difference between a fundamentalist and an irreligious secularist is that one has taken their logic the full way to a reasonable conclusion while the other thinks they can have it both ways—accepting the irrational over the rational when it suits them and their personal agenda. Then, simultaneously, rejecting what they cannot comprehend, like their secular counterparts, simply because it goes against their own experience and cannot be scientifically proven. They take Jesus literally only when it is convenient for them or when it makes sense them from their own rational perspective and then reject literalism when it goes against their own religious indoctrination.

Here are some cases to consider…

1) What Saves, Preaching or Baptism?

While writing this blog I ran across an article, “The Sacrament of Preaching,” that addressed a glaring blindspot of many in the Protestant fundamentalist world, and amongst Revivalists and Evangelicals in particular, and it shows in what is emphasized in their tradition. In the church that I grew up in, for example, the order of the service centered on the preaching, often an affair intended to provoke, guilt-trip or convict. There’s a reason why Evangelical churches tend to have venues like lecture halls and that’s because preaching, an appeal to the mind or emotions, is perceived as the primary means of bringing salvation to the lost.

There is little doubt that preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ is important.

After all, didn’t St Paul tell us as much?

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14 NIV)

Yet that passage is in the context of a lament about those who have heard and yet did not accept the message of the Gospel, here is that missing context:

But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, “I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.” And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened, as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.” (Romans 10:16-21,11:1‭-‬8 NIV)

If preaching saved in and of itself, then why didn’t the people who heard simply believe? Why did others, according to the quote of Isaiah in the passage above, believe through revelation despite not seeking it and never having been preached to?

St Paul makes it clear that it is only through the grace of God, not by preaching or through human understanding, that anyone is saved.

It is a rationalist’s delusion that preaching is the only way that someone can possibly be saved. Unfortunately, that is an idea that has been pounded into Protestant heads for centuries now and this comes at the expense of the other means of grace used by God and described in Scripture. In fact, many ‘great’ Revivalist preachers, in contradiction to Scripture and the reality that preaching is as physical a means as any other sacrament, basically mocked the idea that anything besides means of the mind could bring someone to salvation.

But it is St Peter whom they mock, who clearly likens Baptism to the waters surrounding Noah’s ark in 1 Peter 3:21, “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” Like king Naaman having to dip in the river Jordan seven times to be healed, we are also told that Baptism washes sins away, brings forgiveness and new life (Acts 2:38, 22:16, Col. 2:11-12), which is to make these acts as much of a means of salvation as accepting the words spoken by a man about Jesus Christ.

Part of the problem here is the soteriology of fundamentalist “Evangelicals” who typically portray salvation as a once and done event. This confusion is the result of salvation being thought of something in the future only, as in salvation from death, and not also salvation from sin in the present. But Scripture describes salvation both in terms of having been saved (Titus 3:4-5), also in being saved (2 Cor. 2:15) and will be saved (Rom 5:9-10) which suggests something a little different from the “born again” sinner’s prayer form of salvation preached by some.

In other words, our salvation is not this moment or that experience, our salvation is rather a continuing work of God’s grace that comes to us through preaching, revelation, Baptism, the prayers of the faithful, and the many other ways that the work of the Holy Spirit is made manifest. In a sense, nobody is saved through the visible means themselves, nevertheless, these things are the necessary physical expressions of the spiritual work of grace and thus inseparable. Yes, the prime mover is always God and yet there is always evidence of this moving in hearts that takes physical form.

2) Communion, True Presence or Mere Symbolism?

It is very strange, a year or so ago a fundamentalist friend, a sort of logically minded sort, got very emotional and angry when I refused to back down from taking Jesus at his word. Mind you, as far as I know, this is a man who would not question Ken Ham’s interpretation of the Genesis account nor the resurrection of the dead and yet ended up blocking me for suggesting that the words of Jesus could be understood without needing to be rationalized away their literal meaning or any additional explanation.

The discussion was about partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ (or Holy Communion) and how this was one of the sacraments downplayed and reinvented as ordinances by Anabaptists under the Zwinglian influence. But the curious part was how a rationally minded guy would get so emotionally bent out of shape over simply taking Jesus at face value or as a child would. He insisted, despite Biblical description completely to contrary to his position, that there was no sacramental value to Holy Communion, that it was merely symbolic and to say otherwise was ridiculous. In his mind, Jesus had to be speaking metaphorically and there was no convincing him otherwise.

This is what Jesus said:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. (John 6:51‭-‬67 NIV)

Many of the rational folks in the crowd evidently had enough hearing Jesus double-down on this bizarre-sounding claim. Had Jesus been speaking figuratively why would he have let so many walk away without stopping them and saying with a chuckle, “Oh, you guys think I’m being literal! Come on now, it’s all just a big metaphor!” But Jesus did not. When the eyebrows raised and murmurs began, he repeated himself all the more emphatically and lets the chips fall as they may rather than back down from this “hard teaching” and, rather than explain his words as being anything but literal. he even asked the disciples if they were going to abandon him as well.

If it weren’t clear enough in John, this is the account of the “Last Supper” and first partaking of Holy Communion:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29 NIV)

Is this mere symbolism?

Again, the words do not hint to metaphor. No, they are words of substance as much as his command, “Lazarus, come forth!” was received by dead flesh causing it to reanimate and Lazarus to be resurrected. I mean, if you can’t take Jesus at his word as far as his body and blood, why believe that God could speak anything into existence—let alone literally form mankind out of dust as is claimed in the Genesis creation narrative?

From a perspective of human logic and understanding, one of those events is no more rational than the others, a rotting corpse does not come back to life, our flesh is not the same as dust, and bread is bread is bread. Again, there is nothing rational about the claims foundational to Christianity and it is rather odd that anyone would insist otherwise. I mean, at very least, one might want to consider the serious physical and spiritual consequences of partaking casually of what is supposedly only a symbol:

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 11:27‭-‬30 NIV)

It is interesting that many from my own Protestant roots take the first half of that chapter concerning the veiling of women quite literally, not once expressing doubt of the spiritual significance of a piece of cloth being draped on a woman’s head, and then have their eyes glaze over when the mystical significance of Holy Communion is discussed in the latter part of the chapter quoted above. You would think that the same sects that require women to cover their heads all of their waking hours would want to partake of the body and blood more than once or twice a year, and yet they strain on one while swallowing the other.

Anyhow, is it any wonder we are weak and not seeing the promises of “greater things” (John 14:12) fulfilled in us when we are too ‘rational’ to take Jesus seriously about his own body and blood?

Rational or Faithful, the Choice is Yours!

Obviously, we are given an ability to use logic and reason. We should not waste or neglect this rational ability in the name of faith either. However, it would be wise to realize the limits of our rationality and at least entertain the possibility that there are things of true substance beyond what our minds are able to comprehend. One may want to consider that God, being God, does not need to be rational according to our own rules.

In fact, even for a complete non-believer, at the edge of reality as we know it there is a realm where things do not act accordingly to our rational intuitions based in time and space. For those who have gone down the rabbit hole of Quantum Mechanics, it is quite clear that matter does not behave in the manner would expect it to and becomes irrational from a normal human perspective. The discoveries of the past century have basically turned the concreteness of the physical world, as we know it, into a mere wave of probabilities and a place where particles may very well pop into and out of existence.

So, in short, this is absolutely the wrong time in history to double down on rationalism at the expense of transcending spiritual truth. This idea that things must make rational sense, from a human perspective, is to undermine the very substance that faith rests on, one committed to that might as well end the farce and go the full way to denying everything outside of the realm of material science. However, a person who goes that route is truly only lacking in the humility to know their own limitations. Your inability to wrap your head around something does not make it any less true.

In a time when secular scientists are even beginning to see the end of their own abilities to comprehend, many fundamentalists are still stuck in a watered down modernist paradigm they’ve inherited and rely on a horribly convoluted/inconsistent/selective rationalism rather than simply accept Jesus at his word. In their insistence on their fundamentals and understanding of things, they are like one who has traded his birthright for a bowl of stew—are you still stuck in a rationalist’s delusion, unknowingly governed by emotions or confirmation bias, and missing out on true spiritual sustenance?

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.

Salvation from the Dark Cave — 5 Parallels Between the Rescue in Thailand and Spiritual Transformation

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When I first heard the news about the Wild Boars, a youth soccer team, having gone missing in Thailand, I assumed these twelve boys along with their young coach were hopelessly lost in the flooded cave system and probably already dead or likely would be before anyone reached them. It had been over a week since they had disappeared and there seemed to be little hope of finding them alive.

For that reason, I was very happy to read the news of their being discovered by two British divers who were aiding the rescue efforts. Somehow, despite their ordeal of having to flee deeper into the cave to avoid the rising flood waters and having been trapped in the pitch blackness without food or light for over a week, these players and their coach were still alive. And what a great relief it must’ve been for them to see a person from the outside emerge from those murky waters that had entombed them.

However, that moment of joy was soon replaced by a new fear when considering the perilous journey they now had to face in order to make their escape. The divers who found them were some of the best in the world and many of these boys didn’t even know how to swim—let alone swim in conditions that experts described as extremely dangerous and conditions that tragically did cost one of their rescuers his life.

The question became one of could these boys be saved without a miracle?

This World Is A Dark Cave

We, unlike those boys who had been outside the cave, have never been beyond this world. While we can imagine that there could be something beyond, we are truly bound by what we can touch, taste, see or perceive in our minds. For many reality only extends as far as they are able to fathom. And yet science has discovered spectrums of light beyond our vision and philosophy has long challenged us to go beyond even ourselves, our rational minds, in our thinking.

Greek philosopher Plato imagined a scenario, the Allegory of the Cave, in which we were all born bound in a cave where most are chained where they can only see a shadow of greater reality projected onto the wall in front of them and some of these life-long prisoners are eventually freed. Those freed, we discover, have great difficulty explaining this greater perspective to those still bound. This scenario is pretty much describing our own perception of reality in a nutshell.

Some desire to look beyond the shadows and find a measure of freedom. However, there are many others who are content to live with the shadows and in denial. They are bound by religion, ensnared by the entertainment industry, distracted the pursuit of wealth, blinded by the daily grind or unable to see for any number of reasons and never realize that they are in a cave and chained to a wall and only seeing shadows of something greater.

There are also those who have realized they are trapped in a cave and yet also see the waters, have probed the escape routes from this reality and have understood the true impossibility of their predicament. They have lost hope. They are depressed and living in despair because they know that they are trapped and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Jesus Emerged From the Murky Waters

Those Thai boys and their coach had to know that they were doomed without divine intervention or outside help. During the rainy season (that started early and caught them by surprise) lasts into October and they only had supplies for an afternoon. The coach seems to have did his best to look after the boys, withholding rations from himself to give them a better chance of survival, and yet what he could provide was never going to save them from death in the darkness.

Even a strong swimmer had no chance to escape the under water labyrinth that separated them from the outside world. To find another path or dig their way out was impossible given their lack of necessary tools and provisions. Their resources (besides the water they could lick off the walls) were already exhausted. Even their oxygen supply was starting to dwindle and would disappear long before the flood waters would recede. They only had their prayers and hope for a rescue mission to hold back despair—without a savior were doomed.

That is essentially the story for all of humanity and the background for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are born, our forefathers having wandered deep into a cave of sin and our escape from this blocked by the waters of death. This whole world, the entire universe, in fact, is bound by physics to eventually run out of energy and our descendants, no matter how technologically advanced, will not escape that. This is a reality that can cause an intelligent forward-thinking person to wonder what is the point of living if death is all the future holds.

Drawing by Manatsawin Mungsungnoen

If one can imagine how welcomed a sight those British cave divers were for the boys and coach trapped in complete darkness and facing imminent death, then they can also imagine the feeling of elation that the disciples of Jesus felt having seen him after his emergence from the murky waters of death—His resurrected body, their resurrected hopes, and proof positive of his claim that there is eternal life for those who follow after Him.

We Must Take the Plunge of Faith

The happiness about those lost being found was soon replaced with a big question about how to get them from the cave to freedom. How could this half starved group of youngsters and their coach (who was even worse for the wear after selflessly giving his rations to the boys) get out of their subterranean prison?

Many options were discussed and ruled out one by one. There simply was not enough time for other solutions when oxygen levels began to drop, with the fullness of the monsoon season about to begin, and the consensus became clear: They would need to dive out like their saviors or die in the cave. This was something that had been impossible for them before, it was something extremely dangerous even for a veteran cave diver, and would be absolutely terrifying for someone claustrophobic. None of them were swimmers, let alone in any physical condition to match the world class athletes who found them, and I’m sure their fears could keep them paralyzed.

Where does one find the faith to do the impossible?

That was my question a few years ago.

You jump in, that’s how…

We Cannot Save Ourselves

The truth is, while we must take the plunge under the murky waters and swim for all we are worth, the journey out of the cave is not one we are able to do on our own strength. Like the rescue in Thailand took the coordinated effort of many men and women, we cannot possibly complete our journey to freedom without a community or the help of others. Rather we need to partake of the provisions left for us by those who have followed after Christ. We need to firmly grasp the guiding rope of the written and spoken tradition that the Church (2 Thessalonians 2:15) has left for us. And must also submit to those ordained to lead us to safety and who are responsible for leading us to salvation:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)

We live in an age where purported authorities are questioned, and rightly, for their abuses. There are many self-proclaimed (and self-promoting) religious experts who claim to have spiritual knowledge and have yet to truly take the plunge of faith themselves. These false teachers. They are ordained only by themselves, by their own arrogance, and are whom Jesus describes as being blind guides. You can know them by their fruits:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (Matthew 7:15‭-‬20 NIV)

Be sure that those who lead you have a true connection to the world beyond. Do they shine a light that pushes back against the darkness? Do they bring you nourishment and spiritual air? For those trapped in the cave in Thailand, it is clear who came from the outside and why they are there. The rescuers come with provisions, they administered first aid to those in need and built the trust of the boys to follow their lead and instructions.

These teachers, without a doubt, played a critical role in the salvation of those trapped in the cave and we too need those who have experience beyond our own to provide calm and guide us through the fog, currents, and confusion of life.

We Must Die to Save Others

As I entered the church building on Sunday the final act of the rescue mission started. The Gospel text was, interestingly enough, about some friends of a paralytic and their faith that carried him to Jesus:

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:1‭-‬2 NIV)

The account goes on with Jesus first addressing the naysayers and critics for their evil thoughts before going on to fully heal this man. But this detail about Jesus seeing the faith of these men is something I had missed before. It was their carrying him, like the divers leading the boys out of the hopeless depths, that led to this man being forgiven and freed from his paralysis. It is our job to carry each other back to Christ and that is the purpose of a Christian community and the Church. It is our faith that leads to the healing of others.

Like these men carrying their friend or the “buddy system” of experienced divers leading the young boys through the darkness to the light, we too must serve a role in the salvation of others. The Christian mission is to participate in the salvation of others in much the same way as those, who came from around the world and volunteered to risk their own lives—not for financial gain, not for their own biological children and not compelled by force. They simply saw a need, a desperate need, and became the solution.

Sgt Major Saman Kunan

Many have sacrificed time and volunteered their talents to aid in the search and rescue effort in Thailand. But one man, Sgt Major Saman Kunan, a retired Thai Navy diver, gave his own life so those boys could be saved. This hero, after delivering oxygen canisters needed for the daring escape, ran out of oxygen himself and perished.

And that is the responsibility of all Christians. We are to find lost sheep, feed them, heal their wounds, lead them out of harm’s way, and even give our lives for them. We are to be Christ in every sense of the word and that means dying to ourselves and saving the lost from their dark cave.

We need to be faithful to those who are lost without a hope.

The Need For Faithful Fathers

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My memory is, generally speaking, an amorphous soup—don’t expect me to remember your name, important historical dates, or even specific events from my childhood.

However, I can remember particular moments with my father and some of those memories remain quite vivid. One such memory was of a day where I joined him on a job site. I have no idea how old I was. I was a toddler. My dad must’ve had some work up top to do. He could not leave me down below to fend for myself alone. And, therefore, I had to up with him.

So he hoisted me to his back and proceeded to climb those rebar rungs with me hanging on for dear life. I was terrified of heights even as a child. And, even if I was able to someone overcome my fears, I was too young to climb that ladder on my own at that stage. Anyhow, as tightly as I held onto his neck, he’s lucky I didn’t chock him out.

My dad was a construction worker. He built concrete silos (later water tower pedestals and smoke stacks) and as early as I can remember he was always the man in charge. He worked faithfully, out on the road for the first fifteen years of my life, to provide for my mom and us children.

This lanky “hard hat,” a big hammer in the metal loop of his leather work belt, oil and ‘mud’ splattered on his pants and T-shirt, defined manhood for me.

What would my life would have been like without my father?

I’ve recently pondered that question.

My life is completely intertwined in my father’s, determining where his influence begins or ends is impossible.

Would I have had interest in engineering and design had he not brought home blueprints?

My preferences are tied to his.

For example, and another of those childhood memories, my ride in dad’s 1969 Mach 1 Mustang (a wonderful machine powered by a rare “428 CJ” engine with a “shaker” hood scoop) and the impact it had.

It wasn’t actually his car anymore, he had sold it to his brother so he could buy a family car, and I only ever had one ride. But how could I ever forget that lopey idle giving way to a roar as that big block took a deep breath of atmosphere and gasoline?

I was pinned, wide-eyed, to the bucket seat. We accelerated to what seemed like takeoff velocity down that country road and then, when we were turning around, after the most incredible experience of my life to that point, my dad says, “Hmm, it seems to be missing…”

What!?!

It wasn’t even running right and it had redefined my understanding of physics!

Perhaps I would have been a motor head regardless—still there is little doubt that my expectations were formed, in large part, by the loyalties and interests of my father. I’ve only owned Ford powered vehicles. Love for machines is one thing that we share in common, being allowed to drive at a young age was likely a factor in later career choices, and that just one of many things that I owe to my dad’s presence in my life.

As with all hypothetical “what if” senarios, we can really only know what we have experienced and thus I cannot know what I would be without my father’s example. But undoubtedly my dad, being a good and responsible man, one who cared for those who worked under him enough to be at odds with upper management, was a role model for me.

Having no father figure correlates with many problems…

I do not know what I would be had my father decided he was not ready for a family and left. But I have reason to suspect that I would not be better off without him.

There is a strong correlation between absent fathers and poor outcomes in children. Arguably fatherlessness is a more reliable predictor of outcomes than economic status or race. An article about links between fatherlessness and violence in the Baltimore Sun drives home the point:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for example, children living without fathers have a 400 percent increased chance of being poor. Only about one-tenth of children living with both parents are living in poverty. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also states that drug and alcohol abuse is far greater among children living without fathers.

Again, statistics cannot tell us anything about individuals. There are many very successful men raised in single parent homes and ultimately every individual must choose how to play the hand they’ve been dealt. One can use their own disadvantages (perceived or real) as an excuse not to try or they can overcome and use their experience as a strength.

That said, I was privileged to have two parents, both respectable people, and I have a great deal of gratitude for my father’s choice to remain faithful to my mother and us children.

“Do I have a reason to hate dad?”

I asked my brother that the other day because I was genuinely perplexed as to why there seemed to be anger in my heart towards my dad.

Our minds are complex and thus, even after years of trying to figure out my own mind, understanding how or why my feelings come and go as they do remains a mystery beyond my grasp.

However, no man is perfect and my dad was not without his flaws. And, unlike my younger siblings, I’ve seen him grow up from obnoxious, insecure and sarcastic young man (who would rudely correct my mom’s occasional mispronunciations) to the current gentler wiser version.

My dad is a high school dropout. He was, for the most part, missing the first fifteen years of my life, out on the road working, busy around the house or exhausted. He didn’t play sports. He has never owned his own business, he was never ordained in the church, and for that reason could not pass on the pedigree to his son.

I’ve tried to take responsibility and not blame him for my own failures in romance or otherwise. Still, it only stands to reason that parental influence goes two ways, both good and bad. And, after dropping out of college (due to lack of funds and fear of debt) being out on the road seemed like a curse passed down to me from my father—a fate that I could not escape

Besides that, I couldn’t even complete with my dad in his many areas of strength. It seems my genetic inheritance in some important areas (like physical stature and personality) came from mom. We would often be at odds, me constantly asking “why” as a child and him getting frustrated with my too many questions.

I’m very different from my father and differences often lead to conflict. I’ve spent many years simultaneously respecting and also resenting of my father. While my dad, a quiet man, has offered much in the way of encouragement and praise—all of that can be outweighed by just one of his sighs, eye rolls, or other signs of disgust.

I don’t hate my dad. But there are definitely some areas where I hope to improve upon the foundation he gave me. A man who wants to maintain his status quo, who avoids tedious discussion and theological debates, doesn’t have much to offer in terms of growth in perspective. There are simply limits to how far his guidance can take me.

My longing for acceptance and fatherly pursuits…

A remarkable number of the girls I’ve had serious interest in over the years were daughters of missionaries or pastors. This was not something conscious or intentional on my part, but it seems to be indication of a deeper level awareness of my own limitations and desire to overcome.

Interestingly enough, my dad’s family has many who have traveled the world and are ordained leaders in the church. But my dad was not, he is not noteworthy as a teacher (although he has much to offer) and really could not provide an example to follow in that regard. So, as a result, I had to look outside of my own father’s example and sought someone who would help me.

My pursuit of the impossibly was as much a pursuit of a father’s approval as it was anything else. The man, whose daughter I sought friendship with, had embodied the Mennonite ideal to me and I desired his mentorship as much as his recommendation of me. Unfortunately that was not a role he was willing to fulfill and, frankly, no conservative Mennonite man I’ve met is interested in taking up.

In the Mennonite world fatherhood is reserved for the biological realm. A man feels only responsible for the welfare (spiritual or otherwise) of his own biological children and all others should go to their own parents. What I was asking for, a real mentor and advocate like a parent, was beyond their realm of possibilities—my own deficiencies were tough luck and not their problem.

If there was a time when Mennonite leaders were more open to mentoring and discipling those not their own biological children, that passed with the encroachment of individualism and the abandoning of the Anabaptist community ethic (still alive in Old Order groups) for my-family-first homeschooling cultural and patriarchalism.

A father like Paul was to 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. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. (Philemon 1:8‭-‬11 NIV)

Paul’s intercession on behalf of Onesimus, in the passage above, is the kind of fatherhood missing in my Mennonite experience and is something desperately needed in the church.

Onesimus wasn’t Paul’s biological son. But it is obvious that there was a depth of commitment there that went beyond talking after church on Sunday, saying “I’ll pray for you” or a few token gestures. No, Paul was clearly fulfilling a fatherly role for Onesimus and willing to be an advocate for him.

The idea of fatherhood in the church, of spiritual fathers, is something foreign to many Protestants and is a concept often met with resistance. Some would take the words of Jesus “do not call anyone on earth ‘father'” (Matthew 23:9) as a strict prohibition against a use of the term to describe a church leader. But I believe, in their legalistic approach, they are missing the point Jesus is making and forgetting that Jesus himself used the term “fathers” to describe Jewish ancestors.

It doesn’t take long, reading the New Testament, to see that the most literal interpretation of what Jesus said in his sermon against religious hypocrisy was not meant to abolish use of a term. If it was, then early church leaders, the same that gave us the Scripture, would be in direct violation to the rule and condemned by the words of Jesus. The writers of the New Testament frequently referred to other Christians as their “children” and most certainly took a fatherly role:

I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Corinthians 4:14‭-‬17 NIV )

Onesimus was a slave, perhaps born into slavery, and Paul became a father to him—who freed him from both spiritual and physical bondage. That is the kind of fatherhood we need in the church.

Meeting a father…

When I first met Fr. Anthony I was curious about many things and, noting their use of a church calendar, had asked the him if the Orthodox had a day to commemorate the prophet Joel. He wrote me the very next day to tell me that the prophet Joel was on the calendar that day, an interesting coincidence, and that was the beginning of a relationship that eventually led me to the Orthodox church. Fr. Anthony’s humility (despite his academic credentials and being an encyclopedia of knowledge) and willingness to carefully answer questions was something that spoke volumes to me.

There is little doubt in my mind that Fr. Anthony is the reason why Orthodoxy was the direction I went after my Mennonite ideal disintegrated. I know very humble Mennonite leaders, I also know many who are somewhat knowledgeable as well, I have great respect for men like Frank Reed, for example, but somehow Fr. Anthony had all the right answers for my needs. Many ex-Mennonites had tried to convince me to join them and only made me upset, but Fr. Anthony explained in a way that both validated my Mennonite ideal and also took me beyond it.

My biological father is a very good man. I am privileged to be his son and grateful of his example. I could not possibly be where I am today without his faithfulness.

However, my dad is not a philosopher nor interested in many of the questions I would ask and thus left a void to be filled. My prayers for a fatherly mentor went unanswered in the Mennonite church and it is only in a journey of faith that took me beyond Mennonite possibilities that I’ve found a father in the way Paul was to Onesimus.

There are many in the church lacking good fathers and many good fathers who hoard their abilities for only their biological children. Even those who have good fathers could benefit from a concept of fatherhood that revolved around Christian faith and not only what is natural default. The church needs leaders willing to take a true fatherly role. We need men who will love, disciple and be spiritual fathers to all in need.

Do you love God’s children as much as you love your own?

Should the Church Have Rituals and Traditions?

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Of those traditions kept by my conservative Mennonite church, a foot-washing ritual was one of the more notable. It is a practice based on the example of Jesus who washed the feet of the disciples and then instructed them to follow his example:

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17, NIV)

So, twice a year with Communion, after a sermon about some aspect of the sacrifice Jesus made, after partaking of some bread and grape juice together and then another short reminder of why we were doing the stuff we did, the men would be dismissed to the basement (leaving the women the upstairs to do their symbolic washing) and on the way down we men would pair up with the guy beside us or another guy that we selected for whatever reason.

We would remove our shoes and socks, then proceed to one of the plastic basins arranged in front of folding chairs, then take turns solemnly splashing water on each other’s feet and dabbing them dry again with a towel provided. Once finished with this ritual procedure most would shake hands (those less inhibited would kiss) and engage in awkward small talk or make a comment about keeping their washing partner in prayer over the next few months.

In our time, this act of foot washing is little more than a symbolic act of service. But when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples it was something of practical value to those traveling the dusty roads in sandals and a task typically reserved for the servants. In that context, it was a very significant gesture and represented a whole new approach to leadership. In the Mennonite context, this practice is sometimes nothing more than a ritual and tradition.

Is reinvention of orthodoxy the answer to dead faith?

People often equate ritual and tradition in the church to dead faith. As a result, those disgruntled with dead faith swing in the direction of innovation and spontaneity hoping to find something authentic and real. Unfortunately, while the first generation of those who discard an established tradition often experience the excitement of something new, their children do not get a temporary emotional bump from the change. It should be no surprise when these children continue down the same path and throw out practices that their parents considered to be sacred and essential.

The idiom, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” (derived from a German proverb “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütte”) is a warning against destroying something good in our zeal to be rid of what is bad. This saying was first recorded in 1512 and right before Martin Luther touched off a revolt against the established church. It is a phrase, frequently used by Luther himself, perhaps worried people would take what he started too far. It remains a very popular expression with Protestants (including Mennonites) who are trying desperately to retain their own children.

There is much in Scripture about the sins of fathers being transmitted to the next generation (Exodus 34:6-7, Leviticus 26:39, Deuteronomy 5:8-10) and seems to apply to our own circumstances today. Children, through genetics or behavioral patterning, often acquire the strengths of their parents. A parent’s good example can lead their children to good habits. And, in the same manner, children often also inherit the defects, blind-spots, and weaknesses of their parents as well. Children build both on the success and also on the sins and/or shortcomings of the prior generation.

So, it should not be a big surprise that the children of Protestants continue down a path of independence, reinterpretation of Scripture and departure from what was established. Protestantism, with the inordinate focus on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, has led to further division, ever-increasing individualism, and significant loss of Christian character. Many Protestants, following the example of their forefathers, assume that the path to spiritual life is found in throwing off of traditions and rituals—but I believe they are terribly mistaken.

Orthodox tradition and ritual is not at fault for abuses of the institutions of the church…

What is the basis for tradition and ritual in the church?

Many seem to forget that Jesus was a Jew and faithfully kept the Jewish religious tradition. Jesus did speak against those who “let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8, NIV) or in other words those who prioritized religious rituals over love for others.

Yet Jesus did not dismiss ritual and tradition as completely unimportant either. Jesus and early Jewish converts to Christianity (while ranking the substance of faith higher than the religious symbolism) did not totally disregard the traditions that had been established.

To truly love Jesus means to follow his example and keep his commands. This, according to the words of Jesus, is requisite to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:15‭-‬21, NIV)

Many church rituals (like Baptism, Communion and foot washing) are directly from the Gospels and given as instruction to the disciples by Jesus. And, it is in the Gospels that we read that Jesus gave authority to his disciples. He told Peter and the disciples this:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18‭-‬19, NIV)

The early church clearly had a hierarchy with real authority and one that built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. It is the writings of these early church fathers that contain their witness to the life of Jesus and also provide their reader with further divinely-inspired instruction. This is what they said:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15, NIV)

Scripture didn’t just drop out of the sky written on golden tablets. No, rather it is a collection of inspired writings compiled and later canonized by the authority of a church council. That, the Bible, is the written tradition of the church (or “letter”) and is a source widely accepted as authoritative. However, in Protestant churches, because they reject any authority besides their own, the “spoken word” of church tradition has not been firmly held—it is neglected and forgotten.

The complete disregard for the oral tradition of the church is no different from cutting a chunk out of Scripture. Sure, as a person can refrain from applying the instruction Paul gives in regards to veiling (and not veiling) in 1 Corinthians 11 and still be Christian, these things aren’t necessary to be saved. However, this represents the deterioration of church tradition and a serious problem. At some point, we cannot claim to be following after the example of Jesus and continue to abandon the practices of the church he established.

There is a real loss when the established tradition is tossed in favor of a more ‘contemporary’ program. Moreover, those leaving their religious traditions often continue to benefit from the values it helped to instill in them. Sadly, the full cost is often only felt in subsequent generations who didn’t have the unappreciated benefits of the old tradition—the children raised without tradition have lost the helpful reminders given to their parents and also an important stabilizing tie to the historic church.

What makes tradition and ritual important?

The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” contains the following monologue:

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That, I can tell you in a word—tradition!
Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything—how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you—I don’t know! But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Tevye’s character is a Jewish father standing at this intersection of religious tradition and compromise in the name of progress. He points to one of the reasons why traditions are formed and that is balance. Traditions and rituals are established to help provide stability and order to our lives.

Rituals also help reduce anxiety and increase confidence even for those who do not believe they are beneficial:

Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. (“Why Rituals Work,” Scientific American)

At practice and before games my high school football team went through the same “warm-up” routine. Some of the reason for this was to physically prepare us to prevent injury through stretching and get us warmed up. But the other part, perhaps even the larger and more significant part, is what this ritual did psychologically to calm our nerves and get us mentally prepared. This practice and pre-game ritual made us better individually and also helped our cohesiveness as a team.

Beyond that, it is what Jesus taught and showed by example. Jesus did not entirely do away with his Jewish rituals and traditions. In fact, he added to them, going as far as to give the disciples a template for a simple prayer (given in contrast to the arrogant public prayers of religious elites and “babbling like pagans”) and this “Lord’s prayer” is still practiced—even in Protestant churches. If one understands the value of Baptism and Communion then there should be no argument. Rituals are important to help to pattern, influence and shape our minds.

Traditions provide us with a structure that helps us to navigate our lives. When Paul urges believers to conduct their worship “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40) it is not intended to stifle their freedom or individuality. It is rather to free them from chaos and confusion. We are creatures of habit, we do not do well in a constantly shifting environment, and therefore ritual is even more important in these tumultuous times.

As Tevye said, traditions are reminders of who we are and what God expects from us.

So what to do with dead orthodoxy?

It is fairly obvious that people can continue in religion long after they’ve become spiritually dead. Ritual and tradition, while a benefit to the faithful, cannot preserve faith. Christianity is not as simple as checking the right boxes. As Jesus told the perplexed Nicodemus “you must be born again” and about how the Spirit works like “wind” that “blows wherever pleases” (John 3:1-21) there is a profound mystery in this that goes beyond a religious program and all human rationality.

Protestants, of all people, should know this. Every generation there is a new method that comes along, another “remnant” group shilling their own version of the Gospel, the next author trying to pump the purpose back into Christianity or yet another list of fundamentals, ordinances or doctrines, and all these movements eventually seem to end up in the same place again. Often these re-inventors end up leaving their children even more ignorant of church history and with even less to grasp onto. Some might declare themselves to be the more pure, but they are also void of any tradition with staying power and the proof is in the legacy they leave.

Dead orthodoxy is a result of dead faith. And, in the same manner, that new window dressing won’t help to stabilize a wooden structure weakened by termites, reinventing traditions and rituals will never bring spiritual life back where the church has fallen off its foundation. The foundation of faith is Jesus, his faithful church is constructed upon that foundation—with the traditions it has passed on both in written and spoken form for our benefit—and there is no spiritual life gained in throwing this legacy out.

In fact, it is arrogant to think that we would be better to start from scratch and create our own new orthodoxy rather than draw from the experience and wisdom accumulated over many generations. It is basically to say that we today are better than all those faithful Christians of the past two millennia who kept these traditions and saw fit to pass them on to us.

  • Does the ritual of Baptism ever take away repentance?
  • Can our Communion practice come at the expense of our love for Christ’s body?
  • Should we stop celebrating Christmas and Easter because they aren’t found in the Bible and have been corrupted by American culture?
  • Our ridding ourselves of these established and orthodox Christian practices will not draw us any closer to God.

Yes, the foot-washing tradition practiced at my Mennonite church is worthless if the act does not truly represent our heart. The veiling is often associated with the failures of Mennonite men to lead in the example of Christ and thus the practice of the veil is often discarded by ex-Mennonite women. But both represent cases of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is not the ritual of foot washing or the imperfect application of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that is at fault. Tradition and ritual should never be blamed for our lack of those things that should come from the heart.

True, faith is not established upon religious rituals or traditions and they certainly can be corrupted. The apostle Paul had to sternly warn early Christians against the abuse of the Lord’s Supper and had to further define the practice in an effort to prevent them from abusing it. But what he didn’t do is throw his hands up and say: “Okay, no more Communion, let’s go back to the basics and just show our love for each other through charitable acts!” No, he urged them to rediscover, not reinvent, and that is what the faithful do.

The solution to dead orthodoxy is not reinvention. The solution to dead orthodoxy is to address the real problem and renew the heart of faith that makes the tradition meaningful and allows the ritual to come alive.

What tradition should we keep?

Every denomination has rituals and traditions. The format of a Mennonite service, for example, intended to be a bit less formal, can be very dry and predictable. The song leader leads some songs, men argue our pet issues in Sunday school class while women sit in stony silence in theirs, the deacon (after pleading for us to think about the meaning of the hymns we just sang) goes through the laundry list of activities and repeat prayer requests, after another song the preacher does his thing as some doze in the pews, and finally, the congregation is dismissed to talk about farming, hunting, sports or politics.

At some point, all-new “movements” end up creating a new ritual and tradition. John and Charles Wesley introduced a radical new “methodical” approach to study and life. This eventually became the “Methodist” denomination. Mennonites take their denominational name from Menno Simons, a Catholic priest that became caught up in the Anabaptist movement, and now are mostly an ethnic church known for a “peace witness” and shoo-fly pies.

Not all religious rituals and traditions are equal in history or value. Sunday school, revival meetings, VBS, “sweetheart banquets,” mother’s day celebrations, Bible schools, and church retreats are part of the Mennonite church calendar, but they are certainly not the equivalent of Ascension day, Lent season, Paschal feast or many of the other long-established orthodox practices that some have abandoned in the past few centuries. I would rather we started to look at what was established early and has worked for many generations than try to create a dumbed-down, less historically grounded version.

The tradition of many Protestant churches has become so watered down there is little left to reinvent besides the Bible. As a result, those seeking an emotional high through change are running out of options and when their current experience isn’t satisfying anymore, some decide to toss the Bible next. That is the progressive approach. That is the approach that confuses their own temporal feelings of pleasure with spiritual gain.

In conclusion…

Faith is not created by ritual and tradition nor can it be increased by discarding them. Spiritual life comes through obedience and is also a mysterious work of God. We aren’t saved through our religious devotion. A person can go through the motions of Baptism, Communion, foot washing or any other orthodox Christian practice without ever having a change of heart.

That said, the truly faithful do benefit from the reminders, the structure, and patterns for behavior that orthodox rituals and traditions provide. In my own experience, it has helped me to worship in a manner that has been established over many generations. To join together with that “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and to worship as Christians did for thousands of years has been a tremendous experience that cannot be duplicated with a new light show and smoke machine.

A person who burns down their house because they don’t like some of the decorations on the walls might be momentarily free. But the enjoyment and empowerment of this newfound simplicity and freedom will soon be a desperate struggle to protect themselves from the elements. And the same goes for those who think they gain through taking an eraser to the rituals, traditions and established orthodoxy of the church. The benefits are fleeting and the cost of trying to restore what was lost is great.

Yes, some necessary structure can be built back in a generation or two after the full loss of the change is felt, but not without slavish effort to restore it and where is the freedom in that?

A life unfettered by any established ritual and historical tradition might seem ideal for the freedom and simplicity that it promises. However, not all is as advertised, the freedom is an illusion and the reality created is often quite complicated. Taking a wrecking ball to an established order often leads to only chaos and more confusion. Worse, it robs the next generation of their religious inheritance and leaves children worse off than their perpetually dissatisfied parents.

Our faith should be founded on Jesus, our religion grounded on the truth of his word, our life lived in obedience to the Spirit, and that means keeping the traditions passed down by his church. Spiritual life is restored through genuine repentance and not by abandoning ritual. Renewed faith comes with our humble obedience and not by reinventing traditions.

Jesus did not discard all rituals and tradition nor should we. There is a place for both in the church. It is a connection that we need now more than ever in the shifting sands of our time. Perhaps it is time for some reflection, rediscovery, and restoration?