Going Full Circle, I’ve Decided to Start a House Church…

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Life is full of strange and unexpected twists.

Upon leaving the denomination of my birth, I had joked that my two choices were to a) start “The Perfect Church of Joel” or b) become Orthodox. But, since I lacked the ambition and other qualifications for being a cult leader, the latter was my only option and became Orthodox.

However, now, only a year and a half after my Chrismation, and due to circumstances that are beyond my control, I am currently in the planning stages of a house church.

Yes, I realize that this might come as a big surprise to many of you, it could appear like a complete one-eighty and reeks of instability, but it is a necessary step.

I know, I’ve always questioned this new house church trend where a few Protestant fundamentalist separatists, willful people who can’t agree with anyone about anything, who claim to be copying the early church and decide they are better off doing church themselves.

Sheer arrogance, right?

I mean, the Amish do this too, I suppose, in that they do not have designated church buildings and meet in homes. Yet, they do it in a completely different spirit, they maintain a real community beyond their own immediate family and are truly accountable to an orthodox tradition that transcends them as individuals.

So how did I go completely from one end of the spectrum, from a church with two millennia of history, with ornate architecture and a strong emphasis on Communion, in a universal sense, to deciding that I need to start a church in my own home?

My Journey to the House Church…

Okay, before I give Fr. Seraphim a heart-attack, I have no plans on leaving the Holy Cross family in Williamsport. None whatsoever. In fact, my decision to start a house church has everything to do with Orthodox tradition and my beginning to comprehend the reason behind a particular practice—that practice being an iconstasis.

Orthodox churches have an iconstasis, it is basically a wall with images of Jesus, Mary, various saints and angels situated between the nave (where the congregation is gathered) and the altar where the bread and wine are consecrated. It is a reflection of how the Jerusalem temple was laid out, where the “Holy of Holies” was separated by a veil, and is symbolic of the connection between heaven and the “Holy Place” of the nave.

I had been contemplating how to incorporate an “icon corner” in my new home (a place on an East wall of an Orthodox home designated for prayer and worship) when I found out that this is also called an iconstasis.

Interesting…

As it turns out, this prayer corner in Orthodox homes harkens back to the real house churches of the early church. Every Christian home is supposed to be a microcosm of the Church, a wedding being basically equivalent to an ordination service, the parents acting as the clergy and the children being the laity of this house church. The designated area for prayer and worship in the home mirrors that of the parish church building and early house churches.

As an aside, it is necessary to note, given currently popular notions pertaining to corporate worship in modern times, that the idea of a house church being a sort of informal affair is entirely wrong. In the early church, when meeting in houses, according to first hand account, the priests and bishops were in a room east of the laymen (and women, who sat separately) with the deacon guarding the door and keeping the congregation in line. It was an orderly liturgical service and not a free-for-all. And, likewise, worship at home today should still be similarly structured.

The Very Protestant Problem of Division

Growing up, as a Mennonite, we would have “family devotions” and prayer before meals. This was always informal, where we were at, and never really patterned as a church service. It was not called or considered house church. Church for me then was the assembling together of the body of Christ on Sundays and on other days of the week—and that church service was a semi-formal affair, with a definite form and structure.

In decades since my childhood, at least in the conservative Mennonite circles that I ran in, it has become more and more commonplace to skip corporate worship services, on occasion, and to “have church” with just the youth, family members on a weekend retreat or what have you. There are some who have taken it a step further and ceased with their mixing with non-biological brothers and sisters, and cousins (or the otherwise impure) altogether and replaced it with a casual around-the-campfire or lounging-in-the-living-room kind of house church affair that can last at least as long as their biological children lack access to a means transportation and escape.

The trendline in Protestant denominations is abundantly and woefully clear. There has been a steady march away from any established order, any authority besides ones own opinion, and Protestantism has played a key role in this development. What started as an attempt at reformation has ended as a fracturing of the Western church into thousands competing and often very contradictory entities. From the dwindling Fred Phelps types on one side to growing “woke” crowd on the other, it is very little wonder that this form of Christianity has led many to abandon the enterprise of faith altogether.

There is no need for a Jerusalem council in the current climate. No, in this denominational chaos, there is no longer a need to even practice a Christian love that is willing to work through differences, no reason to submit or show deference to anyone, you just stay home or start a new even smaller, more pure and perfect group and move on.

It is a classic purity spiral, it is a result of people heading their own opinions over the urging of St Paul:

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)

There isn’t much effort towards that end anymore, is there?

The Protestant house church, often billed as a return to the early church, is merely a next step in the direction of individualism and it is little wonder when children raised in such an environment continue down this path of division in search of a new purity on their own terms. Many will find congregations that require less of them, others will join the growing ranks of “nones” who simply stay at home Sundays, but some of the more ambitious will attempt to recreate a perfect church in their own image.

The Church That Spans Dichtomies

Fortunately there are other options, the dichtomies of Protestantism. As it turns out, Christians do not need to choose between participation in the universal church (by attending services in a church building with other spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ) and having a “house church” primarily biological relatives, former denominational cohorts and close friends.

There is a solution to this paradox where you can both have your cake and eat it too: You can (and should) have a house church with your families, but can (and should) also maintain the unity of the faith and be in Communion with the Church body that transcends denominationalism and has an unbroken chain of ordinations back to the time of the Apostles.

In Orthodox Christianity, every man is a priest and his wife co-ordained as the leaders of their own church/home, that is what their marriage implies. But there are also priests over priests, and everyone (man and woman alike) is still accountable to the “priesthood of all believers” (which is to say the Church) and must submit to each other, especially the elder, as St Paul instructs:

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)

It is impossible to obey that teaching above while being your own boss.

I’m under no delusion about the Orthodox hierarchy, there are problems there like anything else people are involved. I do not submit to their perfection. I do, however, submit in Christian love, to honor my Lord, and in knowing my own unworthiness. I have no need to be the priest, at least not until God ordains it through his Church, but do see an urgent need for all Christians to submit one to another as we are told many times in Scripture.

You can have a house church and be Orthodox. In fact you should have a house church if you are Orthodox and that is historically well-established.

But you simply cannot be Orthodox or truly Christian and refuse to acknowledge that the church is bigger than you and your own comprehension or ideas.

Orthodoxy, once again, simultaneously occupies both sides of an argument in both strongly encouraging home church while also—at the same time—rejecting the spirit of Diotrephes of those who acknowledge no authority besides their own and set about to create a new pure church in their own image.

Loose Ends, Long Waits, and Second Acts

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The only thing I hate more than loose ends is multiple loose ends. Loose ends represent instability and uncertainty, they are the fringes of the chaos and confusion that perpetually threaten to overwhelm the necessary stability and order of our lives.

There are several big projects in my life right now, well under way, some years in the making, and all of them various stages of incomplete. My ability to handle pressure has always been a big question mark and the past few months have tested the strength of my resolve.

I’ve sometimes felt as if I’m a person at the edge of functional, who kept things together mentally or otherwise by careful management of his resources and emotions. But in the past few years I’ve determined to sail beyond my safe waters, beyond the established boundaries of my known limits and at the risk of failure.

Am I built for this?

My new career is the first part of this stress test. I definitely have the basic aptitude for truss design and have become reasonably proficient at using the engineering software. However, with my proficiency, and changes in the truss market towards residential, the expectations are high and the workload has ballooned.

More recently it has become a make or break it moment as the construction season wraps up and a new prospective customer has piled on, who refuses to give the information that I request and seems to have very little respect for my time. He wants a “conference call” after every small revision and email, every conversation with him is circular and I’ve reached peak frustration in dealing with him.

However his project does promise to be one of those signature projects, if it ever gets underway, and the truth is that I really want him to be pleased with the work we do. It’s just that right now it is impossible to know if he’s just going to be an endless hassle, who tries to micromanage every part of the process or if he’ll become more cooperative and less doting as things progress. I’m not holding my breath.

There are days where I could be tempted to turn back, return to the proverbial Egypt of truck driving, and not need to deal with the pressure of always having to get things perfect. In trucking, a few spilled beans is just a few spilled beans. But, in this job, if I enter my numbers wrong here I could have the truss equivalent of “Galloping Girtie,” a very costly disaster and would need to bear the shame of my failure.

Of course, then again, an accident, for a commercial driver, can be a felony offense and especially if they can prove that you were distracted at the time. So maybe I’ll stick to the possibility of big financial losses for my company and potential of losing my job over sharing a cell with Bubba because the dispatcher needed answers and a silly “four wheeler” decided to use the same exact moment to check my reaction time?

I’ll stick with tapping the keyboard where there is less chance of me dying trapped in the burning wreck of a big rig, where I can be home at night despite a long commute, and my coworkers are Amish and awesome people. My hope is that eventually that will grow to the point where they can justify a second designer, so I can breathe a little and at least have the possibility of a day off or even working from home. It is a work in progress.

When will it be finished?

In the midst of everything else, I am (with the help of a more construction qualified friend) preparing a place. For many years I’ve lived comfortably in a small house, my bachelor pad, but for various reasons have decided that it is the right time to make a move.

First, the opportunity presented itself in the form of a “for sale by owner” sign along the path of my Saturday Dunkin coffee and donut routine. It was an upgrade from my current residence in terms of square footage and yard space. But it was also in severe need of a remodel, with cracked plaster, evidence of past leaks showing on the ceiling tiles, and other blemishes.

So, with the bank on board and price being right, after consulting some contractors, I went forward with the purchase.

Obviously, being that this is not only my own money involved and every month I wait to move in is a loss of a rent check plus the cost of utilities, there is a strong desire on my part to get the job done. That said, it will also be my own personal residence, the future “bhest nest” for my loved ones, there is also an equal desire to get it right the first time and thus speed was not the only concern.

As such projects go, we are behind schedule and threatening to go over-budget. But, at the same time, I have confidence we are doing it right and not cutting corners. For example, the old “knob and tube” wiring could have simply been covered up, spared us that extra week or so of work and the added cost, yet this is the place where I plan to sleep, keep my accumulation of things, etc.

I’ve also decided that working with a contractor is preparation for a having a wife. They don’t spend money like I do. They seem to see my wallet as being a spigot from a bottomless well, spending a thousand here and two thousand there is no big deal, whereas I’m keenly aware of every dollar spent and who will be slaving away to accommodate their excess. I’ve never told them no and they still call me tight—perhaps a warning against hiring (or marrying) friends?

Oh well, I’ve been every bit annoying as the customers I would complain about, I’ve made frequent visits, had things reworked midcourse to suit my preferences, and fussed about the lack of progress. I’m sure we’ll both be relieved once the travails of a major remodeling project are behind us, at very least the pressure will be off of me once I’m moved in and temporarily not hemorrhaging cash like a politician trying to buy votes. Ultimately, the best kind of project is a finished project!

Building towards that simple and happy life…

The bhest is yet to come. Everything up to this point I do and will be made worth it all when the big moment finally arrives. At this point I’m just getting all the pieces into position for something far greater on the horizon.

It has been a sort of an intermission period, with one act over with the next act yet to begin, and he waiting for the curtain to open has been my grueling, seemingly impossible, task as of late. There is much anticipation of things to come, but also as much anxiety about how things could go wrong (as so many did in act one) and I’m simply ready to get started with this next significant and very long awaited stage of life.

I had once wondered how Jacob could have labored so many years for the woman he loved. But now that I’ve surpassed his fourteen years, I’m not so much impressed, that’s puppy love. Besides that, he had a companion for half that time and also knew what was waiting for him at the end. I never had a Laban in my life. I’ve never had a father who let me prove myself or work for the love of his daughter nor any reason for hope other than my own stubborn refusal to quit.

In fact, I longed for something definite, some kind of clear path towards the Promised Land, and always ended up staring into an uncertain future. It is easy to fight dragons when you know that the princess is waiting for you in the castle. But it takes real courage and character to continue to fight despite the fears that a more profound loneliness and more terrible depression could be the only reward waiting at the end of your struggles.

Just an undefined waiting time is bad enough. It is the thing I hated the most about driving truck. I would much rather be told a specific time, even if it is a long period of time, than a “we’ll tell you when we’re ready” or some other non-committal response. I mean, how do you plan for an indeterminate period of time? Do I crawl back into the sleeper only to be woke from my sleep five minutes later? Not knowing confined me, it limited what I could do, and did not allow me to prepare.

It remains to be seen how the lingering conflicts of act one will be resolved. Questions still remain that I hope can soon be put to rest. But right now I must focus on tying up the loose ends, working through the stress of the interim, being patient and trusting that the right answers will come in due course.

Will the impossible be made possible?

Stay tuned!

How To Cope In the Best and Worst of Times

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“What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint) is our teeming population. Our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly support us . . . . In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race.”

That quotation, while it sounds current, was written by Tertullian, an early Christian writer, in the second century and in a time when the human population was around 190 million—as in total population of the planet!

Today, nearly two millennia later, with a population of 7.7 billion of us anxiety cucumbers, we carry on this tradition of handwringing and worry about overpopulation. Books, written decades ago, predicted there would be mass starvation in the 1970s and yet here we are—each new generation fearful of the impending doom.

How could this be?

How could the experts of a generation ago be so wrong in their gloomy predictions?

We have perpetually overestimated our importance in the grand scheme of things and then simultaneously underestimated our ability to innovate (collectively) and adapt to an ever-changing planet.

Sure, we’ve had our impact, things like extinctions and deforestation are concerning and there’s a strong argument for conservation of resources. However, those preaching about the coming apocalypse are often either the victims of their own pessimistic bias or being exploited for political reasons.

No, the Amazon is *not* the lungs of the planet. It is an ecosystem that also consumes nearly as much oxygen as it produces. The widely reported fires are not unusual and, for the most part, involved land that has already been cleared rather than the old-growth forest. Furthermore, the trends of deforestation are slowing and will likely reverse. The only real change is that a man whom leftists dislike was recently elected in Brazil.

Climate alarmism is also a perennial favorite of secular doomsayers. But, oddly enough, these dire warnings never seem to change the behavior of those making them. For example, the Obamas recently made a purchase of a $14.9 million dollar estate in Martha’s Vineyard. That would be an incredibly stupid move for someone who really believed that the oceans were about to rise. But the truth is that the headlines screaming about the end coming in a decade have been a reoccurring theme for decades and the only thing that has changed over the past couple decades is an *increase* in the polar bear population.

What is missing from the fear-mongering campaigns and politically motivated hype is some perspective. This planet has been around for a long long time and has seen dramatic changes in climate. North America was once covered in glaciers. The Sahara desert was once lush and populated. Species have come and gone. Events like Permian Triassic Catastrophe (the ‘Great Dying’) have nearly made this planet uninhabitable, took eons upon eons to recover from, and occurred long before humans arrived. This or something like it will probably end the world as we know it and no amount of windmills will make the slightest difference.

We are not in control. We do not make the sunrise in the sky nor do we know what lies ahead. Tomorrow could just be another day or it could be the day a civilization ending asteroid hits and wipes out everything we have worked tirelessly to create, accumulate or preserve. My point isn’t to be defeatist or to encourage indifference. No, my point is to free you from fear and give you an opportunity to embrace what we do have—this fleeting moment to live and enjoy the experience.

No Earthly Good…

There is an ironic expression “don’t be so heavenly-minded that you are no earthly good” that is used to describe a person who wrongly uses big things to escape their small responsibilities. For example, when the Pharisees, always concerned about maintaining appearances for their religious peers, would declare “Corban” (set aside for God’s use) resources that should have gone to their mothers or fathers instead and Jesus calls them out for it.

Many use lofty reasons as an escape from faithfully performing their own mundane duties. It is easy to decry abuses a world away, but much harder to sacrifice our own personal advantages to serve local needs. We live in a world full of virtue-signaling social media personalities who either naively believe their 280 characters is making a difference or do so cynically, for selfish gain, and simply know what will help them climb the social ladder. There are many who would gladly make others suffer for sake of their conscience and yet rarely lift a finger themselves.

Those stuck in their worries rarely do much good in the world and especially when the anxieties are about things well out of their control. If anything the environmentalist’s obsession with planet-sized issues leads to indifference. In other words, some excuse their own hypocrisy in the name of saving the planet. Many others, more realistic about their ability to save the planet, are disheartened and give up entirely on the enterprise. Both miss the opportunity to make their own corner of existence better.

I recall many lectures from Evangelical pastors about things like the “10/40 window” and millions of ‘lost’ people in the world. The message, if meant to encourage, backfired for me. Unlike them, evidently, I could “do the math” and, by their reasoning, millions of souls would be damned regardless of my involvement and my time would be wasted. I mean what difference could one man make? Likewise, many are frozen rather than empowered by their global focus, even the activists themselves, and would be far more effective if they significantly reduced their scope.

In the parable of the good Samaritan, the two who passed by the wounded man were too concerned with other things to intervene on behalf of the immediate need. Likewise, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the unnamed rich man overlooked, possibly even stepped right over starving and sick Lazarus, on his way to important business elsewhere. In both cases above you have ‘big picture’ people missing a small, but obvious, local need and being condemned as a result.

To be truly “heavenly-minded” (at least according to the Gospel) is actually to love your neighbor, meaning that person right along the path you are on or literally at your front gate. That is how to be heavenly in a way that makes a real difference in the world. Those who try to ‘play God’ and save the world are “out of their lane” and are bound to be completely delusional or constantly overwhelmed. To be actually lofty means to sacrifice global ambition and to become locally active.

True faith does not require travel over land or sea, does not need outside funding or forced cooperation of the multitude, it only requires seeing the need in front of you and being the solution.

The Real Problem of Our Time…

The times we live in are unusual, but not for lack of a means to feed ourselves. And we’ve definitely left our mark on the planet, we (like all organisms) consume and in our consumption change the environment we live in. The universe is in a state of entropy, this planet is no exception, yet somehow there is life and we are here, extremely advanced, consciously aware of our place in it. We did not create the order we live in nor will we preserve it forever.

The established order of life, death, and birth again is something that should awe-inspiring and never a source of anxieties. From dust we came and to dust we shall return.

However, we are social creatures, we desire to have meaning and purpose in our lives, therefore we should find a role to serve. Which is the big problem in our time, we have our basic needs met with very little effort (at least in the developed countries) and should feel happy and content. But we are also more acutely aware than ever of the world’s problems and as a result, many feel more helpless and stressed than ever. In a time of peace, prosperity, and connectivity many are feeling angry, alienated and desperate for attention.

A History Guy video, “John B Calhoun and the Rats of N.I.M.H.,” about the threat of over-crowding and urbanization, deserves credit for provoking my thoughts. Calhoun had led a series of scientific studies involving rodents placed in a controlled, seemingly ideal, environment where necessities were provided and conditions right for a rapid expansion of population. The results of the experiments were startling, as the crowding increased so did the social dysfunction. Traditional mouse courtship was abandoned. Bizarre behavior from that of non-breeding “beautiful ones” to inexplicable violence (cannibalism, killing young, etc) became increasingly commonplace leading to a total collapse.

This “behavioral sink,” as Calhoun described it, was not a problem of lacking resources, the rats and mice had more than enough to thrive. But it was an issue of socialization, a question of carrying and comfort capacities, and illustrated the need for social structures. There are problems with this experiment, like all experiments, and human behavior is much more complex than that of rats or mice, but there does seem to be information relevant to our own human condition, as social creatures, and the rapidly changing times we live in.

What is really happening in our time is a disruption of beneficial structures and indiscriminate destruction of normalcies. Long gone are the times when most people stayed closely connected to a small group of people in one geographic place, we now drive thirty minutes to be with a friend, search for love across oceans, and many have no church, were raised in daycare by strangers and think “likes” on social media is relevance. The increase in substance abuse, mass shootings, and suicide could all be symptoms of a break down of social structures, like family and community, that give individuals a secure place.

We seem to be accelerating towards a cataclysmic end of our civilization, but that is a bit too pessimistic an outlook. Our species did not rise in numbers solely as a result of prolific breeding or by living in ideal environments. No, in fact, we survived to later thrive as a result of our unique capability to adapt ourselves to any climate and modify the environment to suit our own needs. Still, that does not mean we can continue to go in the direction we are going and our introspection is good so long as it leads us to make the changes needed.

Calhoun spoke of the need for a “compassionate revolution” and that our success often came as a result of honoring deviance over tradition. But he was also a man of his age. In our time it may be revolutionary, even rebellious, to live an ordinary life, to not indulge in travel, to stay local, to be loyal to our own familial commitments and remain faithful to the needs right at our doorstep. We need a restoration of the home and sacred space, a place to belong and also to be separate from the chaotic din of the mass media age.

We are not gods nor are we dumb beasts. We cannot singlehandedly save the planet, we can’t fix every problem either, but we can help to improve our local environment and settle our own internal space in a way that will bring light into the life of those we meet. The world needs fewer things to worry about, more love, hope, hugs, and Matthew 6:34:

“…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Going Through the Motions

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The phrase “going through the motions” usually implies a half-hearted or insincere effort.

It is most often used for circumstances when we want people to be engaged and enthusiastic, but instead we see vacant expressions, a sea of zombies. And, like an old high school football coach screaming in the locker room at his sleepwalking athletes, we plea to the listless bodies: “Let’s show some life out there!”

There also seems to be an expectation, at least in the contemporary Western church, that a worship service should be a sort pep rally event, where anything short of people jumping over pews and shouting “hallelujah” is a disappointment.

Many, in defense of their preference for a lively experience, cite David’s dance (2 Samuel 6:14-15) as a proof-text and prescription. They treat this fist-pumping, near-naked and completely undignified affair as a sort of standard. However, this perspective neglects something very important and that something being context of this over-the-top expression.

That context?

Literally a once in a lifetime event.

The most sacred object of Jewish worship, the “ark of the Lord,” the physical manifestation of God in their midst, was being returned to Jerusalem. Recall the ark had been lost for a generation, captured by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:11) and, though back in Israel, had never returned to Jerusalem. Of course this was a joyous occasion, a reason for great exuberance, the glory of God was being restored!

Revive Us…Again?

Those raised in a revivalistic setting often seek after an emotional experience. Unfortunately this is often the spiritual equivalent empty calories, something that feels good but lacks real substance of change, a momentary high often followed by a corresponding crash—a crash of equal (or greater) proportion to the energy boost that leaves many feeling more defeated in the end.

I made the mistake, in one of the most vulerable times of my life, of attending an Evangelical “tent meeting” outside of a nearby town. By chance, coincidence or divine appointment, the ‘impossibility’ (that person who became the physical representation of my inability to find a place in the Mennonite culture and not someone I had wanted to see in that particular place) had decided to attend. Not only that, but the ushers of this event, obviously not knowing of my personal struggle, seated her right in front of me.

Her presence there, combined with a sermon about faith and Peter’s walking on water before slipping under the waves of doubt, was the perfect storm for upheal. The manipulative tactics worked. My body began to shake and, after a few choruses of those familiar “altar call” hymns, I got to my feet and walked to the front of the congregation. Soon I would be wisked away by an earnest young gentleman, who offered to listen, prayed with me, and even checked in a couple times in the weeks after.

But the revival effect was very short lived. A day or two later, after that fleeting moment of assurance, I plunged back into my living hell. That exhausting emotional rollercoaster, the fleeting hopes of resolution followed by soul-crushing deep despair and longing for death, day in and day out, did not end. What happened that night was nothing but a false hope, it left me only more confused, more disappointed and desperate.

What finally did work to bring back some stability of mood was an Adderall prescription. That drug, an amphetamine, is prescribed for attention-deficit disorder and yet did wonders for my anxieties as well and was wonderful while it lasted. The morning after starting this, I woke up with music in my ears and the thought, “wow, this must be what it feels like to be Betty Miller!” It felt like a miracle. My mind stopped spinning in circles. I had confidence because I didn’t think, I simply engaged.

Ultimately, even after going off the drug for various reasons (including my inability to sleep) the effect of that experience was long-term. It is actually what gave me the reprieve needed to launch this blog, Irregular Ideation, and showed me some of the potential that I always knew I had and somehow could never realize. The revival meeting, on the other hand, was simply another episode that convinced me that the religious system I was a part of lacked a critical component and was only useful in that it led me to look elsewhere for answers.

The Cure For Chaos…

There is a big push in our time for spontaneity and casualness. Those trying to bring emotional energy back into worship attempt to accomplish that end by changing up the program. The assumption being that this change of window dressing (or rearranging of the deck chairs) is the key to spiritual renewal and confuse the commotion of the change with something of real spiritual value.

Unfortunately, the ‘pump’ is nearly always followed by the dump. More and more young people are losing interest in the shallow, ever-changing, consumer Christianity of their parents. For some this chaotic environment, supposed to keep them interested, provides them with no escape, no means to be in awe of God, and only feeds their confusion. Not everyone can jump and shout on cue—especially not when there are better adrenaline rushes to be had elsewhere.

What if I were to tell you that worship is about orienting ourselves towards heaven, not our personal preferences?

What if I were to tell you that church is a sanctuary, not a stadium?

It was only after attending a liturgical service that I realized the things missing from the form of worship that was familiar to me. Shockingly, it is in going through the motions, by worshipping in the manner similar to heavenly worship, that I’ve been most profoundly moved. Ironically, despite the order, despite the mundane moments of going through the same old routine, there is also a peace that comes by participating in worship passed down from ancient times.

But, more than that, it is trotting this well-worn path that the practice leads something wonderful beyond words. A cousin of mine, Michael Logen, a professional musician and song-writer out of Nashville, once told me that the key to good art is consistency of practice. In other words, instead of only writing when feeling inspired, he encouraged me to set aside time to write every day and it was in this “going through the motions” that our moments of inspiration could be most fully realized.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” (Bruce Lee)

In this age of instant gratification and ‘worship’ that amounts to emotional pornography, many run from one ‘spiritual’ experience to the next, and miss out totally on the real need of their heart. Tragically, in their constant running from one temporary fix to the next, they miss out on the opportunity to practice a worship that is not centered on them, their whims, and eventually no amount of gimmick will fill that void. No, repeating the same routine, in worship and prayer, will not transform a heart. That said, neither will constantly changing things up.

Sure, there is a time for the emotional display and recklessness of king David. However, there’s probably a good reason why worship at the temple in Jerusalem was orderly and patterned. Like an athlete who goes through the motions, repeating the same routines of exercise and practice to be ready for game time, we too benefit from a worship that doesn’t conform to our own expectations—rather preparers us for a life that requires less spontaneity and more stamina.

Sometimes just showing up, regardless of how we feel, is enough.

Cautionary Tales About Pigeons, Sparrows and Ideological Extremes

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For those who still remember Paul Harvey and miss his “and now you know the rest of the story” delivery style, Lance Geiger will scratch the itch. His episodes, on “The History Guy” YouTube channel, have been my entertainment in the morning before work and enjoy the storytelling adventure before his “forgotten history that deserves to be remembered” wrap-up at the end.

His show is not political. But two of the episodes sparked my thinking about the danger of ideological extremes and the need for checks and balances. One story an example of the central planning gone seriously awry, the other about the unfortunate consequences of technological development combined with market forces, and both stories involve the extinction or near extinction of a species of birds.

Socialized Sparrows and Starvation

The first video, “When China went to war with sparrows” is about the “Four Pests Campaign” that was part of the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1962. The idea was to eliminate certain types of critters as a way to increase hygiene and reduce disease. The targets, mosquitoes, rodents, flies, and sparrows, were picked by the Socialist regime of Mao Zedong. Claiming that “birds are the public animals of capitalism,” armed with a population bound to statist fervor, they dramatically reduced the numbers of sparrows.

The end result of this sparrow control campaign was an ecological disaster. As it turns out, holding to Marxist ideals does not make a person an expert on economic development or biological science, and this deliberate elimination of sparrows came with some very serious consequences. This misguided policy is believed to be a leading cause of the Great Chinese Famine, a catastrophe that cost between 15 to 45 million human deaths and was abandoned when Chinese authorities, on the advice of an actual ornithologist, finally realized their terrible mistake.

Che Guevara T-shirt wearing, professional far-leftist ‘rabble-rousers’ may celebrate “people power” when it aligns with their personal prejudices. They often sit smugly and sanctimonious, on their intellectual ivory towers, confusing their book acquired knowledge and ideological indoctrination for wisdom. But given real power these people are dangerous. Mao Zedong, the well-educated son of a wealthy farmer, was not an idiot or especially ignorant. But the masses he controlled (with his anti-Capitalist rhetoric) amplified his mistakes, caused great suffering and claimed many innocent lives.

Sparrows, as it turns out, help to control locust populations. These bugs, now unrestrained by the sparrows, quickly proliferated and went on a crop-destroying rampage. This, along with the reckless use of pesticides and poisons by the Chinese government, was all well-intentioned. Likewise, there are many Socialist policies, championed in the past century in this country, that have failed us as miserably and yet continue to be touted as solutions. Unlike Mao, however, our crop of ‘progressives’ more often doubles down on their mistake, hiding behind their ever more convoluted logic, rather than ever reconsider.

Capitalized Pigeons and Profitable Purges

The second video, “How the extinction of a species affected whiskey production,” deals with the plight of the passenger pigeon. This North American species was once so numerous that the flocks would blot out the sun was hunted to extinction, the last of the birds dying September 1, 1915.

Native Americans had hunted passenger pigeons as they were plentiful and a good source of protein. But, because of the limits of their technology and smaller population size, never put a dent in the numbers of pigeons. But this would all change with the newly arrived settlers from Europe. Trains, telegraphs, and gunpowder enabled more people to join the hunt at pigeon nesting grounds. One well-aimed blast from a two barrelled shotgun could kill as many as 61 birds and tens of thousands were slaughtered with great ease.

The real compounding factor was not the hunters, not the tools that they used, but was rather the money and markets that gave them motivation. Unlike in times past where it only made sense to hunt for only enough to sustain your own family or village, the railroads made it possible to ship vast quantities of the fowl meat to city markets back East. The apparent plentifulness of the birds masked the severe drop in their numbers and the cheap source of protein (or profit) they provided ensured the hunts would continue.

That is not to say that nobody was aware of the decline of the species. There were indeed attempts to reign in the slaughter in the mid-1800s. But these conservationist efforts never gained enough traction to make a difference, the legislation introduced too little too late, and extinction followed.

It would be easy to say this plunder of natural resources was a product of greed. But, insomuch as greed is a selfish excess, that is not an accurate diagnosis of the problem. If it were greedy or selfish for one to merely act in their own self-interest then we would all be equally guilty for breathing. The real problem is that no individual accounted for more than their own harvest. There was not nearly enough consideration for the big picture and market forces took care of the rest.

In a Capitalistic system, productive behavior rewarded. That reward is distributed to those who have the ability and motivation to work. But, without anything to hold this motivation in check, a mass of humanity can quickly become like a swarm of locust devouring everything in its path. The beauty of the Capitalistic system is that it allows people to do more to advance their own self-interests and that is also the downfall of Capitalism as well.

What Is the Moral to the Story?

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” (Matthew 10:29 NIV)

Perhaps if God cares about the sparrows we should as well?

In the two stories economic systems that could not be more different and produced nearly the same results. Both cases demonstrate the power of a mass of people and remind me of the demotivational poster in my bedroom (gifted from my awesome little sister) featuring a circle of skydivers and the text: “Idiocy: Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

The poster, a satirical take on motivational posters, is meant as tongue in cheek humor and not to be taken too serious.

Nevertheless, as there is truth to every joke, the useful message is that it is prudent to stand apart from the crowd, to resist conformity and ask questions. Had enough people questioned the party propaganda or the collective actions of their profit-seeking neighbors the death of millions of Chinese and the extinction of passenger pigeons could have been avoided.

These accounts of pigeons and sparrows are also cautionary tales about two opposite ideological extremes. In Socialism the stupid decisions of a small group of people can be vastly magnified by the subjugated masses. In Capitalism the masses, motivated by profit and market forces, can become a source of terrible devastation. The central planning of collectivists and the lack thereof in individualistic and free-market systems both come with their own unique manifestations of the same risk.

It is worthwhile to note that the unchecked power of the central state, in the path century, is responsible for more deaths (due to wars, genocides, famines, etc) than any one person or group of people motivated by profit. Government policies, often favoring big corporations or particular individuals, at very least contribute as much to the problem as individual desire to profit and are, in fact, responsible for some of the worst man-made ecological disasters in modern times.

However, the properly restrained state can provide a good counterbalance to market forces, to keep the masses from acting like a runaway train unaware of the destruction at the end of the tracks and offers some necessary protection for endangered species. It is for our own long-term good that there are limits to our freedoms.

In the end, I’m not for unrestrained Capitalism anymore than I am for unrestrained government power. As much as possible I prefer to let people make their own choices and therefore, for that reason, shade towards free markets—which, when not interfered with by governments through subsidies or social programs, are the most democratic institution known to men. It is better to allow mistakes to be corrected at a lower level through bankruptcy and individual loss. That said, the extinction of the passenger pigeon speaks to the need for a collective consciousness to hold back our self-interested impulses.

Much destruction can be caused by taking a good thing too far or not keeping it properly restrained by other equally valid principles and concerns. Do not repeat the mistakes of these competing ideological extremes and their equal potential for economically or ecologically disastrous results. Remember the sparrows. Remember the pigeons.

Four Mennonite Sons

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There was, one hundred years ago, a Mennonite family with four sons. They lived near a small rural village on the outskirts of a bustling city, with their three sisters, and two parents. Life was simple. They would get up early, milk the cows, then clean the stalls, before heading in for a hearty breakfast at mom’s dining room table, then out for the fieldwork or to cut firewood. The seasons of planting and harvesting were busy times, but there was always plenty of work year-round. There were community events, almost always involving donated labor, to raise a barn or help some struggling neighbor harvest their crops, but life revolved around the daily chores, tending to the animals, the repetitive cycles of the crops, occasional trips to town and church attendance.

In their spare time, evenings before going to bed or after dinnertime on the slower seasons, these boys would read. They had a keen interested in history and current events. The books gave them a window into the world beyond the horizon, beyond the slow pace of his agricultural lifestyle, where great men made important decisions, tales of war, of how his Anabaptist ancestors had suffered intensely for their faith, stories of missionaries traveling to exotic locations, reports the new technology that promised to change everything, and all of this captivated these young men. Their 8th-grade education and sheltered agrarian lifestyle may have left them in wide-eyed wonderment—like the first time they saw that WW1 surplus Jenny JN-4 biplane flying over the family farm—but this did not make them ignorant or lacking in intelligence.

The eldest son, Joseph, was the spitting image of his father, he had seen the farm grow, had participated in the hard work and toil right from the beginning, this simple lifestyle was as ingrained in his heart as the dirt was ground into his calloused hands. He had his dad’s work ethic, would never complain about physical labor, and he had that wiry strength common to farm boys. It is said that once, as a teenager, one of the town boys seeing this naive Mennonite, tried to pick a fight, even landing a blow, before John gave his antagonist a big bear hug, repeated “I don’t want to fight” and then put the stunned bully down. That bully would go on to be the mill owner, a friend, who would always tell that story, but John would laugh and claim that it was exaggerated, a tall tale. John, who had basically inherited his father’s farm, would continue to implement new techniques, was very successful, a respected member of the local community, married his sweetheart and they faithfully attended the church of his childhood.

The second oldest, the ever-inventive Henry, found a way to improve a farm implement, he started manufacturing in the shop on his dad’s farm, but soon outgrew the shop and purchased some land nearer to the city where he built his first factory. By following his passion for business, employing his hardworking heritage, he became very wealthy and could afford to treat his child to luxuries he could not have even imagined at their age. His life was always full of activities, parties, baby showers, vacations (his wife loved the beach, how could he say no?) and, of course, the daily grind of running an industrial production schedule. His life was dominated by the clock, by the calendar of events, the sports teams, politics, etc. He loved technology and one day brought home a brand new cabinet radio/record player that he had purchased at Sears. But, as busy as they were, and despite leaving his father’s old-fashioned church behind, religion still played an important role in the life of his family and he did his best to instill conservative values, his charitable giving (not for attention) made him a noteworthy character and admired amongst those in need.

Hudson was the third of the sons, said to be named after the famed Protestant missionary to China (although it may have been the automobile of the same name), was the more earnest of the four sons. One day an evangelist came to town, despite attendance being discouraged by the church elders, he (with his brothers) was in the audience. The message tugged at his sensitive heart, he rose to his feet shaking, walked the sawdust trail, and had a “born again” experience. Now, truth be told, he had never really been that rebellious, he had had some terrible guilt about seeing some female peers taking a dip in the pond and spending an extra moment observing, but he had always been thoughtful, considerate, and conscientious sort. But now, freedom from his sin, he was determined to serve. He taught at the newly formed Mennonite high school, eventually became a founding member of Mennonite World Aid, an outreach of the conference created to appease those longing to be missionaries, and even did a stint in post-WW2 Europe. He raised his large family to be Anabaptist (although he saturated them with fundamentalist literature) and was followed everywhere by his adoring perpetually pregnant wife.

Then there was Clyde. Clyde was the black sheep of the family, saw John as naive, not too interested in technology like Henry (other than his camera) and certainly far more cynical than Hudson. He didn’t have much appreciation for the farm life. He soon realized that his church was taught by ignorant rubes who got their “ordination” by seeming sincere enough to nominate and then picking up the right Bible. He at first decide to do the Mennonite missionary thing, but he was more or less there to observe and take pictures, and then headed off to university to satiate his hunger for knowledge. Yet, beneath all of this ‘liberal’ smugness, was a compassionate and caring heart. He would go on to write books, people loving to hear about his experience growing up as a traditional Mennonite (although things had really changed significantly before he was old enough to remember) and he was eventually hired as the pastor of the big conference church. Unlike his forebearers, he used his pulpit to spread about social issues, encouraging diversity, reprimanding the “ethnic church” for not caring enough about minorities, the poor, victims, etc.

All of the sons remained Mennonite. And yet all, besides John, had dramatically changed what it meant to be Mennonite. Even John’s life became more chaotic and cluttered than that of his father’s, some of his sons gave up farming (land was too expensive) and worked at his brother Henry’s factory, others (also smitten by an emotional ‘revival’ preacher” carried out Hudson’s vision, but all remained active in their congregations. Henry’s sons embraced the comforts of modern life, they drove muscle cars, listened to popular music and were a little wild before settling down. Of course, Hudson’s sons, all home-schooled (a necessity on the mission field) were a mixture of sheltered and exposed, they all thought of their father as sort of saintly character and were determined to spread ‘Anabaptism’ to the corners of the world. Then there was Clyde’s only child, an avowed feminist, decrying the patriarchy, privilege, police brutality, and basically indistinguishable from the other trust-fund babies who shared his far-leftist views—to him Jesus was basically a political tool, a means to shame his more practical cousins, and a philosopher superseded by Karl Marx.

Nothing about the new generation was the same as their grandfathers. Horses had been long replaced by tractors, the suburbs had encroached on the farmland inheritance and the influence of the ‘liberal’ cousins was having an impact on Joe’s old Mennonite orthodoxy that had been unquestioned for decades, more and more switched from farming to carpentry or manufacturing as economic realities pressed into their communities. More of Henry and Hudson’s descendants (who still crossed paths as conservative Mennonites) became disenchanted with the status quo, some looking for a more lively worship experience, others being disillusioned by the Protestant influence started to question the foundation of their religious tradition, some were angry about hidden abuses, and there were special conferences held to discuss the “Anabaptist identity” crisis. The trappings of modern life had slowly but surely crept into their lifestyle, smartphones were prevalent, pornography caused anxiety amongst many and the austerity of the past would have been appealing if they had the time to stop and think about it.

Pure Nonsense: The Courtship Idealism That Failed

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I’m sure you are familiar with them, you know, that family who has a life that resembles a Thomas Kinkade painting, always so idyllic and cute. In fact, they are so adorable they are annoying. This sort of charmed life comes a sort of “holier than thou” smugness. Sure, they are too perfect to say it outright, they always religiously maintain that facade of sweetness, but they often have the easy answers that often betray their true cluelessness.

I can recall, for example, a lovely twenty-something, themselves engaged, who with complete sincerity suggested that my romantic struggles may be God’s will for me to remain single. They themselves successful because of their endearing charm and connections (which to them meant divine favor) whereas my own inability to navigate was to be taken equally as a sign. Apparently they worship the God of circumstances, one that absolved them of any responsibility to help those less fortunate—other than to offer some words of encouragement and advice.

Anyhow, thank God that doctors do not subscribe to a similar thought process: “We know you are lots of pain, broken legs are not easy for sure, but have you ever considered that it might not be God’s will for you to walk? Here’s an ice cube, I suck on one of these when I’m feeling down and out…” That sort of response would probably fall under the category of medical malpractice. Likewise, the advice of those who heap a burden on the shoulders of others and yet are unwilling to lift a finger to help (Matt. 23:4) are guilty of spiritual malpractice:

“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 2:15‭-‬17 NIV)

The passage above, from James, contrasts the mere words of the pretentious and the gritty hands-on sacrificial love that true faith requires. Talk is cheap, my darlings. And what my advice giver really meant to say is that they were unwilling to pull out all the stops on my behalf, they themselves were comfortable with my circumstances as they had persisted for years and thus they were unwilling to confront the prejudices or cultural assumptions that had made an impossible hurdle for me. But, rather than take personal responsibility for their own indifference towards my plight, they turned it into God’s will.

The Courtship Idealism That Failed…

When the news of the separation of Joshua Harris from his wife of over twenty years reached me this week it was hard not to connect it back to the courtship ideal he expressed many years ago. Harris, a “purity culture” advocate, rose to prominence in fundamentalist churches for his book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” published in 1997. In this book unmarried Harris promoted a model of courtship that was supposed to lead to happily ever after and instead left many of us outside looking in—unable to overcome this stumbling block put in our path.

The Harris model of courtship required a level of commitment that, for the less beautiful and bold, made it virtually impossible for many of us to get started. This absurdly increased threshold of commitment meant that unmarried women, even in their mid or late twenties, refuse to go so much as a coffee date with an eligible bachelor for fear that it could lead to ‘defilement’ or marriage. The horrors of being sucked into a commitment after finding out that slightly awkward guy is a lovable child of God! I mean, isn’t that what King Solomon had in mind by “guard your heart”?

(I have about 1000 reasons to doubt that interpretation.)

Pushers of purity culture didn’t necessarily intend their model as a panacea. I’m guessing Harris and others would deny that there were guarantees of success that accompanied following their prescribed methods. I’m also pretty sure they did not anticipate the unintended consequences and damage caused by their teachings either. Nevertheless, they did “tie up the heavy, cumbersome loads” of fear and many have failed to find meaningful relationship with their religious counterparts as a result. It undoubtedly contributed to my own woes.

Sure, some, including Mr Harris, were able to get through this courtship minefield. However, that doesn’t mean it produced that perfect marriage as was promised by their courtship prescription. However, formulas aren’t going to produce happiness through the years and struggle of a marriage. If anything they built up impossible expectations for married life in the same way that they did for dating relationships and leads to future disappointment. At very least, while unwarranted confidence is attractive, nobody wants to be married to someone with all the answers.

True Faith Comes Through Struggle…

For all of us who weren’t born into a Precious Moments world, who had to beg and plead, compete against the odds, claw for inches at a time, to earn our small measure of success, we can’t simply rely on circumstances. Our Pollyannaish notions of destiny and love have always went up against the headwinds of fear and brick-wall after brick-wall of rejection. We weren’t born tall, extraordinarily handsome or especially wise. If we were wait for our dreams to arrive on a silver platter we would never get anywhere.

If we were fatalists and shared the mechanical view of God’s will of those who depend on circumstances rather than faith, the faith of those who “ask, knock and seek” (Matt. 7:7-12) that Jesus described, then we could also blame circumstances for our not getting out of bed anymore. I can assure you of this, there were days where I had fight to continue, where it was only the love of another person that kept me going, and that’s what real faith is. Real faith is having the guts to face down the impossible.

The cutesy patootsy life doesn’t actually require any faith, sacrifice or grace. Everything depends on their good feelings and God’s will mysteriously never goes against their own expectations. And it works until they face that first real test. When those delusions of “meant to be” are replaced with the reality of failure. I pity those who get the rug yanked out from under their idealism at a later age. That is why I pray that Mr Harris and his family find God’s grace is sufficient even when things do not go as planned.

We need fewer books giving advice. We definitely need less advice from single men, with their graceless formulas (*ahem* Bill Gothard, are you listening?), and more faith of real action. Being a best-selling author at twenty-one might be a thrill and even good for your chances of getting married. My question is what did these idealistic men do to help others across that impossibly high threshold they created? In the end what matters is what we do to help others carry their burden.

It’s time to kiss the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” goodbye. A courtship ideal cannot prevent divorce and it seems to more often prevent marriage. It is faith of action, not a courtship ideal, that makes a successful loving relationship possible. A faith that is willing to sacrifice, truly sacrifice, for the good of another person. A faith that makes the impossible possible rather than blame God’s plan for our own unwillingness to intervene on behalf of others.