“Why Don’t Mennonites Pay Taxes?” And Other Similar Questions…

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Growing up conservative Mennonite and going to a public school opened me up to many questions about my religion. However, while these inquiries were presented in form of a question, they often came off as statements:

“Hey, don’t Mennonites have horse and buggies, where’s yours?”

“Why don’t Mennonites pay taxes?”

Understand, this wasn’t intended as obnoxious, this was in elementary school and these classmates were genuinely curious. They were trying to take what they knew about Mennonites (or thought they knew) with what they observed in me and reconcile the two. I suppose these could be called “micro-aggressions” according to the currently popular terms, but I prefer a more gracious explanation.

Still, while I prefer to be gracious, the presumptions still annoyed me. This exposure might explain my sometimes strong visceral reaction to being pigeonholed in a debate. It might also have contributed to my desire to be a non-conformist in a culture that took pride in being non-conformed and did things a little different from other Mennonites. I’ve always wanted the right to speak for myself and for that reason have tried to give others the same respect and let them speak for themselves.

Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that any conservative Mennonite who spent time outside of their own religious cloister has experienced much of the same thing. The people asking if they are Amish, those inquiring if they ever considered the possibility there is no God, etc. And presumably, this would make us more careful not to do the same others. But that’s not always the case, as I’ve discovered…

Oh No, Not Again!!!

Since becoming Orthodox I’ve encountered the same kind of presumptions in a different form. This time, rather than public school peers, it is Mennonite family and friends. And it is not that I mind the questions either, but when someone starts with “I know a Catholic…” it reminds of those who cannot distinguish conservative Mennonites from Amish or Old Order Mennonites.

So I’ll start with that one…

“Aren’t Orthodox basically Catholics?”

Yes and no.

The word “Catholic” means universal. In the words of St Paul, there is “one body” (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:20, Eph 2:16, 4:4, etc.) and that is what universal or catholic means when applied to the Church. There may be multiple denominations, differences, and divisions within the Church, but there is only one universal Christian body of believers and that is what Catholic means. So, yes, all Orthodox Christians believe in a Catholic church, in that they believe there is only one universal Christian Church—that is what Biblical tradition tells us and that is what we must believe is true.

However, no, despite some similarities, we are not *Roman* Catholic. The early church had five patriarchs, one in Jerusalem, one in Alexandria, one in Antioch, one in Constantinople and another in Rome. These were geographic centers and separate jurisdictions of the early church and all were basically in agreement. However, in a similar fashion to how Amish split from other Anabaptists, there was a “Great Schism” in 1054 between the four patriarchs of the “East” and the Roman “West” over a variety of issues—including Rome’s unilateral addition to the creed (called the “filioque“) and the elevation of Papal power.

The Roman side veered towards more authority being granted to “Peter’s seat” in Rome. The Orthodox, by contrast, put more emphasis on maintaining Church tradition both written and spoken (or Orthodoxy) and hold that Peter was the “first among equals” rather than the “Vicar of Christ” in the way that the Romans do. This is a very significant difference of perspective, yet Orthodox and Roman Catholics do recognize each other at some level despite not being in Communion together. Both the Orthodox East and Roman West are Catholic in the sense they are parts of the universal Church, but they are not the same.

“Do Orthodox worship Mary?”

One of the first things a non-Orthodox will notice when entering an Orthodox sanctuary is the many pictures. These are called “icons” (after the Greek word for “image”) and are a visual representation of various saints, scenes, etc. This is a Christian tradition back to depictions in the Catacombs, there are icons of many virtuous Biblical characters, and of those most prominently displayed are those of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus. There is also mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “with the saints” throughout the divine liturgy and special honor is given to her.

However, Mary, while venerated (or honored) as the mother of our Lord, is never worshipped by an Orthodox Christian. Worship is only for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and all others are honored for their various roles. Mary’s role is more significant because her body was quite literally the ark of the new covenant. That is why Mary knew, early on, that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) and why Elizabeth (who were are told was “filled with the Holy Spirit”) loudly proclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Nowhere in Scripture do we have a similar proclamation made and it is only right that the mother of Jesus is recognized by us in the same manner that she is by Elizabeth.

For Jesus to be fully man he needed a mother and his mother was Mary and that is why we celebrate her role. But that honor is not worship. In Chrismation, one has to make agree and make clear that their recognition of Mary and the saints in form of icons is “not unto idolatry” but for sake of “contemplation” and so that “we may increase in piety, and emulation of the deeds of the holy persons represented.” It is no more idolatry to venerate Mary and the saints than it is to have pictures of your grandparents on the wall or to speak of your own mother glowingly on Mother’s day or to treat your own children or spouse differently than other people. There is a vast difference between honor and worship.

“Why aren’t there Orthodox missionaries?”

This one caught me off guard. First off, every Orthodox Christian is (borrowing the words of Charles Spurgeon) “either a missionary or an imposter” and by this, I mean every member of the body of Christ is sent into the world as his representative. Sure, not every Christian is sent abroad in the manner of Hudson Taylor, but every Christian is called to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and should do this wherever they are in the world. Secondly, Orthodox Christians, from St Paul onward have journeyed physically to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the world. Again, not all traveled to far away places, but every Orthodox believer is a missionary and there are no exceptions.

Some of the confusion of my Mennonite friends (who more or less proclaimed that Orthodox lack missionaries) could a product of Evangelical Protestantism and the influence this movement has had on defining their current practice. It seems many under that influence see missionary service as an activity that Christians do rather than an all-encompassing lifestyle. In other words, according to this mindset, one is only a missionary when shoving a tract in the face of an unsuspecting passerby or when they go with a group to do a project in a country that could use jobs more than donated labor. And yet, while that may be a part of what missionary work entails, this too is how we are to proclaim the good news:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22‭-‬24 NIV)

And, as far as Orthodox being missionaries in the forms more celebrated, there are many powerful examples of wonderworkers and martyrs for the faith. Orthodox don’t just travel to tropical paradises, do fun projects, and then jet back home again (back to their privileged lifestyles) after a few days or couple years. No, the Orthodox live in some of the most hostile places for a Christian to live and many have become the truest witness of Christ—they have died as martyrs for their faith, in this century as much as any other, and not only in the history books. It was not Protestant missionaries or Evangelicals being brutalized and beheaded by ISIS.

Furthermore, having entertained (very briefly) proselytizers of a sect widely viewed as heretical (even by Protestants) and having considered the words of Jesus about missionaries that make their converts twice as damned as themselves (Matt. 23:15) or those who will cry “Lord, Lord, have we not” when standing condemned in front of Him (Matt. 7:21-23) and listing their missionary works as if that is their salvation, there is something to be said for correct teachings and practice. The Orthodox, while all over the world (including Africa, where a baptism of 556 took place), seem to be more concerned with quiet and sincere obedience than they are with loud and proud professions.

“I’ve heard Orthodox don’t believe in being ‘born again’ experience, is this true?”

Conservative Mennonites, like other Evangelicals, tend to put much stock in a “born again” salvation experience. They take a phrase out of an analogy Jesus used (while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:1-20) to explain spiritual transformation that must take place before someone can enter the kingdom of God. He likens being born of the Spirit to the wind, it is something mysterious, and then foretells his dying on the cross by likening it to the brass serpent Moses raised in the wilderness that healed those who looked upon it. And, yes, there is an experience, at the foot of the cross, for those who look up to Jesus and cry out for God’s mercy to them as a sinner.

However, salvation is not simply saying something and having an emotional experience attached or a once and done event, there’s so much more. We are told in the letters of St. Paul to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and then also that we are saved by grace “through faith” and as a “gift from God” (Eph. 2:1-10) rather than by our righteous works, which (with many other Biblical texts) could seem to present a contradictory view of salvation—splitting Protestants into competing camps of works versus faith, eternal security versus potentially losing our salvation, or Calvinist and Armenian. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians avoid this debate entirely with a view of salvation that transcends easy categorization. We are saved, being saved, and will be saved so long as we continue to believe.

The Orthodox see salvation as a direction, not just a destination, as an intentional alignment with God’s perfect will and the choice we make daily in following after Jesus. In other words, salvation is less about declaring oneself to be “born again” or a singular event in time that we look back on and more about taking up our cross. Salvation is not a mere once-and-done transaction for them, it is a continuous relationship and being in Communion together with the body of Christ. So, yes, we should all be “born of the Spirit” and yet we should also be connected to the vine (John 15:1-8) or we will die as spiritual babies and never bear the fruit of salvation. Ultimately salvation is not a past event or a promised future reward, it is something we choose every day in our being faithful to God and living out the commitment to love each other.

“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”

+ St. Anthony the Great, “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” Text 45, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

“I know an Orthodox and…”

It is one of the most annoying statements. Annoying because it is usually followed by some sort of negative characterization which they then use their anecdote to generalize about the entire two millennia of Orthodox Christianity and a church made up of hundreds of millions of people. It is a statement many Mennonites have encountered as well, which makes it all the more annoying when the same thing in slightly different form comes from the mouth of a Mennonite. I recall a time, broke down while driving truck, when the service technician (who didn’t know I was Mennonite) went on a long rant about some Mennonites he knew and how hypocritical Mennonites are, etc. Of course, his criticisms weren’t entirely incorrect nor are many of those leveled against the Orthodox (we don’t claim to be a church of perfect people) and yet they were definitely unfair to use as a basis to judge the entire group.

This tendency to remember their worse examples and our own best is a human universal. It is something called in-group-out-group-bias which means we tend to recall good examples of our own group (minimizing our bad) and bad examples of other groups (minimizing their good) or, in a word, favoritism. But this is especially true where the perfect church myth is prevalent or there is a lack of contemplation, introspection, and ownership. The smaller a group is, the easier it is to imagine that you are not like those others—those who do not live up to your own personal standards—and forget that a judgmental, divisive and prideful spirit is as sinful as anything else. Pointing out the faults of others is never a good defense. We should recall the story Jesus told about the confident religious elitist who thought only of his own righteousness in comparison to others and the humble man who begged only for mercy in his prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, anyhow, maybe you know an Orthodox Christian and can only recall bad things about them. But I probably know a few more and can tell you that they are just as sincere as any conservative Mennonite or other Evangelical I’ve met. Maybe you know some Orthodox who do not live to your own religious standards or can point to a historical blemish or two from a thousand years ago? Well, I’ll raise you one pedophile ordained by a Mennonite church in the past decade (here’s a list of some other Mennonite sexual abusers, if that’s not enough) and the Münster rebellion. Every denominational group has their less than celebrated moments and members, I can assure you of that. And if a group is too small to have a history of mistakes, that is not a great strength, it is a weakness, it only means they are more vulnerable. So “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” or maybe we should just take the advice of Jesus to be humble about ourselves and understand our own continual need of God’s mercy?

The Orthodox do not run from their history by starting a new denomination (or ‘non-denominational’ group) every time there’s a failure, they have their greater and lesser examples like every other group. But one thing that can be said is that they have maintained their unity centered on Christ and keeping the traditions of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the present moment. Fr Anthony, the Antiochian priest who served during my Chrismation, can trace his ordination all the way back to Peter and the first Gentile church, the church of Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) where believers were first called Christian. There is a great wealth of history to draw from, some cautionary tales, and many who were faithful until the end. Like the church that Paul preached to, the Church today is by no means perfect and yet, as Jesus promised, the “gates of hell” have not prevailed against the Church he founded.

For all of my non-Orthodox friends, the door is open, all people are welcomed, and there are good answers to questions for those who have them. There is truly a wonderful diversity within Orthodoxy, and a beauty of traditions—traditions packed with deep meaning—that span thousands of years. This is not something that one can begin to summarize in a blog post. There are volumes written and many more yet to be written about the Church.

But the best way to start learning about Orthodoxy is first-hand—to come and see.

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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.