Depressed, But Not Desperate…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else can I do?

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

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

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

My New Normal, For Now…

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It is official.

I cooked my first meal using a gas oven.

Well, that’s if you don’t count those canned soups that I heated.

Anyhow, it was in the midst of my dinner preparation that I discovered that I had accidentally purchased “angel hair” rather than my normal “thin spaghetti” noodles, which there was also a box of the latter as well and, besides that, another box of regular spaghetti.

So, apparently, in my panic buying “just buying a few things” (to use the words of a classmate I bumped into stayed a safe six foot away from at the grocery store) I had grabbed a couple of different spaghetti noodle varieties from my usual. So this apocalypse I will have to deal with the mix up and be more careful in my panic buying routine restocking for next apocalypse.

But, as a general rule, I’ve been pretty lucky throughout this Covid-19 event. First, I’m not dead yet. Second, I had purchased a pack of eighteen “mega rolls” of toilet paper before the hoarders emptied the shelves. I also got a haircut while it was still safe and legal. Add to that, my having a D-Link router installed weeks prior made the shift to working at home rather than forty-minutes drive away a smoother transition.

Truly, the timing of everything has been fortuitous, so far, and I hope that streak continues.

Things had been overwhelming at work.

Now, with an extra hour of sleep at night and some flexibility to meet obligations during the day (by making up for the time lost in the evening) I feel more productive and relaxed.

Sure, I do miss my three big screens at work. But nothing beats rolling out of bed and getting right to work. And I’m not really sure how I would’ve gotten through all of the necessary steps to get a renter into my old house had I needed to run back and forth from the office right now, it would be next to impossible and, considering my current workload, completely stressful at very least.

Oh, and did I mention that my new renters (recently unemployed) are awesome???

Yeah, they spent last week raising the value of my property and are anxious to do more. They do great work, he can do the laundry list of small items the home inspector found, and I’ll consider keeping them employed to help me get some projects in my new house wrapped up. I mean, it just so happens that they’re currently unemployed.

I honestly don’t know how I would’ve gotten everything done there without them and hope they are as happy with the arrangement as I am. It will be interesting to see how long we are off work, I’ve already told them there would be flexibility as far as move-in dates, given the current unforeseen circumstances. yet (given Congress finally did get their act together) they are set to receive a check for the US Treasury soon and their state compensation, so we should be good to go.

My anxiety-prone nature also gives me an advantage in times of crisis when the confident people are feeling lost. I mean, it is a sort of “welcome to my world” type of scenario for me. When your whole life is basically a crisis there’s no big adjustment needed for the end of the world, it’s just another day and you know you’ll figure out a way through or die.

And, so long as I don’t get a bad strain of Covid with my Dunkin coffee, I’m not dead yet!

Anyhow, it was nice to at least get a practice run working remotely, I think I might take my work on the road this winter, at least if we get that far, and make my second trip to the Phillippines to visit my bhest again…

What is a bhest, you might ask?

That is a topic for another blog…

Martha, Take a Deep Breath…

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And just like that, everything stopped.  A little over a month ago I had started to follow a story developing in Wuhan, China.  A virus, a novel virus, had somehow driven the industrial heart of China to a standstill.  It is astonishing how something not even considered to be a living organism (since it doesn’t reproduce without our help) can defeat the best measures that us ‘intelligent’ creatures could throw at it.  

We are fortunate, at this time at least, that the Covid-19 isn’t as deadly as some viruses.  Unfortunately, it is very contagious, it is serious enough that it could easily overwhelm our medical infrastructure and, if there were no effort made to slow or contain the virus, it is very likely that Covid-19 would kill far more than the seasonal flu.  As a precaution against a worse case scenario many governments around the world have ordered a suspension of unnecessary commerce and non-essential events as a means to blunt the spread.  

For me personally this comes at a time when I was close to being overwhelmed by my workload and falling further and further behind.  I had worried (and perhaps not nearly enough) about how I would meet deadlines, particularly as far as my income taxes, and stay ahead of the growing stack of truss layouts.  The economy had, in three years, gone from pedestrian growth to bullet train speed.  I dreamed about not having to drive my long commute, freeing time to finish dozens of waiting projects or basically gaining a little time somewhere in my busy schedule to finally breathe again and relax a bit.

Church, entering the Lenten season, did not seem to offer much relief for this breakneck pace.  No, if anything the additional services were only adding to my already impossible list of obligations and stress.  Looking back over the past months and years, at my growing list of responsibilites, my life was on a trajectory that could not be sustained.  I needed a break.  I needed a push back against all those who depended on me and would pressure me to perform at a higher and higher level.  

Lent was supposed to be about the withdrawal of Jesus into the wilderness for forty days, how had it become yet another thing to cram into an already overcrowded schedule?

Going Nowhere Fast…

That seems to be the world we live in.  

Busy, busy busy and many don’t even know why anymore.  

I’m amazed by how traffic flies on the interstate.  I tend to set my cruise at or right above the speed limit and get passed like I’m grandma out on a Sunday drive.  It makes no sense.  Of course, then, I’m really no better in that it is next to impossible for me to focus on one thing even while hurdling through the early morning darkness or traveling back in the full grid of pushy tailgating morons.  Would it really hurt them that much to slow down?  

Perhaps (while ironically using the device to write this) it would be good for me to put the phone down for a moment?

The same people snicking about toilet paper hoarders, a week earlier, have about lost their minds when the governments of various states started to tell them to close shop for a bit and stay home.

Those infected with the restless American spirit pile up wealth for themselves, more than anyone else in the world, and yet the thought of taking a few weeks off for sake of their vulnerable neighbors will induce a panic.  “How will we eat?”  Cries out the guy, with three properties, to the guy who recently bought a brand new truck when the old one was just fine.  We, unlike many others in the world, could afford a week off to reflect on ourselves and our cultural priorities.

We could be the busiest, furthest traveling, civilization in all of human history, but we aren’t the first people scurrying about our various responsibilites and fretting about the lack of help.  A few weeks ago, while contemplating the fevered pace of modern life and the justifications given for it, I had to think of the example of a stressed out woman who lived two millennia ago and finally expressed her exasperation about the lack of help to Jesus:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”  “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

(Luke 10:38-42 NIV)

Mary and Martha

There are many anxiety-ridden people in our society today and that fact has become all the more clear in the past few weeks.  There are many who, like Martha, are working at their full capability, struggling to keep up with their seemingly ever-increasing workload and begging for help.  From those panic buying to those complaining about their favorite events being cancelled, both are missing the perspective of Mary, who sat listening, and really do need to take a deep breath and maybe just appreciate that they are still breathing rather than be so worried about things that will pass away soon enough anyways.


Be Still and Know…


Everyone, from government leaders to those who think that they know better than government leaders, wants to be in control.  And that is what drives the frantic pace of our lives.  We think, “if I just could have that one more property” or “after this year I’ll kick back and relax,” yet when we get there there is always that one more thing that needs to be done before we can feel secure.  There are many who pursue this sort of material completeness until the day that they die.  Some do better than others at accumulating their pile of stuff, some are like this foolish rich man Jesus describes:

Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”  And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.  He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.  And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

(Luke 12:15‭-‬21 NIV)

Listen up, folks!  This shutdown may be the last wake up call you get from God.  Instead of complaining about your schedule being upset and all the things that you want to do, including church services, maybe it is time to be like Mary and do some serious contemplation instead? 

When Jesus told the crowds, “take no thought for tomorrow,” he was likely talking to an audience with many who lived hand to mouth (like many still do in the world) and had every reason to worry about where the next meal was coming from.  While we fret and fuss about the inconvenience, fight over toilet paper, some will literally be going hungry while trying to wait this virus out.

This Lenten shut down can be a very good thing to sort out what is truly life sustaining from the truly frivolous.  My design work has aided in the construction of many barns over the past few years and there had been a great deal of optimism before everything came crashing down a little over a week ago.  Suddenly, much like that ambitious fool whose life was required of him the very night he felt satisfied, we too have been forced to take inventory over our lives and it would be a good opportunity to reorder our priorities.  When is the last time you’ve thanked God for the chance to work and have food on the table?  Have you noticed the sun still shining as the stock values plunge?

We may have BMWs to show our prestige and iPhones (emphasis on the ‘i’) to keep our schedules straight, but we aren’t the first self-important generation that needed brought to it’s knees and reminded that it was not sovereign over anything, that their power over the earth was only an illusion.  It is the wise person who lives in awe of the mystery of everything that the foolish take for granted.  It is the very thing that the Psalmist tells us to be still and know:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,  though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.  God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.  Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  Come and see what the Lord has done, the desolations he has brought on the earth.  He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.  He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

(Psalms 46:1‭-‬11 NIV)

Time to Reset and Refocus…

We are not in control.  And, “except you become as little children,” (Matt. 18:3) everything you accomplish in this life will eventually be wiped away and forgotten.  All of those barns my long hours and overtime have made possible will eventually, maybe in less than a century, be reduced to rubble, rot away or be burned.  Nothing we have built with our hands, no great intellectual endeavor, should take our eyes off of the true sustainer of life.  That sustainer being that which has set this universe in motion and holds it together while we frail critters delude ourselves, imagining our own invulnerability, and will some day need to face the reality of our own situation.

I was writing this blog (afterall, you, my audience, are too important to wait) as my dad toiled with the landscaping outside.  There had been many times where I had intended to buckle down and help for a little, despite questioning if all the work was ever worth it, but got swept away in my own projects before actually lending a hand.  Today, with no gym ritual or other routine to keep, I decided it was time to haul a couple wheelbarrow loads of mulch before finishing this blog and borrowing my dad’s truck to haul a few loads out of my old house in preparation for the new tenants.  

I do not believe Covid-19 will be the end of us.  But let it be the end of this paradigm we are in.  Let it be a time to slow down, to respect our fellow man and to, most importantly, be in awe of God.  It is truly, in these reminders of our own mortality, that God’s mercy is made manifest.  We can be the hands that help, the ears that listens, and the voice of calm in troubled times.  We live surrounded by chaos on all sides, it is terrifying if you stare into that abyss of uncertainty of the days and months ahead, but those who have faith in God never have a reason to fear and will always bring hope as long as they have breath.

So, take a deep breath, Martha, get your soul right and even Covid-19 cannot snuff out the light that you’ll bring into the world.  For a Christian there is beauty even in death.  Live in love, not fear, my friends, because in love there is a breath of life that cannot be extinguished.  Stop ‘adulting’ for a little, stop being like Martha, and learn to be a bit more like Mary.  Use this Lenten season to be still, to sit at the feet of Jesus, and set your eyes on what is greater than our daily grind.  All of the activity here will eventually come to an end, what have you done of eternal value lately?

Why the Princess Had to Kiss a Frog

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Those who had early success in the romantic realm can be excused for thinking of it as some sort of magic. For them the “right one” comes along, his awkward introduction goes well enough, then very soon they are entering that world of “meant to be” and marriage.

That was the world of my own teenage fantasies and remained a hope resilient enough to carry me through a decade of disappointment. Reality would slap me in the face over and over again. But, after some moments of despair, I would always refuse to believe the evidence and go with my heart instead: Eventually that mythical creature would come along, the one who loved me for my heart rather than my status or stature, and finally prove my hopes.

Hope, even hope at the level of magical thinking, serves an important role in our survival. Too much concern about the chances and a man might never get out of bed (or leave the cave) and confront the challenges ahead of him. Life requires faith and courage or the ability to overcome fears (based in our previous experience and/or a reasonable assessment of outcomes) and plunge blindly forward into the unknown. It was a bit of foolish hope that enabled our ancestors to continue the species.

Hope Is Not a Strategy

Unfortunately, hope is not a strategy and a positive attitude, while often attractive, is not a guarantee of success. For every miraculous rescue, there have been countless others who likely clung to their hopes until the last hour. Like those students on the ill-fated MV Sewol, desperately clawing for a chance to save themselves to the point of broken fingers as the ferry boat capsized, many have fought hard to survive against the odds and died cold and alone. The lucky ones didn’t spend their last moments in sheer terror and desperation.

Fortune may favor the bold, but if you are a man, in America, standing 5′-2″ tall, and you want to experience happily ever after, then you better be rich or dripping with charisma. Because, whether we like to admit it or not, women (like men) are selective and statistics tend to favor a particular height range in men. First of all, women state their preference for taller men outright and, second, the numbers seem to bear this reality out—taller men have a distinct advantage. Again, this doesn’t mean that men on the average or shorter range have no chance, but it may mean that they will be less sought-after and thus, to be successful, they need to be less selective.

In the religious context that formed my expectations, the above reality was something that I could accept for “the world” and yet wanted to deny as it applied to the women whom I consider to be virtuous. I mean, I’m not extremely short or anything, I’m also in decent physical condition, but I’m definitely not above average in any regard and certainly did not draw as much interest from women as some of my friends who only needed to show up to make the list of the swooned after. It could be a bit nauseating, at times, when women would use me as their means of intelligence gathering about a “hot” friend, but at least I could be a good wingman for my friends, right?

Still, despite my knowledge of how things really worked and a growing number of failures, I remained a hopeless romantic. In fact, as a final act, before everything went totally sideways, rather than retreat or settle (a strategy that had never worked for me anyway) I decided to double down in faith and act in a way that I knew was irrational. For the first time in my life, I would ignore the odds, hope against hope, and find victory over my old nemesis of agnosticism that had always nipped at my heels. This young woman, the impossibility, became symbolic of my struggle to preserve my Mennonite identity and cling to the child-like innocence that had begun to fade over the years.

A Bitter Pill of Truth

What I found, in the end, is that Mennonite girls are really not that different from their secular counterparts. Sure, they wear a different costume, they also have some unique culturally-specific expectations, but being “thirty years old living in Milton” was still something unforgivable to a young woman full of her own ambition. And the more damning truth came in retrospect and in my further consideration of how a medical professional characterized this quixotic pursuit as mere sexual attraction. I had bristled at this. How dare this doctor say such a thing? But I was, like so many others, a victim of my own delusion.

The paradigm of my Mennonite identity came crashing down, despite my best efforts to preserve it, the night that I realized that she was dating and would marry taller more prototypical Mennonite guy over this hopeful fool. The gig was up. And, to pour salt on my wounds, this generically luckier fool, had the audacity to take to social media and crow about his success as a sign of God’s special favor—where did that leave me as the one who had put forward a truly faithful effort and failed? Of course, I didn’t lash out directly against his childish exuberance, I mean had I been successful you may have never heard the end of it. That is some of the reason why I started this blog, to chronicle my irrational belief that the impossible could be made possible and as a means to prove wrong some cynical faithless naysayers.

The hard truth, the wall that I hit, was that my faith could not overcome my lack of tangibles (at least tangibles that mattered) even amongst those seemingly most sincere. On top of that, despite my initial thoughts of this girl having a sort of strange or alien appearance, the reality is that she was a hot commodity amongst many guys. In other words, the very idea that my admiration of her was something special or spiritual fell flat against the clear contrary evidence. I had fought against my cognitive dissonance, refusing to accept things were not as I had imagined they should be, not as I was told they would be, and no amount of faith would change what was true about my culture.

The Rejection of Average

Anyhow, my sentiments aside, the trends that I encountered in selectiveness reflect a growing inequity in the dating economy of our time. This selectiveness is found in the data of various dating sites and as it turns out, is a phenomenon especially true of women. That according to studies cited in an article, “Attraction Inequality and the Dating Economy,” bearing this reality out. The summary is that around 80% of women consider about 80% of men to be of below average attractiveness and thus are competing for the top 20% of men.

It doesn’t take a degree in probability and statistics to see the problem. As a result of a variety of factors (our affluence, ability to travel, exposure to marketing and media, etc) our expectations have gone through the stratosphere. A young woman believes she can afford to wait and is thus willing to turn down a dozen potential suitors who she deems to be too average for her tastes. I mean, why settle for the frog, doesn’t every princess deserve her prince?

Sadly, for women of high expectations, this increased selectiveness does not correspond with increased numbers of above-average men. What it does mean is that fewer men, born with the right physical features and charm, have more women at their disposal. It also means that there are many other men of average stature or appearance who get very little attention. And, whereas marriage used to take some off the market (at least on paper) that is no longer the case. So, as it goes now, many women are eagerly awaiting the opportunity with those few of exceptionally attractive men who do not need to take them seriously and, meanwhile, are ignoring those whom they have a real chance with.

Mennonites Raise the Threshold

In the conservative Mennonite world where I came from the expectations are even more stringent. Not only do we have the influence of Hollywood, but we also have an increased starting commitment that comes with the purity culture teachings that crept in with the embrace of Protestant fundamentalism. In other words, not only are Mennonite young women as superficially selective as their secular counterparts, but they are also afraid to so much as having coffee with an average guy lest they are somehow defiled by this frog—accidentally marry him or something?

But the big difference is that, in the conservative Mennonite world, the guys are also as selective as the girls. Basically the threshold of commitment has been raised so high that a guy wouldn’t dare risk his reputation by dating that average girl. No, he’s going to go for that cherub-faced icon of Mennonite beauty and that’s because he already knows that the average girl will likely reject him as well. So, unlike the secular situation, where the problem is that 80% of the women are only attracted to 20% of the guys, with conservative Mennonites it is also 80% of the guys who are after 20% of the girls.

In such circumstances it is amazing anyone gets married at all. Of course, it helps that conservative Mennonites often marry younger when they are still too dumb to have established their impossible standards. It also helps now that there are more opportunities for Mennonite young people to humanize their other gender counterparts through fun group activities, like global missions or Bible schools. Nevertheless, there are many of average attractiveness who are left behind in the current Mennonite paradigm and I was one of them—there simply was not a path for me to romantic success within that context.

Willingness To Kiss Frogs

Fairytales are not only fun stories, but many of them are also full of meaning waiting to be unpacked and applied like a Biblical parable. And such is the case with the fairytale about the princess who kisses a frog and ends up with a prince. Sure, that never happens literally in real life, but it does illustrate the utility of taking a chance on an unproven commodity and the potential for a change of perspective. That awkward guy in the youth group or in the gym might not seem like much of a catch from a comfortable distance, I mean he can’t even protect himself from tripping over his own feet let alone be that dragon-slaying hero of female fantasies, right?

But sometimes those average guys have something beneath the surface that those other catered to “top 20%” guys don’t have and that is a thing called character. I mean, it isn’t easy being last picked in gym class. A clumsy guy is indeed very aware of his shortcomings and especially while he’s tripping over his words, despite a large vocabulary, to talk to the slightly above average girl (in his eyes) who treats him with that carefully hidden distain. If he just had a chance, if he would just be allowed to show a little of his heart, then maybe he would start to look more and more like a handsome prince rather than an ugly frog?

And not at all saying that we should not take the opportunity to better ourselves. There are plenty of guys and girls who refuse to make any effort to change themselves or adjust their approach to reality and end up repeating the same failure over and over again. They are a lost cause.

But there are many more, like me, who do shine when given a chance. There is a beautiful woman (not Mennonite) who allowed this frog an opportunity to speak into her life. She learned about some of my better qualities. However, more than that, her mere presence in my life created a new kind of strength in me. She gives me something to protect, she gives me a specific purpose and a reason to develop my abilities. I love her because she calls me her “average bhest” and uses that as a reason to embrace rather than disqualify me. It is because she knows that I am dedicated to her, that I am not like the guy who took from her yet never provided the security she needed for herself and her son.

The metaphor of a princess kissing a frog comes from the reality that women need to be selective and the other reality that most men need some catalyst to reach their full potential. The tragic part is that when impossible expectations are allowed to creep in the result is impotent men and dissatisfied women. Even those who are successful in getting married, who do not shed their romantic perfectionism, could very well end up with a relationship on the rocks. We need to renew a practical love, the ability to love people who are just average, like we are, or we will end up missing out on the opportunity for romances that go deeper.

It is time to show some faith where it actually matters. Most men aren’t six feet tall with the face of a Hollywood lead man. Most women don’t look like Ariana Grande or whomever else the entertainment industry puts on their billboards. Most women, whether they know it or not, are more frog than princess. Most men, even the decent ones, are not as worthy as they think themselves to be. Most of us are average. It is time to stop being so full of ourselves and start kissing some frogs. Or we could just keep hoping for that magical prince (or princesses) to show up and love us for no reason other than that we exist. Your choice.

 

My Tumultuous Transitional Decade

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It is hard to believe that another decade has already come and gone. This past decade has been one of many transitions for me, from the launch of this blog in 2014 to a big change in career a few years later and, on top of all that, a departure from the only religious identity I had ever known for another.

It was a decade marked by an extreme of faith, the high-water mark of my spiritual life, leading to the most profound of disappointments and suicidal despair, all followed by a rise again from the ashes. If there is such a thing as living a second life, a life after death, then I am living proof of that concept despite the scars.

Delusion, Disappointment and Divine Humor

This blog was started, mid-decade, to be a record of my journey and also a story of the triumph of faith within a Mennonite context. However, things did not go as anticipated, my enthusiasm was not shared by those who had the power to make a difference, and my misplaced faith ended up being fully exposed by the end of it all. That was the lowest of lows for me.

However, even in my lowest moments, in the midst of that, there was a moment of levity where my sharing my disgruntlement with the impossible Mennonite marriageability expectations went viral. That remains my most viewed and shared Irregular Ideation blog to date (and recently vastly eclipsed by a blog on another blog I curate) and my proof that God does indeed have a sense of humor.

Somehow, surprisingly, my influence within the Mennonite denomination would peak with my candid expressions of frustration with the religious culture that came with my departure. A couple of my serious blogs, decrying fundamentalist influence and another discussing the role of ritual and tradition, even found their way into Mennonite World Review and an Old Order email group.

It would be hard to give that up. And I knew the newfound popularity of my blog would likely suffer once I formally announced my departure from Anabaptism—which does seem to be the case as traffic has diminished since then—but that is also the kind of sacrifice that a Christian commitment requires:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26‭ NIV)

For the first time in my life, I had left the comfort of the Anabaptist fishbowl for something bigger. Who knows what that will bring?

Dramatic Changes and Delicious Ironies

The move to Orthodoxy has been part of a huge paradigm shift and was pretty much the only option that I had left. It was a refuge to preserve the little faith that survived the collision with a terrible reality of my misplaced hopes. I certainly didn’t go to replace what had been devastated in me. And there are all of the problems found in every group of Christians from those recorded in the book of Acts onward—all of the silly squabbles and turf wars included.

Nevertheless, the beauty of Orthodox worship, the focus on Scripture and glorifying God in our song (rather than human emotion, etc) along with a simple (and timeless) Gospel message, helped me to move forward. Orthodox worship centers on our Communion together with God and (unlike the traditions I was most familiar with as a Protestant) they do not attempt to explain the explainable. At some point, we need to let go of our own understanding and embrace the mysteries beyond our comprehension.

Moving on from religion to real estate and other miscellaneous items, I started the decade paying down my debt for my first home and driving cars that probably belonged in a scrapyard. But then, in 2014, spurred by my other and disappointments, I bought my first new car, paid cash for a handsome black Ford Focus—my best purchase to date. In fact, I was so pleased with that purchase that I sold my prized (but high mileage) Jaguar XJR and bought a brand new Shelby GT-350 two years later when they first came out—an extravagant purchase which also led to some very meaningful friendships.

Anyhow, having reached the pinnacle of automotive excellence (at least for a working man’s salary) it was time to rest comfortably, save my money and relax a bit. Or, rather, that had been the plan…

But somehow (possibly working in an office with a bunch of restless Amish investors rubbing off on me?) I ended up buying a second property with the thought (at the time of purchase) that I would move in to and sell my old place in Milton. But suddenly that plan didn’t make sense anymore, why not rent the new house and build some equity instead? Needless to say, my ideas for a comfortable existence went out the window and, only two years later, now I’m working on house number three. Not exactly a business empire, yet more than calculated risk than I’ve ever taken on before.

In the time since my blinding hopes ran into a young Mennonite woman’s all-consuming ambitions, my feet have landed in three different countries (read more here and here) and all on the opposite side of the world. As it turns out, despite my self-doubts, all that I really needed was a good enough reason to go. I had started the decade thinking that I was incapable of finding my own direction in life, that I needed to hitch myself to someone else’s ambitions to get anywhere, and yet here I am moving on. Yes, very soon, echoing the central complaint of the young woman who rejected my offer of the impossible love, I will no longer be thirty years old living in Milton.

Where False Devotion Fails, True Love Prevails

I was wrong to hope to find the kind of love that is only possible with faith within the Mennonite context.*

That said, I was right about one thing: It is only that kind of love could ever motivate me to do anything worthwhile with my life.

Truly I did nothing, over the past few years, on the strength of my own effort. No, I’ve needed physical therapists, family, spiritual fathers, sisters, and brothers. Not to mention those friends on the road who made my loneliness bearable, also those who know my name at the various establishments that I frequent, my generous current employer and the many others who have positively impacted my life over the past decade. To all those people I owe a debt of gratitude.

However, there is one who has been there for me unlike any other, the one who didn’t lose hope in me despite my delusions and attachments to Mennonite dogma; the one who told to be strong for her, to get out of bed and go to church again. Everything I’ve done over the past few years would not have been possible apart from the investment of faith that she has made in me. She, as a person who has experienced her own personal misfortune, showed more love for me than those who claim to travel the world as a display of their Christian love.

In this coming decade, I plan to spend far less time trying to please the falsely pious and proud, who can’t be pleased and are obsessed with their own image, and more time with the downtrodden and truly humble.

That is the vision behind FACT, an organization of one, so far, that has already given me some hope that my seemingly divergent strengths and interests can finally be combined into something useful and good. I hope the vision of FACT will soon grow into concrete steps towards truly meaningful actions and compassionate solutions for OFWs and their families. But that, of course, will take more than my own personal efforts and I hope there will be others willing to put aside their doubts and help those who are already doing all they can do to better themselves.

*Mennonites, like people of all established religious traditions, are really good at carrying out their own particular programs and denominational prescriptions. Similar to their Anabaptist cousins more known for their barn-raisings, Mennonites love to help in disaster relief projects. They will also dutifully staff and fund their own private schools (or homeschool if they are more trendy) and now even travel the world as missionaries. All good things, I suppose. But all those things do not require any real faith on the part of Mennonite individuals, they are a cultural inheritance, a good way to find a romantic partner, an acceptable path to rise through the ranks, and are not truly sacrificial acts of faith or love.

Entering Into A Strange New World

In the past decade, my plans got turned upside down. I gave up on old dreams and, from the wreckage of my hopes, found some new vision. Had anyone said, ten years ago, that I would have three properties, traveled to the opposite side of the world, and converted to Orthodoxy, I would have probably laughed at them. But here I am, having started a journey to the impossibility and ended up here, perplexed.

We started the decade with a president who would seem more comfortable in a lecture hall and ended it with a persona built for professional wrestling, reality television, and trolling on Twitter. Yet, contrary to popular opinion or at least in contrast to the fears of half the population, the earth has not fallen from orbit nor has the moon disappeared from the night sky, life has gone on. Albeit, my assumptions, the idea that our political decisions are rationally based, had to change overnight. Scott Adams has persuaded me.

My identity, my religious and political paradigm, has changed very significantly in the past decade. I’ve witnessed the passing of my last remaining grandmother in 2017, one of my dad’s brothers also died in a logging accident mid-decade and then, uncle Roland, a man who had helped to facilitate my stay in the Philippines, was murdered.

Over the same time, I’ve been processing the battle with cancer of a younger cousin and good friend, who just finished college and plans to marry soon, who already sacrificed a leg (in the past year) and now has new growths in his lungs.

So the fight will continue for him as it does for all of us.

One day at a time.

None of us knows what trials we will face in the next decade and yet need to continue to live in faith. I hope to be done with my inventory taking, soon break free of the transitional time I am presently still in, and finally have some of those long-awaited triumphs that have eluded me in certain areas of my life. But, at the end of it all, I can’t really tell you what this next decade will hold, whether Trump will win in 2020 or if there will even be a year 2030.

There is no point in getting stressed out about what we can’t know. Our life is a vapor, it appears for a little and then it is gone. So make the best of the time you have and don’t worry about tomorrow!

Sowing Ideas, Sticking Up For the Underdog and Getting Started

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

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

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

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

Soil and Seeds of Faith

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

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

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

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

You get the picture.

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

Sticking Up For the Underdog

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

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

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

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

Underdog

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

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

Finding the Right Cause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.