The A B C’s of Financial Success

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Recently, while applying for a loan, I received a compliment for my great credit score. It felt good, it was a reward for years of financial discipline, and will afford me some opportunities that would not be available otherwise.

However, I’m aware that many others struggle in this regard and, worse, when good advice is shared many would rather shoot the messenger (and score cheap political points) than promote what would actually help many people if applied.

So, at risk of my neck, I’ve decided to give some free advice.

Attitude Adjustment: Take Responsibility for Your Financial Future

One of the biggest mistakes I made early on in life was to waste time hoping for some big break, I would look at those who had more than me with envy and then blow paychecks on useless things.

Had I been more able to reign in my attitude then I may be more like a millionaire friend I have. Instead of complaining about his lot in life, he saved everything he could, bought a double and started earning rental income, as a teenager.

There is no easy road to success, but if you start taking responsibility for your own financial future today your life will become easier tomorrow and it all starts with attitude. If you have a poor attitude you will justify bad financial choices and sabotage the only real chance of success you have.

Future success almost always requires sacrifice in the present. It could mean getting your CDL or going to college and working two jobs. It may mean saying “no” to your friends when they ask you to go to Europe with them. One must temper their current hedonistic impulses and shift the balance towards the future.

Better Balance: Save Every Penny That You Can Today and Invest in Your Future

Saving is a necessary discipline for financial success. If you work for minimum wage at McDonald’s and insist on having the latest iPhone then you will likely remain very poor until you start making wiser investments. Those who spend everything they earn on things not absolutely necessary to survive are sacrificing their future success for trinkets.

To gain wealth one must invest in things that will bring a return. That Grande Salted Caramel Mocha might make you feel good for a couple moments and seem completely worth the money spent—until you consider the opportunity cost.

Over the long-term, a daily $4.00 coffee habit can become very expensive. In ten years that is $14,560 spent on a path to early onset diabetes. Had you taken that same money and invested it, at a 10% rate of return, you would have around $25,000 in cash and a down payment for a modest home and all because you quit Starbucks—can you imagine what would be possible if you quit steak dinners, beer, lottery tickets, and movies?

Of course, there is always a case to be made for enjoying the present moment, but one can often accomplish that end at a far lower cost and may even learn to enjoy saving in the same way someone can eventually take pleasure in going to the gym. At very least, moving the balance even a little in the direction of saving and investing is far better than the pain of dependency and debt.

Credit Control: Never EVER Buy Anything An Credit That Depreciates in Value

Having a balance carry over on a credit card is a terrible financial sin. If you can’t afford to pay the full balance of your Visa at the end of each month, then cut it up and use your debit card or plain old cash instead. It is completely insane how so many Americans sell themselves so willingly into debt slavery for things they really don’t need.

This is the one thing that I did well (for the most part with a few exceptions) and is probably why my credit score is as good as it is. I was always absolutely terrified of debt and for good reason. I may have blown too much money on frivolous things like performance car parts, but at least I’m not still paying interest on it today, own far more than I owe and am well above the median net worth for people my age despite my salary being average.

The only time a person should ever consider taking on debt is for something necessary that will appreciate in value. For example, real estate is something that stands a chance of gaining value over time. And, even then, one should take on debt with the upmost caution and realizing that their current circumstances could change. Any investment always comes with risk and that risk must always be fully accounted for before signing the loan contract.

But, at very very least, never ever borrow money for something like clothing, furniture or even a car, at least not money you cannot pay back in a month or two because that momentary happiness of something new will soon become a massive ball and chain of financial obligation. There is so much more pleasure in paying cash for something you’ve wanted than there is in paying a monthly bill for something you did not need and is now worth next to nothing for resale value.

Do Not Be Discouraged!

Finally, setbacks and struggle are part of the road to success, expect it!

For a young person, without a silver spoon in their mouth, the climb up the learning curve is often very steep. This is why there are so many who, comparing themselves to people years older, give up, cry “it’s not fair!” and become pawns to political opportunists who exploit poverty for votes.

But, take it from me, someone who did not win the lottery of life, who couldn’t afford college, had a few setbacks and still made it.

No, I’m not wealthy, at least not by American standards, but I am very comfortable.

I own a small house, a rental, two late model cars (both paid off) and no problem eating out on a regular basis. I have made slow and steady progress over the years, and will likely work until I am unable to get out of bed anymore, nonetheless, it is progress and puts me far ahead of those less disciplined.

My only real regret, financially speaking, is that I did not put these A, B, C’s to more use at an earlier age—because I might very well be a multi-millionaire today had I done so!

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Awaiting Resurrection…

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Nobody enjoys waiting and especially not for an indefinite period of time. This is why “progress bars” were invented to give hope to the user of electronic devices, through visual means, that their patiently waiting for the completion of a download, file transfer or update will eventually be rewarded and they can be on their way again.

There is nothing worse than waiting with no indication when or if the wait will end. Even a false assurance of an end (many progress bars do not speak the truth and are there simply to keep us from giving up) is better than waiting for an indefinite period of time.

As a truck driver, there was nothing worse than the undefined waiting period. I hated when someone would give me an ambiguous answer rather than a defined period. I would rather hear something concrete, even if it meant hours of waiting, than “soon” or “we’ll let you know” because those are words without commitment, that both keep you tied down and discontented.

Knowing when a wait will end or, at very least, that there is something at the end of a long wait, goes a long way towards making the wait more bearable. It can help one be prepared for that moment when the end of the wait arrives. At very least one can know how long they must distract themselves, if it is worth sleeping or when to set the alarm.

Currently, I’m stuck, once again, in one of those indefinite waiting periods and wondering if this one is indeed different from the others or just another delusion that will end in pain. So far I have busied myself in making necessary preparations, stubbornly holding back any doubts, but it is impossible to know if there’s any progress towards an end or if this too will end in catastrophe.

The next couple of years promise to be the launch of a new phase of my life and a close to a chapter that ended in devastation. In a very literal sense, something died in me a few years ago, having my sincerest faith so casually cast aside by those whom I had trusted my life with is a mortal wound, made it impossible to know my up from down, and I’m still awaiting resurrection.

Hope or heartbreak, only time will tell where this all ends…

Easter, Endgame and Resurrections

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Spoiler alert.

The fight is hard, there are great sacrifices that need to be made, but in the end the good guys win and the armies of chaos and confusion are defeated.

Or at least that is how one would expect of a superhero movie that packs movie theaters around the world, right?

Some, from my religious roots, would decry the fact that “Avengers: Endgame,” the wrap-up to a 21 movie saga where an unlikely group of misfits take on villains of increased size and power, is better attended than their Easter services.

I mean how can it be a good thing that so many seek to be entertained by watching such nonsense?

However, in my own perspective, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing that story of triumph through self-sacrificial love still dominates the box office. In fact, if imitation is the highest form of flattery then this creation of Stan Lee’s imagination is possibly the ultimate expression of Christian worship.

God, who lives outside of time itself, taking on the form of a man to save the world from death and destruction, sacrificing his all for sake of his friends only to triumph in a way unimaginable, is basically the end game of the Gospel.

As someone who enjoys “cinema magic” I’ve had to reflect many times, and often with tears, as I related to the struggles of the characters on the screen. Sure, the stories may be fictional, yet there is truth that transcends our reality captured in these fantastic accounts and that is exactly what draws the crowd now as it did when Jesus worked his miracles.

I am Tony Stark insomuch as I’ve needed to adapt to survive and overcome even myself, my pride, to protect those who I love.

I am Steve Rogers insomuch that I’ve often felt like a throwback to a more innocent time and, like him, I belong in a world that has passed me by while frozen in ice.

I am Bruce Banner insomuch as I’m the nice guy, who doesn’t always know how to express himself, but when pushed far can go full on Hulk mode and leave a path of destruction.

I am Thor insomuch that I’ve been handed great responsibility, given a divine inheritance that I feel unworthy to wield (despite many assurances) and have failed those whom I love.

I am Natasha Romanoff insomuch as my loneliness, being a tragic character, haunted by my past and my crushed romantic hopes in particular.

I am Clint Barton insomuch as I’m just a man wanting to live a happy simple life, yet always faced with complexities, sucked into a fight bigger than my abilities, etc.

As I enter this endgame of my life, I’m in a fight to save my future from my past. I carry a weight of painful baggage, the resurrection of my hopes still incomplete, and some days I feel stretched well past my abilities to continue on. There are times I wish I could go back in time and fix the terrible things that have taken so much out of me. However, there are those whom I love too much now to abandon in an effort to retrieve that which was lost.

It is only fitting that the Endgame movie come out so close to Easter and you’ll need to watch it if you want to understand why that is. The story is compelling because it is a story very much like that of the one who overcame death through death and has given humanity a path to salvation. As I look forward to being a husband and father, a true friend to those in need of love, it is the heroic example of Jesus that will guide me.

Why Do Orthodox Christians Celebrate Easter On a Different Date?

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As a Mennonite I never really thought about the date for Easter and why we celebrated it when we did. It was one of those questions I didn’t know to ask and only became a small curiosity after I started to celebrate the holiday on a different date as an Orthodox.

Fortunately, there are those at my parish willing to answer those questions I don’t even know to ask. An older gentleman named Joe went through the effort to copy two different references on the topic that explain the divergence of practice between the Orthodox East and the Roman West.

The regulations deciding the date for the celebration Easter were established by the First Ecumenical Council in 325 A.D. There were three criteria, as stated in the booklet, “The Date of Holy Easter” published by the Syrian Orthodox Archodiocese in 1963:

1) “That Easter must always be celebrated on a Sunday”.

2) “That Easter must never be celebrated on the same day as the Jewish Passover”.

3)”That Easter should never be celebrated on or before the vernal equinox of any year”.

Those three criteria were unanimously decided by the church. The Church of Alexandria, with its “noted astonomers,” was picked to announce the date to the Church of Rome every year and Rome given the responsibility of passing that along to the other Churches.

All of Christendom celebrated Easter together, even after the Great Schism, based on the three criteria—that is until the Roman Catholic West decided to unilaterally, in 1582 under the direction of Pope Gregory, adopt a new calendar and disregard one of the three criteria established by the Ecumenical Council in 325.

So, in short, Papal supremacy is why the West (including Protestants) celebrate when they do and the First Ecumenical Council is why the Orthodox celebrate when they do. Of course it does get more technical than that. I’ll send anyone the pamphlets if they are interested in the answers to questions they never thought to ask…

Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?

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Judas is the most tragic characters of the Gospel account. Here was a man who was in the inner circle of those who had (at least outwardly) forsaken all and followed after Jesus. He was as close to Jesus as one could physically be, no doubt had done everything required of him, how did this man go from a chosen disciple to betrayer? And, more importantly, how do we avoid this same terrible end ourselves?

The Gospel accounts do not leave us without a clue as far as the motives of Judas:

Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:3‭-‬6 NIV)

Judas, in his sanctimonious rebuke of this woman’s extravagant display of worship, appears to be speaking up for the poor. But John slams Judas, saying he didn’t actually care about the poor, that he was really just a thief and stealing from the common purse.

We also know that Judas would soon betray Jesus for some silver coins.

Most thieves have justified themselves in some way and I’m doubtful that Judas saw his own motives in the same unflattering terms used by John and the other disciples. Judas probably had good intentions, at least some of the time, and probably saw himself as justified in what he did.

Moreover, Judas likely did not see himself as a villain at all. In fact, he was that devastated, upon realizing that his betrayal would lead to the death of Jesus, that he took his own life. There would be no reason for his suicide if his plan was to see Jesus killed. Nobody kills themselves because things went as they wanted them to go.

Why did Judas follow Jesus as long as he did?

There is plenty of reason to believe that Judas was like any of the other disciples and initially captivated by Jesus. However, he, like the other disciples, was likely looking for a political leader who would end Roman oppression and bring about an era of social justice or make Isreal great again. That is, after all, how the Jewish Messiah was described in Scripture:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord . He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11:1‭-‬5 NIV)

It is also, very literally, what Jesus told them:

Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28 NIV)

The disciples followed after Jesus expecting to be rulers with him in kingdom soon to be established, where they would be able to bring an end to injustice and right all the wrongs in the world. They were Biblical literalists, that is what Jesus told them, and therefore that is what they anticipated would be the ultimate reward for their devotion.

These guys were not Sunday school teachers, they weren’t there to play church either, rather they were a bunch of sword-carrying radicals who followed Jesus thinking they would see the overthrow of Rome. They, like revolutionaries today, were motivated by political power and utopian idealism, that’s why they were so willing to give everything up to follow Jesus.

Judas was no different from the other disciples in this regard.

Why did Judas sell Jesus out at the end?

It is really easy to get behind a message of peace and justice—especially when you are promised a position of power.

Up until a certain point what Jesus said sounded like populist rhetoric. He spoke to the common people against the ruling elites. News of his miracles spread and got people excited. He gave the downtrodden hope that justice would reign. It is little wonder that the crowds of disenfranchised Jewish nationalists began to swell.

It is all fun when it is about affordable healthcare, free bread, and fish. People always like a vague message of hope and change. Promise them that their nation will be made great again and they’ll flock to you. Even today there are many willing to sacrifice their time and effort for political campaigns making similar promises. People will line up for a handout.

However, when Jesus began to talk strange, telling them to drink his blood and eat his flesh, we are told, “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (John 6:66 NIV) And, I mean, who can blame them? Jesus, when they started to get weirded out, only doubled down on this claim. It does not surprise that many began to express their doubts nor that this is when we start to hear more about a coming betrayal.

Judas, whether motivated by impatience or disillusionment with a leader going off the rails, seems to have sought to force the hand of Jesus. It could be he was also a bit upset having been shut down by Jesus for a point that seems very reasonable on the surface. Why, after everything Jesus had said, would they not sell the expensive perfume?

Of course, we also know that his motives were not as pure as his sanctimonious words would suggest. If Judas were honest, he was following Jesus primarily for the benefits he anticipated and just wanted more money in the bag he carried. It is, therefore, a tragically ironic twist that he received payment for his betrayal, despite not asking for it, and suddenly lost appetite for it at the end.

Why do people betray Jesus today?

Many who go to church and claim to love Jesus are truly his betrayers. They, like Judas, talk the talk, they may share their consternation for the state of the world, give up material possessions, and seem very spiritual and sincere. But beneath this righteous facade is a rotten core. Sure, they might say that they love Jesus, they may have even deceived themselves about their own corrupted motives, yet their real motivation is social standing, monetary gain, political power.

How do you know if you or someone else is a Judas?

Here are some of the tells…

#1) A Judas spreads gossip and backstabs…

A few years ago, when I most desperately need allies, I got wind of a rumor being spread about me. A young man, who would always be nice to my face, claimed to have overheard me saying something absolutely ridiculous. His claim was utter unadulterated nonsense and had the potential to be very damaging to my reputation.

Fortunately, not everyone took his word for it. A true friend asked me “did you say…” and gave me an opportunity to respond. I confronted this ‘brother’ (always so sweet to my face) for his backstabbing and got a quick apology as I recall. However, they did not seem too remorseful. In fact, while saying sorry to me, they went off on the person who came to me with the slander—which led to a second, slightly more animated, confrontation.

Gossip spreads like wildfire in many churches, it is easy to share salacious tidbits about other people, that may or may not be true, and sometimes a thrill that comes with it. Those who ply this trade often use the guise of friendship to obtain information and then piously disseminate their tales as prayer requests or concern. However, like Judas, the reality is that they are backstabbers and truly motivated by hidden jealousy or desire for social gain at the expense of others.

Gossip is a betrayal of Jesus. It is a kiss of Judas. It is a sin listed with murder and hate for God.

#2) A Judas engages in shady business…

Jesus told his followers to “let your yes be yes” (Matt. 5:37) and to “give back to Ceaser what is Ceaser’s” (Matt. 22:21), but that does not stop many professing Christians from telling lies or trying to game the system in their favor. In fact, I’ve been severely disappointed in a few business transactions, with people trained to know better, where the other side reneged on their word.

In the worse cases, I’ve elected to take the approach of Psalms 26:4: “I do not sit with the deceitful, nor do I associate with hypocrites.”

Everyone works for a profit and there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to get the most bang for your buck either. However, there comes a point where being shrewd in business crosses over into screwing other people over and goes from saving money to being a sin. Sadly, many faithful church attendees do not only flirt with this line, but they are so fully engaged in their lust for monetary gain that their word means nothing—they actually prefer making money over their commitment to Christian love.

This is a betrayal that takes many different forms, from the televangelist trying to exploit the vulnerable to the person who is miserly in regards to compensating employees, conveniently forgets a verbal agreement when another offer comes in, and otherwise can’t be trusted unless the terms are put in writing. And then there is the tax fraud, those who feel they have a special right to avoid payment and engage in questionable accounting practices to save a few dollars. Sure, a person should not pay more than they owe and yet it is very sad many have given Christians a bad reputation.

A handshake should not be necessary for a Christian to keep their word, let alone a legal contract, and stinginess in business is not a virtue. Jesus told us to give freely, to give the shirt off our back along with our coat if asked, and it certainly is not easy to truly live this out. However, if you can’t be a man of your word on Monday, then you are wasting your time going to church on Sunday morning. If making money is your primary objective during the week and justifies doing almost anything to win, then you have betrayed Jesus—you cannot serve two masters.

#3) A Judas believes that the ends justify the means…

One of the most egregious errors of the disciples, including Judas, was to assume that Jesus came to establish a worldly kingdom where they would rule with him. Their confusion about this left the disciples feeling devastated as Jesus hung on the cross. It could be the very thing that led Judas to betray Jesus as well.

Judas could’ve been attracted to Jesus because of his greed. He saw an opportunity to fleece the crowds (and his fellow disciples) and eventually decided to cash in. However, that seems more of a bond villain explanation and would leave most of us off the hook. More likely is that Judas was motivated (at least in part) by a political ideal, became a bit disgruntled with what he saw as slow progress, and intended to force the hand of Jesus.

Many today are like Judas. They see the objective as being a worldly utopian ideal. They attempt to use the teachings of Jesus as some sort of political roadmap. They seek to use the government to enforce Christian morality and subjugate their neighbors. To them, Jesus preached “social justice” or some other political machination and believe that any means of accomplishing their ends is acceptable. They weaponize Bible verses to gain an edge on political opponents, they constantly confuse the duties of church and state and their unloving attitudes turn many off to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But Jesus did not come to advance an ideological agenda nor to establish a new political order. His message was one of personal repentance and led by showing an example of self-sacrifice. He said, “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NIV) and did not resist the unjust leaders even knowing it would cost him his life. He did not demand that his rights be respected nor did he ever urge his followers to become political activists.

Furthermore, Jesus, in his answering the indignation of Judas pertaining to the woman’s extravagant display, by saying, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11) is making a statement about his purpose. He did not come to right every wrong nor to overthrow those who oppressed his people through force, but rather he came to show God’s love and bring salvation from sin to the world.

Jesus may have used physical means, like miraculous healings, and had real compassion for all human needs, but his goal was always to prove who be was and promote spiritual ends. This is where many fail to comprehend. Some cynically use the teachings of Jesus cynically to advance their political agenda, whereas others very sincerely attempt to use politics to try to advance a Christian agenda, but both are examples of an “ends justify the means” logic and completely anti-Christian.

Christian ends are never severed through means of violence. Political ideologies—all justifications for use of government coercion—may pose as love, moral virtue, and application of Christian teachings, they are often packaged insidiously and hard to detect. However, like Judas on his high horse about the woman’s worship, it is only ever counterfeit—Christians moral ends never ever justify immoral means.

It makes little difference whether someone uses Jesus to advance political ends or uses political means to try and obtain Christian ends—both are a betrayal.

A something other kingdom…

In the end, what Judas and the other disciples lacked was comprehension and faith. Whether Peter swinging a sword at those arresting Jesus before fleeing and denying him, to Thomas doubting even after hearing the good news of the resurrection, the disciples grossly underestimated who Jesus was and sold themselves very short in the process.

Many who profess Christ today are no different than the disciples. They are motivated by things that really do not matter and may, in fact, put eternity in peril in the same way that Esau sold his birthright for a pot of stew. Lifelong church members, baptized at birth or a young age, will be held to a higher level of accountability than their unbelieving neighbors, and could end up crying “Lord, Lord” and told to depart at the final judgement. We need to decide now if sharing juicy bit of slander or a few dollars saved by means of dishonesty is worth our soul.

There are many more fearful, who have this idea that the trials we face today are unprecedented, who disobey Jesus because they do not see him as powerful enough to save them—like he did those Hebrew boys who faced down death when the fires of Babylonian tyranny burned hot. To them, to those always peddling doom amd fretting about the collapse of Western Civilization, maybe consider this story out of war-torn Syria: “Christianity grows in Syrian town once besieged by Islamic State.

Does it matter if the world as we know it burns and Christ triumphs?

Even in betrayal Jesus brought glory to God in a way nobody expected—he defeated death by death, the grave could not hold him, and he rose again on the third day as he had promised to those who could not comprehend. It is because of that I will to forgive those who have betrayed my trust. Yes, they should be called out. Yes, they should repent and confess their sins as well. But the resurrection changes everything, those who truly believe are able to forgive all offenses—because to do otherwise is to be a betrayer of Christ.

Struggle, Meaning of Life and Suicide

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In the early hours of a Sunday morning, I was lying in bed, engaged in a conversation with an old classmate, now living in New Zealand, about the drug overdose death of someone familiar to both of us and what it says about the times we live in.

The dialogue itself, scattered about my morning routine, was an example of the unique pressure of modern life. Our discourse continued, in fragmented text message form, one of us going to bed soon and the other starting their day, past my short nap, beyond my morning shower, on the way to church and ended only as I entered the sanctuary for worship.

My “smartphone” allowed me a level of connection to someone on the opposite side of the world that was impossible a generation ago. And I am glad to be able to maintain this relationship despite the distance and for the electronic tool in my hand that allowed me to do this once unimaginable feat with ease. But this device also deprived me of some extra sleep, it often interrupts my most private moments, distracts me while driving, and does not allow me to be singularly focused. It comes along to work, to the gym, while I’m out dining, and visiting friends, and is almost impossible to control.

My grandpa had morning chores—mundane physical tasks like feeding animals, milking a few cows or shoveling manure. And grandma too—she would, in the wee hours of the day, go about making breakfast for her working man and the family clan. But they likely did not (at least not frequently) get a surprise visit from a former debate partner (geared up for a discussion of weighty matters) while they were in bed and still seeing double.

So, what did we discuss?

The rate of drug overdoses and number of suicides have risen dramatically over the past few decades and for poor middle-aged white men in particular. Several of my former classmates have now become part of this statistical category and, sadly, their stories are being repeated over and over again across the United States and especially in rural areas. The suicide rate for African American men has actually decreased over the same time period, which has led to some speculation as to why this is the case.

My left-leaning friend speculated this is a product of eroding “white male privilege” and yet all the cases that I am familiar with involved men who were, since childhood, as disenfranchised as anyone by the current system. There was never an erosion for them because they never had this imagined privileged status, they grew up in predominately white communities, from working-class homes, they didn’t go to college, they couldn’t seem to get out of their rut of low-paying jobs, relationship drama or financial woes, struggled against addiction and depression.

No, while true that white men are not a protected class and some do endure a significant amount of bullying and are just expected to take it, I do not see this as the real issue. Men in prior generations went into mines, labored hard under the sun, endured the terror of war, worked long-shifts on the assembly line and all without the help of a psychiatrist to tell them how to feel. They were just supposed to suck it up and keep going, against the odds, for the good of their communities and families—which is exactly what they did.

What has changed?

A more likely explanation for the increase in suicide and drug abuse is a combination of factors rather than one—the evaporation of economic opportunity and dissolution of the family unit and communities, along with the hectic pace of modern life, playing primary roles in the epidemic. A couple of decades ago decent paying manufacturing jobs were plentiful, the community was strong (usually with a local church as the nucleus) and the world’s problems were not constantly being shoved in our faces in a 24-7 on cable news, social media, etc. There have been big changes in rural America and some are impacted more than others.

The media deluge…

In the 1990s Ted Turner’s CNN was a novelty, the breathless reporting of alleged atrocities used to sell the American public on the Persian Gulf War, and only a foreshadowing of the media deluge to come. Two decades later there is almost no escape, there is no time anymore to process the information assaulting us from all angles, and the coverage is by and large negative.

Then there is the explosion of social media. It is a world where we primarily see the highlights of the lives of our friends and skews towards a positive presentation—because nobody wants to be that person.

This alone doesn’t drive anyone into depression and despair. But it certainly can help to feed feelings of isolation, it can never replace in-the-flesh social interaction, and could leave a person feeling overwhelmed. I mean, how can we not be influenced by this endless stream of information? It is a far cry from the time of our grandparents when yesterday’s news arrived in print form and the only scandal that really mattered was that juicy bit of gossip overheard on the party line.

Could it be that we aren’t built to take in the world all at once?

Could it be that we are reaching our capacity to handle and that the most vulnerable are first to fall down under this load?

We should consider the increase in suicides and drug overdoses as the “canary in a coal mine” and an indication of something very wrong in the air of our current culture. Where some have been overcome by the noxious fumes there are probably many more who are gasping for breath or in the beginning stages of hypoxia and need to be guided back to fresh air or they will soon also perish. An overdose of bad news and fear-mongering propaganda won’t take a strong person down, but it might be enough to push the vulnerable over the edge.

Working more for less…

Twenty years ago, in the towns around where I grew up in (prior to the NAFTA disaster) the wheels of industry were still turning and a blue-collar worker could easily make $20/hour or more working a factory shift. Yes, the cracks of outsourcing where beginning to show before this, the domestic steel and auto industry collapsed against cheap foreign imports before then, but it was mostly big urban areas like Detroit and Baltimore that felt the pain. We still proudly produced furniture, paper, bread, cable assemblies, and various other products before these businesses were shuttered.

However, since then we have felt the full brunt of trade policies that primarily have benefitted globalist elites. Since the 1990s, dozens of factory doors have closed in my own immediate area and nothing came to replace them. Well, nothing besides more low paying retail jobs—shopping centers springing up in the same lots, literally, where many men and women once made a wage where they had a chance of economic advancement. The idea that everyone could simply get some additional education and become a computer programmer or a professional with a bachelor’s degree has become the out-of-touch “let them eat cake” statement of the modern era.

Wages have stagnated in a time when costs in housing, healthcare, education, and housing have skyrocketed. The cost of college, for example, has gone up at eight times the pace of wages, in 2016, home prices increased at twice the rate of inflation, and we now spend thirty times what we did for healthcare a few decades ago. And again, this is a change the predominantly white working-class men who, unlike many others in the economy, have no control of their wages and, in addition, are often in direct competition with illegal immigrants for the same jobs. There is no professional licensing to protect the jobs of the yard guy or the drywaller—thus they are forced to work more for less.

Only the wealthy elites and beneficiaries of the welfare system have come out on top. For those taught that their value is in their ability to provide for their own, who are unable to compete in the academic or intellectual realm, prospects can indeed be very bleak and especially when coupled with other factors like failed relationships, lack of community and loss of purpose. It is no surprise that in this environment more are turning to the various means of escape available to them—with suicide being the ultimate expression of their deep despair.

Life without purpose…

The one place where rates of suicide are higher is amongst those who are part of the Native American population. This, coupled with substance abuse, has been a tragic outgrowth of the reservation system for many years and underscores the problem of a purposeless existence. There is not much to do on a reservation. The land is rural and very sparsely populated, the opportunities for gainful employment are extremely limited, basic needs are often subsidized by the government, many succumb to feelings of boredom and/or isolation and decide to end what seems (from their perspective) to be a purposeless life.

I believe the circumstances leading to higher suicides on reservations are very similar to that of many non-Natives living in rural areas. We all have an idea of what we are supposed to be, we have religious and cultural expectations to live up to, but not all are able to overcome the obstacles between themselves and these higher aspirations. Perhaps they were born into a dysfunctional home, sexually abused, are less naturally gifted than their peers, born in a time of declining wages and are unable to compete in the market or attain their life goals? Failure early on can lead a person into self-defeating cycles, especially when there is nobody intervening to help overcome them, and the result is depression, substance abuse, etc.

Men, at least in rural America, are expected to be the “breadwinner” for their families. Those who do not provide are disparaged as “deadbeat dads,” he cannot simply abort his bad decisions, and will be on the hook financially long after his fifteen minutes of fun is up. It is a matter of Christian conscience, the Bible says that a man who does not provide for his own “is worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8 KJV), and is a standard that is embedded in our laws. And, truth be told, most men don’t need to be told that their children are their own responsibly either. So, naturally, it is no small thing for men conditioned this way to underperform or fail at their duties.

Men unable to provide adequately (according to cultural norms) for themselves or their families will struggle to find great purpose anywhere else. And while there is the “welfare queen” pejorative to describe a woman who fraudulently games the system, women were traditionally dependent on men to provide financially and there is not nearly the same stigma for a woman who is unable provided financially for her own needs. Things may have changed elsewhere, but in rural America, a man who doesn’t pay child support, even for children he is rarely (if ever) allowed to see is considered to be worthless and a bum.

Relationships are less stable than they were when marital commitment meant something and yet, in a time of wage stagnation, men are still expected to carry the financial burden. The purpose religion once brought men (beyond their work and family) has been under withering assault for many years now, but the yoke of moral responsibility has not faded away and leaves many to struggle in the wilderness alone. So it comes as no surprise when men, surrounded by dysfunction, deprived of their purpose and absent of any real help, could see death by their own hands as something honorable.

From an article about veterans returning to ‘normal’ civilian life:

Now one was looking for work in Wisconsin, one had killed himself, and several had returned to Afghanistan to get back into the fight. Most of them wanted to be back there, in their own ways. Like so many vets, they missed the camaraderie. And as with so many vets, their lives at home were defined less by togetherness than by isolation, which took on many forms. Dodd was in Kansas City making aerospace bolts and smoking weed on his breaks to stave off the stress of “dumb-ass civilian questions.” Simpson was working the phones at a call center for the Department of Veterans Affairs, talking to vets who wanted counseling or benefits or sometimes nothing at all, other than to talk with another combat veteran.

Men would rather be in a literal war than alone and stuck in a purposeless life.

Lack of community…

The collapse of community is one thing my left-leaning friend did seem to strongly agree on as a possible explanation for the epidemic of drug use and despair. His definition of community tended towards civic engagement and mine went in the direction of religious involvement, but we both agreed that this is something essential. And that community, real life “in the flesh” community, has been on a precipitous decline and especially in rural America.

This is the trend even in the conservative Mennonite culture I was born into and spent many years of my life. Guilt-driven church attendance may be holding steady, there is certainly more involvement there than in some other segments of society, but there has definitely been a big change in my lifetime. Sunday evening visits became far less frequent, more parents choose to homeschool their children rather than risk other schooling options and the church community has more or less devolved into a conglomeration of cliques. Of the dozens who called me “brother” over the years, as part of religious ritual, only a couple (primarily one family) have checked in to see how I’ve been doing.

A community is one of those underrated privileges. It is a place where you are missed when you’re gone, where a person can live with far less material wealth and still be happy having their place in the social fabric. Even a slightly dysfunctional community offers protections, a social support network, for those that are a part of it and the individual members are all stronger as a result. Communities take many different forms and can center around many different things. It can be as simple as a group of friends who care about each other and do things together. It can be a military unit that is compelled to do drills together, who eat, sleep and live as a group, and where comradery is encouraged.

In rural America, in the past, the church was often a center of a community, a place where people got together for worship, to make perogies together and share each others’ burdens. Church attendance has been in steady decline, “nones” now constitute the largest religious group affiliation, and with this, there has been a parallel decline in mental health.

And organized religion isn’t the only dwindling expression of rural community, volunteer fire departments are having difficulty filling their ranks—people are too busy with their other obligations and do not have the time.

People also have fewer close friends than they once did according to a recent study, in the time between 1985 and 2004 Americans have gone from an average of three close friends to only two, and this implies a shrinking support network.

The increase in social isolation cannot be good for those already vulnerable.

A profile of a vulnerable person…

When I saw a friend request from “Adam Bartlett” it was a name that I recognized immediately and accepted without hesitation.

Adam was a grade below mine in school. He was one of those anonymous in a crowd people, average height, not particularly athletic or anything, friendly enough, and not too different from me other than my being Mennonite. We both went out for football the same year, he quit the team early (which, in my teenage mind, made me think of him as a quitter) and that is pretty much all I knew about him—there was a gap of twenty years before I heard from him again.

It was not too long after connecting on Facebook that I received a message from Adam. We chatted briefly about a mutual acquaintance, my being off work because of an ACL tear, a shared interest in firearms, how he wanted to reconnect with “old friends” because he had few friends anymore, I offered the next weekend might be a possibility and left it at that—we never did get together the next weekend despite my offer and his interest.

However, a month after that he messaged me about his financial woes. He was upside down in his car payments and was hoping that I could help him out with that. I felt bad about his situation. But, I was not in a position to purchase the vehicle and was not very interested even if I did have the extra cash. It was in the course of that discussion where we ventured a little into his relationship problems, he told me his wife stopped paying bills without telling him and things would soon go from bad to worse.

In our next exchange, he asked me for a place to sleep. His wife had moved back with her parents and he told me he was not welcome to stay there. Of course, being that we had just got reconnected, and also considering that I was on the road all week in the truck, I was leery of having him live in my house alone. Still, he definitely needed help. I decided, rather than have him move in, to pay his security deposit and the first month of rent instead.

He accepted this solution. We met a few days later in the Big Lots parking lot where I handed him a check for his rent.

Then, on the spur of the moment, I asked if we could pray together, he said we could. So I put my hand on his shoulder, prayed that he could get his life turned around and hoped my small contribution would make a difference.

Later on, in many different private conversations online, he complained about the hypocrisy of Christians (including his significant other) and would ask me many questions. Why couldn’t these different denominations agree on anything in the Bible? Which denomination was right? How could his wife be so dogmatic about things like Creationism and then cheat on him over and over again?

Adam had basically given up on religion.

He was rightly skeptical too.

However, it seemed that the prayer had helped. He never did use the check that I gave him, he eventually would start to attend church services again, his social media posts seemed more positive, and last I had known he was back with his wife and daughters.

There were still problems at work and at home. Our last conversation, that he initiated, was on the topic of his drinking habits. He told me that alcohol made him honest, even more spiritual, but was frustrated because his wife disapproved. Perhaps I could have called him out a bit more or been a little more forceful with my opinion, because he definitely sounded like an alcoholic excusing his bad habit—but I figured I would not win an argument and, rather than say too much, simply encouraged him to honor his wife.

A year so after our alcohol discussion, I asked, “How have things been going for you?”

He never did answer.

Adam had confided many things and, both for the sake of those struggling and for those who wish to do something to help, I’ve decided to share his story more openly than I would otherwise. His dysfunctional home life was only made worse by the fact that he had been exploited, as a child, by a sexual predator (a college professor) who was only very recently prosecuted for his serial abuses and given a light prison sentence. He had no real friends in the world, he seemed to try to bury his pain using substance, and this coping strategy, evidently, failed him in the end.

In August, less than a year ago, Adam gunned down a man who had emerged from the apartment where his wife had moved and then, using the same handgun, took his own life.

Sailing Against Unfavorable (or non-existent) Winds

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On March 30th, 2015, I published a blog, “Sailing Beyond Safe Waters,” to express my determination to go beyond the safe harbor religious tradition and cultural obligation to truly live in faith.

That was when my blog was only viewed by my family and close friends. In the time since my audience grew exponentially and my life took some completely unexpected turns. Perhaps needless to say, I did leave that safe harbor (where some continue their cross harbor pleasure cruises make believing that they’ve entered the ocean of faith) and have charted territories completely new to me.

In the past couple years I’ve experienced the high seas of fear and doubt. There have been those moments of terror and panic too, when the winds howled, threatening to overwhelm the very timbers of my being, and the waves of a hopeless reality crashed hard. But I continued on, determined to break through, clinging to hope, and facing down the impossible.

Then there was that night when the main mast of my determination snapped, my ship of faith had been capsized by a rouge wave, and all seemed lost. The the debris of my dreams lay scattered across a swath of water a mile long and wide. It was the very thing those harbor pilots (who fancy themselves as seafarers for having seen the mouth of the harbor once or twice) had warned me against when had set out. If they cared, their faithless answers were vindicated with my failure.

However, my distress calls did not go unanswered. I was not alone on this ocean and there were those, who had also left their own safe harbors by necessity or choice, as determined to not let my journey end. It was their help that some of the more important items strewn about (things like meaning and purpose) were recovered from the wreakage.

Those on the ocean either know their need of others or they perish in the first big storm that they encounter. It is only in trials and tribulations that you know who your true friends are in a world of imposters. I’ve learned, by sailing beyond safe waters, that it is only the opinions of those who are there for in times of crisis that truly matter.

Finding the wind for your sails…

The time since then has been one of trying to rebuild identity around something more stayed and keeping doing those things that I’ve done right. I’ve been able to do some personal inventory and think of those things that really matter most to me.

My life, all things considered, hasn’t been bad. I have rental property, a great job, freedom to travel, ideas for the future and a precious bhest. That said, despite being enthralled by the beauty of Orthodoxy, it has been difficult to recover that basic faith—the faith that took me out of the safe harbor into the expanse of the deep—and I’m not sure if it is something that can be recovered.

I’ve been towed along by the obligations of life and a commitment to love with the impossible love in particular. I’ve taken the freedom of not having to try to navigate the waters of romance (having basically settled that question) to take on some other challenges. I’ve found that it is much easier for me to take risks now, leading to some small investments and exploring some others.

Still, the bigger pieces of my new life (post-storm) have yet to fall into place. The sails are unfurled on this vessel of faith, a vessel now shared with someone else, but we wait in the doldrums of the present, scrubbing the decks repeatedly (or, rather, doing the dishes and chores for a household of one) while hoping for that favorable wind that will carry us from this purgatory, of a life neither completely here nor fully there, and finally carry us to the paradise over the horizon.

It is important to be ready for when the wind returns, to have the capacity to take full advantage of that moment. The hard part is having the right mentality about the present reality to get to that moment and be ready to be underway—sailing again.