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

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Life is full of strange and unexpected twists.

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

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

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

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

Sheer arrogance, right?

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

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

My Journey to the House Church…

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

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

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

Interesting…

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

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

The Very Protestant Problem of Division

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

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

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

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

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

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3‭-‬6 NIV)

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

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

The Church That Spans Dichtomies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loose Ends, Long Waits, and Second Acts

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

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

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

Am I built for this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

When will it be finished?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building towards that simple and happy life…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will the impossible be made possible?

Stay tuned!

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.

Pure Nonsense: The Courtship Idealism That Failed

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

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

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

“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15‭-‬17 NIV)

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

The Courtship Idealism That Failed…

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

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

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

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

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

True Faith Comes Through Struggle…

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

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

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

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

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

Missionaries From Hell — Revisited

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The picture above is from a glowing LancasterOnline article, from 2016, about a couple who sold everything to start an orphanage in Kenya.

A few years ago, while at an annual conservative Mennonite revivalist effort, specifically the youth tent meetings at Terry Hill, I was involved in a conversation with a parent who spoke of their great admiration of the missionary zeal of the younger generation. To this person the desire to travel to exotic places, purportedly to “share the Gospel,” was proof of sincere faith and a fulfilment of the great commission. But, having decided that questioning this paradigm would likely be misunderstood, I did not express my reservations then.

Since then I have wrote two blogs, most recently one (“Missionaries From Hell?“) as part of a series on Matthew 23 and another before that (“Missionary or Imposter?“) exploring the true meaning of a quote of famed fundamentalist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, about Christian missionary work. In both I point out the many different motives, besides a sincere desire to reach vulnerable people, why someone would leave the comforts (and boredom) of rural American life to be with a group of ambitious (and unmarried) young people. My basic point being that missionary zeal does not necessarily mean prayer cards and world travel.

My Blindspot

However, in those prior efforts, while listing the many possibilities of corrupt motivations and relating my own experiences, not once did it occur to me to add sexual predation to the list. At the time it would have seemed a bit over the top. My simply challenging the assumption that all things done in the name of Jesus are legit service “for the kingdom” may have been enough for some to tune me out. I mean, isn’t it great that some are trying to do something, even if that effort is misguided, largely ineffective and born of suspect motives?

Yes, maybe the execution was flawed, but isn’t the road to heaven paved with good intentions?

(Or maybe I’m remembering that expression wrong…?)

Anyhow, to suggest that some are there some there in this impoverished countries as a means to prey on the vulnerable would have been unconscionable until it became otherwise. When the bombshell report of Jeriah Mast’s confessions to sexually predatory behavior, both while a missionary in Haiti and also swept under the rug at home, rocked the conservative Mennonite world it immediately reminded me of the two blogs I wrote about the potential for ulterior motives.

It makes perfect sense now and should’ve years before in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. If Jerry Sandusky, the founder of an organization supposedly to help disadvantaged boys, the “Second Mile,” could use his access to the university and reputation as a former coach as a means to hide in plain sight, why not a Mennonite missionary?

Except, for some reason, it was unimaginable.

My concerns expressed missed and not because they were too critical either. No, if anything, I was too gentle and generous. All cultures have their sacred cows, it is risky business trying to confront them head on, and maybe that is what caused me to unconsciously tread lightly as not to offend. But charities and church ministries are opportunity zones for wolves in sheep’s clothing. The reality is this: The same things that draw those with pure motives to the mission also attracts those looking to exploit vulerable people.

The Bigger Issue

It certainly isn’t just the case in Mennonite missions either. In fact, the reason I’m writing is because of another case involving a Lancaster County man, a convicted sex offender, who started an orphanage in Kenya—the man in the LancasterOnline picture. Then there is that “incredible story of decades of adultery, rape, and pedophiliac sexual abuse by Donn Ketcham” mentioned by Hans Mast in his blog. And that’s only scratching the surface, only the most current and obvious examples, and who knows what is yet to come to light.

Do we have any excuse anymore not to be aware?

We can fairly easily detect a fraud when it is not one of our own. Like the Manhattan ‘pastor’ who wrote in USA Today about her late-term abortion, had a salary of $250,000 (“plus more than $150,000 in fringe benefits”) and recently lost her job over a harassment complaint involving sex toys. Most people know to be wary of men like televangelist Kenneth Copeland, who live like celebrities and fleece their flocks for Gulfstream jets. But the truth is that these aren’t the wolves relevant to conservative Mennonite (or Orthodox Christian) sheep and we do definitely have wolves amongst us.

We were warned…

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” (Acts 20:28‭-‬29 NIV)

Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth is that we all have this potential to be the imposter or to be one who looks and acts the part of a Christian, yet is only really in it for themselves. Living the part of a religious or cultural ideal often gives you access to funding, better jobs, travel, and other opportunities. Sure, not everyone who goes abroad is a sexual predator. It is likely that this kind of abuse is the rare exception of those who travel. However, sexual predation is not the only form of exploitation.

It could be argued that populating an Instagram page with cute pictures of foreign children is more for the benefit of the one posting them. In well-funded funded Western style missions there is also plenty of power and cultural imperialism that comes along for the ride in our missionary efforts. In other words, there are many ways that a person can be a missionary from hell.

When the Truth Threatens Our Way of Life

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Recently I was asked what books were formative for me. Two books immediately came to mind. The first being F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, “The Great Gatsby,” a tragic tale of a man who got ever so close to his dreams that had haunted me since high school as it seemed to be a repeat story in my own life. The second book, written by Peter Hoover and far less known outside of a particular religious circle, compared modern-day Mennonites to their Anabaptist forebearers.

Hoover’s book, “The Secret of the Strength,” drew an interesting parallel between the disruptive and defiant (and, dare I say, irrational?) early Anabaptists and the Old Testament character of Samson. This exploration of the secret of their strength lay dormant in me for years, but eventually helped define my longing for more than the conservative Mennonite status quo (including the doubled down version of the same old Mennonite priorities rebranded as “Anabaptist” by some) and this put me on a collision course with the religious culture that had been my identity since birth.

Anyhow, my own religious radicalization aside, I’m fascinated by patterns and especially when it comes to Biblical types. These patterns and types can be easily missed by the casual reader and yet are unmistakable once discovered. And, if we look closely enough, we may even see ourselves and our own patterns in these various characters. As you read, consider your own life, what defines your experience? Are you defining the future with your faith that goes beyond the status quo or are you simply defending a way of life?

Two Men Who Threatened the Status Quo

One thing interesting about Samson is how his story so similar to that of Jesus. These two men, as different as they appear at first blush, have many intriguing parallels. Their births were announced by angels, they were sanctified in the womb, they were deliverers of Israel (old and new, respectively) and free their people of oppression, and the list goes on (click here if you want to learn more), but there is one parallel in particular that I would like to explore and that is how their religious peers responded to their exploits.

First up is the account of Samson and those who decided to confront this Hebrew Hercules:

Then three thousand men from Judah went down to the cave in the rock of Etam and said to Samson, “Don’t you realize that the Philistines are rulers over us? What have you done to us?” He answered, “I merely did to them what they did to me.” They said to him, “We’ve come to tie you up and hand you over to the Philistines.” (Judges 15:11-17a NIV)

Here we have Samson running roughshod over the Philistines. And yet, these three thousand men of Judah, rather than join him in overthrowing their oppressors, decided to capture Samson and turn him over to their enemies. By their faithless reasoning, Samson was a greater threat for “rocking the boat” than the occupiers who had corrupted them with ungodly fear and turned them into cowards.

This reasoning in regards to Samson closely mirrors the discussion about Jesus, in the Gospel of John, and the threat he represented to the established order:

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:47-50 NIV)

The discussion above takes place directly after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Can you imagine that? A man is literally bringing people back to life, they claim to believe in a God that defeated powerful Egypt, and yet their concern is with what the Romans may think?

The men who turned Samson over to Philistines and the leaders who conspired against Jesus were both guilty of moral cowardice. In both cases, the concern was about the fallout. They feared what others may think, anxiously fretting over the potential for negative repercussions, and that fear led to a moral compromise. The three thousand who went to capture Samson were willing to side with the enemy for sake of political expediency. Likewise, the religious leaders who would eventually have Jesus put to death were more willing to sacrifice a little truth for an imagined greater good.

Samson and Jesus both presented a dangerous threat to the status quo. These moral cowards, more imprisoned by their own inner fear than they were by external oppressors, reasoned that it was better to hand over the heroes of faith, the very men who offered both them and their people a path to salvation, rather than to risk losing their own lives or privileged positions.

We like to think about them as the bad guys. But be honest, what of your cherished positions or most treasured things would you willingly sacrifice without carefully considering the consequences? Would you truly put your own Issac on the altar, the one thing that you value most in the world, and trust God or would you cling to your own reasoning and come up with an excuse for moral compromise?

Good Stewardship or Love of Money and Moral Cowardice?

The failure of Christian Aid Ministries (CAM) to act appropriately in response to sexual abuse caused me to think anew about my own experience.

This organization is basically the flagship of the conservative Anabaptist missionary effort. It is one institution that represents all stripes of conservative Anabaptist more than any other—with their shared German work ethic and careful management of resources.

From early reports, the primary concern seemed about “good stewardship” as it pertained to finances. Faith that does the right thing no matter the cost, apparently, in these initial discussions, taking a back seat to the advice of a lawyer and protecting their image and material assets.

This sort of damage control approach is not unusual in worldly institutions. However, it feels completely out of place for an organization that is supposed to represent a religious tradition of those who would rather face torturous death than to compromise ever so slightly in their commitment.

Indeed, it was Jesus who said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26a) Does an approach focused on avoid liability, punctuated by fear of consequences, the response one would expect of a political campaign, really represent Jesus Christ?

Whatever happened to “let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil” (Matt. 5:37 KJV) and simply telling the truth regardless of cost?

One defining characteristic of CAM’s response is that it is reasonable and not unlike that organization’s general approach to missions. Unlike the disciples, whom Jesus sent out with nothing besides the shirts on their backs and the Spirit of God, they go in on the power of their own resources. It is a reflection of modern-day Anabaptist culture. They are reasonable and rational, not at all radical. Sure, some of their youth might be risk-taking and adventurous, but as a reflection of modern thrill-seeking culture. However, when it comes to really taking a step out in faith, doing what is right even if it means giving up everything, most retreat back to their comfortable religious lifestyles and token sacrifices.

It is really no surprise, then, that there is a tendency towards moral cowardice and “circle the wagons” when a leader needs to step up and take personal responsibility for the mess. I mean, these are men with families, the reputation of something they’ve built over many years to protect, they have something to lose and it is perfectly reasonable that they may hesitate to be open in a way that could expose them legally. Don’t most of us act the same when it comes right down to it? Is there anyone in our time who would actually volunteer to be hung up by their thumbs. It is really easy to advocate doing the right thing when it comes at no personal cost.

So there is definitely some sympathy to be had for those three thousand men from Judah who decided to hand over Samson. It is also reasonable that the religious leaders would choose to sacrifice one man to spare their nation from potential Roman destruction. Samson and Jesus were a threat to the established order in the same way as those who bring hidden sins into the open in our own time. There are many today who would rather “kill the messenger” and bury the prophets so they can continue on as they always have and remain in denial of their own hypocrisy and faithlessness.

Finding Faith Where It Is Least Expected

My blogging over the past couple years (although less so recently) has focused on the failure of the religious culture I was born into. But that had not been my intention for the start. My writing in this blog had started in anticipation, as a means to share how faith had triumphed within the conservative Mennonite culture.

However, that is not what happened.

What happened is that my friends, my family, and those whom I had admired most, decided to side with what was most rational and sane over my delusional hopes. My hope against hope could not overcome their cold calculation and cynicism. How could it be that people who claimed to take the Bible literally and that Jesus walked on water suddenly turn to statistics and rational arguments as an answer to my pursuit of impossibility and faith? Do they really believe that “all things are possible” as it says in the verses they recite?

They travel around the world, earnestly trying to convert others to their Mennonite understanding, and then revert to “it is what it is” fatalism and insist that hearts can’t change when something comes up that threatened their own status quo. It was this double-mindedness that tortured me for those few years—the impossibility herself recited, “with God all things are possible,” (the theme of my faithful pursuit of a beautiful vision that nobody else could see) while she walked past my discouraged husk one evening and, when I was about to give up, actually gave me the reason to keep on in my quixotic pursuit of true expectations-defying faith in the Mennonite context.

In the end, I was betrayed, like Samson and Jesus, by those whom I most dearly loved. Also, like those two men, my own bride will come from outside of my birth religious culture. Samson, by divine plan, married a Philistine. Jesus married to his bride, the Gentile church… because there was more faith found among them than where it would have been reasonably expected. Like Jesus finding no greater faith in Israel than that of a Roman Centurion, I had to go outside my denominational understanding to find a Christian tradition not mired in modern rationalism and fear of change. Mennonite love could not span prejudice and preference.

The Christian tradition I now am a part of, while not free of the problems of other churches, has provided a fresh (albeit ancient) perspective of faith and, despite the defamatory caricatures I’ve heard in warnings against them by ever defensive Biblical fundamentalist Protestants, have as much vibrancy to their worship and signs of true spiritual life as I’ve found anywhere else. In fact, if it wasn’t for one of them my faith would have foundered—crushed forever against that unforgiving brick wall of Mennonite cultural expectations.

Those Who Try To Keep Their Life…

Speak the truth and you will be maligned. Be truly radical and you will be resisted by all, treated as a threat by those who should be strong allies, betrayed by those whom you trusted as dear friends, and abandoned by the crowds seeking their own ease in your hour of most desperate need.

The same patterns and types exist today as they did in Biblical times, (albeit in a different form) and we need to choose to live in faith and for truth rather by our own understanding and in our own strength. We must stand strong even when those supposed to be our leaders shrink back in fear and urge reasonable compromise.

So, anyhow, whatever did become of Samson?

Samson, after getting an agreement from the fear-fueled Judeans that they wouldn’t kill him themselves, allowed them to restrain him to be brought to the Philistines:

So they bound him with two new ropes and led him up from the rock. As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. (Judges 15:13b‭-‬15 NIV)

Samson, even in being handed over to the enemy by his supposed allies, saw an opportunity and seized upon it. He snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, literally, using a jawbone, and (filled with the Spirit) singlehandedly dispatches one thousand Philistines. Those men from Judah had to feel a bit silly after that, they had clearly picked the wrong side, the moral cowards that they were, and missed the opportunity to share in the victory with courageous Samson.

Likewise, those who condemned Jesus to death been a bit more courageous, as a group, they might have saved their cherished temple and their beloved identity as a nation. Instead, through their faithless choice, they actually brought the “or else” of Malachi 4:6 upon themselves. The destruction of Jerusalem came as a direct result of the religious leaders picking their course of action based on fear of Rome rather than faith in God. However, the effort of these morally corrupt leaders to save their way of life by killing Jesus clearly did not pan out.

Faithless leaders end up destroying the way of life they so desperately try to preserve through their own diligent efforts. Religious cowards miss the chance for real and lasting success. As Jesus said, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33 NIV) That’s a paradox of faith and pattern of Scripture, those who courageously face down giants end up winning despite the odds against them and those whose cowardice leads to moral compromise end up losing everything in the end.

Jesus, like Samson, turned what appeared to be terrible defeat into a stunning victory and made fools of these religious experts who condemned him for going against their customs. Those who rejected Jesus, despite their rational calculations and reasonable compromises, lost everything they were fighting for and missed out on something much better than the lifestyle they clung to so bitterly in their faithless ignorance. They thought they were wise and were really only fools blinded by their own prejudices and preferences.

The good news is that it is never too late to repent, step out from underneath the false security of cultural conditioning and live in the light of the true substance of faith. Change is inevitable and death too. So, live recklessly, selfless, in love for those who need it most, as one with nothing to lose and everything to gain, because that is what praying “on earth as it is in heaven” is all about! Faith means leaving behind the prison of our fears and breaking the bonds of love-limiting expectations.

A Modest Proposal and Petition to the Anabaptist Faithful—Will You Take a Clear Stand Against Sexual Abuse?

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As one baptized in the Mennonite church, having been a part of that denomination for over three decades, the revelation of the grotesque abuses of children by a man claiming to be a representative of Christ felt very personal to me. That man, a known pedophile, was allowed to continue as a missionary in Haiti by an organization that many conservative Anabaptists have trusted with their time and resources.

However, rather than join in one voice against the abuse and call for accountability for those who enabled it, some have instead attacked the messenger and accused those upset of gossiping for speaking out against this awful exploitation of innocent Haiti boys over a period of many years. They, like Mennonite leaders who shielded a confessed pedophile from criminal prosecution, seem less concerned about this man’s so-called “moral indiscretions” and more about saving the reputation of organizations.

It is for this reason that I wish to give those who find this abhorrent to make a clear stand against the abuse and apologetics on behalf of those who failed to act in a timely and appropriate manner. Please read the following statement and join the petition by adding your name (with your location) to the post on social media and the comments below. Consider this to be a template for statements to be brought before your own congregations and conferences:

As a follower of Christ, I abhor all evil and especially evil perpetrated by those who claim to be Christians and do not turn from their wicked ways. Yes, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but as the apostle Paul commanded “expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13) we also affirm our commitment to do the same. Furthermore, we believe that leaders in the church should be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and have put away dark and deceitful ways.

We hereby renounce the sin of sexual abuse and, citing clear instruction of Scripture, refuse to associate ourselves with any leader, congregation or religious organization that shelters sexual abusers from facing civil authorities. For, as it is written:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:1‭-‬5 NIV)

It is on the basis of Scripture that we stand opposed to those who claim to be believers yet, through their actions and words, usurp God’s authority and rebel against what has been instituted by God for their good. It is clear we are to submit to the authorities when they serve their role to punish the wrongdoer as a matter of Christian conscience. Therefore to do otherwise is an act of rebellion against God’s design and a sign of an unrepentant spirit.

We will not tolerate sexual abusers nor enablers of sexual abuse who use forgiveness incorrectly as a means to escape accountability or manipulate. Instead, we will call out these wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15), implore them to repent, turn from their wicked ways and face the consequences of their sins—as true repentance requires. For, as our Lord and Savior said: It is better they have a millstone put around their necks and have them thrown in the sea than they offend little ones.

We stand with the Jesus who stood up to the sanctimonious and self-righteous hypocrites and “blind guides” who would “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:24) We oppose them even if they profess Christ because we are told that in the last judgment there will be many who will plea, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” And Jesus will say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:22‭-‬23 NIV)

We agree that sexual abuse should not be given shelter in our midst and also that forgiveness should never be turned into a tool of manipulation of the abused or for enabling abusers to continue in their sinful lifestyle. We will not be unequally yoked with those who claim to be Christian and show the fruit of corruption rather than that of humility, repentance, and submission to what God has ordained.