Wrestling for the Meaning Behind the Chaos…

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A few years back, while in the throes of a struggle that would inevitably change my religious identity forever, I pondered the story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious visitor through the night. In the book of Genesis we read the account of Jacob grabbing hold of the strange angelic man, refusing to let go even after serious injury that would leave him crippled for life, and finally declaring: “I will not let you go unless you bless me!”

The man, identified in the passage as God, does bless Jacob. He also gives him a new name, “Israel,” that means “man who struggles with God” because of his life of contending with everyone and Jacob, now Israel, limps into the new day forever changed.

That story resonated with me.

The tenacity of Jacob mirrored my own a few years ago.

My mom had always told me that my name meant “strong-willed” and she paid the price for her declaration with an intensely determined son—a son who would who, after traumatic birth, needed that will to fight and would go on to contend with his parents and everyone else in the stuggle to survive.

Unlike many religious folks who seem to think that “contend for the faith” means something akin to wishful thinking, always waiting for God to do something and general agreeableness, somehow I got in my head an idea that it means grabbing hold and never letting go until we are blessed by God. It is Jesus who likens sincere faith to a persistent widow who relentlessly pursues justice for herself against an adversary until her plea is heard.

My struggle to find the meaning in my struggle, documented in prior blogs, did not end within the Mennonite denomination as I had hoped. My hope against hope, all of the seemingly meaningful coincidences in my pursuit of the impossibility (like when she literally walks by me and reads “with faith all things are possible” at the same moment of my doubts), ended cataclysmically—my priorities instantly changed from a struggle to find meaning to a fight for spiritual survival.

Since then I’ve kept very busy, have been awestruck by the beauty of Orthodoxy and have found a good reason to venture out of Milton—which I’ll tell you more about that at the right time. But, despite all of that activity, it has been very difficult to regain that sense of meaningfulness that propelled me to pursue, with reckless abandonment, that special purpose. It is harder now to believe there is anything that is truly knowable or that the narrative we create for our life is reliable or ever more than a delusion.

People believe many things, some of those beliefs inspire them to incredible accomplishments, and the power of belief cannot be understated. But the connections we make between events or the significance we assign or attribute to things, that is something that takes place in our minds, it is not objective reality, and is open to debate. In other words, we must decide for ourselves whether something is simply causality and just a coincidence or Divine Providence.

Things like confirmation bias and conspiracy theories are pretty easy to discern for those not blinded under their spell. However, the problem is that everyone seems to think that everyone else is under a delusion (except for themselves) and believes that they somehow see reality for what it is. Whether Mormon, Mennonite, Muslim or atheist, we all have our reasons for what we believe and can all find the issues with what the others believe. And, yet, amazingly enough, many somehow remain confident that their own conclusions are correct.

I can’t really claim to know much of anything anymore. Everything I believe could be a product of my need to create a meaning for my existence. Trust of my own ability to discern meaning took a huge hit a couple years ago with the rejection of those who I had entrusted with my spiritual well-being. They dismissed my judgement, my experiences and my visions (never even gave them serious consideration) which has left me no choice but to reconsider. My hopes and their ‘realities’ could no longer be reconciled.

The good news about my predicament is that I’ve finally done something I could never do before and that is live completely for the good of another person. In the absence of an overarching narrative and without any greater meaning behind events, I’ve been free to simply live. I can go to work, go to church, love the people whom I love, and can survive just fine that way without need of anything more.

Still, I would love to give confident answers about hope and meaning to those suffering through terrible tragedy or illness. And do want to more fully embrace Orthodox Christian faith and grow spiritually through the examples of the many who have walked the path of suffering and salvation before me.

However, sometimes, after wrestling through the night, we need a break. The meaning behind the chaos of life can come later date and we just need to survive. Whether my faithful pursuit of impossibility (or my grabbing hold of God refusing to let go until being blessed) will ever bear meaningful fruit I do not know—maybe, maybe not?

But what I do know is that there was one precious soul on the opposite side of the world who refused to let me go, an Orthodox priest was there at just the right moment to provide some direction when I needed it most, and whatever meaning there is behind all that I’ll leave for y’all to decide…

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On Cynicism, Courage and the Real War On Christmas

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A week ago someone had called my grandpa and identified himself as being my younger brother. He needed to be bailed out after some kind of traffic law infraction. My grandpa, not one quick to give vast sums of money over a phone call, quizzed his ‘grandson’ and inquired as to why he did not ask his parents first. The spoof caller answered that he wasn’t getting with his parents, at which point it was obviously a scam and my grandpa hung up.

The other day my grandpa called to inform me that someone had just called claiming to be me, his eldest grandson. This time he hung up without hearing another word.

On the same day my grandpa told me about this I had a plea for help, on social media, from an orphanage in Pakistan. Their profile pictures featured a bunch of dear children and those images momentarily tugged at my heartstrings. However, there was no way to verify who they really were. So, I tried to kindly explain my brotherly assistance was required elsewhere. When continued to repeat the request for a Christmas donation, like a broken record, I blocked them. I’ll probably be slower to accept a similar friend request in the future to avoid the need to try to reason with someone only interested in my wallet.

The communication era has brought the world together in ways unimaginable a century or two ago. And, with that development, predatory hoards from around the world can now invade our personal space at any given moment. The marauders no longer need to travel in longboats over dangerous seas, they simply pick up the phone and pretend to be your grandchildren.

This is frustrating for me. There are so many legitimate needs, including that of my family in the Philippines, and these are the real victims of the scammers and schemers. Those who exploit our kindness and generosity do a great disservice to the people around the world who work hard, experience hardship, and could use a little help. It is easy to become callous and uncaring under the deluge of requests. But we must have the courage to care even when there’s a chance of being exploited.

What is the real war on Christmas?

Political activists are constantly claiming a war here or a war there. The left claims that not providing women with free stuff constitutes a “war on women” and the right, not to be left out of the grievance culture fun, whines about the words “Merry Christmas” not being on Starbucks cups—who can forget Joshua Feuerstein’s coffee cup fury and the backlash?

But the real war on Christmas has little if anything to do with corporate marketing and tit-for-tat politics.

Christmas is not about compelling others to use a particular greeting or ensuring that religious displays are allowed in public spaces.

Christmas is a celebration, for the Christian faithful, of the most incredible gift ever given, that being the incarnation of God’s logos in the person of Jesus Christ and the opportunity for our divine adoption. This miraculous birth, to a virgin mother, represents a new hope for humanity and a reason to change ourselves. The true Christmas spirit is our being filled with this same spirit of love and giving of life for the good of others that Jesus embodied.

Turning Christmas into the latest battleground of a broader culture war is to entirely miss the point. Giving Starbucks hell isn’t going to further the message of glad tidings and joy, that’s for certain, and is not likely to win any hearts or minds either. Pettiness is never going to convince a skeptic to consider the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a distraction at best.

The commercialization of the holiday also takes away from the true reason for the season. The birth of our Lord and Savior wasn’t really intended to inspire stampedes of shoppers hoping to wrestle a few dollars of savings from their neighbors. But Christmas has become a marketing boon for retailers and they (along with the rest of our culture) push people to spend money they don’t have for things they don’t need—things manufactured using underpaid foreign workers while the bulk of the profits enriching a few globalist elites. It is a scheme nearly as exploitative as the telephone scammers, but completely legal.

However, those two things (culture wars and commercialization) are mere symptoms of the bigger disease and the one thing that can undermine the Christmas spirit in us—the soul-eating disease called cynicism. If Christmas has a true enemy in this world it is cynicism. Cynicism is a cancerous attitude. It is natural (albeit unhealthy and inhumane) response to a world full of self-interested people and corrupt institutions. The cynical person is one who has seen behind the curtain, who may have been taken advantage of once or twice and is now too overtaken by their skepticism to truly love their neighbors.

It is often the disillusioned idealist who becomes a bitter, critical, and faithless or cynical. Cynicism is, in that sense, a product of those who exploit trust for financial gain, a result of fatigue of being hit from all angles, and a retreat to a position of disengagement. But it is not dispassionate, as it often claims to be with a shrug, nor is this retreat from personal involvement a moral high ground. No, in reality, cynicism is an excuse for being uncaring, cold-hearted and self-centered.

The clever trick of the cynic is to be uncharitable while presenting oneself as being someone concerned about morality or morally upright for being able to identify the evil intentions of others. But the reality is that cynic is a hypocrite merely using the abuses of others as a cover for their own true self-interested indifference. They might cite scams as a reason why not to care and yet will always have another excuse waiting in the wings if that one isn’t applicable. They are simply unwilling to give of themselves.

Truly the cynic is a coward. They are too cowardly to do good in the face of evil, to be vulnerable and take a chance of being exploited. They are also too cowardly, fearing the social cost of revealing the full truth of their real underlying lack of concern for others, to make a full commitment to the evil they truly envy and yet claim to despise. The irony of the cynic is that they are as selfish and as much a part of the problem as the people that they claim has caused their cynical condition.

Caring requires courage and courage requires commitment…

It takes courage to have life experience and not be cynical. I’ve held back on giving to many charitable causes because some of them did seem more like self-interested scams. There is definitely a case for good stewardship, we should be “wise as serpents” because there are “wolves” (Matthew 10:16) who would devour us and lay waste to our hard-earned savings. It does the world no good to empower criminals or encouraging laziness in those who could learn to help themselves.

However, the dividing line between a person desperately in need of love and one merely taking advantage of the generosity of others is razor-thin. In fact, in many cases, there are overlapping motives in those asking for help, some genuine and others corrupt, and knowing how to respond requires a great deal of wisdom and discernment.

For example, a single mother, raised by the system, may indeed be inclined to take advantage of the charity offered and especially the half-hearted kind that comes out of religious obligation rather than a full commitment to love. They might simply intend to get what they can get before moving on. In those cases, it is easy to dismiss such a person, to conclude that they are unwilling to make the changes necessary to be free of their current circumstance, wash our hands, and move on.

Unfortunately, while there is a time to let people learn from their mistakes, the salvation of those who are mired in generational poverty (or otherwise unable to help themselves) often requires an investment that is beyond reasonable. In other words, it takes an investment of faith rather than of mere religious obligation. It requires the courage and commitment to look beyond the risk of being exploited and to unconditionally love another person before they have proven themselves worthy of our help. Faith means being the hands and feet of Jesus.

Had God waited for us to be worthy of his love, he would not have sent his son, we would still be waiting for a Savior and be hopelessly lost in our sin forever. The true Christmas story is God showing us how to love by becoming personally involved and being completely willing to sacrifice himself as an example for us to follow:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-7)

Christianity and cynicism are completely at odds with one another. They might be similar in that both see the chance of being taken advantage of and exploited, but are completely different in how they respond to that chance. The cynical person lives based on fear and uses their knowledge of the risk as a reason to do nothing for those in need. The Christian, by contrast, makes a commitment to do good despite the strong possibility they will suffer great loss for their efforts.

A Christian must go to war with their cynicism, they must help that diseased man heaped at their doorstep, they must aid the broken traveler discarded along the path they trod and must make an unreasonable commitment to overcome evil with good. That is how soldiers win wars, they understand the risk and are still willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. It takes courage to overcome our fears, to give ourselves as a sacrifice for the good of others, and live out the true meaning of Christmas.

Be courageous and don’t let the scammers and schemers turn your Christmas spirit into cynicism!

Mary and Restored Womanhood

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A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (Revelation 12:1‭-‬2‭, ‬4‭-‬5a NIV)

Mary is described in splendid terms in the account above. She is wearing a crown with twelve stars symbolizing the tribes of Israel, clothed with divinity and standing above creation. As she gives birth the dragon stands ready to “devour her child the moment he was born,” an allusion to Herod who ordered male children to be killed after Jesus was born as to prevent a challenge to his throne, yet she prevails. It takes a queen to give birth to a king and Mary is described in precisely those terms.

Growing up in a Protestant fundamentalist church the role of Mary was almost always dismissed or downplayed. While nobody in these churches would argue against the significance of Abraham, Elijah, King David, John the Baptist or the Apostle Paul, many do brush off the significance of Mary in the Biblical narrative and, despite claiming that Jesus is their king, would scoff at the idea that Mary should be regarded as Queen Mother. In this view Mary is basically interchangeable with any other woman and nobody special or worthy of the veneration given to faithful men.

The disregard for the example of womanhood that Mary embodies is not without consequence. In fact, it is a disrespect that I would argue leads to male abuses, abuses that lead to female reactions and greater dysfunction. In other words, feminism is a response to traditional female roles being dismissed and downplayed in the same way that Mary’s role is disregarded. Many women feel that the only way they can be recognized is by thriving in what has historically been a male domain and it is no wonder that they do. Why pursue womanhood when only male roles are worth celebrating?

Mary, the answer to Eve…

One Biblical character Protestant fundamentalists have no problem talking about is Eve. They have no problem talking about how Eve was the one first deceived or quoting verses about male authority over women. I know many men who spend an awful lot of time discussing bad female characters, like Jezebel, or any woman who would dare challenge their authority, and continually attempting to blame women for their own failures.

For example, I recall a morbidly obese man who faulted his wife’s cooking for his condition and I know many more men who try to use female immodesty as a means to offload responsibility for their own lusts and abuses. And so it goes. These men are imposters rather than Christian leaders. They want to claim authority for themselves and yet, at every turn, blame women for their failures. They resemble Adam who blamed Eve more than Jesus who took up the cross despite being blameless.

To solve this age old problem we should go back to the beginning and right after the fall of mankind:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15 NIV)

This was what God told the serpent who deceived Eve. It is a prophecy about “the woman” and also specifically a woman. This woman would produce a child that would crush the head of this serpent and this is exactly what we read happened in the book of Revelation:

The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Revelation 12: 9 NIV)

The woman with “enmity” towards the serpent triumphed over the dragon through her offspring and that woman is the answer to those still deceived and stuck with Eve. The parallels between Eve and Mary, the antidote, are too great to ignore and were well-understood by the faithful in the early church:

As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve. (St Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies” [A.D. 175-185])

This is the logical extension of what St Paul’s exposition in his letter to the Galatians about slavery under the law and freedom in the Spirit:

His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. (Galatians 4:23 NIV)

The comparison above is between Abraham’s two sons, one born by human effort to the slave woman and another by divine origin to his wife Sarah, but the greater context Paul speaks of is of our own divine sonship and salvation. The sons of Eve lives in bondage, they are subject to the law and perpetually trying to escape the condemnation of the law through their own efforts. But he writes of another son “born of a woman” who provides an opportunity for us to be a heir of God and a son of the free woman.

Jesus is understood to be the new Adam. Or the Adam who brought the “life-giving spirit” rather than death like his predecessor (1 Corinthians 5:45) and salvation from sin. And, his mother, in the same way, is understood to be the woman whose obedience overcame the curse of Eve’s disobedience and undoes the curse upon women. It is through the man Jesus, born of a woman, Mary, that we are saved. But it was not any woman, it was not a woman under the bondage of sin—it was a free woman.

“Behold your mother!”

There are those who use references to brothers and sisters of Jesus as proof that Mary, after giving birth to Jesus, conceived to Joseph and didn’t remain a virgin. This is another subtle way to belittle her and the significance of her role in the story of our salvation. It is also something routinely used by men to undermine the authority of the church. The perpetual virginity of Mary, for that reason, is important as a theological point and a misunderstanding of Scripture that is easily cleared up.

First of all, because it was not uncommon for older men to marry younger women in Biblical times, Ruth and Boaz for example, and it is widely accepted that there was an age differential between Mary and Joseph. It is quite possible, even probable, that Joseph was an older widower and had other children to another woman. So, in other words, the references to the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus could be step-brothers and step-sisters rather than other sons and daughters of Mary his mother.

Second, it is possible that we are misunderstanding the words used. Indeed, the same words translated as “brothers” and “sisters” could denote a close relative as Aramaic, the language being spoken, didn’t distinguish between brother or sister and a cousin. It seems similar to how Filipinos use the word “tito” (literally uncle) and “tita” (literally aunt) to also refer to a cousin or respected elder. So we may be dealing with a language translation issue.

Whatever the case, it is definitely not advisable to take our cues from those who were in doubt of Jesus, who identified him as “the carpenter’s son” and didn’t accept him as God’s son:

Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. (Matthew 13:55-57 NIV)

Note, the passage does not say that Mary is the mother of the other “brothers” and “sisters” mentioned.

If we should not be offended when Jesus claims to be God’s son rather than that of Joseph, then we should not be apt to resist the idea that his brothers and sisters could be from another woman and the real possibility Mary remained a virgin. This is the view of early church writers:

The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word […] might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity. (Origen, “Commentary on Matthew 2:17” [A.D. 248]).

And the doubt of this answered emphatically by St Jerome:

[Helvidius] produces Tertullian as a witness [to his view] and quotes Victorinus, bishop of Petavium. Of Tertullian, I say no more than that he did not belong to the Church. But as regards Victorinus, I assert what has already been proven from the gospel—that he [Victorinus] spoke of the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship, not by nature. [By discussing such things we] are […] following the tiny streams of opinion. Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against [the heretics] Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man. (Jerome, Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary 19 [A.D. 383]).

We believe that God was born of a virgin, because we read it. We do not believe that Mary was married after she brought forth her Son, because we do not read it. […] You [Helvidius] say that Mary did not remain a virgin. As for myself, I claim that Joseph himself was a virgin, through Mary, so that a virgin Son might be born of a virginal wedlock. (ibid., 21).

If that isn’t enough to clear up the issue, the emphasis that even Joseph became purified through Mary’s virginity (similar to what Paul says about believing spouse “sanctifying” their unbelieving partner and children in 1 Corinthians 7:14), then we should consider again what Jesus did on the cross:

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-29 NIV)

Jesus, in agony on the cross, soon to say “it is finished” and give up his spirit, and his concern is who would care for his mother. Not only does this highlight how important Mary is to Jesus, it would also be completely unnecessary for Jesus to assign someone to care for his mother if she had other sons and daughters. What we do know is that Jesus had to assign someone to care for his mother, to a disciple, and that would be odd if she actually had many children.

But there’s a twist…

Mary, in the same way we have become sons of Abraham through faith (Galatians 3:29) and similar to how Jesus became a son of Joseph through adoption, has also become our mother. If we are coheirs of Christ, sharing in his divinity through our adoption, then we are, likewise, are sons and daughters of Mary his mother. So, rejoice, our inheritance through Eve (sin and death) has been overcome through the Blessed Virgin and by her Son!

“From now on all generations will call me blessed…”

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55 NIV)

It is sad that those words do not carry much weight in some quarters who claim a ‘literal’ understanding of Scripture. I suppose they may think that Mary, a young woman, should not be taken seriously and her words are merely the product of unchecked female exuberance?

In that case these doubters should look at a declaration made by Elizabeth, full of the Spirit, in the verses right before Mary’s exclamation:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:41-43 NIV)

If the witness of two women and the Spirit isn’t enough, what will be?

Mary is most certainly blessed among women. If we should believe anything else said in Luke, then we must accept this is the reality, that it is something spoken through Elizabeth by the Spirit, and should join the generations of the faithful who call Mary blessed.

Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant!

Mary is blessed because she, set apart by her parents, allowed herself to be a vessel. Mary is referred to as the “Ark of the New Covenant” and that is because of the direct parallels in Scripture made between her and the holiest of vessels in Israel…

Mary is overshadowed and filled:

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called b the Son of God. (Luke 1:35)

As the ark of the Lord (in the tabernacle) was overshadowed and filled:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34,35 NIV)

***

David, a man after God’s own heart, revered the ark:

David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me? (2 Samuel 6:9)

Likewise, righteous Elizabeth says the same thing about Mary:

But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:43)

***

David, to the scorn of his wife, celebrated the ark of the Lord:

Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets. (2 Samuel 6:14,15)

Likewise, unborn John the Baptist, in defiance of those who do not honor the mother of our Lord, also leapt at the sound of Mary’s voice:

As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:44)

***

Finally, the ark of the Lord took a detour:

He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household. (2 Samuel 6:10,11 NIV)

And that parallels this:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, […] Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. (Luke 1:39,56 NIV)

So, given these clear parallels, it is only right Mary is called the “Ark of the New Covenant” and Theotokis (“Bearer of God”) and to say otherwise is to be ignorant of Scripture.

And, yes, all those filled with the Spirit do, in a way, parallel Mary in this regard. Christians are told, by St Paul, that they are the “temple of the Holy Spirit” and to “glorify God in your body” by remaining free of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 19:18-20) and this is following the example of Mary in being a vessel. However, Mary literally carried our Lord and Savior in her womb, we are told she is blessed among women and for that she is worthy of our honor and veneration—in the same way as the Ark of the Covenant.

Mary, like that Ark, is also set apart as holy and not to be touched.

“Do whatever he tells you.”

Mary was also an example for motherhood. She did not keep her son for herself by refusing to let him go or holding him back and enabled him to fulfill his purpose instead.

I’ve never thought much about this before listening to Dr Jordan Peterson a few months ago and the contrast he makes between Mary and the devouring (or Oedipal) mother or mother who over-protects her child, attempts to keep them for herself, and is a hindrance rather than a help to healthy development.

Peterson says Mary is the archetype of a good mother for offering her son to the service of God and as a sacrifice to the world. That is what good mothers do, rather than hoard (or, heaven forbid, destroy) the blessings of their womanhood, they give their children for sake of the world.

Anyhow, let’s take a look at the events leading up to the first miracle attributed to Jesus in Scripture:

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:1‭-‬5 NIV)

Some Protestant commentators take the inflection of the English translation (when Jesus says “woman, why do you involve me?” in response to Mary) as evidence that Jesus didn’t have any special regard for his mother. This is to suggest that Jesus would blatantly disregard the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:1–21, Deuteronomy 5:1–23) and go against his own words rebuking those who defied God’s command (Matthew 15:3-9) and basically make him a hypocrite.

This word “woman,” according to what I’ve read, is more to effect of “madam” than the English translation suggests and is also the same word used to denote a man’s wife elsewhere in Scripture. There is no reason to suspect that Jesus would be disrespectful of his mother and those who suggest that this is the case should probably consider the actions that accompanied his words.

We know what Jesus did immediately thereafter. He, like a good son, does and honors his mother by doing what she requests of him. Mary, for her part, does what a good mother does, she prompts her son to action and encourages others to give her son the respect he is due. We should not forget that Mary, in the same way as God the Father (yet as a human mother), also willingly gave her only son.

More on sons and their mothers…

Mary, mother of the King?

When Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah, the king stood up to meet her, bowed down to her and sat down on his throne. He had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat down at his right hand. “I have one small request to make of you,” she said. “Do not refuse me.” The king replied, “Make it, my mother; I will not refuse you.” (1 Kings 2:19‭-‬20 NIV)

It is interesting how good mothers intercede and especially on behalf of their sons. We see how Bathsheba (treated with reverence by Solomon) brought a petition to him and his response. There are also many stories of faithful mothers who prayed, with tears, every day for their wayward sons and I do believe that God hears their prayers. We also see this in the story of a mother who made a request to Jesus on behalf of her sons:

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:20‭-‬21 NIV)

This account is told differently in Mark 10, where the son’s of Zebedee, James and John, to the indignation of the other disciples, make this request themselves rather than through their mother. I’m not sure how to reconcile the two accounts, but I do see the role of mothers as significant. Let’s not forget that it was Bathsheba who prompted King David to name her son, Solomon, as his successor:

Then Nathan asked Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, “Have you not heard that Adonijah, the son of Haggith, has become king, and our Lord David knows nothing about it? Now then, let me advise you how you can save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. Go in to King David and say to him, ‘My Lord the king, did you not swear to me your servant: “Surely Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne”? Why then has Adonijah become king?’ (1 Kings 1:11‭-‬13 NIV)

Now, clearly the prophet Nathan could’ve gone directly to the king himself and made this request on behalf of Solomon. But it seems Nathan, as a man of God, knew a little about the persuasive power that a woman has over a man and therefore makes his request to Bathsheba instead. Good men, like good Kings listen to their Queen Mother, listen to women, especially their wives and even more especially their own mothers.

Honor goes to the humble…

Going back to the question of who sits at the right and left hand of Jesus. We read the answer Jesus gave:

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:22‭-‬23 NIV)

Unlike worldly leaders who privilege themselves, in God’s kingdom “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16) or, in other words, those who have suffered most in this life will hold the highest places of honor in the kingdom.

My own thought is that there is one person who fits this description of suffering more than any other and that being the mother forced to watch her precious child, literally the perfect son, be falsely accused, brutally tortured, viciously ridiculed, and murdered in the most horrible method.

Can you imagine how Mary, a mother, would’ve felt as Jesus hung there dying?

I’ve heard that women, due to their giving birth, have a higher threshold for physical pain than a men. Since pain is subjective, I’m not sure if that is true. But I do know, from personal experience, the sound of a mother’s wail upon the loss of her only and most beloved child. It was something that cut me to my soul.

It would be quite ironic, given that men argued for the honor to bestowed upon them, if the humble mother of our Lord and Savior was given that seat of honor beside her son. We can recall Peter boldly saying to Jesus, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you,” (Mark 14:31) and how the other disciples quickly agreed. But this male bravado quickly faded away as Jesus was taken away to be killed. It was Mary, not Peter, who remained beside Jesus until the end.

Can you think of anyone more worthy of sitting at the right hand of Jesus than his mother?

Anyhow, regardless of where Mary sits in the minds of some, she is the Queen Mother and worthy of our honor or Jesus is not King. Because if we deny this we are basically joining those who used “king of the Jews” as a mocking description. But, if Jesus is Lord, and the lineage to David coming through his mother, then we ought to show due respect to the queenship of his mother. And, given that Jesus listens to his mother and since we already do ask others to pray for is all the time, it doesn’t like a bad thing to follow the lead of Nathan.

Mary, the prayerful mother

Had anyone a few years ago asked me about the importance of Mary I would’ve probably said she was a good woman and shrugged. I would not have understood why Orthodox Christians venerate her (with all the saints) and would say that all we need is Jesus.

However, I was ignorant. Of course Jesus is the center of our faith, he is our Lord and Savior, we worship only the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But that doesn’t mean the other examples in Scripture (and in the history of the church) are worth nothing for us. No, their unique stories of faith are there for our benefit, to encourage us, and as examples we can emulate.

Mary stands out as one of these faithful examples. Her contemplation, how she “treasured” things and “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19,2:51), and her strength in remaining with her son, her willing response to the angel (“I am the Lord’s servant” Luke 1:38), the proper honor she is given by the faithful, provides a restored vision for womanhood.

Certainly there are many good women. Many have even seen their children martyred for sake of the Gospel. But Mary was the mother of our Lord and Savior, the vessel God chose for his son, and (like Eve) not just any woman. She should be honored, her true feminine strength should be praised, and it is through her womb that salvation came to the world.

Joachim and Anna and the Curse of Childlessness

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For those raised in the conservative Mennonite culture big families are a given. There were nineteen children in my dad’s family (sixteen biological, three adopted) and, while that is the extreme, it would be very unusual for a married couple not to have any children. In a culture where blessing is practically synonymous with children, a childless home would likely produce some whispers and infertility a very unpleasant matter.

Children have traditionally been a retirement plan and marriage commitment the first step. A person without any offspring would likely have nobody to care for them in their old age. Even in a time when the state has taken over that role of social security there is still need of a new generation of children to keep that kind of system solvent. As many industrialized nations have below-replacement fertility rates, childlessness could soon be the crisis for us that it would have been in the ancient times when this was written:

Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their opponents in court. (Psalm 127:3‭-‬5 NIV)

Indeed, who will contend for the childless?

If you think that democratic institutions, in the hands of young people raised in a culture that values youth, will continue to provide for the elderly who have no familial connection to them then someday you’ll have a rude awakening. If anything the elderly are seen as a political obstacle in our modern times, a waste of limited resources when we have Google to provide our answers, and many of these youthful ignorant social engineers—rather than contend with a bunch of has-beens they don’t care to know—would delight in giving you a push to an early grave.

The Childless In Scripture

In ancient times, perhaps for the reason that there would be nobody to care for you in old age without children, there was a social stigma attached to being childless. In the case of Saul’s daughter Michal, who was critical of her husband David’s celebration antics, and her childlessness is expressed (2 Samuel 6:20-23) as if being a punishment. We are never told if that was simply a result of her relationship with her husband or not, but either way she did not produce an heir to David’s throne—which would be a serious setback to say the least.

There are patterns in Scripture and one of those patterns being that those most notably childless early on are often the most greatly blessed later. The most notable of those couples with a deferred blessing is Abraham and Sarah. They were elderly and had remained childless. We are told “she was not able to concieve” (Genesis 11:30) yet Abraham was promised to be “the father of my nations” (Genesis 17:4) and this seemed plain ridiculous given the advanced age of the couple. But, they were blessed by God, Sarah did bear Issac and was childless no more.

There is also the account of childless Hannah. In the first book of Samuel we read how she was treated especially well by her husband (who had two wives) because he loved her. And yet her rival would torment her over the fact that she could not bear children and this made her miserable to the point she couldn’t eat. Finally she cried out to God, weeping bitterly, she vowed:

Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head. (1 Samuel 1:11 NIV)

In other words, she promised her son would be a man dedicated to God.

The account goes on to say that Eli, the priest, who was watching her pray yet couldn’t hear her words, thought she was drunk and tells her to put away her wine. But she responds that this isn’t the case, that she is simply deeply in anguish, to which the priest tells her: “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” (1 Samuel 1:17 NIV) This answer seems to have consoled Hannah who we are told began to eat again and would later become pregnant, bear a son Samuel—a name which basically means “heard by God” and he would, as a result of her commitment, become a great prophet.

Finally, before we move on to Joachim and Anna, there is this assurance given to the childless who remain faithful:

And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. (Isaiah 56:3‭a-‬5 NIV)

There are many who would love to have children and cannot. This is one of those terrible ironies given the numbers of abortions and abused or neglected children in the world. We will never know, at least on this side of eternity, why some who long to be mothers and fathers are denied the blessing of children. However, we do see that those who suffer this despite their righteousness will be rewarded in the end and therefore should always put their hope in God who will make all things good for those who love and obey Him.

Who Are Joachim and Anna?

These two, mentioned at the conclusion of each liturgy, “the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna,” despite being mostly forgotten in the religious tradition I was born into, have one of those great stories.

Joachim was from the tribe of Judah and a descendant of King David. His wife, Anna, was from the tribe of Levi, the same as the High Priest Aaron and the daughter of the priest Matthan. They had lived fifty years, as a married couple, and were unable to have children despite their devotion to God.

Joachim had faithfully, since his teenage years, given two-thirds of his income, one third to the poor and another third to the Temple, and were financially blessed for this. However, their childlessness finally became a cause of harassment. The High Priest, Issachar, confronted Joachim and told him, “You are not worthy to offer sacrifice with those childless hands.” And, with that pronouncement, he was pushed back by others, who had children.

Rejected and despairing in this disgrace, Joachim studied and found that, indeed, every righteous man in Israel had been blessed with children. He and his wife left with Jerusalem with profound sadness because of this. They began to pray for a miracle, like that which happened for Abraham and Sarah, him going into the mountains with his flocks and Anna returning home. Then the archangel Gabriel visited them both, promising them “a daughter most blessed, by whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed, and through whom will come the salvation of the world.” The picture is of them meeting again, at the city gates, upon hearing this.

Their daughter, Mary, the mother of Jesus our Lord, was specially dedicated to God and, like Hannah’s son Samuel, was brought up at the Temple at the age of three to be raised with other girls there. Their righteousness was finally rewarded having waited those many years. Their story is one that is a good reminder to those who have been faithful yet have not been blessed like others. They are the grandparents of our Lord and Savior.

Anyhow, by coincidence, the conception of Mary is celebrated today, December 9th, which is something I didn’t know when I began writing this blog.

How Orthodox Christianity Triumphs Against the Odds

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Christianity was systematically opposed and oppressed in the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox church, said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, was heavily persecuted under Marxist rule. Atheism was promoted in government schools, speaking against it outlawed, and it seemed that Orthodox Christianity did not stand a chance against this irreligious secular state.

During that dark period, thousands of church leaders were killed. Many more were imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals or the “gulags” to do forced labor. From 1917 to 1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested and 95,000 of them were executed by firing squad. Later, from 1937 to 1928, in another anti-religious purge campaign, 168,000 Orthodox clergymen were arrested and, of them, 100,000 shot. Religion was ridiculed in the public sphere, believers were harassed and deprived of parental rights, church properties were seized by the state and buildings, including the beautiful Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, were destroyed: Cathedral_of_Christ_the_Saviour_(destruction,_1931)

The Russian Orthodox church, that extended into the Americas (where they didn’t kill the Native populations like their Western counterparts) and had an estimated 54,000 parishes in Russia before WW1, was reduced to only 500 parishes in the 1940’s under the Communist dictatorship. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 left Russian Orthodox churches in Japan, United States, Manchuria, and elsewhere effectively orphaned and without support. Patriarch Tikhon, in 1920, issued a decree for these churches to operate independently until normalcy could be restored and, as a result, many of these churches (because of financial hardship and/or need of pastoral care and governance) were turned over to the Orthodox churches of their national homelands—which is why there is the current disorganized mix of Greek, Antiochian, ROCOR and OCA parishes in America.

However, Orthodoxy has since triumphed over Marxism in Russia. An average of three churches a day are being opened by the Orthodox faithful in Russia, there are currently 40,000 churches and, at the current pace, that number may double in the next decades. In addition, there are now 900 active monasteries (down from 1000 pre-revolution) and this is an expansion based on demand. This resilience against the odds, against the world’s only other superpower besides the United States, is a testament to the strength of Orthodox religious tradition. Orthodoxy in Russia could not be driven into extinction by one of the most powerful and brutal regimes in human history and is as strong today as ever.

The divided (and dying) church of America

America has traditionally divided up according to ethnicity or race. Churches (Protestant, Roman Catholic or otherwise) are not exceptional in this regard. Many churches, including Mennonites and Amish, came as a result of immigrants taking their religion with them rather than as a missionary endeavor. It is not a surprise that traditionally German churches, like the Lutherans, are mostly populated by white people nor is it unexpected that people go to churches that are reflective of their own cultures or where their own language is spoken. People tend to gravitate to other people who look like them.

But this “homogeneity principle” also extends beyond skin color as well. A church that is racially or ethnically diverse is probably homogeneous in other ways (things like level of education, political affiliations, etc) and thus not truly diverse. For example, American Mennonites, from the most progressive or liberal to the most ultra-conservative and traditional Old Order end of the denomination. are (with the exception of a few adoptions and inner-city outreaches) ethnically homogenous. But, as centuries of divisions have proven, that shared genetic ancestry and skin color certainly does not make us the same. And so it is with Protestantism in general. A multi-ethnic church probably has very little diversity in terms of educational level, ideological bent, or income and this is because we prefer to be with people who share something in common with us.

The end result is that everyone claims that they are loyal to Christ and his love. Yet, in reality, there are hidden loyalties that are actually taking precedence. We are divided by our loyalties to our race, our religious/cultural heritage, national/political identities, denominational affiliations, personal preferences, and feelings or any combination of the preceding items. In other words, our pet issues and petty differences are what truly matters to us despite what we profess. And this doesn’t get better for those who are non-denominational or believe they are independently guided by the Spirit and are truly only loyal to themselves. Saint Paul, the Apostle, said that the Spirit brings unity to the body (Ephesians 4:1-6) and spoke out against disunity brought about by their misplaced loyalties:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, a in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10-15)

Note, Paul calls out even those who claim “I follow Christ” in his rebuke and that is not because Christ is not the head of the church either. No, it is because loyalty to Christ means loyalty to his church, to true believers past and present (and future) who together represent his body, and who we are to seek Communion with rather than chase after our own personal ideals. True Christianity is about forbearance, forgiveness, and humility, realizing our own fallibility and showing mercy to others as we have been shown mercy by God. It is little wonder that many are confused about Christianity in America and increasing numbers are checking-out of their denominational and ever-dividing churches. It is because many professing Christians say one thing and do another. They say they love as Christ loves, even call someone a “brother,” but are completely unwilling to sacrifice anything of true consequence to themselves in love for the body of Christ.

Is Orthodoxy any different from this?

Yes and no.

At the time I am writing this there is a break in Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarchate of Constantinople over a Ukrainian schism. In 1992, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, some Ukrainian Orthodox wanted their independence from Moscow (understandably so given regional politics) and, unfortunately, went ahead without having appropriate permission. Making matters worse than they already were, Archbishop Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, decided to recognize the schismatics and over the protests of Moscow. This, of course, is not acceptable, important church decisions have been always made by a council or through the correct channels, rather than independently, and this is reminiscent of the unilateral decision-making that divided the Roman Catholics from Orthodox in the Great Schism.

The explanation above probably comes off as Greek to those outside of Orthodoxy and took some time me to wrap my own head around. However, it is also a good way to illustrate a key difference between Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic perspectives of authority in the church. In Roman Catholicism, the Pope, as “Vicar of Christ” and supreme by his own decree, rules the roost. Protestants, by contrast, essentially believe that every man (and his Bible) is their own Pope and need not be accountable to anyone besides themselves. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, do not see even their highest ranked individual as being infallible or outside need to be accountable and rather (like the early church) build upon consensus and through councils—which means even Peter, the first amongst equals, can be set right as need be.

(On an aside, Anabaptists, in that they believed in individual submission to the group, were traditionally sort of a half-step between Orthodoxy and Protestantism in this regard. The difference being that Anabaptists are only accountable to the local church (and what they cherry-pick from Scripture or early church writings) rather than the universal church and an ordination faithfully passed down, generation to generation, from the time of the Apostles. This unique Anabaptist perspective, while still preserved by the Amish and other Old Order groups, has been largely supplanted by Biblical fundamentalism in “conservative” Mennonite churches and secular/progressive group-think in the “liberal” side—both sides with zero real accountability to the historic church including even their own Anabaptist forebears.)

The Ukrainian schism, while a black mark on the testimony of the those who caused it if left unresolved, is actually proof the triumph of Orthodoxy over the spirit of division or unity formed around the wrong loyalties. The consensus across the Patriarchates seeming to be that the Ecumenical Patriarch went outside the bounds by recognizing the Ukrainian schismatics. The unity of the church is not mere unity for the sake of unity, but a unity of Spirit that doesn’t neglect sound doctrine or the traditions (“whether by word of mouth or by letter,” 2 Thessalonians 2:15) passed down by the church. In other words, the established Orthodoxy has more authority than any one person or group within the church. Orthodoxy is something that transcends all individuals in the church and protects against both abusive patriarchs and also the divisions over personal opinions. The Spirit of truth, the foundation of Orthodox tradition, is what preserved correct doctrines against heresy and false teachers.

Orthodoxy is what delivered the Biblical canon. The same Biblical canon that many that many Protestant fundamentalists and other separatists idolize as an infallible object equal to God while simultaneously not recognizing the authority of the church that wrote, authenticated, and compiled it for them. It is strange that a council was only good for that one thing, creating a collection of books that can’t be changed, and not anything else before or after, isn’t it?

But, I do digress…

Yes, Orthodoxy is messy because, as with the church of Acts, there is still a difference of opinion, politics, legalism, favoritism, and imperfection. We can’t get away from conflict, not even in the church founded by Christ himself and that is disheartening to us idealistic types. But that was also the case from the earliest days of Christianity and that is why there was a need of the Jerusalem Council recorded in the book of Acts.  The church had councils to establish who was right or wrong and how to correctly interpret Scripture.

Orthodoxy (that is to say “right opinion”) is something worthwhile and should be the goal of every Christian. It is that sincere desire to find and hold to what is true that is leading many from the ranks of the most divided and disillusioned branches of Christendom and to the “ancient faith” of the Orthodox Christians.

The triumph of Orthodoxy…

Like king Josiah hearing the Scripture read for the first time, many are discovering the elegant theology and awe-inspiring, aesthetic appeal, and ancient beauty of Orthodox worship. Divine liturgy carries depth, history and meaning unrivaled in an age of flashing lights, cheap gimmicks, and consumerism. This is why people from all denominational backgrounds are finding a home in Orthodoxy today. The majority of those in my parish is not “cradle Orthodox” in that they were born in the Orthodox church and this seems to be the trend. In fact, nearly half of the million Orthodox Christians in the United States are converts and I am just one of the many who did.

It is very exciting to see the interest of those who have read this blog and want to know more. Several are either now attending services, have visited or are planning to visit when they have a chance. There is one, in particular, a single lady born into a conservative Mennonite church, never baptized and made a member, who left the church disillusioned by the pettiness, abusive leadership and message of condemnation, describes the Antiochian parish she is currently attending as “St Philips is beauty for the mind and spirit. A haven, a calm, a refuge,” adding that it is the “truest example of Jesus words put into my own, ‘Come just as you are.'” I have also had the pleasure of conversing with several who are converts from Anabaptist background, including a man who is my cousin through marriage, and have had the same hard-to-put-into-words experience I have had.

To be clear, the Orthodox church, like other churches, did come over with ethnic communities from Greece, Russia, Syria, Africa, Egypt and other parts of the world. Many Orthodox churches in America did often start as a part of an ethnic community and a decade ago may have been compromised mostly of people from one ethnic background. However, as that immigrant population declines it is being replaced by those who come from all sorts of Christian backgrounds. In my own parish, there is everything from non-denominational to Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic. Many of these converts were, like me, at the end of their ropes with religion as it had been presented to them, some agnostics, who were drawn to Orthodoxy through various means and have been forever changed by the experience. The most recent converts at my parish: Two women, one of them a Mennonite pastor, who were Chrismated and welcomed home a few weeks ago.

There is a great documentary on religious “nones” called “Becoming Truly Human,” that describes the journey of various people who have left the version of Christianity they were raised in and have simply stopped attending any religious services. There is clearly a need for an answer, people long for a connection to the historic church, a worship that transcends current fads and trends, something real and authentic, and Orthodox Christianity provides this. Orthodoxy, made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), has withstood the persecution of the past century like it did in the first century and is a bastion for the faithful. Orthodoxy, the church that Jesus promised the “gates of hell would not prevail against” (Matthew 16:18), has and will continue to triumph against the odds.

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I Prefer Representatives, Sound Doctrine and the Holy Spirit Over False Choices

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I was speaking with a friend a week or two ago (a conservative Mennonite searching for his place in the church) and he shared this quote:

“Doctrine is dead as a doorknob without the presence of the Holy Spirit in an individual’s life.” (Paul Washer)

That quote drop of a Calvinist commentator was annoying to me. It was annoying because it was shared in the context of a conversation about Orthodox worship and prayers. The clear implication being that established doctrine is somehow in conflict with spiritual life.

So, without hesitation, I asked my friend: “How do you know Washer’s doctrines (like the one you just quoted) are inspired by the Holy Spirit?”

My question was based on my own experience as one who had put his full confidence in the Holy Spirit and has since learned (the hard way) the need to be grounded in sound doctrine as well. In fact, it was my desire to follow the Spirit without compromise which had led to my pursuit of the impossibility, which led to my eventual disillusionment with the Mennonite denomination, which led me to the ancient faith of Orthodoxy and new spiritual life.

So, getting back to Washer’s quote, he presents a false choice between doctrine and the Holy Spirit. He, like many Protestant commentators, seems to equate established religious dogma with spiritual deadness. His quote suggests that we devalue church traditions (those pertaining to worship and prayer in the case of my friend) based in an assumption that what is new or spontaneous is somehow more authentic and real than something that has been passed down through many generations.

But is that truly the case?

Do we ever need to choose between established doctrine and authentic faith?

From what I can tell, church doctrine and real spiritual life originate from the same source (that source being the Holy Spirit) and thus we should not ever have to choose between the two. The traditions passed down by the church (including the canon of Scripture) and the Holy Spirit are never at odds. To deny the importance of church doctrines and tradition is basically to speak against the authority of Scripture:

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3‭-‬4 NIV)

Nowhere in Scripture do I see sound doctrine being presented in contrast with living according to the Holy Spirit. However, I do see James tells us “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26) and also know, according to the Gospel (Matthew 7:22-24), that there will be those who have professed faith in Jesus, even worked miracles in his name, whom he will tell to depart because he never knew them and therefore authenticity of faith is about more than making a claim.

Thus I do question the basis for this commentator’s opinion and the many others out there of those who speak with a similar confidence about spiritual matters. By what authority do they speak? How do we know that they, along with their devoted followings, are not deceived? I mean these ‘spiritual’ commentators are often at complete odds with one another. Don’t believe me? Do a Google search “Paul Washer false teacher” and you’ll find dozens of articles denouncing him and his teachings.

So who is right? Who is wrong? How do we know?

My contempt for commentators…

My reaction to the Washer quote isn’t something unusual for me. I have a near-universal contempt for commentators and especially those who can’t at least ground their statements directly to something found in Scripture. And perhaps that strong aversion is because I have enough strong opinions of my own, more than my fill, and therefore seek something a little more grounded than mere opinions?

Not to be misunderstood, that’s not to say that I find no value in reading commentators. I do believe we can gain many valuable insights from listening to various men and women sharing their personal perspectives on spiritual issues.

But, that said, not all commentators are equal and anyone can say anything and our feelings (one way or another) about what someone says doesn’t make it any more or less true. There are likely false teachings that would resonate with any one of us and we should guard against being closed off to truth based on our emotions. We should remember that all religious groups are able to justify their own understanding of spiritual matters, many of them live morally upright lives, and can be very convincing to those who don’t know any different.

And, to be clear, I’m not just talking about those commentators who say “the Holy Spirit tells me thus and such” without offering any corroborating evidence from church history or Scripture. Being a Bible scholar or well-educated and intelligent does not make a person less susceptible to confirmation bias. No, if anything, being well-studied and smart brings a danger of pride and pride can prevent us from seeing our own biases and the many things we have missed in our studies.

Proof-texting, when a person soundbites Biblical texts at the cost of context, is a real problem for any commentator. That is why we have a multitude of denominations all claiming their authority comes from Scripture and, yet, can’t agree on some very basic issues. It isn’t that one side is more ignorant of the book than another nor that one side is less sincere about their profession of faith than another either—the problem is a lack of accountability to anything more than what feels right to us.

My own commentary on spiritual life…

Going back to Washer’s quote, I believe we can all agree that there is no life in the church or elsewhere without the Holy Spirit.

As the Orthodox pray on a regular basis:

“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life – come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.”

We know, from the creation narrative, that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2) and is also the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7) that entered Adam. Life, both physical and spiritual, comes from the Holy Spirit, and we see this pattern throughout Scripture and even at the end of the Gospel when Jesus empowered the disciples to continue his ministry of forgiveness:

And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:22‭-‬23 NIV)

Note how that parallels with the Genesis account where God breathes life into Adam. Note also that this being “breathed on” comes after the resurrection, after Jesus spent years teaching these men, and is what enabled them to fully understand what he had taught:

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:45‭-‬49 NIV)

The disciples being “clothed with power from on high” (a step that should happen before we go out on our own commission) is something that happened in the book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, when they received an outpouring of the Spirit and many came to believe in Jerusalem.

Truth, according to Paul’s commentary, in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, is something revealed by the Holy Spirit. That is something that mirrors what Jesus said in his promise of a “Comforter” that would “guide you (his disciples) into all the truth” (John 16:13), and there is no way around it. All the Bible study and religious knowledge in the world cannot breath spiritual life into anyone.

All that said, sound doctrine and spiritual life are never at odds with each other. That it took a special outpouring of the Spirit before the disciples could understand what Jesus taught doesn’t make his prior effort useless. His teachings, if anything, provided substance, like the dust God formed up into a man in Genesis, and his breath the catalyst.

Furthermore, those waiting on the right feelings, or teachings that resonate with them and their own prior experience, will likely be like the rich young ruler who left disappointed after asking what he must do to be saved. Faith demands we go outside of our own comfort zone, that we go beyond our own understanding, preferences or calculations, and begin to walk before we have our eyes opened. In fact, the Spirit is something promised only to those who those who love Jesus and keep his commandments:

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. […] “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:15‭-‬17a‭, ‬23 NIV)

So, what comes first, belief and obedience to Jesus or is it the revelation of truth via the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand what we read?

That is a paradox and something that has always made me uncomfortable. Jesus appears to make obedience a prerequisite to spiritual revelation, which ran counter to my own intuition, and why I had always stressed the second half of the teaching rather than the first part. How could I know what is sound doctrine (as in the correct understanding of what Jesus taught enabling my obedience) without the Holy Spirit coming first?

My understanding was clouded by an individualistic filter…

One would think that I, as one raised in a church with Anabaptist heritage, would understand that interpretation of Scripture and establishing doctrine is something we do together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, as a church.

But somewhere along the line (somewhere between urban myths being shared from the pulpit and men like Bill Gothard being given a platform), I had lost trust in the ‘ordained’ leadership and other members to discern truth. And, as a result, I began to look beyond my religious peers for answers. Eventually, after an epiphany about faith, I began to find answers in Biblical passages that had once confounded me and became more confident in my own individual discernment through the Spirit.

However, that paradigm of understanding was incomplete and all came crashing down when my own individual ability to discern spiritual truth came into serious question.

It is easy to claim the Holy Spirit is leading you while you remain safe within the boat of religion. But true faith requires going beyond our own established range of possibilities, to let go of our own human logic and reason, and step out of the boat. I did that. I stepped out. I took a few steps across the waves and then was promptly overwhelmed by doubts—doubts that were, in part, a product of running headlong into the plans, prejudices and cynical calculations of those in the church whom I had still counted on to mirror my faith.

I had questions that I could not answer nor could be answered in the Mennonite context. I had lost faith in my Mennonite identity and Anabaptist heritage to provide reliable guidance. I felt I had been fooled, once again, misled by the desire to find meaning in my struggles and a delusional faith that the impossible would be made possible. I had nothing, besides an obligation to continue to fight for the hopes of my bhest, and needed answers.

Fortunately, I ran into a man, a fatherly figure, who did have answers that I needed and set me right again.

Fr. Anthony, an Orthodox priest, arrived in my life as if by divine appointment. He had the right attitude, asked the right questions, never said a disrespectful word about my Mennonite identity (offering praise for our “peace witness” instead) and could speak with an authority that was missing where I was coming from. There was no pressure. However, he always seemed to show up at the right time and was always able to explain things in a way that made sense to me.

The timing was right for me in the same way it was for the man St. Philip encountered on the road:

The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:29‭-‬31 NIV)

In an individualistic understanding, this man (the eunuch) should’ve had all he needed to find salvation—I mean, according to what many Biblical fundamentalist commentators put forward, Scripture is basically self-explanatory and all we need to do is believe what we read, right?

But clearly, that is not the case.

The Bible itself tells us that somethings in it are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16) and this eunuch, an important and likely very intelligent person, could not discern for himself what was written in Isaiah.

The Holy Spirit did provide him with an interpretation, yet that interpretation came through a man named Philip. Philip did not speak his own “private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20) as a mere commentator offering an opinion. He was a representative. He was a man both directed by the Spirit and also commissioned by the church in the book of Acts:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6)

Philip was chosen and ordained to be a representative of the apostles, the apostles who themselves were representatives of Christ. His authority to interpret Scripture went beyond being merely a product of his own religious studies. He was not simply a religious commentator spouting his own opinions. No, rather, he was ordained as a representative, as one judged to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” by the church, and therefore had an authority greater than a mere commentator with an opinion.

My individualistic filter was wrong, I could not understand everything on my own, we still need those representatives who are sent:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15 NIV)

Why I prefer representatives…

Anyone can offer commentary, we hear ‘expert’ commentators tell us their opinions of sports, politics and the economy all the time. Some people prefer Paul Krugman, others Rush Limbaugh, and typically we choose those who confirm our existing biases to those who would challenge them. That is also true of Biblical commentators as well. We like those men whom we choose based on our own feelings, on what resonates with us or provide our itching ears with what we wish to hear. Unfortunately, commentators are not accountable to anything besides their own understanding and too often play to the prejudices of their particular audience.

A representative, by contrast, does not speak on their own authority and is ultimately accountable to the authority that sent, commisioned or ordained them.

For example, in a Republic, like the United States, we elect Representatives to speak on our behalf and represent our interests. There are also representatives of a corporation authorized to act on behalf of the collective group and must also answer to the other representatives of the group.

Jesus, likewise, came as a representative of the Father who sent him, on several occasions he tells his audience that he speaks on behalf of the Father and not by his own authority:

Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”

Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. (John 7:14-18 NIV)

Jesus is imploring his audience to test his credentials. He is saying that those who choose to do the will of God, by following his teachings, will find out if his words are true or not. In other words, his teachings are a testable hypothesis, established directly on the authority of the Father, and not just his opinions that can’t be verified one way or another. Jesus is not a commentator speaking by his own authority, but a representative, commissioned by the Holy Spirit (confirmed with a voice from heaven and dove descending upon him at his baptism) and spoke with the authority of the Father rather than his own.

The difference between a commentator and a representative is accountable to an authority beyond their own. If a representative goes beyond their commissioning they can be voted out or brought before a council and condemned. A commentator, on the other hand, only needs to be accountable to their own understanding and the whims of their particular audience—their authority rests on their own credentials rather than on a true commissioning by an authority already established.

Doesn’t the Holy Spirit make us representatives as well?

My answer to this question, with my shift in paradigm, has changed.

The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, in that we do, as individuals, receive authority from the Holy Spirit.

But, no, as far that authority giving us license to be free from accountability and operate apart from what has been established by Christ and his church.

The Holy Spirit, the true spiritual guide sent by the Father rather than a counterfeit spirit, should lead us into unity together rather than to divisions. The early church was full of commentators, some who claimed to have the authority of the Spirit or Scripture on their side, but the book of Acts shows us that not all commentators were equal and some had to be rebuked:

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.

[…]

They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said… (Acts 15:5‭-‬8,22‭-‬24 NIV)

Heretical teachings in the church have always been sorted out by council and consensus.

Even St. Peter and St. Paul were accountable to the body of believers represented in this coming together of apostles and elders.

It is by this process we were even provided with a canon of Scripture: Councils, representatives of the church, decided what books belong in the Bible and which ones (while possibly still useful) did not meet the criteria of Orthodox teachings. Not every book, not every person, is equally authorized to speak on behalf of Christ and his church. The Holy Spirit does work in the life of the individual, but the Holy Spirit also speaks through the church and especially through those sent, ordained or commissioned by Christ and is church:

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:13‭-‬15 NIV)

We are told the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and that is to say that the church does have authority over the individual as a representative of Christ. We really do need that—we really do need to be accountable to something more than our own ideas and/or interpretations—and should seek to hold fast to the teachings that have been passed by “word of mouth or by letter” of those who, through Christ and his church, have more authority than their own personal opinion.

Good commentary must be rooted in sound doctrine…

Anyone can claim to have the Holy Spirit, but not all who do are true representatives of Christ or his church, and we must use discernment. There have many heresies throughout the ages of those who felt they individually could discern truth without being accountable to anything besides their own religious knowledge and feelings of spiritual superiority to others. We need to be on the guard against their false teachings and also against being deceived by ourselves.

We are all very fortunate, we do not need to choose between the Holy Spirit and sound doctrine. This is a case where we can both have our cake and eat it. The church has preserved the teachings of Jesus, in traditions both written and spoken, as the basis for sound doctrine and that “breath of life” comes in our Communion together. We are not called to be “Lone Rangers” finding our own way, serving our own preferences, etc. We are called to be a part of the body of the church, representatives of the church past, present and future, this church:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18‭-‬19 NIV)

Want To Help People In Typhoon Ravaged Philippines?

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Last December (and into January) I had the privilege of traveling to the Philippines.  I traveled to the northern mountainous region of Luzon and met some wonderful people there.  Most of my time was spent in a beautiful place called Baguio, a city around the same elevation as Denver, and the adjacent city of La Trinidad.

This past week these cities, and surrounding area, have been hit by a devastating typhoon and there are many needs.  The area is prone to mudslides given the steep terrain and also flooding in the valleys.  Many have lost everything they have worked so hard for, they have no insurance, no FEMA, and can use all the help they can get.  This is why I’m doing my small part by setting up a site where those who feel led can donate: *click here*

Any funds raised will be distributed through trusted Christian connections (not Mennonite or Orthodox) and go 100% (besides what GoFundMe takes) to those in need in that region.  I know even small amounts can go a long way.  If you can’t give, please at least share this and give others the opportunity to bless Baguio, La Trinidad, and the surrounding areas in Benguet Province.

Thank you!