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.

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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!

The NEED For Loving Touch

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A few years ago mom and sister, sensing my need for physical touch, made giving me a hug on Sunday evenings as I left for home and another week out on the road. It was a small gesture, a single suture on a gaping wound of loneliness and years of an unmet need for more intimate human relationship, but—nevertheless—it was something that kept me at least partially sane.

Not everyone is the same in regard to how they handle isolation. However, it is known that solitary confinement is extremely detrimental psychologically and is equivalent to torture for some. It is even worse for children deprived of healthy touch and, according to research, babies in orphanages with inadequate human interaction die at a rate of 30 to 40% and even survivors of the negligence often suffer terrible life-long consequences as a result.

We live in a culture that celebrates connectivity and social media. Unfortunately, those things, seeing words on a screen or having a “friends” list of thousands, do not fill the void or need for real physical interactions and touch. When my hopes of meaningful human connection faded away with another crushing rejection my mind slid back into solipsism—the ultimate aloneness, a disconnect from belief in anything outside of my own mind or imagination—the nightmarish hell put into words by Trent Reznor:

Yes I am alone
But then again I always was
As far back as I can tell
I think maybe it’s because
Because you were never really real
To begin with

I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
And it worked
Yes it did

The reality is that healthy people live for connection and survive periods of aloneness on their hopes of future intimacy and interactions. We were created for relationship, both with each other and with the one who walked with Adam in the garden. It is through relationships that we gain our personhood and purpose. The lack of real community, of physical touch and healthy interaction, has come at a great cost and, sadly, few seem ready to take the necessary action to change this for those most in need.

Some of the reason for this neglect is a misconception about the true meaning of the Gospel message…

“All you need is Jesus”

This is one of those religious clichés that is true in one sense, yet is completely untrue the way some people use it and is often nothing more than an excuse for their real indifference.

People need more than words to thrive.

Yes, we do not live by bread alone and we always depend wholly on God’s grace at all times. However, that doesn’t mean we do not have need of food, clothing, shelter or many other things that make our life complete.

Those who spiritualize and who dismiss the human needs of others should be locked for a week in a box naked, without food or sunlight, and then they can discuss what “all you need is Jesus” means to them as someone who was without anything else.

For those who think their offering mere words about an abstraction of Jesus are an indication of their faith and is doing enough, I will offer the words of James:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 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 2:14-17)

If I could have a dollar for all the times that people expressed sympathy for my circumstances, and then assured me that things would magically work out for me without doing anything to help, I would probably be a millionaire. The whole book of James tells me that such people who do not offer anything in the form of concrete help, despite what they might profess, do not really know Jesus and are still in need of salvation themselves. Christian faith that does not express itself in meeting needs both spiritual AND PHYSICAL is not real Christian faith.

“The word became flesh…”

One of the deficiencies of the theological indoctrination that I received in the denomination of my birth was a lack of explanation for the full significance of incarnation. Incarnation tends to be explained as a historic event, that Jesus provided an example to follow, and yet very little is said about the what this says about the human condition and need for touch.

The incarnation, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, is the centerpiece of what John says at the start of his Gospel account and is something that has great significance as far as how it relates to church life. Jesus came so that the Spirit, something not physically defined and the same Spirit “hovering” over the waters in the Genesis creation narrative, could be made one with human flesh and so that through that we also (the church together as the “body of Christ”) could become the incarnation of Christ.

This idea that the Gospel is about an abstraction, some kind of spiritual experience or journey and theological/theoretical construct that has little to offer in physical substance, is wrong. It is part of the issue that early Anabaptists would’ve had with Luther and Protestantism. It is also something Orthodox Christians cannot accept. There is no salvation without incarnation. We cannot live the Chrisitan life alone or without real and tangible love for other Christians.

Christianity is something that must be communal, it must involve actual physical interaction with other members of the body and our partaking of the real flesh and blood of Christ together with other believers, or it is not real. Faith is, as James clearly says, something that changes how we interact with each other in the material world, it should remove barriers (like favoritism or separations within the body between higher and lower social/religious/economic tiers) and make us do something about the physical needs of other Christians.

Feeding people with platitudes does not make you Christ-like or spiritually-minded. No, it is only living in denial of the needs of others, profoundly unloving and disobedience. Yes, certainly, the point of Christianity goes well-beyond mere humanism or making the world a better place to live for others. The kingdom is something that cannot be defined in the material world. That said, Christianity without any fleshing out or being an incarnation of the Spirit ourselves, like Christ, in our Communion together and providing for the physical needs of others is truly not Christianity anymore.

Those who spiritualize physical needs really should consider the question of why Jesus came in the first place. Why didn’t God just send his good news message on tablets of gold from heaven?

The answer is that our body is not something bad or that God has given up on. We are not a mind with a body as many seem to perceive themselves. No, the body and mind are as interwoven as soul and spirit. Sure, you may be able to intellectually conceptualize things like love and theorize about salvation. But the reality is that we do have physical needs, what happens to our bodies does have an impact on our minds, and thus we should take care of our own bodies and also be concerned with the physical well-being of our fellow Christians. The incarnation is important because we are creatures of flesh and with real physical needs. We need other Christians to flesh out Christ today for the same reason Thomas needed to touch the wounds of Jesus to know that he had truly conquered death.

Not just talk, touch…

There is no shortage of advice in the world and much of it unsolicited. Tell a person about your needs and you are bound to get an earful of their opinions. They, like those who claimed faith without works, think that they can talk away your problems and/or need a way to dismiss your needs when you do not take their bad advice. They can say, “Well, he should just listen to me and then things might go better.”

Jesus condemns this sort of aloofness:

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

That is not to say that we should never give any weighty advice. However, when our advice is not accompanied by helpful action, then it will simply be adding another burden to someone already struggling under the weight of life. Having real faith, embodying Christ, means offering real substantive help to those who ask. Again, there might be a place for speaking against sin, there is also a good case to be made for teaching people how to help themselves, yet we also need to get our own hands dirty sometimes and help to dig people out of the mire they are in or at least lift their load until they can get their feet under them again.

Jesus said, “Give to those who ask” (Matthew 5:42) And, given that he does offer himself to anyone who asks, it is very likely meant those words take be taken literally. He didn’t say only to give what rationally makes sense to you at the time, he doesn’t say to give only money or time, he tells us to give and our willingness to give is the true measure of our faith. It is our job, as Christians, to give of ourselves for the salvation of others, that is what marriage is about and why we should attend church—and be all the more involved when those in the church need Jesus more than we do.

The point of Christianity is to be part of the body of Christ, to do what he did for others and the “greater things” he promised would come as a result of his leaving. We are to touch and heal the wounded like he did.

The need for non-sexual physical touch…

In many parts of the world, it is not unusual for men to hold hands with other men nor a scandal for men and women to exchange a familial kiss. But somehow here, in the United States, we have managed to sexualize everything and this is especially true fundamentalist Mennonite/Protestant sects. In fact, I have had a young woman from such a setting, in her early twenties as I recall, worried about somehow defiling herself just to be in my physical presence and unsupervised. And that, needless to say, made the conversation extremely awkward.

This aversion to touch does not seem to be found in Scripture. Jesus healed using physical touch, he allowed a woman to wash his feet with her hair and there is (at least according to less sanitized translations) a description of a disciple “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13:23) while they ate in a reclined posture. There is no indication in Paul’s letters that the “holy kiss” was a gendered practice, he mentions both men and women in his list of those to greet, nor that it was only for their time. It certainly doesn’t seem like physical touch was such a big deal for Jesus and early Christians.

Consider the following:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. (Matthew 9:27‭-‬30b NIV)

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12‭-‬13 NIV)

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:15‭-‬16 NIV)

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. (Matthew 17:5‭-‬8 NIV)

And did I mention that Jesus touched?

That last passage, in particular, may give us some of the reason why the incarnation matters. We need more than an abstraction, more than a book or voice from heaven, we need touch. The church, as the hands and feet of Jesus, needs to be physically intimate in the same way that Jesus was to those he loved. There is healing in touch, it is healthy to touch, and Jesus touched.

Touch is good and right.

The need for good old-fashioned sex…

The person, responding to my prior blog about a failure in faith and relationship, had mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (something that I alluded to in an early blog) and how people, to reach their full potential, need food, water, shelter, clothes, and sex. They put special emphasis on sex because it is something that the spiritualizers (aka modern-day gnostics) would say sex doesn’t matter much and/or is something almost bad even in the context of marriage.

I recall being upset with a psychiatrist for describing my interest in a young woman as being sexual attraction. It was jarring to me at the time. How dare they describe my pure and lofty intentions in such a base manner? I’m not an animal! As obvious as sexual motives are now, looking back in retrospect, I truly was in complete denial then and still have difficulty now being honest about my strong desire for sex.

In fact, I had to be reminded recently that sex, within the marriage context, is something scared and thus my desire for that is not something to be ashamed of or hide.

So why did I hate and conceal this desire to the point that I didn’t even consciously recognize my motivations anymore?

Talk to anyone outside of a religious purity culture and they will be dead honest about their sexual desires. I too would never say that sex is a bad thing even while in denial of my own motivations. But, because sexuality is often discussed in negative terms, and because there was no healthy outlet for my sexual urges for all these years and also knowing that many conservative Mennonite girls share this same shameful view of sex, burying these desires seemed the only option. I mean what kind of God-fearing woman would marry a guy who openly admitted his mixed sexual and spiritual motives?

Unfortunately, this view of sex as being bad (or a shameful compromise) is completely unhealthy and needs to be addressed.

Scripture tells us “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22) and, it is important to realize, marriage is a sexual union. The idea of “two will become one flesh” includes sex and part of that “good” a man finds in a wife. The apostle Paul, while encouraging celibacy for some, says (in 1 Corinthians 7) that those who “burn with passion” should marry rather than fall into sin. He also said that married couples should not deprive each other of sexual relations for an indefinite period of time. So maybe it is time for a more affirming and positive presentation of sexual desire?

Dividing sexual touch from the sacred is unhealthy and wrong. The marital bed is sacred. Sex, in the right context, is not shameful. Most people need this kind of physical intimacy to reach their full potential and thrive. It is not lustful or a sin to want sex. Sex is something we are made for, it is part of God’s original design and something good—we might as well be open and honest about it!

True connection is a human need…

Not everyone has the same need for intimacy and touch. However, a person doesn’t really know their need of something until it is taken away along with any hope of it. Those who minimize the importance or need for real physical connection with other people probably aren’t those who have been without it for long periods of time.

I believe, as a nearly forty-year-old virgin and one who has experienced years of physical isolation, that this is a big problem that is not being addressed. I believe it is especially a problem for men who have no healthy outlet for physical touch. It is not as culturally taboo for women to touch or at least it is not unusual to see teenage girls hanging all over each other. However unmarried men, who need touch to be healthy just like a woman does, are often left to their own devices—alone, unneeded and unappreciated.

But I digress, both men and women need physical touch and to feel loved.

For those with their own physical needs met, even just keeping singles/widows/widowers involved and regularly invited to dinner with your family is a good start. I know that this, even as a token gesture, helped me have a more positive outlook on life as much as it happened. In fact, my being welcomed into homes in this way by a Charity-ish church every time I visited was nearly enough for me to overlook my differences with their perspectives of theology and application. Something real and tangible is better than nothing at all. And love—genuine, self-sacrificial and materially real love—truly does cover a multitude of sins:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:8-10)

It is not enough to wish a brother or sister well who is starving or naked. Likewise, it is not enough to tell those who desire to be needed and appreciated that all they need is an abstraction of Jesus. Jesus came in the flesh so that he could physically interact with and touch people. We too need to incarnate the intimacy that we desire with God through our willingness to be physically connected and intimate with those whom God loves. We need to love others and not with empty words or in religious forms. We need to love them in a way that meets their real physical human needs and in the same way as we want our own spiritual needs to be met by God.

The real need is for meaningful connection. We need adequate relationships to keep our minds from falling into dark and dangerous places. Studies show a correlation between addiction and lack of adequate social connection. We are not self-sufficient, we are not mere minds in a body, we need each other, to be loved and to feel the love of others.

This is why the word became flesh and why we must flesh out the Gospel with healing and healthy touch. It is on us to be the hands and feet of Jesus—faithful love requires that we do more than talk about abstractions of love.

From Hero To Heel To Healed—Fragments From An Estranged Relationship

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It has been well over a year now since I’ve left the conservative Mennonite culture. I wrote about my grievances in the time leading up to and after my departure. My life has gone in a direction that I never expected. I did my best to bury the hurts, forgive at some level, and move on.

However, it seems recently some of those hurts have come bubbling back up through the rubble of hopes that were hastily bulldozed over them and have become a risk to the flower beds that I’ve planted to keep that part of my life contained in the past. There is a lingering question of how to forgive those who never admit (or even realize) that they had any responsibility to me whatsoever and have likely moved on without a second thought about their own decisions.

Before my Chrismation, I did reach out to the Mennonite leader, the father of the impossibility, and offered my forgiveness and confessed some faults. It was at least a token of forgiveness that was necessary for me to transition. But forgiveness is not as easy as saying the words and, as an Orthodox friend recently told me, it is a process. Sometimes it is a process that takes years of letting go of the lingering hurts. We are not robots, the emotional wounds we have as the result of the abandonment or abuses of others are real, and broken relationships that continue to be broken make healing more difficult. Show me a person who can forgive in a moment and I’ll show you someone who has never lost anything of real value to them.

Anyhow, because it has become impossible for me to write about anything else, it is time to clear these things out of my mind and give room for other things. There is something about sharing thoughts here, to know that my suffering was not in vain and can possibly be of some benefit to those who have experienced similar things, that seems to help the healing process. Yes, we will always bear the scars, we cannot erase the past through forgiveness, and no amount of sharing about something will undo what was done. But hopefully, in sharing some of these stories, this will help remove some of that shame and feelings of the experience being a total waste.

“God give me an opportunity to be a hero…”

Someday, after my final repose, inscribed on my gravestone there should be the words: “He prayed strange prayers and received stranger answers that were even stranger.”

This is a story of one of those answered prayers.

It was so terribly frustrating for me to be a Mennonite man, now somehow into his thirties not knowing how he got there and unmarried—despite a strong desire for a wife and children.

It was not the stigma of singleness (in a religious culture that prefers the married) that bothered me. No, it was more the lack of opportunity to be the “knight in shining armor” and valued by a woman. I longed to be the protector and provider. And, since I was confident that a God-fearing woman who saw my heart would give me a chance to further prove my courage, character, and conviction to her, I prayed: “God give me the opportunity to be a hero…”

It was shortly after praying that prayer that there was this “progressive supper” activity for the youth. We were to be divided up into small groups of four or five and then sent on our way to various homes to eat the different courses of a meal. That evening the ‘impossibility’ (the young woman that most embodied my own Mennonite ideals) was there along with her sister. So, wanting a chance to prove myself and to be paired with her, I prayed: “Please, God, you know my heart, let me be in the right place at the right time.”

Well, this is where things got a bit weird. The youth leader assigned the impossibility along with her sister to a group that did not include me. I accepted this fate and thanked God anyways. But that’s when the leader, for reasons that were never explained, stopped, said “no” and then proceeded to reassign the sisters—putting them together with me and two other youth. My resigned thanks became a “Hallelujah!” (still silent) as I began to imagine the pleasant conversations we would have that evening. I also began telling myself to remain calm, to just be myself, and enjoy the time together with them without having any expectations beyond that.

“Everyone remain calm!”

Foreshadowing is only supposed to happen in movies. However, en route to our first stop the sister of the impossibility informed us that she was sensitive to having sweets on an empty stomach. Well, guess what? Lo and behold, by some terrible coincidence, it was dessert first. At our first stop of the evening, we had a rich and sugary treat, that soon followed by another drive to our next stop and the next part of our meal…or at least that was the plan.

Well, the sister of the sensitive stomach was right, the combination of dessert with some slightly aggressive driving on bumpy back roads (it wasn’t me driving) proved too much for her to endure. She gave only a whisper of a warning before the entire contents of her stomach were unceremoniously and forcefully expelled. There was vomit everywhere in the back of the truck when we finally got stopped. It was distributed across the back seat and covered her clothing too. It was definitely not a pleasant sight to take in and especially not for those who had been planning to eat.

My first words, as the human contents of burst out the doors of the truck, were an attempt to maintain some order and (to the later amusement of some of the passengers) I exclaimed: “everyone remain calm!” We now had a crisis on our hands and the two other passengers—now fighting with their own sensitivity issues—were ill-equipped to manage this sort of event. So it was up to me to formulate a plan that would both maintain some dignity for this young woman and also spare the others as much as possible.

I decided, after contemplating our various options, that we would all drive together to the next stop (a few miles further down the road) and then go our separate ways from there.

So, we collected ourselves, got back in the truck, and finally to a place where we could do some cleaning up. The other two, dry heaving themselves, split as soon as we arrived. The two sisters were busy with the mess, I figured would appreciate their privacy in this, so I offered to run the necessary supplies they would need from the house and let them to themselves. Glad to be of assistance, I made a couple trips with towels, buckets of water, and whatever else they requested.

“You would make a great husband…”

In all this, I had to reconsider my own prayers. Perhaps I should have been more careful what I prayed? Maybe it was a little selfish of me to pray that I could be the hero? It really was not my intention to have someone else suffer so I could be heroic to them. (So, sister of the impossibility, if you ever read this blog, I’m sorry if my answer to prayer came about as a result of something bad happening to you—that certainly was not the plan.)

Then again, how was it my fault?

My mind did it’s usual overanalysis as I scurried between house and disaster area trying to be helpful.

My contemplation was interrupted, on one on of my trips with supplies, when the impossibility turns to me and words come from her mouth that I never expected to hear directly from her mouth. With sincerity in her voice, she says: “You will make a great husband for someone someday.”

Oh my!

This compliment nearly caused me to run around the house screaming praises to God. However, I didn’t think that would be the right response, so I opted instead to remain calm, smile, and say a humble “thank you” rather run around dancing with all my might like King David seeing the return of the Ark of the Covenant.

I also noted very carefully exactly what she had said. She had said “husband for someone” and probably included that “someone” as to create some distance and keep the compliment from being a brazen indication of her own personal interest in me. And, yet, while it meant nothing besides what she said, I could not help but see this endorsement of my “great” potential as being only a good thing as far as my further hopes regarding her. I rejoiced for having been given the rare opportunity to demonstrate an ability to serve and to be recognized as being husband material by my secret crush.

“It is an impossibility…”

They had always presented themselves as if they were a Thomas Kincaid painting and something out of reach for me. But, boosted by a spiritual growth spurt, I began to think that my own ideal was in alignment with the one they represented and that gave me the confidence to dream. Still, there were some big obstacles to overcome, most of them related my age and their status as top-tier conservative Mennonites. I had been in the lower caste my entire life. Could a man change his stars?

For the first time in my life, taking the advice of an eccentric friend, I decided to write a father. As advised, I wrote merely to tell him of my admiration for his family and his daughter in particular. Of course, being the nice guy that he is, he wrote back and thanked me. But then he implied that his daughter was somehow out of my league. It sparked some indignation and my response I made it clear and said, in paraphrase: “Not that she shouldn’t be interested in me.” I mean, what had I done so horribly wrong that I wasn’t in the same class as him or his family?

I never asked for permission to ask her. However, he did grant me permission in a subsequent email. But then he added, in yet another message, that “it was an impossibility” that I would date his daughter. That’s a pretty hard hit for a guy to take. However, in a few days, I was reminded of how my latest journey of faith had begun and that it started with believing what Jesus said about all things being possible with faith. How could he, a mere man, make this bold declaration that went directly in opposition to what we could know from Scripture? I decided to believe what God said over his word.

It was from this point on that his daughter became the “impossibility” and, after praying that the impossible be made possible, I was bound by faith to follow through. At this point, those who would try to discourage the pursuit only further fueled the fire. I was not chasing after something rational or that I understood. Faith had to be going beyond what was possible for me or what’s the point? If everything can be explained by science or reason, why not apply Occam’s razor and dispose of any additional spiritual explanation of life?

No, faith required the pursuit of the impossible. My very salvation depended on the impossible being possible—that being a flawed and frail human, like me, made righteous before a perfect God. If I couldn’t be loved by the daughter of a good Mennonite man, how could I ever stand a chance before God? If faith couldn’t overcome all of our differences, which weren’t actually that big when it comes down to it, then how could faith overcome sin and death? I had no choice to believe. To not believe was spiritual death.

So I prayed, with as much faith as I could ever have, “God, I would crawl through a wilderness of broken glass to be made right, make the impossible possible,” and committed wholly to doing my part in faith. On that same day an hour or so later, I tore my ACL. It was some of the most excruciating physical pain I’ve ever experienced and yet nothing near the emotional agony that I would experience. I’ve been changed over the past few years, changed in ways that cannot be undone, and changed in ways that I could not have expected. I did my part for God even if others didn’t do their part for me.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me.”

I had read the story of Billy Graham and heard some other notable Christian leaders who had their hearts broken by young women who couldn’t see the potential in them. I also considered how Jesus died betrayed, stripped naked, and in a completely undignified manner, after praying, even pleading “until his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:39-44), that God take the “cup” of suffering from him. I prayed and cried at night begging God: “Please God, please, I’m not strong enough, I can’t be like Jesus, I’m too weak!”

Night after night, I tossed and turned with anxiety and fear. What if my faith proves to be in vain? What if the impossible is truly impossible and my dreams of overcoming my own shortcomings to find the abundant life a lie? Perhaps my whole enterprise of faith was nothing more than an evolutionary coping mechanism to keep me going on despite the obvious? How will I live when my final hopes to have a place amongst my own Mennonite people proves, once again, to be a delusion? I desperately implored God to spare me the pain of another rejection and write for me a story of triumph against the odds instead. I promised I would tell the amazing story to the world when it was all over and use it to strengthen the faith of those who are in the Mennonite church.

I wanted to be a hero in the way of David. The man is known for his bravery in combat against the giant and loved by his people. His heroism was something that women literally sang and danced in the streets to celebrate. He was courageous and charismatic in a way that even made a king jealous and yet was righteous in God’s eyes. David only ever suffered as a result of his own sin, but was still regarded as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14) and outlived those who opposed him. That is the hero story that we love and not that story of fading into irrelevance, as someone who didn’t have quite what it took and, while always chasing a mirage in hopes of finally seeing their destiny emerge, would never amount to anything in the end

I believe that Jesus, as a human being like us, would have rather had David’s life than face rejection, betrayal, and abandonment of even his most faithful followers. He prayed alone in Gethsemane, even his closest companions could not comprehend the burden on his heart and be there for him in his hour of need. The heroism of Jesus was the kind that should be terrifying to anyone. He was the rightful king of his people, killed in the most gruesome, torturous, and mocking way possible. Those who should’ve recognized him only saw him as a threat to their religious culture and many treat him with contempt to this very day. How awful it would be to be on that cross in agony both physical and emotional, enough to make a righteous man cry out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I felt so weak. It is one thing to die and be recognized as a hero—It is quite another to rejected and alone. At least Jesus had someone to mourn him as he hung on the cross and understanding that his pain would result in a victory over death, but what would I have?

How would I endure to the end if my rationality won the day and my fears of my irredeemable inadequacy realized?

A sunny day before the storm…

A few weeks prior I had taken advantage of a unique opportunity to talk to the impossibility where there would be nobody watching us. As one who fought a long battle with social anxieties, I needed to remove anything that would make things potentially more awkward, I found out (from her) that she would be cleaning the church that afternoon and decided this would likely be the best chance I would have. Still, when I finally pulled up to the carport I was already shaking like a leaf and praying that it would all go well. I peered through the door hoping that I would not startle her. I saw her in the sanctuary sweeping, she turned, I waved, her face lit up with a smile and she came to the door.

After that sunny afternoon, I had to work hard to quell the idea that her father was wrong and remind myself that there would likely be some adversity yet to come. Things went so much better than I had anticipated. I mean she had a big smile on her face, she stepped closer rather than away when I expressed my hopes that we could get to know each other better and even gave me her phone number when I asked. For a couple hours, I was on cloud nine and eagerly imagining all those things that I would tell her in that first conversation. She had told me that she was quite busy and then assured me that we would talk on an upcoming missions trip. The next couple of weeks I was excited while simultaneously still worried and trying to reign in my anticipation of the things to come.

The trip was an absolute disaster for me. She totally ignored me on the entire bus trip out and then carefully avoided me when we finally arrived. I was already exhausted by day two or three, I could not wait any longer, and decided to break the silence and asked if we would talk as she had promised. She assured me that we could. We arranged to leave dinner a bit early that night and talk things over. So we set off on a stroll that evening where she confidently expressed her plans for life (in contrast to what she had assumed my dreams were) and where I sputtered desperately trying to gain some traction in the conversation and could find none. It was surreal, to say the least, I was at once enraptured by having her full attention and then also extremely unsettled by my inability to articulate anything on my heart.

Her words would echo in my ears for the weeks that followed. They were an inescapable reality and the very thing that I had worked so hard to overcome. She wiped away any sense of accomplishment I had with eight words:

“You are thirty years old living in Milton.”

Those words, meant as a gentle explanation, confirmed my worse fears. I was stuck in an impossible situation. Her ambitions mirrored my own, but I had long lacked many of the abilities she seemed to possess in spades, and that’s what had attracted me to her in the first place. I had pictured us as a composite—two different types of material bonded together (in faith) and stronger together. But she saw things differently, she saw me as someone content to be mediocre in Milton, a liability as far as her own grand plans, and I lacked any words to answer her misconceptions about me.

She certainly didn’t mean her words to be hurtful and I didn’t take them as offensive. She had simply assumed that this simple life in a small town, without adventure, was what I had intended. What she didn’t know is how much her own ideals were my own nor how I had struggled to overcome feelings of failure despite having my own house, a decent job, etc. Her words hit like a ton of bricks because they were true and reflected an inescapable reality of my life. I never lacked for a heart. But, despite my strong desire to be on the field of play contributing in a meaningful way, I was always seemed stuck watching from the sidelines—lacking the natural size, coordination or talent to be successful.

I had made my leap in faith, I reached out for the impossibility, for the Mennonite ideal that had eluded me in so many ways over the years, and there was nobody reaching back. I fought a new war with doubt. Maybe I was doomed to fail no matter what I did? Perhaps my higher ideals were only ever a delusion and even the best Mennonite girls were as carnal as anyone, preferring athletic and arrogant men? Could it be my prayers for the impossible to be made possible, a hope against hope, was nothing but a mind trick I played on myself to hold off the obvious?

We had to draw our conversation to a close. She was being eaten alive by mosquitos and it would’ve been unmerciful to extend our time together by a minute longer. So, having lost the debate before it even started, not knowing how to end this walk together, I offered to pray with her and she agreed. I prayed. It was my last hope in an increasingly hopeless situation. And then something happened that made things go from bad to worse. A group of guys came around the corner (probably looking for her as clueless teenage guys do) and now my secret of a year or more was out. I didn’t want to face them and their judgments. I had wanted something extraordinary and the same old answer I always got.

Everyone knew now and those hopes of a final victory over the odds faded into the night sky along with my intelligible thoughts. Overhead the lightning flashed, there were things going on under the surface, but for the moment my mind was eerily silent as I wandered off into the wilderness.

“Once I swore that I would die for you…”

It almost seems a miracle that I was found so quickly of all the many places that I could’ve been. Two men, both who have earned my respect over the years as true friends, drove out from the reservation, headed right in the direction that I had ended up going and found me curled up on a bench. It had been my intention to spend the night there. I had no other plans.

When they arrived and hoisted me into the truck. The calm broke. Both the surface calm that covered the broiling of my subconscious mind and also of the skies overhead. At nearly the same time that they got me into the truck, the rains started pouring down and so did my tears. All of those hopes over the years that ended in dismal failure came flooding back. Instead of being strong in faith as I should’ve been, I panicked. I wanted to die, I wanted to be left alone to wither and die in the wilderness.

I stare into this mirror
So tired of this life
If only you would speak to me
Or cared if I’m alive
Once I swore I would die for you
But I never meant like this
I never meant like this
No I never meant like this

It had been rough for me over the past few years, the solitary life of a truck driver was not a good fit for my temperment, but I had overcome my depression related to the death of Saniyah, and had finally turned a corner spiritually that enabled me to dream big again. That all came crashing down again. Fear had won the day, I was stuck in a nightmare and there was no escape—I had done everything I could do to believe and failed miserably again.

Worse, this time, unlike other times, I had left myself no safety net, no plan ‘B’ or escape hatch. I lept and grasped nothing but empty space.

It is one thing to die and be recognized as a hero. It is entirely another thing to have made a complete fool of yourself, to have finally put all your faith in a God of the impossible, and to end up with nothing besides a deepening shame. Mentally I folded under the pressure, which only made me blame myself all the more, and I panicked.

She did what was predictable. The impossibility, the one who was able to clean up her sister’s vomit and run fearlessly to the edge of a cliff, now recoiled at my sight. She drew back in fear and who could blame her? I both pitied her and desperately wanted to explain everything that had led me to asking her and a chance for redemption. I wrote a long letter, fourteen pages long, spent months writing and refining it, but I never sent it because she would probably never read or understand it if she did.

“With God all things are possible.”

The road out of despair was paved with Adderall and writing my thoughts here and elsewhere. After weeks of seesawing, one day suicidal and the next determined to live in faith, I decided it was time to address one of those things that had always seemed to get in the way of my success and that being my difficulties focusing. A friend of mine, studying neuroscience, said that I was definitely suffering from attention-deficit disorder and highly recommended a particular amphetamine.

So, out of options, I gave it a try and it was absolutely amazing. Not only could I focus, but the entire world seemed more brightly colored and sharp. My social anxieties vanished, I could carry a conversation with people I had avoided before, I was more driven in general, and even wrote a book about faith while on the prescription. It was a miracle to me. The day after starting the drug I woke up early on a Sunday morning and thought to myself, “Wow, this is what it must feel like to be Betty Miller!”

I was feeling so good, after weeks of turmoil, that suddenly I wondered why I would even care about the impossibly? I mean, life was great without her…And then I turned to see it staring me in the face, something I hadn’t noticed before on the calendar, the words: “With faith all things are possible.” It sobered me. I was reminded again of the commitment of faith I had made to God in prayer and rebuked myself for being so easily manipulated by my feelings. I had to follow through or I was unfaithful.

Alas, it seems all good things come to an end, at least as far as those artificial means go, and the side-effects of my stimulant (that somehow doubled as a mood stabilizer) began to outweigh the benefits. I had difficulty sleeping and began to have this weird fixation with numbers that was suggestive of an induced schizophrenia. So I quit. However, while my positivity did drop off, mostly back to my old baseline, the drug acted like a kickstart to get me going again and, for the most part, the new equilibrium remained.

It was in the time after, months after the whole ordeal of the trip and aftermath, that I was finally able to have a short (but normal) conversation with the impossibility. It was great because it was progress in a relationship that had become estranged. But it also left me feeling down because she would be soon leaving for a long time and might very well spend enough time with some other guy to get over that initial threshold. Love, despite my own difficulties finding it, is not that complicated—we don’t fall in love with strangers or those who we hold at arm’s length.

I was melancholy that evening, brooding over the possibility that the very brief conversation we had in the kitchen might be our last, when she (the impossibility) passes by holding a paper. For reasons I’ll never comprehend, one of the other young people in the room, right at the moment she is near me, asks what is on the paper. Without a pause the answer came, she spoke the theme of my pursuit of the impossibility, “With God all things are possible.”

“If you go, take me with you…”

Time had passed. I was back driving truck again and would soon be starting a new job that would get me off the road. She had returned from her world travels and again I was contemplating my best approach.

My feelings were now mixed. There was someone else who had come into my life in the interim, it was someone who had become very precious to me, and it was almost unbearable to think about walking away from her. She was a little lost sheep when I had found her, someone even more alone in the world than a lonely truck driver, and it seemed wrong that I would abandon her—even for a life with my Mennonite ideal.

There seemed to be no good answer for the dilemma. Yes, I had carefully explained my own situation to this precious person, my bhest, that it was impossible for me to marry her and the impossibility one of those reasons. But it still seemed extremely cruel that I would there for her every day for a year, pull her out of the pit of despair, and then leave her to fend for herself again. I mean, how unfair would that be? I cared too much about her to let that happen yet couldn’t imagine any woman (Mennonite or otherwise) allowing me to maintain that kind of relationship.

There was never a need for me to cross that bridge.

It was the Facebook status update that I had dreaded for so long. There she was, the impossibility, with that prototypical Mennonite guy and the kind I couldn’t compete with—athletic, adventurous and having the right religious pedigree. They had met on the missionary/Bible school/Mennonite matchmaking circuit. And, since dating is now equivalent to engaged in this culture, I knew the pursuit of impossibly within the Mennonite world was over.

I tried hard to hold off the downward plunge.

The tears would fall once again.

My faith, as a Mennonite, really did die that night, along with my will to live, and there’s only one reason that I’m still here today. That reason being that my bhest never let go. I asked her if she would be okay if I went away, obviously implying my self-inflicted death, and bhest had the only answer that ended my ideation. She said, “If you go, take me with you.” And I decided right then and there that I would continue on if only for her good. It was one thing to kill my own hopes, but I couldn’t kill that little hope that I saw grow in my bhest and it was that seed of faith that I left in her that had now become my own salvation.

My last Sunday as a Mennonite…

I had long become disillusioned with my religious upbringing over the unquestioning devotion to a fundamentalist theological perspective adopted only a century ago and yet continued to hold on to an Anabaptist reformer’s hope. The father of the impossibly was one of those that I had counted on to see this shift and help restore some of that unwavering commitment to Christ and the Holy Spirit. But it was now clear that his calculator weighed more heavily in his decisions than a faith that allowed for the mysterious.

My experience over the past couple years was that straw that broke the camel’s back. It was supposed to be the triumph of faith in a Mennonite context and ended up only revealed a deeper carnality in even the best of my religious peers that was only different from the world in how it was dressed. It was too much for me to take. I couldn’t continue with them anymore. However, I decided to be strong, to go one more Sunday and leave with whatever dignity I had left.

So I went that one last time, I sat in the back and the only place where I knew I could best avoid the discomfort of holding back my emotions while trying to small talk. And I did manage to keep my composure for the length of the service and also for the gab period afterwards. The impossibility may or may not have been there amongst the crowd, it no longer mattered. The building was now cleared out besides my mom (who was the librarian) and John, a truly humble man, a good listener, and the most recently ordained.

My mom, knowing how difficult it had been for me over the past couple years, told me how proud she was of me and, in the nearly empty church, I fell apart. I sobbed. I had tried. I had invested all my hopes within the Mennonite denomination and fought long and hard for a place there. That was over now, it had become unbearable to remain anymore. The impossibility had been that last ditch effort to restore something that had been lost over the years.

She confessed that she could not love me the way that I wanted to be loved. It had now become impossible for me to live as they wanted me to live, as a beggar in a land of plenty, as one whittling away his hopes in a religious culture that offered mostly platitudes and hardly any real world solutions. It was time to give them what they wanted and be on my way to something else. I’ve had nobody question that decision or ask me to remain with them—which confirmed all my reasons for the divorce.

May I have my closure now?

I’m in a better place than I was while still trying to make things work in a place where I didn’t belong anymore and time will heal. That said, that doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle with the things that transpired over the years. I’m not sure what forgiveness looks like in a case like this? Do I owe anything more than letting them live their life in peace? Have I said enough now?

Still healing is difficult and forgiveness a process that is especially hard when those who hurt you make no acknowledgement of any failure on their part. It is not easy walking away from the identity that was everything to you. I’ve struggled a little lately with some leftover emotions, a wish for some kind of closure with the impossibility and want of a way to finally bury it all forever.

The good news is that there’s finally someone who sees me as their hero and someone that they can love like that. In fact, I’m preparing for another trip to the other side of the world to be with my precious bhest once again. While I was praying for the impossible to be made possible my bhest prayed that her bhest would not be taken from her. Her prayers were answered. And perhaps my impossible has been made possible in a way that I could never have expected?

To be continued…

Salvation from the Dark Cave — 5 Parallels Between the Rescue in Thailand and Spiritual Transformation

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When I first heard the news about the Wild Boars, a youth soccer team, having gone missing in Thailand, I assumed these twelve boys along with their young coach were hopelessly lost in the flooded cave system and probably already dead or likely would be before anyone reached them. It had been over a week since they had disappeared and there seemed to be little hope of finding them alive.

For that reason, I was very happy to read the news of their being discovered by two British divers who were aiding the rescue efforts. Somehow, despite their ordeal of having to flee deeper into the cave to avoid the rising flood waters and having been trapped in the pitch blackness without food or light for over a week, these players and their coach were still alive. And what a great relief it must’ve been for them to see a person from the outside emerge from those murky waters that had entombed them.

However, that moment of joy was soon replaced by a new fear when considering the perilous journey they now had to face in order to make their escape. The divers who found them were some of the best in the world and many of these boys didn’t even know how to swim—let alone swim in conditions that experts described as extremely dangerous and conditions that tragically did cost one of their rescuers his life.

The question became one of could these boys be saved without a miracle?

This World Is A Dark Cave

We, unlike those boys who had been outside the cave, have never been beyond this world. While we can imagine that there could be something beyond, we are truly bound by what we can touch, taste, see or perceive in our minds. For many reality only extends as far as they are able to fathom. And yet science has discovered spectrums of light beyond our vision and philosophy has long challenged us to go beyond even ourselves, our rational minds, in our thinking.

Greek philosopher Plato imagined a scenario, the Allegory of the Cave, in which we were all born bound in a cave where most are chained where they can only see a shadow of greater reality projected onto the wall in front of them and some of these life-long prisoners are eventually freed. Those freed, we discover, have great difficulty explaining this greater perspective to those still bound. This scenario is pretty much describing our own perception of reality in a nutshell.

Some desire to look beyond the shadows and find a measure of freedom. However, there are many others who are content to live with the shadows and in denial. They are bound by religion, ensnared by the entertainment industry, distracted the pursuit of wealth, blinded by the daily grind or unable to see for any number of reasons and never realize that they are in a cave and chained to a wall and only seeing shadows of something greater.

There are also those who have realized they are trapped in a cave and yet also see the waters, have probed the escape routes from this reality and have understood the true impossibility of their predicament. They have lost hope. They are depressed and living in despair because they know that they are trapped and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Jesus Emerged From the Murky Waters

Those Thai boys and their coach had to know that they were doomed without divine intervention or outside help. During the rainy season (that started early and caught them by surprise) lasts into October and they only had supplies for an afternoon. The coach seems to have did his best to look after the boys, withholding rations from himself to give them a better chance of survival, and yet what he could provide was never going to save them from death in the darkness.

Even a strong swimmer had no chance to escape the under water labyrinth that separated them from the outside world. To find another path or dig their way out was impossible given their lack of necessary tools and provisions. Their resources (besides the water they could lick off the walls) were already exhausted. Even their oxygen supply was starting to dwindle and would disappear long before the flood waters would recede. They only had their prayers and hope for a rescue mission to hold back despair—without a savior were doomed.

That is essentially the story for all of humanity and the background for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are born, our forefathers having wandered deep into a cave of sin and our escape from this blocked by the waters of death. This whole world, the entire universe, in fact, is bound by physics to eventually run out of energy and our descendants, no matter how technologically advanced, will not escape that. This is a reality that can cause an intelligent forward-thinking person to wonder what is the point of living if death is all the future holds.

Drawing by Manatsawin Mungsungnoen

If one can imagine how welcomed a sight those British cave divers were for the boys and coach trapped in complete darkness and facing imminent death, then they can also imagine the feeling of elation that the disciples of Jesus felt having seen him after his emergence from the murky waters of death—His resurrected body, their resurrected hopes, and proof positive of his claim that there is eternal life for those who follow after Him.

We Must Take the Plunge of Faith

The happiness about those lost being found was soon replaced with a big question about how to get them from the cave to freedom. How could this half starved group of youngsters and their coach (who was even worse for the wear after selflessly giving his rations to the boys) get out of their subterranean prison?

Many options were discussed and ruled out one by one. There simply was not enough time for other solutions when oxygen levels began to drop, with the fullness of the monsoon season about to begin, and the consensus became clear: They would need to dive out like their saviors or die in the cave. This was something that had been impossible for them before, it was something extremely dangerous even for a veteran cave diver, and would be absolutely terrifying for someone claustrophobic. None of them were swimmers, let alone in any physical condition to match the world class athletes who found them, and I’m sure their fears could keep them paralyzed.

Where does one find the faith to do the impossible?

That was my question a few years ago.

You jump in, that’s how…

We Cannot Save Ourselves

The truth is, while we must take the plunge under the murky waters and swim for all we are worth, the journey out of the cave is not one we are able to do on our own strength. Like the rescue in Thailand took the coordinated effort of many men and women, we cannot possibly complete our journey to freedom without a community or the help of others. Rather we need to partake of the provisions left for us by those who have followed after Christ. We need to firmly grasp the guiding rope of the written and spoken tradition that the Church (2 Thessalonians 2:15) has left for us. And must also submit to those ordained to lead us to safety and who are responsible for leading us to salvation:

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

We live in an age where purported authorities are questioned, and rightly, for their abuses. There are many self-proclaimed (and self-promoting) religious experts who claim to have spiritual knowledge and have yet to truly take the plunge of faith themselves. These false teachers. They are ordained only by themselves, by their own arrogance, and are whom Jesus describes as being blind guides. You can know them by their fruits:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (Matthew 7:15‭-‬20 NIV)

Be sure that those who lead you have a true connection to the world beyond. Do they shine a light that pushes back against the darkness? Do they bring you nourishment and spiritual air? For those trapped in the cave in Thailand, it is clear who came from the outside and why they are there. The rescuers come with provisions, they administered first aid to those in need and built the trust of the boys to follow their lead and instructions.

These teachers, without a doubt, played a critical role in the salvation of those trapped in the cave and we too need those who have experience beyond our own to provide calm and guide us through the fog, currents, and confusion of life.

We Must Die to Save Others

As I entered the church building on Sunday the final act of the rescue mission started. The Gospel text was, interestingly enough, about some friends of a paralytic and their faith that carried him to Jesus:

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:1‭-‬2 NIV)

The account goes on with Jesus first addressing the naysayers and critics for their evil thoughts before going on to fully heal this man. But this detail about Jesus seeing the faith of these men is something I had missed before. It was their carrying him, like the divers leading the boys out of the hopeless depths, that led to this man being forgiven and freed from his paralysis. It is our job to carry each other back to Christ and that is the purpose of a Christian community and the Church. It is our faith that leads to the healing of others.

Like these men carrying their friend or the “buddy system” of experienced divers leading the young boys through the darkness to the light, we too must serve a role in the salvation of others. The Christian mission is to participate in the salvation of others in much the same way as those, who came from around the world and volunteered to risk their own lives—not for financial gain, not for their own biological children and not compelled by force. They simply saw a need, a desperate need, and became the solution.

Sgt Major Saman Kunan

Many have sacrificed time and volunteered their talents to aid in the search and rescue effort in Thailand. But one man, Sgt Major Saman Kunan, a retired Thai Navy diver, gave his own life so those boys could be saved. This hero, after delivering oxygen canisters needed for the daring escape, ran out of oxygen himself and perished.

And that is the responsibility of all Christians. We are to find lost sheep, feed them, heal their wounds, lead them out of harm’s way, and even give our lives for them. We are to be Christ in every sense of the word and that means dying to ourselves and saving the lost from their dark cave.

We need to be faithful to those who are lost without a hope.