Struggle, Meaning of Life and Suicide

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

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

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

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

So, what did we discuss?

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

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

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

What has changed?

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

The media deluge…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working more for less…

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

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

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

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

Life without purpose…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of community…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A profile of a vulnerable person…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam had basically given up on religion.

He was rightly skeptical too.

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

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

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

He never did answer.

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

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

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 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, 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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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.

Collectivism, Individualism, and the Alternative…

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There was nothing more irritating to the middle-school version of me than collective punishment of a class.  It was totally unfair, from the perspective of a well-behaved individual, for the teacher to punish the entire class because of the few who misbehaved and seemed a gross injustice.

However, from a teacher’s perspective, punishing classes as a collective whole was 1) easier than finding the individual culprits and 2) might convince students to police themselves.  And, while it is debatable whether or not this technique accomplishes the desired ends, it is something used in military training and for the purpose of teaching that the collective unit will rise and fall together in a combat situation.

We thrive in groups.  There is a reason why you buy your car from a manufacturer rather than build it yourself and that reason is they can do it more efficiently than you can.  It is something called “comparative advantage” (which basically means that some people are better at doing some tasks than we are) and is one of the reasons why trade is almost always mutually beneficial.  For the most ideal result (for both individuals and the collective) it is usually better that we specialize and cooperate.

In real-life we do depend on each other for survival.   Yes, you might be strong, independent, well-disciplined and as prepared as one can be for a crisis.  However, if your neighbors are not, when a crisis does arise it will likely be you against the group and you will probably lose that fight no matter how prepared you are.  And, at very least, even if you were to somehow escape, you would not thrive as an individual like you do in a developed economy where there is cooperation and trade.

So, whether we like it or not, regardless if it is just or not to introduce artificial group responsibility for the actions of others, even if there was no moral obligation to be our brother’s keeper, there is group accountability that arises naturally because of our interdependence and also an economic argument to make for some collective effort (or collectivism) and denial of the individual.  In other words, we are individually better when we take some concern for other individuals who make up our own collective group.

Where Collectivism Goes Wrong…

In the first part of my life most of my effort has been to fight back against collectivism.  In life, as in the classroom, I was usually well-behaved, worked hard, lived within my means, always paid my own bills on time, and expected others to do the same.  It has always seemed terribly unfair that others would expect me to pick up the tab for their irresponsible lifestyle.

What is worse is that many collectivists are not content to subsidize those who they deem to be deserving of help out of their own pockets and instead support the use of use of government to enforce their ideals—taxes are used for income redistribution and affirmative action laws created in an effort to promote equality of outcomes.  To me that is trying to solve one injustice by means of another injustice.  There is no virtue in forcing other people to give to others against their will.

Furthermore, at some point, forcing a responsible person to subsidize another person’s lifestyle is to punish their behavior and promote irresponsible behavior.  The problem with artificial collective responsibility is that it can remove the incentive for the individual to be responsible for themselves and leads to a downward spiral.

For example, poverty has not been eliminated since the “war on poverty” began in 1964.  In fact, the percentage of single parent homes—one of the significant predictors of poverty—has increased dramatically over the same period.  It is often very difficult, for those already in the welfare system, to escape their dependence when the benefits of not working are almost equal to the income they could earn otherwise.

And then there is this awful thing called “identity politics” where people are put into competitive groups according to their race, gender or economic status and then pitted against each other.  Basically the idea is to promote conflict (rather than cooperation) between various identity groups.  People, according to this kind of thinking, should be judged as a part of their collective groups rather than as individuals and unique.

What identity politics amounts to, in practical terms, is that there are those who are collectively punished for the sins of their collective identity (past or present) and then those who, as a collective group, are deemed to be victims and therefore entitled to a protected status.  Identity politics is to blame for terms like “white privilege” and also for the resurgence of white nationalism.  It should be no surprise to anyone that those who are collectively punished will, in turn, circle the wagons and start to collectively protect their own identity group.

Teachers who punish the whole class for the actions of a few individuals assume that the group will push back against those who misbehave.  Unfortunately, it could also promote the opposite and cause the well-behaved students to give up and even join in the misbehavior because they will be punished regardless.  Likewise, when labels like “racist” or “sexist” are applied to an entire identity group they often become counterproductive.  People who are categorizing and castigated as a group regardless of their individual role might as well misbehave a little.

Collectivism ultimately fails when it is disrespectful of individual rights and disregarding of differences between individuals.  The potential for abuse is severe when it is the collective group versus some individuals or even when collective groups fights against other groups.  It is what leads to pogroms and purges.  Collectivism is extremely dangerous ideology when it becomes an excuse to privilege some ethnic, national, racial, religious, social or political groups at the expense of others.

Where Individualism Goes Wrong…

Individualism, to many people, seems like the perfect alternative to collectivism.  It is part of the ideological DNA of the United States of America.  Truly one of the things that made America great was the special consideration for the individual and their “inalienable” rights.

These rights, purportedly “endowed by our creator” according the nation’s founding documents, have been enshrined into law and a government system designed as a bulwark against abuse of individuals.  Progress, at least in American terms, has been a matter of extending the umbrella of these individual rights to those previously disenfranchised and considered less than equal because of their gender, racial or ethnic group.  While we can never agree on the particulars, the general idea that “all men are created equal” and have rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is something most do agree on.

Respect for individual rights has made this nation great because it freed individuals to do what they wanted to do.  Yes, the nation was imperfect in it’s founding and remains imperfect.  However, the American ideal seems to be right in many regards, it is something that likely contributed to the current prosperity this nation and is something that has likely helped to shape a better world.  It is hard to imagine the world being better under the totalitarianism represented by men like Stalin, Hitler and other dictators claiming to represent a collective good.

Unfortunately, respect for the individual turns into a bad thing when it becomes individualism.  It is true that many are able to provide food, clothing and shelter for themselves as an individual.  However, nobody can provide for their own social needs and many in the world today are socially starved.  The problem is particularly acute in the developed world where people are materially prosperous and can live under a delusion of their independence.  But the truth is that it is not healthy for most people to be free from meaningful human connections or to have no purpose bigger than themselves.

The deficiencies of individualistic American culture have became clearer to me after I left home.  Being single, out on the road, a completely free individual, often made me feel profoundly lonely and unfulfilled.  I felt imprisoned in my own mind.  My siblings had their own lives, my friends all seemed to marry then disappear, the local church was unable/unwilling to pick up the slack, and depression set in.   No man is an island—positive social interactions and having a place to belong is what keeps us sane.

My recent trip to the Philippines punctuated this point.  The people there generally have less material wealth than their American counterparts.  As a result people depend on each other—family members expected to provide for each other, children help their parents, and is more or less an organic form of collectivism.  I felt happier there, as one participating in family activities, than I did with all the possessions and properties I’ve aquired over the past few decades.

As if to provide contrast, on my way way back from the Philippines I was put up in a Marriott (when my flight to JFK was diverted to Atlanta because of weather) and was basically alone despite being one of the hundred passengers and crew in the motel.  My accommodations were luxurious, my stomach full of quality grub courtesy of Korean Air food vouchers, my unlimited data plan connected me back to social media and all the entertainment in the world, and still it felt like a time devoid of purpose.

People do not need to be a part of an identity group.  However, we do seem to find our own identity in our interactions with other people and within a group.  Solitude, while therapeutic and a chance for reflection as a choice, is a punishment when imposed upon us by circumstances beyond our control.  Individualism, at an extreme, results in solipsism and anti-social behavior—it is easy to imagine that the world is against you when too disconnected from other people.

Where Community Gets it Right…

“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy–in fact, the opposite.” (Jean Vanier)

Community can mean many things.  However, the word itself is a fusion of “common” with “unity” and most often describes a group individuals with a shared identity or interest.  In this context community is a collection of individuals who love and take an active role in each other’s lives.

I believe community is something that transcends the ideological extremes (and false dichotomy) of individualism and collectivism.  It is not a balance or tension between individual rights and the collective needs of a group.  It is rather a fusion of individual and collective concerns that is not a product of coercion or imposed as a legal obligation.  It is a place where differences become a strength rather than a point of contention and were grievances are addressed without becoming the group’s central theme.

A healthy community is focused on the highest common denominator of the group rather than on the lowest.  In other words, the goals of the individuals in the group are bigger than what is merely good for them or those who are most like them.  Those who make up the group are not forced to give up their personal autonomy to tyrannical collective process either.  Instead they are free to voluntarily use their individual strengths to the betterment of the group, willing to work towards the goal they share in common with the group, and without their personal needs being neglected.

Community is a Christian ideal.  It is centered on sharing an identity with Jesus and is following after his example.  It means being willing to suffer temporary personal loss for the external good of others.  It means loving social outcasts, reaching out to those marginalized in society and being a helping hand to those in need.  It means having an identity (both individually and collectively) greater than race, gender, economic status, nation, or religious affiliation.  It means a community formed by all those (past, present and future) united in a mystical common-union:

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. “ (Colossians 3:11‭-‬14 NIV)

Community is where individuals take responsibility for the collective group and the collective group takes responsibility for the individual.  Not because they have to, not because they fear punishment, but because they want to, they have an identity bigger than themselves and love each other as Jesus first loved them.

My Departure From the Ethnic Church

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Like many other things not appreciated until they are gone, there was a time when the unique character of the church of my youth was something I had mostly taken for granted.

You see, that church, unlike some other Mennonite churches, had many surnames not typically found within the denomination.  We had Cordermans, Gelnetts, Fiedlers, Schrocks, Schooleys and Rovenolts—all of them “community” people who decided to become Mennonites.

Over the years that near even split of Mennonite-borns and “community” people has slowly faded.  The non-Mennonite names displaced and replaced as more transplants arrived following cheaper land prices and a better place than Lancaster County to raise their families.

The original church, started a few decades before my birth, had been the result of a Summer Bible School program.  A group from Lancaster County drove several hours north and set up camp on the grounds of a small one room public school.

Eventually several young couples involved decided to move into the area where they held the summer program.  They purchased the little old school house and started the “East District Mennonite Church” with Lester Miller ordained as pastor.

That church, the one with Lester at the helm, is the one that had a greater focus on the local community and was basically a family of misfits.  As far as Mennonite churches go it was a very welcoming place and I believe still retain that reputation today.

However, over the years (since the time Lester moved back to Lancaster and with the influx of “cradle Mennonites” who didn’t necessarily share that original vision of outreach) there has been a subtle shift—a reverting back to a mostly ethnic church full of those who cater only to their own families.

What is an ethnic church and when is it a problem?

It used to irk me, coming from the mixed background congregation that I did, when people would describe Mennonites as being an “ethnic church” and unwelcoming to outsiders.  My response would be that Mennonites aren’t the only church with a distinct ethnic flavor and that my own church was diverse.

Truth be told, ethnic diversity isn’t a necessary ingredient for a vibrant local church either.  I would expect that a church in China would have mostly those of ethnic Chinese background and a church in central Pennsylvania to have mostly German or other Caucasian origin.  Most historical churches were made of those who shared an ethnic identity and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of local flavor.

Unfortunately these ethnic lines, when they come at the expense of a universal and united church, become antithetical to the Christian tradition left to us by the Apostles.  We are supposed to all be one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28) rather than divided up by differences of gender, social status and ethnic background.

Ethnic division, very often linked together with sectarian or denominational distinctions, is a great weakness of the North American church.  Instead of local community is being unite into one church, as was the case in the early church, we hold onto our own racial and cultural identities.  We put ourselves first, our own ethnic families, over unity in the Spirit.

American churches are “intellectual ghettos” as well.  We separate over political ideologies, theological perspectives, traditional versus contemporary preferences and, in the case of Mennonites at least, over the most trivial bits of application.  This multitude of churches all claim to Jesus as Lord and yet each prioritize preservation of their own cultural “echo chamber” and focus on insulating themselves from any real challenge of their ideas.

What would Jesus say about ethnic churches in diverse communities?

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

That might be hyperbole.  It was addressing an audience that place great value on ethnic and family identity.  It seemed to contradict prior teaching that put emphasis on tribe and caring for one’s own first.  Nevertheless it is something Jesus said and something we ought to contemplate as it applies to our own times.

Did Jesus come to establish a church divided in so many ways?  Would he approve when people living in the same geographic area drive past multiple churches to find one that suits their own personal preferences?  At very least, is it appropriate to “plant” a new church in a town where there are already multiple options?

At some point there needs to be some introspection.  If the church you are in does not reflect the demographics of the local community you should ask why that is.  Was the true Gospel of Jesus Christ was about people congregating with people ethnically and otherwise similar to themselves?  Were newly converted Greeks required to live by traditional Jewish religious standards?

I’ll let this be the answer to that last question…

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.  You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? […] Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:2‭-‬7‭, ‬11‭-‬12 NIV)

Strong words.

When we put our own ethnic and religious tribe above loving as Christ taught then we are like those whom Paul wished would cut themselves off completely.

Finding the universal church…

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. “ (Ephesians 4:4‭-‬6 NIV )

The divided western church does not represent the ideals expressed by Jesus or the Apostles.  What it does represent is our cultural value of independence over unity in Christ.  It is because we value our own ethnic groups and our own idiosyncrasies of practice over the love for the whole family of God.  It is because we are unwilling to “hate” our own families in order to find greater unity together in the Spirit.

There would no doubt be a blessing for those who gave up their own religious cultural and personal hang ups in obedience to their Lord who said to put love for his church first.  My own will to do that was crippled for many years by my want to feel loved, accepted and desired in my ethnic church.  In had placed being Mennonite above being Christian and truly loving my neighbors despite our differences.

I’ve recently started to go to a church that has members from many denominational backgrounds.  Yes, there are some of the “cradle” types who bring their own ethnic and cultural flavor to the group.  And, yes, I do need to drive past a couple other churches to get there.  But the mix is more representative of the surrounding community and the welcome I’ve received there reminds me of a little church that I once knew.

The Last Mennonite Standing — Is a Population Collapse Inevitable?

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A few months ago a Christian friend of mine shared a link to a news story and asked my opinion.

The story, “UK Mennonites end Sunday services after numbers dwindle,” did not seem to apply to my own conservative branch of the Mennonite denomination.

My initial thoughts were that this was one of those wacky liberal churches and therefore not relevant.

However, upon further reflection, I realized that my own brand of Mennonite is not impervious to cultural trends and, despite all the babies crying on Sunday mornings now, we could face a similar population collapse down the road.

Headlines about record-low fertility rates in the US or an unprecedented population collapse in another nation might seem irrelevant to our own situation.  But they can also give some indication of the patterns, telltale signs and changes in behavior that come before such events.

I’ve heard people say that we, as conservative Mennonites, are “50 years behind society” and there seems to be some truth to that.  I know with the advance of technology (like that which makes this blog possible) the pace of change is now quicker than most would have imagined a generation ago.

The conditions that allowed the Mennonite tradition to continue for hundreds of years are disappearing, and quickly.  It does not seem we are in an especially strong position to cope with the new social, economic and technological realities.

This generation could very well be the last.

Here are some factors that could determine where things go from here…

#1) We grow mostly because we have big families and convert our own children.  Like it or not, “Mennonite” is an ethnic group—complete with unique genetic disorders and a game based on our common surnames.  Yes, we do have some converts from the “community folks” and yet most of us came from Mennonite or other established Anabaptist stock.  If our birth rates were to continue to drop (as they have been amongst Mennonites in North America), then there will likely be some problems down the road.

#2) Marriage is being postponed and even avoided altogether, thereby decreasing birth rates.  Mennonites seem to be taking cues from society when it comes to committed relationship.  But, unlike society, we do not have children outside of marriage and therefore our postponing of marriages means older mothers and fewer children, and that is assuming they will marry eventually.  I just had a young woman (maybe mid-twenties) ask me to do a blog to advise her and her friends on how to tell pesky guys to get lost—not an unusual sentiment.  It seems women from conservative backgrounds are becoming less interested in marriage and motherhood, and that is a death knell to a church that can’t bring in more than an occasional convert from outside our own existing gene pool.

#3) The feeder system from Old Order groups and elsewhere could dry up.  It is not a big secret that Mennonites migrate from conservative to liberal.  My own church has lost many born into it and the casualties have always been offset with those gained from other groups more conservative than our own, or those escaping expensive land prices in overdeveloped Lancaster County.  But this means of growth via a continued supply from upstream (or downstream?) is not guaranteed.  It could change as economic pressures increasingly encroach on the Old Order lifestyle.  It is harder to support big families with higher land values, a tougher regulatory environment, rising healthcare costs, etc.  We can’t count on migrants for growth.

#4) Urbanization and loss of an agricultural lifestyle results in cultural change.  My grandparents moved up out of the Franconia Conference territory (near Philadelphia) in the 1960s to begin farming where the land was cheaper and roads less congested.  My grandparents have remained relatively unchanged in the way they dress since that time.  However, their friends “back home” have changed dramatically both in dress and perspective.  There are still a small number of “breakaway” conservatives in that region, but the main body of Mennonite churches there are extremely progressive and their trends could give us some indication of our own future.

#5) The decline of meaningful brotherhood and rise of alternatives reduces interest.  The Amish were right to identify transportation technology as a threat to community.  We might pride ourselves for having stronger communities than the church down the road (a disputable claim) and yet would we compare favorably to prior generations?  I know that even in my own three-decade life span there has been a dramatic change.  We seem less closely knit and more quick to leave for the church up the road rather than come together as one community of diverse members.  We do more world travel, have more activities for every specialized interest or age group, and are kept very busy.  However, we are also fragmented with less vertical integration, more homeschooled children, and less everyday connection—resulting in weaker communities.  Our communities could eventually disintegrate completely as they lose relevance.

#6) Lack of foresight and appropriate faithful preparation is endemic.  Part of the reason I’m writing this blog is because nobody else is talking about this.  We are chronically unprepared for change.  It seems many conservative Mennonites have their heads buried in the sand (or simply buried in day-to-day business and family affairs) and do not see trends coming down the pike.  There appears to be very little effort on the part of the ordained leadership to account for changes in culture (or technology) and even less effort to respond in a positive or productive manner.  Few advocate for a faithful and deliberate approach to problems.  We miss opportunities to increase our effectiveness because we do not utilize the greater means available to us.  We perish for lack of vision.

#7) In the void of thoughtful preparation, what results is only fearful reaction and hasty retreat.  Mennonites, like other Christian fundamentalist groups, began to withdraw from strategic high ground after being blindsided by the pushback against the state endorsement of religion in public schools and the rise of secularism.  Many decry, “They took prayer out of school!” but the sad reality is they did not remove prayer and a faithful witness from schools—we did!  We trembled like King Saul facing the Philistine giant and removed our children and influence.  We did not read 1 John 4:4, “greater is he that is in you, than he is in the world,” and believe.  It is little wonder why nobody believes us when we try to convince them of our great God.

#8) Our missions are often without purpose and out of touch.  I know a young woman (a very sweet person and sincere Mennonite) who told me, “hearts don’t change,” in response to a circumstance outside her experience.  I was astonished at the cognitive dissonance on display and it made me wonder why she was spending thousands of dollars to be at IGo Adventures and Spouse Seeking Institute in Thailand.  It reminds me of the time when we formed a committee at my church to discuss local missions where mailing out more tracts seemed to be the idea with most traction and nothing practical ever came of the committee.  Needless to say, I am not very optimistic about our abilities to do effective outreach.

Is a Mennonite population collapse in North America inevitable?

I don’t know.

I’m not expecting our complete extinction.

I’m pretty sure the Mennonite name will continue on in one form or another.

For instance, we do have a list of genetic disorders that will carry on our legacy.

But, as a religious culture and tradition?

I believe that depends.

It depends on how we approach the issues listed in #1-8 above.

Will we address problems head-on and work through them deliberately or be blindsided?

Will we adjust our thinking and adapt our methods as needed?

Or will we (like the dying Shaker movement) use hope as a strategy?

Nothing is written in stone yet.  But I do know that the conservative Mennonite culture is a frustrating place for innovative and forward-thinking people.  Old habits, functional fixedness, inability to think outside the box and a “don’t rock the boat” mentality all stand in the way of a faithful and vibrant future.

We need to ask and answer the hard questions rather than avoid them.  We should be taking note of trends, and be confronting them collectively as a group.

Notice a growing number of older singles?

Look into the Moravian option or at the very least reconsider the faithless courtship teachings that have created the current mess.  There is no reason why we should pretend there’s nothing that can be done.

Wonder why our missions are ineffective?

It could be that we are isolating our children rather than trusting God and teaching them to live in fear rather than faith.  They can’t empathize or understand anyone outside the Mennonite culture.

Where do we go from here?

It is up to you.  But, if you don’t want to be the last Mennonite standing, I suggest it is time to remove the stale items from the shelves and introduce some fresh ideas.

Change is inevitable.

Be proactive.

A Practical Model for Christian Love and Community

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My last blog gave an abstract vision of love.  

The story of my sister Sarah and a precious bhest were part of the catalyst for a more concrete idea. 

The other part of the inspiration process was a scammer who claimed to have cancer and promised me a windfall.  They said they wanted their untold millions to go to a man (yours truly) who would use it for Christian charity.

That flirtation with the thought of having a great amount of wealth to spend for a cause I thought worthy enough led to a vision of a farm.  The idea would be a farm that combined the biggest asset Mennonites have to offer (their families) with those who needed it most.

You see, church attendance, for someone without the family structure, is not enough to meet their social needs and single mothers need more.  A welfare check and public housing is wholly inadequate to meet the needs of many of these abandoned women and their children.

Our duty to love the widow and the orphan is clear.

We as true people of faith do not have an option here, we have a moral duty as those called to be perfectly merciful as God is perfectly merciful (Matthew 5:48, Luke 6:36) and desiring to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. 

Specifically, as it pertains to this blog and the vision, it means taking up this divine task:

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” (Psalm 68:5)

“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)

That is the heart of God.  And those who seek fellowship with God will share in His own heart and create their own visions around His cause.  James tells us:

“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)

We live in a time where most basic needs are met and this could be used as an excuse.  One could shirk their own God-given responsibilities by saying that government programs provide.  Or use Scripture as a legalist would and claim that since social needs aren’t specifically mentioned there is no reason to fill them.

However, our culture, with the breakneck pace we live, is probably not the same as a city or village in the time the book of James was written.  And—despite our connectedness via technology and social media—many people are without close friends or family support and single mothers are especially vulnerable.

So, anyhow, at this point if you don’t agree or can’t see the need you probably can stop reading here.  But I’m guessing most of my readership is interested in knowing more and will continue to the specific idea.

A farm and vision to bring family to those without.

I did not grow up on a family farm.  However, like many conservative Mennonites, I was one step removed from agriculture and would often visit my grandparents farm.  Three of my uncles, carrying on the work of their father, all live in close proximity to each other and run the farm together. 

To me my uncles have something in that farm which few people do anymore and that being a true sense of community.  They work together towards a common goal, their labor is for each other as much as it is for personal gain and it seemed to me an ideal place as a child.  There is something special about a family farm.

So, as a result of that childhood experience, my love for both Sarah and bhest, as well as the scammer giving me reason to dream, my vision is to bring that family farm experience to single mothers and their children.  I believe it would be the ideal environment for teaching basic life skills and helping to end the cycles that lead to generational poverty.

What I picture is two or three healthy families paired with a single mother and her children.  The idea would be to have seperate houses within easy walking distance of each other, common meals at least once a day and plenty of working together in the way strong Mennonite families do. 

There would be gardening, maybe a garage for mechanical work or wood shop.  I would prefer that it be a sustainable effort that doesn’t depend on outside help besides start up cost.  The size and scope of the farming operation would depend on who is involved and the more other trades or talents the better.

I believe many single mothers and their children need this kind of real loving investment to thrive.  This is a need right here at home (North America for me) and places like the Philippines.  It is an adaptable vision.  The work could center on a bakery or restaurant so long as there is working together and an opportunity to teach.

What is needed to make this vision a reality?

This vision requires normal people like you.  Perhaps you are a mother escaping abuse or abandoned.  Maybe you are part of a Christian home and wish to share that great wealth of family you have with those who do not.  Or you could be a businessman looking for a tax write-off and investment.  This is your opportunity.

If you share this vision or something like it.  Please comment your own ideas below, describe what you are able to offer towards an effort like this and share this blog post with your friends of like faith and love for those most vulnerable. 

The Gospel is not about singing on the subway or shoving tracts into faces.  It is not about flying to exotic locations with the cool religious people either.  No, it is about Jesus who literally fed, physically healed and said his followers would do greater things.

Single mothers struggling to survive don’t need a lecture about sin or salvation.  What they really need is commitment and love that they can’t understand which in time will open their hearts to receive the fullness of God’s grace.

Who’s in?