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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Denominationalism: “My Church Is Better Than Yours!”

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People divide up.  Segregation occurs naturally in groups as individuals seek out others who have something in common with them.  It students find those of common interests, social status, gender or race.  It happens in communities—people choose to live with people more similar to them.

But where division should not happen is in the church.  Not according to the Apostle Paul, at least:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:2‭-‬6)

I believe the first sentence, “Be completely humble and gentle,” is key to the second part being true of us.  With pride comes contention (Prov 13:10) and without humility there is divisivion.

Paul further elaborates:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, 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 Chloeʼs 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)

The message is clear in the words of Paul—the church should not be divided into competing denominations and, if Scripture is to be believed, we should be grieved by division in the church and preach against it.

We should stand united against this:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9‭-‬10)

Diotrephes evidently thought he was pretty special.  He desired preeminence, made slanderous accusations and was excluding other Christians from fellowship.  We aren’t told why he was banning people, but his attitude clearly is condemned as wrong in the passage.

A church divided against itself…

The church today is divided up into many denominations.  There was the big schism between East and West that was caused by disagreement over Papal primacy, the Filioque added to the church creed, canonization of Scripture and multiple other issues.  After various attempts to reconcile differences over many years the result was eventually mutual excommunications in 1054 that are regarded as the terminal event.

Then came the series of splits in the Western church, the so-called Protestant Reformation, set in motion by Martin Luther’s protests over the sale of indulgences in the 1500s, leading to the formation of a “Lutheran” church and culminating in the 33,000 denominations that we have today.  My own Mennonite denomination was the eventual product of a radical and rebellious (sometimes violent) Anabaptist movement.

My church is part of many Mennonite “conferences” that recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree.  Some groups considered “old order” (who reject modern technology) with a spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative” as broad as the overall church and spawning more variations (some who resist being called Mennonite) recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree… yet typically only allow their own members to take communion.

Mennonites today, unlike the schism in 1054 or other splits caused by larger more meaningful matters of theology and doctrine, tend to divide over the minutia of application.  Things like the style of coat, size of a floral print on a dress, color of socks, facial hair, and any number of nitpicking details which nobody in the world outside Mennodom would care about, can precipitate a church split.

For example, in my church the two big controversies that led people to leave were over hair style.  First, several families left for a more conservative conference because a little girl had bangs.  Later, a liberal contingent left because of a feud over a bit of peach fuzz.

Complete absurdity.

This is a reality in clear opposition to the teachings of Paul and the “unity of the Spirit” he describes.

What is the problem?

We have names from A to Z in front of our church buildings to proudly tell people what church tradition we follow.  We announce “I am of Menno Simons” or of this “Lutheran” theological perspective or that “Methodist” doctrinal division and promote a form of tribalism.  The result is a confusing mess that only a religious historian could untangle.

But, I can hear the protest: “Shouldn’t people know what denomination we are?  I mean, they’ll find out eventually, better to let them know before they enter and disturb us, right?”

And thus we prove we value our denomination more than we do welcoming others of Christian faith.  It is the spirit of Diotrephes, a prideful desire for preeminence and control; it is love of our own dogmatic ideas over other people.  It is the kind of attitude Jesus condemns:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)

The “teachers of the law and Pharisees” thought they had every right to shut people out based on their biblical standards.  But Jesus warns them that they will be shut out the way they shut out others.  It seems the same message Jesus preached of forgive as you wish to be forgiven (Matt. 6:14) and judge as you wish to be judged (Matt. 7:2) and that should give pause to anyone humble enough to know their own imperfections.

The Mennonite church I grew up in will refuse to baptize a believer who doesn’t go through a class and agree to follow their own list of standards.  They would go so far as deny communion to a person from another denomination.  And this inhospitable attitude is not a problem to most of them.

Maybe God will be inhospitable to those who have denominational pride and shut out other believers different from themselves?

Some things to consider…

1) Reconsider having a denominational name in front of your church.  Do you understand the admonition of the Apostle Paul against division?  If so, why do you see it as allowable to emphasize a man’s name, a particular doctrinal slant or denominational tradition in front of your church?  What if our true worship was supposed to be less about theological correctness and more about our truthfulness in love and forbearance?

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 3:12‭-‬14)

2) Stop attacking, belittling, and making slanderous accusations against other denominations.  I know I know, Catholics are idol worshippers, Joel Osteen isn’t negative enough (more about hell, please) and Calvinists are too fatalistic, predetermined or something like that.  But Scripture tells us, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” and warns: 

If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:15)

Perhaps, before we get too sanctimonious, we should consider this:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11‭-‬12)

3) Be less resistant to criticism and more receptive to correction regarding your own denomination.  It is easy to circle the wagons when our own church tradition is scrutinized, and to react defensively rather then be open to rebuke.  For example, nearly any time I blog about the defects of my own religious culture, there’s usually a chorus of those crying, “My Mennonite church isn’t like that!”  Many are in denial—but that is their pride.

We should practice introspection and be open to the possibility that outsiders might see our flaws better than we do, because:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8‭-‬10)

There is no weakness in acknowledgement and confession of fault.  There is no need for huffy recriminations (“Well, they do it too!”) if we are truly humble.  Christianity is about forgiving and being forgiven, not about defending the image of our denomination.

4) Baptism should be uncoupled from denominational indoctrination and membership.  There is nowhere in Scripture where baptism is seperated from profession of faith.  Yes, we should disciple young believers, teach correct doctrine and encourage good application.  However, that can come after baptism.  There is no reason why a baptism should wait weeks or months.  And, if you belong to a church that ties baptism to extrabiblical church standards, speak out against it.  We should welcome the young in the faith rather than add our own prideful denominational requirements:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:1‭-‬5)

5) Do not refuse to allow other Christians to participate in your Communion service.  Paul warns against eating and drinking unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27) and this is reason for introspection.  However, what is neither said nor implied is the idea that a church leader should determine who is worthy or not worthy.  Yes, we are told that an openly wicked and unrepentant person should be excluded (1 Cor. 5:13) and yet that doesn’t mean we should deny those of other denominational stripes from the table.

We must rebuke Diotrephes and welcome other believers even if they do not meet our own denominational standards.  There is one church and one Spirit—we must take a stand against the spirit of division.  We need to stand against sins of pride and denominationalism.

Nuclear Fusion and a Positive Vision of Love

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Many people, whether they realize it or not, love for what they get in return and essentially are in love with their own image reflected in another person.  This can be dressed up in many ways, it can be hidden under religious motives or romanticized, but it is (once all the layers of rationalizations are removed) a selfish love.

For three years now I’ve sought after a different kind of love.  For three years I’ve sought after the kind of love that sacrificed personal ambitions and loved another purely out of love for God.  It was a love of faith, a love that transcends differences rather than be divided by them, and a love made possible only through God.

The impossible love meets human reality…

I set out to do the impossible in belief that the words “with God all things are possible” were true and pursued the love of someone who was completely different from me in everything but faith.

Unfortunately, this person—being that they are fundamentally different from me (despite our both being Mennonites)—did not see faith as a good enough basis and could not see the potential for love and refused even a friendly relationship.

I don’t blame her.  It was what she inherited from her parents and religious culture.  Mennonites, despite their bluster, are really no different from their secular neighbors and promote the same perspective of love.  That is to say Mennonites give advice like “find someone running the same direction you are” and centers on the wants of the two individuals.  You don’t need God to explain that kind of love.

But I sought something entirely different.  I sought a love that was not self-seeking and shallow.  I was seeking a deeper bond of a love that was truly self-sacrificial and put God at the center rather than the wants of individuals.  Instead of two people choosing each other because they are similar, a narcissistic love, I hoped to find the love of two people who formed their ambitions together in a spiritual union with God.

I met a wall of resistance.  Mennonites may claim to love their enemies and practice non-resistance, but don’t try to be their friend unless you fit their list of requirements.  I was not up to her standards.  She told me she couldn’t love me the way that I wished to be loved, except I didn’t ask for love—all I wanted was a little faith and a chance.

Imagine the exasperation of being told “hearts don’t change” by someone who plans to commit their life to missionary service.  It makes me wonder why they would even bother going over land and sea?  Evidently they aren’t going with actual faith in a God that makes the impossible possible.  Perhaps they are going for the excitement or for the praise of religious peers?

Anyhow, it is impossible to love someone who refuses to receive it.  In her mind, as one who was “thirty years old living in Milton” I had absolutely nothing to offer her.  She, taking cues from her father and religious peers, treated me more like a rabid dog than a brother in faith.  They actually denied me a means to love or be needed by them.

Meet Sarah, my sister from Congo-Brazzaville…

Severe disappointment leads to depression and many days I wished that I could disappear into my bed forever.  I was hurting and not in the mood to be sociable when the notification “Sarah Zinia has sent you a friend request” popped up on Facebook.

My initial thought was to ignore it.

However, I decided not to use my own pain as an excuse.  I remembered, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” and decided to apply that reasoning to this circumstance.

I clicked “accept” not knowing what to expect.

I was not kept in suspense.

Immediately thereafter a message “hey” came from this mysterious new friend.  So, still fighting the urge to ignore and deciding to apply the Golden Rule again, I said “hey” in reply.  We exchanged our “how are you’s” and that marked the beginning of a very special friendship between two very different people.

Sarah, I would soon learn, was in dead end of a town, living in a group home, a mother to a one month old baby Anthony, and had no car or public transportation.  It was obvious she was very bored, and I knew that if I were in her shoes I would want to get out a little.  So, in a moment of impulse, I offered to take her somewhere and she enthusiastically accepted.

After a first meeting (and being a good Mennonite by too carefully explaining my platonic intent) we were regularly going out to eat, hiking trails, visiting parks and even shopping!  She didn’t seem to care that I was a mildly miserable guy in his mid-thirties, she was simply glad to have a friend.

Our conversations were light at first, usually about the food we ate or the weather, but soon I was learning about the struggles of a teenage single mother and life from the perspective of a refugee from Africa.  Her story touched my heart and made my life seem like a walk in the park by comparison.

Sarah was pulled away from her home country, taken from her mother (who she has lost all contact with) in a new strange country, raised by the state system, treated as a slave and bullied.  I can’t go into details out of respect for her privacy and yet can assure you that she has gone through many awful experiences in her life.

Mennonites, like many others who are so privileged, take for granted the security that a family provides for them.  Sarah, by contrast, has been separated from her family and has been a half step from homelessness.  Yeah, sure, there are many government programs and private organizations to help, but none of that can replace family.  She needed real family and that is why she decided to accept me as her brother from another mother.

I treated her with respect.  She did not need to ask, it was easy to recognize the void in her life and that she needed someone she could trust to be there for her no matter what.  I tried to help her with her insecurities by assuring her that she would have a place to live even if I needed to give her my home and move back to my parent’s house.  

The friendship we have is impossible by a conservative Mennonite standard.  I’ve had various people in the church express their ‘concern’ to me.  Apparently, in their minds, a guy and girl can’t spend time together without bad things happening?  And then there were those who advised me to practice some ‘tough love’ and cut her off when she went against my advice and moved back to Arizona.

But I stopped caring what other people thought.  I trusted my heart and knew my intentions were right.  Sarah might be a net loss for my bank account, I’ve had to answer those late night calls, tune out a screaming baby (who had been perfectly delightful until alone with us in the car) and yet it was well worth it.  The moments of laughter, the happy and sad tears, seeing her progress—priceless.

She made my life meaningful again.  I probably needed her as much or more than she needed me.  She gave me a reason to care enough to get out of bed and her success has become my own.  Witnessing her accomplishments over the past couple years has encouraged me not to lose hope because the odds are against me.

Sarah has a positive outlook despite all the evil she’s endured—she still smiles with a big goofy grin and that brightens my day…

Helping my little lost sheep find God’s love again…

Last year I met another dear soul through social media.  I will never forget the first message where she apologized because she felt unworthy to be my friend.  She was a poor little lost sheep, shivering in the cold dark world, a nameless number to the machinery of capitalism, and had lost all hope.

Her family and her young son were far away in the Philippines.  She was working to support her son, and (because the wage was a little better than in her home country) she was pressured to take a three year contract in an electronics factory in Tiawan.  She lived in a dormitory with strangers.  Her life had fallen apart.

After her first message my heart ached with compassion.  I tried to convince her that she was indeed worthy to be my friend and assured that I would be there for her as long as she needed me.  But her descent from dreams of a simple happy life to the pit of despair was not overnight and restoration of hope would also take time.

Despite being on complete opposite ends of the planet (exactly twelve hours apart) we had the same schedule because she was on night shift.  So it worked out that every day she could be the first person I would greet and the last one I would talk to before going to bed.

There were many times early on where she would come away from work forlorn.  I would see the sad puppy sticker come across on Messenger and that was my signal to put everything down to get to the bottom of what was troubling her.  My mission was not accomplished until she smiled.

One day she asked me if it was okay if she called me “bhest” and, not seeing a reason why not, I granted permission.  Since then I’ve been her bhest and tried to live up to that special distinction.  My bhest has looked to me for assurance, for forgiveness when she made mistakes, and has privileged me with her faithful companionship.

The sad puppy sticker has not made an appearance for quite some time now.  Our daily reminders to each other to smile and be happy seem to create a sort of synergy or positive feedback loop.  It seems that we get more out than we put in.  We might be on complete opposite ends of the globe, but somehow we are twins and share one heart.

She has transformed from a sad puppy to a bouncy dancing and happy puppy—that is a great source of happiness for me.  It is my goal to continue to provide her with hope of that simple and happy life as long as I am able.

And, for the first time in my life, following her lead, I’ve started to call someone “bhest” and that makes me smile…

Anyhow, what does nuclear fusion have in common with a sister, a sheep, and the love I seek?

Nuclear fusion is a process in which two (or more) different atoms are pushed together with enough force that they overcome the forces that would normally keep them apart and they become one.  The result is a release of energy and particles.  Nuclear fusion is the process occuring in stars (like our sun) that continuously converts hydrogen atoms into helium and creates light.

There is research underway to replicate the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion to occur.  The reason for the effort is the tremendous potential for nuclear fusion to be a renewable and clean energy source.  Once the reaction was started (using a tremendous amount of energy) it would create far more energy than was used to start it and solve many problems of how to power our future.

My vision is for a love like nuclear fusion.  A love that takes two very different people who are not naturally attracted and bonds them together through a faith greater than the differences.  The idea would be a composite of two people of like faith with normally incompatible strengths and ambitions who are held together through a supernatural love.

That is why I set out a few years ago praying for the impossible to be made possible.  It was my hope to see this fusion of very different people who transcended their own independent dreams, sacrifice themselves completely (rather than find someone like themselves) and became bonded in a faith greater than themselves.  I had a vision of a tremendous potential yield.

And, I suppose, I may have gotten part way there.  I’ve seen people as different as black and white become family.  I’ve also found a love that can literally reach around the globe, and bridge east to west.  I’ve seen relationships that produce a synergy and seemingly more output than the energy put in.

But what remains to be seen and impossible?

I have yet to see a good Mennonite from the in-group make a commitment of love to someone outside their exclusive club.  Yes, I’ve seen them love a good project, I’ve seen them budge when hammered and make small concessions.

But, for these good religious people to truly reach for faith in something beyond their own comprehension and current abilities?

That, like nuclear fusion, remains out of reach (at least for this man) and impossible.

So what is my positive vision for love?

I asked God to make the impossible possible, and when I asked, I was seeking after that greater love—the fusion love of faith.  And, I’m not sure I’ve arrived at an answer yet.  I have many questions.

However, what I do know is that I have been changed over the past few years and now things that were impossible are closer to reality for me.  I have lived to be an answer to prayer even while my prayers seem to have gone unanswered.  I’m determined to help others see their own visions of a greater life become their reality.

 
The picture above is my family.  Not a family caused by biology or religious culture either, but one formed of obedience to conscience and love.  Do you share my vision for a transcendent love?

Jesus Always Trumps Politics

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I overestimated. 

I had assumed my own conservative friends would spot a charlatan and choose a candidate with their own supposed values. 

Trump’s rise came as a surprise to many on the left.  However, the bigger surprise was probably for conservatives who are principled, conscientious and consistently liberty-minded.

Trump is everything conservatives have complained about in liberals.  He’s divisive like Barack Obama, a serial womanizer like Bill Clinton, arrogant like Al Gore and a waffler like John Kerry.  Yet somehow it is all okay when Trump does it? 

Why? 

Well, I suppose it is because Trump is one of ‘us’ and is ‘our’ guy…? 

Which, in translation, is tribalism or identity politics and the same thing conservatives have claimed to loath in liberals.  This loathsome behavior has now become acceptable to some self-described conservatives because it suits their political agenda.

When you can’t beat them join them?

Conservatives, in fear of being marginalized and feeling unheard by the political establishment, have abandoned traditional conservativism en-masse to follow their own audacious Pied Piper who promises to give them a voice again.

Conservatives can no longer blame liberals for dividing the nation with a man as divisive as Trump as their choice for leader.  They can no longer point a finger at Hollywood for promoting evil when they themselves pick an obscene and angry man to represent them.

No matter what the outcome of the election (Trump, Clinton, or other) it is safe to say that irrationality has won, tribalism has won, and we all together will lose.  Something once anathema to American greatness has now come to define us both right and left.

Trump’s ascendency as a ‘conservative’ is a watershed moment.  Now no side can claim moral high ground.  Conservatives are now as guilty of rank partisanship and hypocrisy as their rivals.  They fall for fear-mongering propaganda as quickly as anyone else.

So where do we go from here?

First we must identify the problem in us, not them.  Jesus said that before we judge others we must judge ourselves, because how we judge others is how we will be judged (Matt. 7:1-5) and this is something that should sober up any honest person conservative or liberal.

Both sides identify the same problems. 

Both see the divisiveness, bullying and irrationality of the other side.

But, can we see it in ourselves?  Have we actually heeded the warning of Jesus, seen our own hypocrisy and repented?

Or do we hold onto our imagined right to a sanctimonious judgmental and entitled attitude?  Do we think it is okay for our side to be divisive because they are?  Is it fine to be a bully when it suits our own agenda?  Can we abandon a rationality of self-sacrificial love and somehow save ourselves?

#1) Simple labels lead to more division and greater irrationality.

Trump wins using what Scott Adams (who makes a case why the billionaire celebrity will win) has explained as the “linguistic kill shot” or taking an opponent’s most notable attribute and redefining it in a memorable and negative way. 

The presidential characteristics of diplomacy and reasonableness embodied by Jeb Bush were turned into “weak” and “low energy” by Trump.  Ben Carson’s political outsider status, unique life story and calm demeanor were turned into comparison to a child molester and a cause for mistrust.  Ted Cruz, a skilled debater and political strategist, he demolished by calling into question his credibility.

Of course, this is not anything new, political partisans and activists have long tried to define their opponents in a negative way.  The language in the abortion debate, for example: Those in favor self-identify as “pro-choice” while those against call themselves “pro-life” and both imply the other side as against life or choice.  It presents an intentional oversimplification of a complex topic.  It is often language representative of a false dichotomy and strawman argument.

This was also the most frustrating part of the healthcare debate early in President Obama’s first term.  You were either for a massive new government intrusion into the healthcare industry or you were pigeonholed as a cold hearted and angry racist. 

It was not conducive of a constructive dialogue.  It marked the end of any chance for bipartisan cooperation and in many ways forced otherwise reasonable people to choose a side.  Many conservatives have apparently decided to embrace the labels rather than rise above them. 

Perhaps it is because there is enough truth to the accusations against conservatives?  It does seem, in retrospect, that some of the opposition to Obama’s policies may have been partially rooted in bigotry and prejudice.  This could be in need of correction.

Political correctness came to be for a reason.  Unfortunately, the purveyors of political correctness have not overcome the same tendencies that they identify in others.  They, like those whom they deride as racists and sexists, have resorted to their own forms of the same ugliness.

Trump has mastered this art of oversimplification of opponents.  He uses language that creates a negative image and the more the identifier is resisted the more it is reinforced at a subconscious level. 

Trump relies on irrational human tendency to judge ‘outsiders’ collectively.  This leads to more mistrust, creates deeper division and leads to more tribalism.

#2) More tribalism (or identity politics) will never make America great.

Trump promises to make America great again.  But in reality he represents a more advanced stage of the cancer destroying our strength as a nation.  Namely the problem is tribalism (or identity politics) and this is not helped more angry partisan rhetoric.

Just the other day I was told (by a left-leaning friend) it was “politically toxic” to get lunch at Chick-fil-A.  And on the other side we have Joshua (coffee cup controversy) Feuerstein and a less than meek spirited woman marching through Target (submissive man and family in tow) demanding people leave or be in league with the devil.

Tribalism blinds us to the sins of those with whom we identify with and leads to a vengeful self-perpetuating tit for tat cycle.  Both sides have convinced themselves the other side is getting what they deserve when the government encroaches on their freedom.  It might be described as revenge for what their tribe did to ours, but it is really just hatred and hypocrisy.

Democrats described conservatives of being unpatriotic for opposition to tax hikes and other liberal policies.  Now Trump supporters have turned tables and claim you aren’t a patriot unless you support their vile mouthed candidate.  This is utter nonsense, nevertheless it is believed by many on both sides—it keeps us divided, easily manipulated, and weak.

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:24-25)

Abraham Lincoln paraphrased that bit of Scripture in his House Divided speech to point out the double-mindedness of those seeking to be on both sides of the slavery issue.  Lincoln lost that round, nevertheless his point was well made and our own prideful hypocrisy today (on both sides) must be addressed or we will fall.

The tendency to demonize or marginalize those who disagree is expression of identity politics.  Rather than respect each other we are driven to mistrust.  Rather than build a common unity around our shared values, we are encouraged to divide into competing tribes of race, gender or religious affiliation.  The result is a predictable never-ending conflict where nobody ever wins and everyone comes out as loser.

We cannot promote divisiveness, demagoguery and disunity then claim to love a nation that values freedom.  We cannot expect tolerance for ourselves or our tribe while demanding others share our opinions and being completely intolerant of those who do not.

#3) The answer to abuse and bullying is not more abuse and bullying.

Every abuser feels justified.  Men, child molesters or rapists, will often blame immodesty of women and the innocent for their own sinful lusts.  Likewise looters and rioters feel their own violent outbursts against are excused because of police brutality or other historic injustices.

People bully and abuse others because it works.  It may even get Trump elected according to some.  It is easier to manipulate others into compliance with fear of violence than it is to convince them with a rational argument.  The civil conversation is over when the mob arrives shouting demands with torch and pitchfork in hand.

Trump has encouraged mob spirit in his political rallies.  His supporters gleefully cheer on rough treatment that they feel is justified and it is dangerous. 

For years conservatives have put up with the disruptions and disrespect for those expressing their perspective, so perhaps some of us think this makes it right for us to act out?

It might be cathartic to see some elbows thrown on behalf of our own perspective.  However, repaying evil with evil is a path to greater evil.  It is a positive feedback loop that produces greater evil with each cycle.  It is a march towards civil war and a path to our mutually assured destruction.

We can’t overcome evil with evil.  We must overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21) and forgive.  Real moral leadership leads by example rather than use of reciprocal violence and political force.

Jesus trumps partisan politics.

Politics is about power.  Political leaders often use fear to motivate and threat of violence to manipulate those who stand against them, they feed discontentment rather than promote peace, but this is not the way of Jesus.

I’ve heard some exclaim: “We’re electing a president not a pastor!”

This is double mindedness.  Those who believe a thuggish leader is necessary to control their neighbors should not be surprised when the same rationale is used by their adversaries to subjugate them.  It is not reconcilable with Christian love.

Jesus is the answer or our profession of faith is a lie.  Jesus is the right example of leadership, is the only appropriate basis for measurement, or he’s not our Lord and Savior. 

And, furthermore, if the standard for leadership established by His example can’t be reconciled with politics, then I recommend those who claim to be Christian choose their master and remove themselves from the process entirely or admit their unbelief in Jesus.

A President is indeed like a pastor (read more if interested) to a nation.  His morality and ethics will is the example for the nation (or so that was the claim of conservatives in response to Clinton’s infidelity) and cannot be ignored.  We cannot separate the character of a person from their politics nor can we seperate our own personal morality from those whom we choose to represent us.

Politics, or at very least the politics of division, violence and tribalism, is antithetical to sincere profession of faith in Jesus.  Politics that leads by force rather than example is a direct contradiction to what Jesus taught.

“Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

That quote is the final answer given by Jesus to a legal expert (perhaps the equivalent of a Constitutional conservative today) who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus first ask what the law says, the man responds with a summary of the law—love God and love your neighbor.

But the expert, evidently unsatisfied, wanting to be justified, pushes for further definition and asks Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?”

It is at this point that Jesus tells a story of the ‘good Samaritan’ who treated an enemy (his political and ethnic or social rival) with loving care and respect.  Jesus does not answer the question of who is our neighbor, instead he answers how to be a good neighbor.

That is the way of Jesus.  We are to love our enemies, to lead others by showing them by example how we wish for them to treat us and through this overcome evil with good.  This brings unity and love rather than more fear and divisions.

If there is no candidate attempting to lead with Christian love?  Stay home election day and pray.  When given a choice between two corrupt and unrepentant people?  Choose neither! 

We should choose to transcend the tribal political warfare.  We can love our neighbors as faith requires without casting a ballot. 

So, when in doubt, choose Jesus and love your neighbor.

Hey, Christians, who do you serve?

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I read a blog today that spurred my thoughts in a new direction.  The blog (read here) was about the religious owners of a small business who elected to close shop after their employees decided to unionize.

The rationale they give for their decision piqued my interest:

“…our personal beliefs will not allow our conscience the freedom to work with a labor union, as we are required by Scripture to ‘live peaceably with all men,’ and not to use force to gain what we want or for what is required to succeed.”

I am a big believer in freedom of conscience and allowing business owners to make the decisions best for them.  I understand the angst of a small business owner facing the prospect of a workforce organized against them.  I know other small business owners who said they too would close shop rather than deal with a union.

However, by a Christian standard, is it truly living “peaceably” to essentially take the ball and go home when the game isn’t played by our own rules?

The Reason for Unions and the Cost of Conflict

I understand why a business owner is threatened by the collective bargaining power of unions.  It isn’t a pleasant thing to face the prospect of a do-what-we-say-or-we’ll-strike and it does tie the hands of those trying to keep a business afloat rather than just take a paycheck.  But is it much different than the do-what-we-say-or-we’ll-fire-you that employees face?

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The reality is that unions form for a reason and the reason is that employees feel powerless and want a voice.  Unions give employees power to collectively bring their own agenda to the table and force their will on the owners of the business.  It is an attempt to rebalance or redistribute power in a way that makes a the structure of a business less hierarchical.

Unfortunately unions often only add another layer of management (often as removed from the needs of the employees as the other) and only adds to the cost of business while producing nothing besides a contentious attitude.  The end result can be an uncompetitive business model that eventually works for nobody.

What are the Christian Alternatives to Closing Shop?

First off, closing shop is not the only option a business owner has when faced by unionization, there’s more than one way to “live peaceably with all men” and avoid unnecessary conflict.  I am guessing that the employees are less at peace with the our-way-or-you’re-jobless approach and perhaps not too impressed with their ‘peaceable’ former employer.

Here’s some ideas…

Alternative #1: Partner only with like-minded people.  There would be less need for unions (or closing shop in protest of them) if we took Paul’s admonition seriously:

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?  What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15)

Much conflict between business owners and employees stem from differences of perspective that would be reduced by not hiring outside of one’s own religious affiliation.  Sure, this might reduce the amount of available employees (at a particular cost) and limit the size of the business.  But, if allegiance to faith outweighs financial gain, then the decision is clear.

Alternative #2a: Change who you serve.  Many people go into business to serve primarily their own needs.  Business is all about getting the best deal for yourself and all sides are in competition against one another (customer against producer, employee against owner, etc) trying to serve themselves.  Yet, there is an alternative and that alternative is cooperation.

What if owners served employees, customers served producers and employees served both and everyone *voluntarily* served everyone else selflessly? 

In other words, what would happen if we changed all of the force arrows pulling outward competing for their ‘piece of the pie’ and spun them 180° in the opposite direction?

That, my friends, is turning fission into fusion and (like the nuclear counterpart) has potential for more energy or profit to all than the alternative:

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What if all parts serve God by *voluntarily* serving each other rather than themselves?

Well, that’s Christianity:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)

We don’t have masters and servants (unless you agree with Noam Chomsky), but the same principles could apply to both an employee working for a business or customer.  It can also apply to how a Christian business owner responds to a union, the owner can choose to resist the collective will of their employees or they can serve and honor it as an act of obedience to their Master.

If Jesus is your Master this is your obedience:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Alternative #2b: Serve all people radically.  Maybe you already have employees who aren’t like-minded and want to gang up on you or unionize, what then?

Well, if your primary purpose is to serve Jesus Christ, then this might apply:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

That is a concept as revolutionary today as it was when Jesus spoke the words.  It is a concept, if applied evenly to all areas of life, would change everything we do and requires a faith few of us have.  Sure, most of us are willing to cooperate when we know it is to our own advantage, but Jesus goes a step beyond mutual cooperation and tells us to lead through self-sacrificial love.

The conclusion of the matter…

Many go into business primarily to serve themselves and there is nothing immoral about profitable enterprise.  However, a Christian should not go into business to serve themselves, the goal of a faithful servant of Jesus is to serve others as obedience requires and that means a cooperative—even a self-sacrificial—approach to business.

In the case with the small business of the blog post, I am guessing the separation or disunity of spirit between employees and employer existed long before the vote.  The vote to unionize only codified a division that already existed and was a move to change the terms in favor of the employees.  It backfired, in this case, because the employer chose to quit rather than serve terms not dictated by them and their needs.

I will let you decide if their response was the best Christian resolution of difference or not.  How would you decide?  I welcome your comments…

God bless.

What does Charleston say about us?

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There are many who react to the church shooting at Charleston’s historic Emanuel A.M.R. Church by blaming availability of guns and decrying racism.

But one thing missing from the discussion, that is a victimhood mentality and the idea that all people of a particular race are guilty because of the acts of a few. 

When Dylann Storm Roof walked into the doors of that church he was armed with two ideas: 1) his tribe (white people, women, etc) were the victims, and 2) their tribe (black people) were collectively responsible for black rapists, perceived injustice, etc.

It was the ideas that this depraved young man harbored in his heart that were dangerous.  However, these ideas are not unique to him or just to unreasonable and angry white men.  These are ideas accepted accepted in mainstream thought that divides people into falsely dichotomous categories.

Who kills the innocent? We do!

Ideas that white is equal to privilege or black is equal to victimhood are equally dangerous.  When we feed the martyr complex and victimhood mentality we are giving license to those of an even more deranged mind to take it a step further. 

The problem with Roof and those like him (of all races, genders, etc) is not what they do—but that they feel justified to do it.  We can fret about availability of guns and a multitude of other factors, but until we address the heart issue we are only treating the symptoms.

We won’t stop a person bent on evil and destruction with more legislation.  If anything more law will only create the next inequity and give some other person reason to feel disenfranchised.  But what we do need is to unravel the false dichotomies and prejudice assumptions that fuel hatred.

Being on the ‘right’ side of history…

We are urged to be on the “right side of history” yet the problem is that everyone (including Roof) feels they are on the ‘right’ side and justified.  Jesus encountered this in the Pharisees who thought themselves better than other people and superior to their own ancestors:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.  And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.”  (Matthew 23:29-31)

There are many sanctimonious today who think they are superior to other people.  They may decry the injustices of the past, support punishment for those they hold responsible and blame, but they themselves often as guilty or more of similar abuse.

Is an anti-abortion activist who calls women entering a clinic names or murderers a provider any better than those they accuse? 

Is a person who labels others as “racist” or “homophobic” or “hateful” in response to a disagreement over opinion less abusive than a person who uses the n-word?

I say, no and no. 

The solution to hate is not to be hateful.  As Mahatma Gandhi wisely observed: “An eye for an an eye only leaves the whole world blind.”  What he observed is the same as when Jesus quipped that those who live by the sword will die by it (Matthew 26:52) or ‘what goes around comes around’ in essence.

We make a difference by being different…

Everyone has reason for their own abuses.  Many of the most abusive people in history believed they served a righteous cause.  Many people can identify the sins of other tribes or the prior generation, but few seem able to see their own abuses.  We prefer to keep the spotlight on those whom we perceive to be worse than us than we are interested in searching out the wickedness of our own hearts.

Ben Carson spoke well:

“You know, we have a war on women, race wars, income wars, age wars, religious wars. Anything you could imagine, we have a war on it… And we’re giving people a license to hate people who disagree with them.”

We need to stop arming ourselves with contempt and be committed to loving as we wish to be loved.  It is easy to love our own and hate others, but divine love seeks unity rather than encourage division.  It sacrifices self rather than perpetuate cycles of violence.  It brings grace to the fight even when vengeance feels justified.

Grace saves us…

It is the Spirit of love like that of Marcus Stanley, who was shot eight times but lived, and chose grace in response to hate:

“I don’t look at you with the eyes of hatred, or judge you by your appearance or race, but I look at you as a human being that made a horrible decision to take the lives of 9 living & breathing people. Children do not grow up with hatred in their hearts. In this world we are born color blind. Somewhere along the line, you were taught to hate people that are not like you, and that is truly tragic. You have accomplished nothing from this killing, but planting seeds of pain that will forever remain in the hearts of the families that lost their lives and countless hearts around our country.”

Let’s not fall victim to those who would divide us into categories, but instead seek the unity of all people only possible with a love that tears down walls, bridges divides and believes when others say it is impossible. 

May those seeds of Roof’s hate stay dead and the love of Jesus in Stanley’s gracious response grow in us.  The answer is not more or less guns nor petitions against flags and protest, it is less hate and more Jesus.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21)

Disunity and the Solution: You

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A friend recently ask me why Christianity is so divided and that is an excellent question.  It is something I have pondered as I look at the broad range of practices, and different views of theology, and disputes over who is the actual authority over the ‘body of believers’ that we call church.  I believe the answer to the question is both very complex and simultaneously simple.

First of all, I presume that the reason we ask ‘why’ is because we can think to ask such a question.  We can ask because we have independence of thought that allows us to ponder different or better alternatives to the current reality.  We ask because division bothers us and unity would seem to be the better ideal and we are probably right.

To answer the ‘why’ we should look at the ‘what’ that divides the church.  The short answer to what causes division is sin.  Sin is falling short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and a sinful heart is the root cause of division between people, and is ultimately what separates us from perfection.  The church is divided because most Christians (who are independently minded like you) are not fully submitted to the will of God and not fully committed to obedience or love.

It is an idea that seems quite common (both among believers and unbelievers alike) that faith means immediate perfection.  That is a misconception.  Christian faith is not a matter of being perfect.  Christianity is actually understanding we are not perfect and that we need a savior to cover for our past or present sin:

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8-10)

Now, as I blogged yesterday, this reality of our past or present, sin is not an excuse to continue on in sin and imperfection.  No, to continue to do evil when we know what is good is to be willfully disobedient and not understand what grace really is.  Grace is not a license to continue in sin. No, grace is a reason to rejoice in having a clean slate and then “go and sin no more” (John 8:11) as Jesus told the woman who was accused of sin.

What divides the church is sinful pride and/or confused priorities.  Christians divide over theological minutia and, in so doing, are disobedient to what should be their highest priority as people of faith—which is love.  Love, in the Christian sense, is self-sacrifice and submission to each other. It is serving rather than always demanding our own way. 

Unfortunately, as has been the case going back to the early church, in our imperfection, we get it backwards and want others to serve us. There are many appeals for unity in our serving each other as leaders and in our following the way of love:

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.  In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”  (1 Peter 5:1-7)

The phrase ‘too many chiefs and not enough indians’ applies to this topic.  Christian leadership is not supposed to be about ordering other people around and having our own way.  To lead as Christ is about serving others self-sacrificially and to lead by following the example of the one who gave all.  Sadly, many seem to want the benefits of Christianity and without contributing their all.  Too many in the church are busy building their own independent vision to truly serve with an open heart as they should.

This is not a surprise.  It is a part of our lingering unregenerate human condition that we often prioritize ourselves and our own preferences over the greater good.  When favorite personalities, human institutions, pet doctrines, or our own personal opinions and interpretations replace of the love of the Spirit, the result is always division.  The problem of division is actually a problem of idolatry of various forms.  Idolatry among those proclaiming Christianity faith is nothing new.

1) Idolatry of self-worship as found in the example of Diotrephes:

“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.”  (3 John 1:9-10)

2) The idolatry of putting human leaders before unity in the Spirit of God:

“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?   What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.”  (1 Corinthians 3:1-5)

3) The idolatry of putting (even Biblically based) tradition ahead of Christian love for each other:

“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.  When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?  “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”  (Galatians 2:11-16)

If you look at various divisions within Christian fellowship you will likely find elements of forms of spiritual idolatry similar to those in the list and passages above.  When we worship our personal interpretation, over showing deference to others in love, we have made ourselves and our own judgment an idol.  When we worship leader or denomination over unity we are negligent of our primary allegiance which is the living God.  When we worship tradition or institution we keep Jesus in the grave and have replaced him with a religion.

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The answer to sin, idolatry and division is always repentance.  Repentance is to identify ourselves as being among the sinners and as being in as much need of grace as the next guy.  The idea one is instantly perfected upon conversion to Christianity is a misconception.  Our accepting of grace is not an arrival at perfection, but it is a starting point of a life long process of perfecting and as a result the church is still full of human error because none of us have arrived.  Fortunately there is a path towards unity and I will share a few passages of scripture that show it.

1) Make an effort to be perfectly united in mind and thought:

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, 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.”  (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Like Smokey the bear says with a pointed finger, “only you can prevent forest fires.”  The point is that we need to take personal responsibility for our own contribution to the problem rather than assume the issue is external to us.  There are many ways we contribute to disunity (one is to not show up at all) and the Gospel starts with our personally obeying the call God has given us.

2) Be truly humble, recognize you are just a part of a bigger whole and must pursue unity in Spirit:

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  (Ephesians 4:2-6)

People do not seek peace because they would rather be right (assuming themselves to be perfect and righteous) than serve in humility.  Many quarrels would be solved easily if one side or the other were able to show love through self-sacrifice.  Unlike Cain, who killed his brother, and sneeringly answered “am I my brother’s keeper” when asked about the murder, we are responsible to each other.  We honor God in our submission in love.  I am not saying to be weak or a doormat either. I am saying to lead by example and do what we would want others to do for us.

3) We need to love unconditionally as a witness of the love of God and so the world can know:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

The answer to the question of church division starts with you.  We must all repent of our own contribution. We must lead the way for others by example and in the Spirit of love.

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Ultimately the church is not a building we go to, it is not a religious institution or rich tradition we inherited from our forebears nor a group of just those who conform to our own expectations and no others.  The church is simply a ragtag collection of those who believe in Jesus, those being filled with the Spirit and seeking to do the perfect will of God.

Like the pictures of buildings poking through the fog scattered throughout this post, the visible part of the church that we see on the surface is only a part and not a complete picture of reality.  We are simultaneously separate with our own will and yet must be grounded together in the Spirit of God in order to standout above the fog of confusion.

I leave you with the encouragement (and warning) of Paul to consider and a prayer:

“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”  (Galatians 5:13-15)

May God open our eyes to see what the fog of sin has concealed from our view.  May we not be consumed by our envy, lust, greed, fear or hate and instead be filled to overflowing with a love that defies understanding.  May the enemy of unity both within and without us be restrained so we can grow quickly towards perfection.  May we show each other the grace that was shown us through Jesus the savior of our soul and Lord of those who love God.

Amen.