Sowing Ideas, Sticking Up For the Underdog and Getting Started

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Have you ever wondered how organizations like the Red Cross or Salvation Army got their start?

You can watch this video about the Red Cross for details. But the short version of almost every organization is that it always starts with an idea and an individual willingness to take initiative. A person sees a need to be filled, takes action, tells others and the effort continues to build momentum towards a solution.

Or at least that’s how it is supposed to work.

It doesn’t always work out. Sometimes an idea fails because it was poorly conceived. Other times the person with the idea lacks the motivation to see it through and loses interest themselves. Still, on some occasions, there may be times when the person with the right idea arrives at the wrong time, fails to make the necessary connections, and the thing fizzles on the launch pad as unrealized potential.

Soil and Seeds of Faith

In the context of ideas, the parable of the sower Jesus told comes to mind:

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matthew 13:3‭-‬9 NIV)

The interpretation of the parable is provided later on in the same context. Jesus is referring to his own message, that of the kingdom of heaven, and how the growth potential of this seed depends on the receptivity of soil. Bad ideas oftentimes spread like weeds while the good news is trampled underfoot by the disinterested masses. But we sow should sow good seeds, all the same, knowing that some will find the right soil.

And so it goes with any inspirational idea, even the best ideas die where there is no faith. Many ideas fail when they are faced with a challenge and the commitment is shallow. Other ideas are drowned out in the marketplace of ideas—their appeal is drowned out by the better positioned and yet inferior aims.

You get the picture.

We are both soil and sower. We can allow ideas, good or bad, to take root in our hearts, and from those ideas spring actions. Sometimes it is a seed someone else plants, sometimes we are the distributor of the seeds, but the mystery is in what causes the seed to grow. St Paul speaks of this in trying to explain who should get credit for the spread of the Gospel saying “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3 NIV) And that is the mystery that is perplexing to me.

Sticking Up For the Underdog

I had always been a bit undersized for my age. Not sure if it was a result of my premature birth or if I was out-competed at the dinner table, but on my first license (at 16 years old) I was just 5′-3″ tall and weigh only 112lb (50.8kg) as a senior in high school.

But I never lacked for grit and determination. My name, at least according to the placard that had been placed under my baby picture, means “strong-willed” and I’ve always done my best to prove myself worthy of the description. Mom called me her fighter for my surviving a traumatic start to life and that resolve, for better or worse, is a defining part of my identity and perspective of the world.

That’s why I’ve always been on the side of the underdog.

I’ve always been interested in the person who has more to overcome than others, the one who works harder than the rest and still does not necessarily come out on top in the end. It is easy to recognize and celebrate the winners. But if the effort could be measured, then the underdog is the one who has put forward the most effort and has shed the most blood, sweat, and tears. In any context or conflict, I’m always cheering for the one in the game who has to overcome the most disadvantages.

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I suppose that is why I had a deep respect for a particular classmate, a Filipino-American who stood about 5′-5″ tall and yet was the starting point guard on the high school basketball team who would put up 20 points some games. He had incredible ball-handling skills and could score in the paint, in traffic, against the trees like our own version of Allen Iverson. For someone who always thought of his own stature as standing in the way of athletic success, this was inspirational.

And maybe that is the reason why the Philippines has intrigued me?

Finding the Right Cause

I’ve always been cause-oriented or at least as far as causes pertaining to people that I care about. I have plenty of passion. But passion alone is not enough, passion needs direction and too often—given my chronic difficulty with focus—I’ve struggled to know what direction.

Some of my pursuit of the impossibility was in search of finding that thing that I lacked as far as a specific mission.

I did not find that direction where I had hoped to find it. However, in the aftermath of that severe disappointment, something did rise from the ashes and provided a path where none had existed before. With the stability brought about by a committed relationship, it gave me a reason to travel to the far reaches of the world and with that came some thought about the potential. I had first traveled to the Philippines and then a year later had an opportunity to spend time in Taiwan.

It was in that travel experience that I became well-acquainted with the hardships faced by overseas Filipino workers (OFW), began contemplating the economic reasons for this unfortunate circumstance and the potential solutions. Many seek work abroad because they have no other good options available and despite the stories of exploitation and abuse. Many become victims themselves after having borrowed money to travel to their new employer only to find things are not as promised.

I actually wrote out the strategic vision for an organization months ago. But I got caught up in the details of how to do it the right way (was thinking of getting a special website made) and it ended up on the back burner where it stayed. It was a story about an OFW “domestic worker” who had jumped out of a window and broke both of her legs to escape her captivity that finally drove me to take action. At that point, the particulars didn’t matter so much, the idea needed to be put out there, it was the right cause and something worth my fighting for.

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My hope is that the idea sown will find good soil to grow in, that others will join me in this righteous cause and that eventually, we can help to bring OFWs home. My hope is that someday those in the Philippines will not have to decide between gainful employment and their families. I especially want to make it so that fewer young women put themselves in situations where they are easily exploited. If the effort only helps one or two that is a success as far as I am concerned, but there is great potential.

So, all that said, you are invited to join me at the newly launched Filipino American Coalition of Trade blog site or the accompanying Facebook page.

When the Truth Threatens Our Way of Life

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

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

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

Two Men Who Threatened the Status Quo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Stewardship or Love of Money and Moral Cowardice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Faith Where It Is Least Expected

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

However, that is not what happened.

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

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

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

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

Those Who Try To Keep Their Life…

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

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

So, anyhow, whatever did become of Samson?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awaiting Resurrection…

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Nobody enjoys waiting and especially not for an indefinite period of time. This is why “progress bars” were invented to give hope to the user of electronic devices, through visual means, that their patiently waiting for the completion of a download, file transfer or update will eventually be rewarded and they can be on their way again.

There is nothing worse than waiting with no indication when or if the wait will end. Even a false assurance of an end (many progress bars do not speak the truth and are there simply to keep us from giving up) is better than waiting for an indefinite period of time.

As a truck driver, there was nothing worse than the undefined waiting period. I hated when someone would give me an ambiguous answer rather than a defined period. I would rather hear something concrete, even if it meant hours of waiting, than “soon” or “we’ll let you know” because those are words without commitment, that both keep you tied down and discontented.

Knowing when a wait will end or, at very least, that there is something at the end of a long wait, goes a long way towards making the wait more bearable. It can help one be prepared for that moment when the end of the wait arrives. At very least one can know how long they must distract themselves, if it is worth sleeping or when to set the alarm.

Currently, I’m stuck, once again, in one of those indefinite waiting periods and wondering if this one is indeed different from the others or just another delusion that will end in pain. So far I have busied myself in making necessary preparations, stubbornly holding back any doubts, but it is impossible to know if there’s any progress towards an end or if this too will end in catastrophe.

The next couple of years promise to be the launch of a new phase of my life and a close to a chapter that ended in devastation. In a very literal sense, something died in me a few years ago, having my sincerest faith so casually cast aside by those whom I had trusted my life with is a mortal wound, made it impossible to know my up from down, and I’m still awaiting resurrection.

Hope or heartbreak, only time will tell where this all ends…

Sailing Against Unfavorable (or non-existent) Winds

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On March 30th, 2015, I published a blog, “Sailing Beyond Safe Waters,” to express my determination to go beyond the safe harbor religious tradition and cultural obligation to truly live in faith.

That was when my blog was only viewed by my family and close friends. In the time since my audience grew exponentially and my life took some completely unexpected turns. Perhaps needless to say, I did leave that safe harbor (where some continue their cross harbor pleasure cruises make believing that they’ve entered the ocean of faith) and have charted territories completely new to me.

In the past couple years I’ve experienced the high seas of fear and doubt. There have been those moments of terror and panic too, when the winds howled, threatening to overwhelm the very timbers of my being, and the waves of a hopeless reality crashed hard. But I continued on, determined to break through, clinging to hope, and facing down the impossible.

Then there was that night when the main mast of my determination snapped, my ship of faith had been capsized by a rouge wave, and all seemed lost. The the debris of my dreams lay scattered across a swath of water a mile long and wide. It was the very thing those harbor pilots (who fancy themselves as seafarers for having seen the mouth of the harbor once or twice) had warned me against when had set out. If they cared, their faithless answers were vindicated with my failure.

However, my distress calls did not go unanswered. I was not alone on this ocean and there were those, who had also left their own safe harbors by necessity or choice, as determined to not let my journey end. It was their help that some of the more important items strewn about (things like meaning and purpose) were recovered from the wreakage.

Those on the ocean either know their need of others or they perish in the first big storm that they encounter. It is only in trials and tribulations that you know who your true friends are in a world of imposters. I’ve learned, by sailing beyond safe waters, that it is only the opinions of those who are there for in times of crisis that truly matter.

Finding the wind for your sails…

The time since then has been one of trying to rebuild identity around something more stayed and keeping doing those things that I’ve done right. I’ve been able to do some personal inventory and think of those things that really matter most to me.

My life, all things considered, hasn’t been bad. I have rental property, a great job, freedom to travel, ideas for the future and a precious bhest. That said, despite being enthralled by the beauty of Orthodoxy, it has been difficult to recover that basic faith—the faith that took me out of the safe harbor into the expanse of the deep—and I’m not sure if it is something that can be recovered.

I’ve been towed along by the obligations of life and a commitment to love with the impossible love in particular. I’ve taken the freedom of not having to try to navigate the waters of romance (having basically settled that question) to take on some other challenges. I’ve found that it is much easier for me to take risks now, leading to some small investments and exploring some others.

Still, the bigger pieces of my new life (post-storm) have yet to fall into place. The sails are unfurled on this vessel of faith, a vessel now shared with someone else, but we wait in the doldrums of the present, scrubbing the decks repeatedly (or, rather, doing the dishes and chores for a household of one) while hoping for that favorable wind that will carry us from this purgatory, of a life neither completely here nor fully there, and finally carry us to the paradise over the horizon.

It is important to be ready for when the wind returns, to have the capacity to take full advantage of that moment. The hard part is having the right mentality about the present reality to get to that moment and be ready to be underway—sailing again.

Wrestling for the Meaning Behind the Chaos…

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

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

That story resonated with me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where To Go From Here?

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The past few years have been monumental for me. This blog has followed my own personal journey from the initial ideation about love, faith and spiritual life to some major transitions. I’ve changed careers, departed from the denomination that had been the identity I most cherished, and basically had my life turned upside down.

This blog had started as a result of a prayer, as an act of faith, and was to chronicle a fight to overcome the odds. I had realized my own limitations. I was single, in my mid-thirties, working a job that didn’t suit me very well, and worried about being the unfaithful servant who buried his talents. Unfortunately, for myself, I didn’t know a way out of the predicament.

But, instead of wallow in my self-pity, I decided to actually believe what Jesus said, “everything is possible for one who believes,” and with complete reckless abandon, prayed to God asking that the impossible be made possible for me.

I had committed to believing beyond human reason or my own rationality, to believe without adding the qualifications so often used by the religious to excuse their own lack of faith and as a means of preserve their self-serving status quo. My aim was to overcome whatever, the bad luck, personal failures or cultural prejudices, that kept me from living out the potential that seemed to be locked away somewhere and yet was still unrealized.

Of course a big part of that prayer, given the importance of marriage in a conservative Mennonite setting, was in hope of finally getting beyond the invisible barrier to my romantic success and finding the “right one” who could love me despite my imperfection.

My deepest fear had always been that love is little more than a post hoc explanation of something determined at a far baser level. In other words, that love was decided by attributes mostly biologically predetermined or based in performance. If a person lacking the right inborn characteristics is essentially unlovable, then the whole mythology we build around love as something pristine or pure is a delusion and love itself becomes a justification of our selfish or carnal ambitions.

I was determined to disprove that hypothesis. I intentionally sought out a girl theoretically “out of my league” for a variety of those lesser reasons. Before this, I had always picked pragmatically based in who I thought would say “yes” (although they often didn’t) and not with any real faith. This time I picked on what I believed God wanted me to be and because she seemed to be the one who could get me past those limitations. She wasn’t someone who seemed frozen in indecision, she shared my own cultural ideal and would compliment my strengths and weaknesses.

Alas, her sanity won out over my irrational faith-fueled hopes.

However, in telling my story of faith and struggle this blog gained popularity. Over the time my hopes ran into the brick wall of her reasons she couldn’t love me (very much like those I had feared) this blog rose to prominence in the Mennonite blogosphere. Suddenly, in my moment of deep despair and disappointment with my Mennonite ideal, I had an audience of thousands. In a matter of hours a sardonic post assigning points for marriageability, something I wrote one morning while stewing over the reality of the depressing situation I found myself in, was a viral sensation and had obviously resonated with a great swath of people.

After that, I wrote a string of posts about some of those issues I’ve had with the church I was born into and previously didn’t know how to express. It was during this time that a blog post about fundamental flaws in the current conservative Mennonite thinking was picked up by Mennonite World Review. It later made rounds in a conservative email group posted by none other than Peter Hoover who had, by writing Secret of the Strength, inspired my Anabaptist perspective many years before and put me at odds with the creeping influence of fundamentalism.

The great irony in it all was that I reached the pinnacle of my own influence in the Mennonite world *after* I had attended my last service.

Since then, in a greater irony, I’ve seen a romance blossom that would’ve been impossible had I remained Mennonite and evidence of that kind of love of the faithful variety that I did not find where I had most expected to find it. There is a real story of the impossible being made possible developing, not the story of love triumphing over the odds that I had thought I would tell and yet every bit as powerful. However, too much is in limbo right now regarding that circumstance to write about it.

Beyond that, there is also my being immersed into Orthodoxy and the difficulty of putting that experience into words. I mean I could argue for Orthodox Christian practices and perspectives, I have written a couple blogs trying to explain such things to my Mennonite audience, yet Orthodoxy is something better to be experienced. Like Jesus said “follow me,” they make an appeal that is not strictly emotional nor intellectual, but experiential. Faith is something that must be walked to be understood. The Orthodox don’t proselytize in a Protestant manner. No, instead, they invite others to “come and see” like Philip did in urging Nathanael to join him and rely on the mysterious work of God:

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-50)

Can anyone rival that with eloquent words or elaborate arguments?

I know I can’t rival that sort of mysterious work in my own words and worry that my words will actually take away from the beauty of the ancient faith. I mean, what could I possibly add to something so wonderful and profound with my clumsy and simplistic explanations?

So this all leaves me with a dilemma as a writer. Am I more than a one-trick pony? Even as I’ve progressed over the past few months, I feel my blogs have started to become a bit repetitive, as if I only really have one story to tell, and that has bothered me. My area of expertise, at this point, is how to fail miserably trying to find love in the Mennonite context. My painful past is something that I would rather transition away from, something to be discarded along with “former delusions” that I renounced at my Chrismation, to make way for a brighter future.

But the question remains, what will be written in the next chapter?

Where to go from here?

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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