The Beautiful City of Baguio

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It was a great relief to finally meet Charlotte.  We met outside the terminal in Manila and to accompany on the final part of my journey to Baguio.  I had left central Pennsylvania at 4 p.m. (EST) on Christmas day for a four-hour drive to NYC, boarded the Korean Air 747 (after navigating the check-in procedures at JFK) a little after midnight, arrived in Seoul about 5 a.m. (their time) and arrived in the Philippines around noon.

It was dark when we finally arrived in Baguio, a city with an altitude of 5000 feet (nearly as high as Denver, CO) and a history tied to U.S. colonialism.  Baguio, with a population of several hundred thousand, was established in 1900 by the Americans as a refuge from the searing Manila heat.  It is dubbed the “summer capital of the Philippines” because of the cooler temperatures found there and remains a popular Filipino destination.

The many lights dotting the hills were a beautiful sight as we rolled around the bend.  The weather was very pleasant when we waited at the bus stop for Charlotte’s uncle (Roland) to pick us up and take us to one of those houses perched on the side of the mountain.  Soon I was carrying my bags up, around and through the twists and turns that led to my home of the next few days.  It was strange crawling into bed that night realizing the day was just starting where I came from.

Baguio overview….

One of the best views in the city was from the apartment of Charlotte’s parents and that is where the following pictures were taken.  It was truly a spectacular view, there is no camera lens in the world that can possibly capture the color and depth, you’ll have to go there if you really want to appreciate the fullness.  But, for a small taste…

In the city…

We went to various locations around the city over the next few days.  There are various government buildings, markets with hundreds of vendors selling all manner of things, Burnham park in the heart of the city, McDonalds (and other US franchises) and a huge mall…

Transportation…

Driving presents a unique challenge, given the steep grades, busy roads and lack of parking available.  The roads into the residential parts of the city are too narrow at many points for two cars to comfortably pass and, in those cases, the car going down usually yields to the one climbing the hill.  Adding to the required skill is that most vehicles there have manual transmissions.

Oh, and everything is diesel powered, including many of the late model Ford Rangers that I loved so much.  Toyota, however, seems to be the favorite of the local population and the Tamaraw FX is everywhere.  Of course, then there’s the Jeepneys for public transportation, a vehicle that resembles a Willys Jeep that got stretched and turned into a piece of mobile artwork.  There was even a Ford Mustang (look closely at the last picture in this series) making its way through traffic in Baguio…

Trip to lowlands…

To celebrate New Year’s day the family loaded up and headed down to a resort in the lowlands.  That took us down Kennon road, past the Lion’s head and eventually to the Hundred Islands National Park where we loaded up for the boat tour.  That was a wonderful time of picnics, swimming and time together.  It was also an introduction to a slightly different version of Filipino life and a place where little motorcycles with sidecars (or “tricycles” as they called them) ruled the roads…

Igorot heritage…

The more fascinating parts of my visit to Baguio was learning about the local culture.  The Igorot people, who make up most of the Baguio population, were farming in the mountains there long before the Europeans arrived and still celebrate this unique heritage…

Family…

There was one thing more wonderful than anything else and that being the warm welcome.  I was treated as family and felt right at home.  In fact, it made me think about how truly deficient we are of this kind of true connection in the U.S.  Real wealth is not having an accumulation of stuff, real wealth is being a part of a family and loved…

The “culture shock” for me came upon my return to the U.S. and being alone again in Marriott room provided in Atlanta where we were diverted less than an hour from landing in NYC.  Sure, I didn’t need to use a bucket and water scoop to shower or flush the toilet, but I missed being called “Tito” (uncle) by children wanting my attention.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the wide open spaces of Pennsylvania and did miss my Ford Focus too.  However, I could see myself going back to Baguio.  There are plenty of seats on a 747 if any of you wish to join me!

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My Departure From the Ethnic Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would Jesus say about ethnic churches in diverse communities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strong words.

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

Finding the universal church…

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

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

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

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

A Practical Model for Christian Love and Community

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My last blog gave an abstract vision of love.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14‭-‬17)

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

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

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

A farm and vision to bring family to those without.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is needed to make this vision a reality?

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

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

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

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

Who’s in?

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?

The Lost Witness of Christian Community and Finding it Again

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There has been much focus on the family in the church.  Popular media commentators (like James Dobson, Michael Pearl, Bill Gothard and Doug Philips) encourage making a high priority of our own immediate families. 

Family is important.  But the “no greater joy” in 3 John 1:4 is not written about a man’s own family or his blood relatives.  Instead the letter is written about the church.  John is describing love for spiritual children and the family of God.  Do we find as much joy in the church family as we do in raising our own children?

Christian community has been watered down over the years.  Yes, we might have more ‘church’ activities than ever and yet, as far as real interdependence, we are lacking.  Those of you from good homes, who are happily married and in your prime, may not notice.  But there is great social need beyond your doorstep.

This blog will explore where we are, where we were and where we need to go from here; it will address the enemies and also the benefits of faith community.  One blog can’t even begin to do the topic justice, but hopefully it will spark thoughts and discussion.  My prayer is that those reading will take faithful steps to restore the Christian community where they are.

Where we are…

The loss of community in the world around us is profound and the results are tragic.  Isolated people are unhealthy people.  The family unit itself has been degraded.  Many children do not have opportunity of dinner time conversations together with their parents at home.  Child care is increasingly outsourced.  More people survive on food cooked by strangers than ever.  The elderly are interned for sake of convenience, out of sight and out of mind.  It is madness.

The church has not fared much better.  People in many churches have very little meaningful interaction with each other during the week.  After the church service is over most go their seperate ways and expect the needs to be taken care of by those appointed to do so.  There is very little difference between the mainstream church and the world in regards to community.  Sure, many churches bustle with activities, and there are many good people who are trying to make a difference, but there are many unmet social needs.

My conservative Mennonite culture has a more distinct history of community.  Other Anabaptist groups, our spiritual (and often biological) cousins, have a stronger community emphasis than our own.  Amish have taken dramatic steps and have rejected technology (starting with the automobile) in an effort to preserve the integrity of their communities.  The Hutterites have a long communal tradition.  But conservative Mennonites lack a clear structure and could lose this strength of community entirely.

I’ve seen changes in my own Mennonite community in my own lifetime that indicate the erosion of our community.  We are following after the mainstream and the world more than we often realize.  The Anabaptist prioritization of brotherhood has been replaced with a more individualistic mindset.  

We do not pursue the concept of Gelassenheit anymore.  Instead we turn to our own biological families for support and our fellowship is growing apart.

Where we were…

The early church example is very clear.  The family language used by early church leaders meant something.  When Paul spoke up for Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-25) he speaks with the urgency of a father speaking for his son.  It is not casual usage of words.  It is not us singing “I’m so glad to I’m a part of the family of God” on Sunday mornings and then doing next to nothing for each other during the week.  The chuch then was a true family in every sense of the word…

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:44-47)

And repeated again later in the book of Acts…

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

Their commitment to each other was clearly not a superficial commitment like our own too often seems to be.  What is described in the passages from Acts above is not coincidence.  No, what is described is what will happen when people commit fully to the teachings of Jesus and love as they ought to love.

Where we need to be…

What we need, first of all, is intention—we need to want to make the ideal of community a greater reality.  We must realize our own weakness alone, confess this to each other and then bear our burdens together… 

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

It is not a meddlesome or controlling spirit, but rather a growing recognition of our own need for community and deepening commitment to the good of our Christian brothers and sisters.  This kind of love is the truest expression of obedience to the law of Christ.  

Jesus said the world would know we are his followers by our love for each other (John 13:34-35) and this is expressed in Koinonia (κοινωνία) or our common union as believers.  We are to be intimately involved in fellowship together, and in all things, or we are not fully living the example Jesus taught.  This must be made a reality today in our own time or we cannot claim to be fully living in faith. 

The church should be extending our family to those without.  Our elderly should never be left to a commercially operated nursing facility.  Young single mothers should be able to find a restful place amongst us.  We need to be less focused on our own individual family and more concerned with the family of God.

Enemies of community of faith…

There are many reasons why we do not follow the Acts church example today and it is mostly because we fear that the arrangement will not benefit us as an individual or our own family.  This is a short list of reasons why one may resist a greater expression of Christian community:

1) Individualism: There is no doubt that our American culture centers on ideas of independence and rugged individualism.  Unfortunately this has evolved into a rat race where everyone pursues a dream (unattainable for many) at the expense of real and fulfilling relationship.  We seek independence, and it is good when we are working to support ourselves, yet we have social needs that cannot be fulfilled in ourselves alone.

2) Prosperity: People can create an illusion of their lack of need for other people because they are wealthy.  Our wealth as Americans is used as defense of the status quo.  The argument goes that since everyone has food, shelter and clothing there is no need for a better application of what we read in the book of Acts.  Unfortunately government programs, while keeping people from physical death and complete destitution, do nothing for social or spiritual needs.  Even materially wealthy people can be very isolated and miserable.

3) Pride: Religious people can easily imagine they are better than other people including their own brothers and sisters in the church.  They do not want their children influenced by other children and adults, therefore they remove them, homeschool, etc.  It is the oldest sin in the book.  It was what seperated mankind from God and it is also an enemy of Christian community.  Pride is dangerous, it causes divisions in the church and decieves us into believing we are better off when we are in complete control.

4) Technology: The Amish were right.  The automobile dramatically changed and has aided in the decline of community.  Add to that the television and smartphones.  Children nowadays have more reason to stay inside and isolated.  Adults are not much better by choosing to live in some suburban home with a privacy fence.  We are increasingly buried in technology, addicted to the quick fix of social media and at the expense of true relationship.

5) Fear of commitment: It takes faith and commitment to seek after deeper relationship and many of us are simply avoiding it.  In the conservative Mennnonite church we are afraid to court and adopting the same reluctance towards marraige of the Millennial generation.  Commitment is scary.  The rewards of community (like marriage) are not immediate and the risks loom large.  Unfortunately we miss out on a blessing because of our fear.

The practical arguments in favor of community of faith…

First and formost, there is need.  Again, just because your own needs are met does not mean that there is no need.  The plight of our older singles and elderly people would be a little less severe if they were intergrated into a community rather than the afterthought that they often are.  The church shold be a place where everyone has an equal seat at the table. 

Unfortuantely many of us our too preoccupied with our own families to notice or care about those who are lacking.  That is not the spirit of Christ who told us to leave all (including family) to follow after him.  The irony is that those who actually have by some means found their security in themselves may actually have the most need.  Wealth, whether it be that of material or biological variety, has always hindered commitment to faith.  Our need to repent of our religious individualism and spiritual pride could be our greatest need of all.

Then there is the matter of efficient use of resources.  As most of us currently live there is this ridiculous redundancy.  We all need our own seperate lawn mower, garden tools, pickup truck and would be so much further ahead sharing.  That’s not to mention our reliance on commercial lenders rather than each other.  It is sad that we would rather our brothers pay interest to a bank and struggle to stay ahead than help them as we might our own son.  It is a wasteful use of resources that could otherwise be used to further the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the most spurious arguments against a more real expression of Christian community is the idea that it would come at the expense of evangelism.  The reasoning goes that existing groups that practice a community of goods concept have failed in one regard or another and often in sharing the Gospel.  This, of course, is the same argument used by those saying that we should drop other non-mainstream Biblical practices currently practiced by conservative Mennonites.  If we start abandoning practices that can somehow be associated with abuse or neglect we would probably need to join the faithless and stay home.

Community of faith is actually the most practical witness of the Gospel we have.  How better to meet the needs in the world around us than to offer them the clearest possible alternative?  There is no choice between missions outreach and Christian community because one can compliment the other.  In fact, one enhances the other and makes it much more effective.  Sure, maybe the commitment would require more of us.  However, there are many people with needs who would benefit greately from a church that truly acted as a family.  

Change comes upon us slowly…

The book of Acts describes a reality quite a bit different from our own today.  Then, unlike now, there was a willingness to give up financial independence and truly be a part in a community of faith.  This is something that must be restored for the church to function as it was supposed to fuction.

I believe that the contrast between then and now is something that must be part of our discussion.  Even in my own lifetime there seems to be a weakening of our commitment to each other.  There was a time it seemed we spent more time together visiting on a Sunday afternoon, when we worked closer together and had a more meaningful impact on each others life.

There needs to be radical steps taken in faith.  We need not recreate the past, but rather we do need to walk in obedience to the same Spirit that caused the early church to want to have a better communion (or common union) together.  We must ask what has changed between our priorities today and theirs then.

Many of us would scoff at the idea of a commune.  However, do we see the absurdity of our own time and way?  Do we see the cost of paying strangers to prepare our coffee in the morning or care for our elderly?  Do we see what the loss of community has done to our neighbors and nation?

There needs to be a vision for community of faith.  We need to take steps to get off the tragectory that the world is on and present something different and better.  My own conservative Mennonite church family can lead the way in this regard.  We have this better prioritization in our Anabaptist history and could use this as a basis for a fresh push in that direction.

We need to be intentional.  We need to challenge the thinking of the world that has crept into our lifestyle and has convinced us that we are better off in our own corners rather than in loving community together.  Jesus said “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:29) not only our own biological progeny.  The church should be our family.  

So my encouragement is that we pursue the true ideal of church community with all sincerity.  We should tune out the radio and internet commentators and commit to love each other more.  I believe we will find God faithful when we do.  

Christian Love Is Not Asceticism

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Christianity prioritizes the spiritual without sacrificing physical practicality.  It is about faith that expands possibility and potential rather than limit it.

Many religious people teach some form of asceticism.  This an idea that individuals who empty themselves totally of physical desire will find something spiritual and redemptive.

In the early church many did give up their material possessions (Acts 2:45) and were willing to sacrifice their all in faith as Jesus taught:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.  And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)

Paul builds further on the same theme while encouraging the early church:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (1 Corinthians 4:16-18)

This is acknowledgement of reality.  This world, our life in it, is temporal and will pass away.  But in faith we can see what cannot be known through physical means.  Through the Spirit, through the mysterious backdoor of our consciousness, we are able to see spiritual reality greater than what physical senses can detect.  It is for this reason that we adjust our priorities according to what we know as the greater transcending reality.

But this is not asceticism in the sense of merely our emptying ourselves as an individualistic spiritual pursuit.  No, this is intentional self-sacrificial love that compels us to go beyond our own individual gain and love as God loves.  Our cross is not suffering for the sake of suffering, it is not a Gnostic self-loathing of our physical bodies, but is rather a means to the end and expression of deeper divine love.

Many practice asceticism as a means to judge their neighbors.  Many deny themselves as to prove themselves superior to others and earn their salvation.  However, this is not the way of Jesus.  Jesus did not need to die to save Himself from sin or earn God’s favor.  He did not sacrifice to prove our inferiority and bring judgement or condemnation:

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:17-18)

It is simply reality that we will all eventually die a physical death.  That is true by default and not something inflicted upon us for sake of manipulation.  This is scientific, a result of physical processes, something with causal explanation, and established.  You will not physically die because you reject Jesus, but rather you will eventually physically die (with or without Jesus) and the only way to eternal life is faith in Jesus:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

We are saved because we believe in Jesus and through our belief are empowered to love in a way that transcends individualism and becomes all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) so they too might be saved.  Jesus explains obedience succinctly:

“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)

It is that simple.  This is not denial of physical desires for sake of individual spiritual gain or asceticism.  This is denial of self for the collective good, as directed by the Spirit in those who believe, and so the lost can be saved.

It is not sin to enjoy life.  It is in no way wrong to enjoy sexual pleasure (in appropriate context) and relationships based in biology.  Having friends because of our physical proximity and the community we were born into is not inappropriate.  However, when our preference for what is familiar supersedes Christian commitment, when we prioritize temporal pleasure over eternal gain, then we must repent.

Ultimately, what we do or do not possess individually and materially is of little consequence.  It is not sin to have a successful business, big family or nice car.  What ultimately does matter is that these pleasures of physical life do not distract and blind us.  We must find our security in God rather than our possessions or other worldly pleasures.

To be in this world but not of it doesn’t mean a life of misery and complete abstinence from pleasure.  Rather it is to possess the transformation of mind (Romans 12:2) that enables us to love more completely and experience greater joy than the world offers.

If you sell all or leave family behind, do it out of genuine love for your neighbor and not asceticism.  Give freely because you believe in the eternal life Jesus promised and love God.

A Shameless Arrival — Mission Accomplished!

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I arrived at Lock Haven’s Piper William T. Piper Memorial Airport at precisely 9:59 a.m.  The plan was to meet at 10:00 and fly to the Ponderosa cabin north of the airport.

I parked my little Ford next to a handsome Porsche.  I stepped out of the car, a twelve year old again, and full of anticipation as I took in my surroundings.  I scanned the tarmac through the security fence for the Cessna 150 or my brother.  I could not identify machine or man, so I headed to the office adjacent to the parking lot.

Inside I struck up a conversation with the natives.  They had not seen my brother, but they did share my enthusiasm for flying and soon I found out the man I was speaking to was an instructor.  I got the full sales pitch for flight lessons from an instructor.  I probably could’ve been signed up on the spot.

“Lock Haven traffic, Cessna 11479 is 4 to the north, inbound for landing 27 right. Full stop landing. Lock Haven.”

The words over the radio sounded.  “That’s your brother?”  I quickly opened the email that told me what Cessna I was to expect and indeed, it was!  I quickly stepped outside looking and listening for that distinct buzz of a boxer-type engine. 

It took a minute or two until I spotted the small aircraft on approach.  He came in over the trees and levee as I cringed as if trying to help him fly, but he nailed the landing with a chirp of the tires and was soon taxing towards me. 

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I suppose I am allowed some brotherly pride, right?   

The Cessna 150L was remarkably small inside, only two seats, and was a bit hot without air movement, but was comfortable enough.  I put my headset on as Kyle switched on the intercom and yelled “clear prop” as a precaution before turning the engine over…

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Life!  The four cylinders sputtered to a relatively smooth idle…  

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We continued through the pre-flight rituals designed to identify those things that could end a sunny day with a violent death and before long we were looking down the length of the runway with the intent to defy gravity. 

The engine revved, the brakes released and we were rolling.  The little Cessna still had what it took!

Soon the ground slipped away and the town of Lock Haven turned into the world’s most wonderfully detailed model train set.  We gained altitude, then turned north towards the sea of trees and swells of mountains north of the town below.  We flew over a baseball game between people who looked like flees.  We passed a gas drilling rig in the wilderness…

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It didn’t take long before we spotted the small airstrip cut out of the trees.

We were later than the initial plan.  But as we swooped in for a high speed pass we could see the crowd of spectators gathered.  Our siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents wanted to witness this historical event and also to prevent anyone from crossing the driveway that bisected the small strip while we were on approach. 

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We circled around for a practice run and were too high.  Kyle corrected for the final approach.  The runway sloped upward at a slightly awkward angle and I made sure my brother was aware of that tall tree nearly blocking the trajectory we were on. 

Kyle wagged the wings ever so slightly to avoid the obstruction as we dropped through the trees and set down on terra firma again.  We survived!  No violent death or unexpected drama either…

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(Click here for a video of our departure and other pictures.)