The NEED For Loving Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All you need is Jesus”

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

People need more than words to thrive.

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

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

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

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

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

“The word became flesh…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not just talk, touch…

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

Jesus condemns this sort of aloofness:

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

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

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

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

The need for non-sexual physical touch…

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

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

Consider the following:

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

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

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

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

And did I mention that Jesus touched?

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

Touch is good and right.

The need for good old-fashioned sex…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True connection is a human need…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turmoil and Theosis

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There are those unsung heroes—those people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and yet never could repay for their contribution to our lives. For me, there are many on that list. However, there is one woman in particular whose witness of few words was a seed. I wanted the peace that she embodied. But, at the time, I could not escape the turmoil in my heart. Only with the transition out of the church of my youth to a better place has the fruit of her influence has become clear.

A Bull In the China Shop

Years ago now I received an invitation to a new web forum. The site “MennoDiscuss” was created by a guy named Hans Mast and was dubbed “a place where Mennonites (and others) can discuss anything” in the tagline. I loved the idea. I was soon one of the first members of the board and was determined to make the endeavor a success.

I can’t recall exactly what I had expected going in. But early on it became very evident that MennoDiscuss would be a place where ex-Mennonites (and the otherwise) disaffected would come to argue with those of us still content with the denomination we were born into. And, being that I wasn’t afraid of debate (although, oddly enough, I dislike conflict) I jumped right in—playing the role of chief Mennonite apologist for some and being a real annoyance to others.

My zeal, both my desire to drive traffic to the site and need to defend my religious peers, led to me being one of the most prolific posters on the site and also often put me in the center of many controversies. My initial carefree (or careless) attitude soon led to a reputation and it is only a small transition from being engaged in conversation to feeling embattled. I took on the critics, yet I was not the “good Mennonite” who plays nice either, I believed turnabout was fair play and would often try to fight fire with fire.

Initially, despite being intense and a little too argumentative, my participation had mostly been fun and games for me. However that all changed when a personal tragedy knocked my spiritual feet out from under me and left me feeling betrayed by those whom I had assumed would be there for me and bitter at God. It was at that point things went very badly online as well. I was hurting and wanted answers for my pain. I needed help. But all I seemed to get was contempt and criticism.

The Calm In My Storm

There was one person different from the others. She offered me no advice. I can’t recall her saying much at all. But there was something about her spirit. She did not judge me. She let me speak without reminding me of all my past failures. I could open up and be honest with her in ways that I could not be with others for fear they might stab me in the back. She had been hurt by Mennonites yet didn’t seem to come in with an agenda.

Her name was “theosis” (or at least that was her screen name) and offline went by Martha. I do not know the details of her life, but she had been a convert to the Mennonite tradition before eventually finding a home with Orthodox Christians.

There were other Orthodox converts on the site. However, they were of the variety of converts who may have accepted Orthodox theology and practices, but have yet to grasp the attitude—or, in other words, “Ortho-fascists” as they are affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as by other Orthodox. Theosis, by contrast, was not aggressive or argumentative, she had a peaceable spirit and something quite a bit deeper than the judgmental ‘non-resistance’ or militant ‘pacifism’ of many Mennonites.

Mennonites tend to take the role of “peacemaker” and turn it into something forcible and even meanspirited. They might never pick up arms in defense of a nation or theoretically refuse to defend their families from a hypothetical attacker, but some will passive-aggressively resist and gossip about their real enemies while pretending that they have none. Mennonites are good at niceness, sometimes putting a smile on their face while harboring ill-feelings, because that is what the culture requires.

But theosis was different. She seemingly saw something in my antics others could not or at least she was peaceable. If I had to guess her perception was due to her own pain. But, unlike me, where I raged against fate, she accepted her lot in life and had faith. While fundamentalist Mennonites tend to see peace as something to shove down your throat, she embodied peace and embodied it in a way that would temporarily calm my storm.

I desperately wanted what she had and yet didn’t know how to get there.

What Theosis Means and My Journey Since

My first guess, as far as the meaning of theosis, would’ve been something like “theology” and “sister” going by the fact that the only theosis I knew was a female Christian. But silliness aside, given my respect for Martha, I finally did Google the word “theosis” and found an intriguing theological concept. Theosis, as it turns out, is the Orthodox description for the ultimate goal of Christianity and that being perfect oneness with God.

At the time the term intrigued me. But I had bigger fish to fry rather than try to sift through Orthodox theological descriptions and kept it filed under delightful (but otherwise useless) oddities. Becoming like God is a moot point when one is struggling to even believe in God. Besides that, theosis (otherwise known as “divinization” or “deification”) seemed way too tall an order for my Mennonite mind and was probably heretical. Still, it stuck in the back of my mind as a concept and that’s where it stayed percolating for years.

My turmoil began to subside as I came to terms with the unexpected loss of Saniyah and the hopes tied to her. During this time I made a brief return to MennoDiscuss (after a hiatus) and left after feeling that I had done my part to restore relationships there and could move on. And, more significantly, I had a spiritual experience, an epiphany about faith, that helped push me to this point where I could move on.

In short, I discovered faith is something God does, a gift of salvation, a mysterious “quickening” and spiritual transformation, rather than something proved through science, apologetics, and reason—it was not earned through my works of righteousness or religious efforts. I could finally rest in grace, be empowered by the Spirit and be changed from the inside out. That newfound confidence is what led me to pursue “impossibly” in faith and, after another period of turmoil when my “hope against hope” was not reciprocated, eventually took me beyond my Mennonite roots.

As I read through Paul’s writings, as one now spiritually alive and with eyes opened a bit more than before, a picture of theosis began to emerge out of the text. It was a marvelous thing, and a beautiful paradox of faith, that Jesus became man so that we could join Him in perfect oneness with God. That is what it means to be adopted as a son or daughter of God—putting on the divinity of Jesus Christ and being made into an incarnation of Him. This is not to be equal to or replace God, but rather to be in perfect Communion with Him and a true embodiment of His life-creating Spirit.

Theosis, the True Promise of Salvation

Theosis is a theological concept both simple and profound. God became man so that we could follow in the example of Jesus and go beyond what is possible through mere religious devotion:

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father. (John 10:33‭-‬38 NIV)

To claim to be God’s son is essentially to claim divinity or equality with God and, unless you truly are God’s child, is blasphemous.

What Jesus promised the disciples:

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (John 14:18‭-‬20 NIV)

And the day he delivered:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are oneI in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22‭-‬23 NIV)

How Paul explains this:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “ Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirsheirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:15‭-‬17 NIV)

That is an extraordinary claim. It is to essentially claim the same thing Jesus did and led to his being killed. And, in fact, before Jesus died to make the impossible possible, our calling God “Father” would indeed be blasphemous. This theosis, this divine adoption, is not cheap grace nor earned by our works of righteousness, it is a mysterious transformation that comes from faith and a work of the Spirit—It is partaking in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Where is Martha Today?

Theosis, her full name Martha Ann Hays, passed from this life to the next on December 20th of 2010. She was terminally ill when I knew her and dealing with the same sense of loss all sane people feel when facing certain death. Yet despite this, and excruciating physical pain, she treated me with extraordinary kindness and a love that I did not deserve. Unlike me, constantly trying to figure everything out and win people through theological brute force, she was simply peaceable.

Her terminal illness, colorectal cancer, was very unpleasant and painful. She was still a young woman, in her thirties, when first diagnosed and was no doubt dealing with the weight of broken dreams and disappointment. That is probably why she understood me and had compassion where others did not. I knew she was not well. But she would never complain to me about the things going on in her life at the time.

Martha had never fit into the Mennonite culture and eventually moved on. She learned Russian while in university and later found Orthodoxy (Russian Orthodox) and a parish community in Toronto that loved her. She had many friends in her parish and that including a boyfriend who would be at her bedside. She died peacefully, as she had lived, surrounded by family and friends.

Her funeral, according to one non-Orthodox in attendance, had beautiful music and a worshipful atmosphere.

It is interesting how two people can see the same event through a completely different lens. Another friend (a conservative Mennonite who knew Martha) commented that her funeral was a “very sad occasion” because allegedly there were more Mennonites than Orthodox in attendance. But an Orthodox Christian knows that is not true. Yes, conservative Mennonites definitely have bodies in the pews at funerals. Yet, even if there are only a handful that can be physically present, an Orthodox funeral is always well-attended. Orthodox believe in the “Communion of saints” or basically the idea of that “great cloud of witnesses” expressed by the apostle Paul in the book of Hebrews.

[07/01: The friend who made the attendance claim has since wrote to make a retraction.]

I believe someone with Martha’s prognosis could greatly appreciate that she was not alone in her suffering and that there was that “great cloud of witnesses” there to cheer her on to the finish line. That is the beauty of Orthodoxy. The Chruch is bigger than the present suffering of those still “militant” and also includes those “triumphant” who have gone on to glory with God. The icons on the wall are there to remind us of that reality beyond us.

Being An Image (or Icon) of God

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24‭-‬25 NIV)

As is well-known now, I have left my Mennonite religious culture and have become an Orthodox Christian. But until now I have not mentioned theosis and her contribution to that decision. Martha’s peaceable witness was a seed, it was later watered by Fr. Anthony with his similar spirit a and genuinely fatherly care and has been nourished by the Church. It is a life that continues to grow in me. There is a great beauty in Orthodox worship that I have not found elsewhere.

I do not go to church as a family reunion or to hang out with friends anymore. I go for healing and spiritual renewal, to experience God through worship, to be one with Jesus in body and Spirit. I go to be in that “great cloud of witnesses” of a Church that spans two millennia and those icons on the wall are there to remind us to remain faithful until the end.

Orthodoxy is not a “seeker-sensitive” church, we do not change with the winds of modern culture, we do not fill our pews with those seeking entertainment or easy answers. We believe that the Christian life is one of trials, tribulations, loneliness, hardships, suffering, and salvation by way of the cross. But we also find there is a great peace in knowing that our turmoil is temporal and eternal life awaits.

We die to self so that we can live in perfect oneness with God. Martha died, like Jesus, so that I might live. And I must die, so you whom I love may also live.

That is God’s economy at work.

That is poetic justice.

That is theosis.

Kanye West and the Choice to Be Free

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I’ve been following the career of Kanye West since hearing “Jesus Walks” for the first time in 2004. His lyrics then spoke about the struggle of finding his way in life:

Yo, we at war
We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all we at war with ourselves

God show me the way because the Devil’s tryin’ to break me down

I could identify with that much of the controversial rapper’s message. And, throughout the song, the memorable hook, “Jesus walks with me” was another point of our shared perspective. He seemed a man much like me in many ways.

However, his antics, particularly his pushing aside Taylor Swift at the VMA’s and his defining a natural disaster response in terms of race, really turned me off to him. Still, I couldn’t be too critical of someone who, like me, was attempting to navigate life as honestly as he knew how and, truthfully, only our specific complaints were different.

Like Kanye, while successful in so many ways in comparison to most people in the world, I’ve also felt marginalized and mistreated. In fact, much of my blogging over the past few years has been to share my frustrations. No doubt many reading my thoughts and perspectives feel I’ve spoken out of turn for daring to share my grievances.

My writing was, in a sense, a prayer “God show me a way because the Devil’s trying to break me down.” I wanted answers. I wanted my readers to tell me that part that was missing from my life and present a solution that worked for me. I did all I could and still was not completely healed.

A story of being paralyzed and so close to the healing pool.

I’ve found parallels between my own spiritual journey (of thirty-eight years) and that of a paralyzed man finally healed by Jesus:

Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” (John 5:3‭, ‬5‭-‬10 NIV )

Imagine that. Thirty-eight years of waiting for someone who cared enough to lift him into the pool to be healed. I’m guessing many did notice this man, they might have felt a little compassion, and yet for whatever reason they did not make an effort to help him into the healing waters. Perhaps they lacked the faith he had and didn’t think putting him in would make a difference? Perhaps they were too busy with their own problems?

I do not know why this man had to wait thirty-eight years—so close to healing and yet at a distance impossible for him to cover without help. But we do know about the encounter he had with Jesus. We also know that after he was healed and began to walk he soon encountered critics who seemed to care more that he wasn’t following their rules (by walking on the Sabbath) than the miracle of his new found freedom.

Kanye finds freedom to love as Jesus loves.

Kanye has again found himself in the middle of a firestorm and this time for a comment on Twitter expressing his love for President Trump:

You don’t have to agree with [T]rump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.

Given his own brash personality and the Christian themes in his music, it is no surprise that Kanye can find some common ground with Trump—and desires to love him despite their differences. He, like Jesus taught, has decided to truly love all people (including his enemies) and this includes Trump.

West, going a step further, in a recent TMZ interview, shared how he felt bad about a previous attack on another unpopular president:

Even with George Bush, people said don’t apologize. I’m like, wait a second, I just saw George Bush pushing George Bush senior in a wheelchair, and he just lost his wife. Do you know how bad I would want to go to George Bush and say, ‘I’m sorry for hurting you. I was an artist, I was hurting when I went up to the telethon, I said something in the moment but when I look at you as a dad and a family member, I’m sorry for hurting you.

Instead of seeing Bush as the face of the enemy as he one did, as a racist (for being a conservative) and someone beyond redemption, he saw him as a dad, as family member and as being a human like him.

Perhaps Kanye, having lost his own mom in tragic circumstances, could more readily identify with the beleaguered and bereaved Bush?

Whatever the case, the motive for his change of heart is clear:

Does God want you to love everyone? … If you start thinking about love and start feeling love and thinking about forgiveness, then you can overcome things…

That is the Gospel in a nutshell. We are to love as God first loved us and forgive others so we will be forgiven. Christians were told to honor each other, other people and even the emperor. Honor does not mean agree. Honor does not mean we do not speak the truth in love and risk losing our heads like John the Baptist did in speaking out against sin either. But it does mean that we see our enemies as people to be loved rather than demons to hate.

Today we must choose not to be bound to our past.

As if telling people to love Trump wasn’t already bad enough, Kanye also made this comment:

When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You were there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally imprisoned.

West later explained that he understood that slaves did not come of their own free-will:

[T]o make myself clear. Of course I know that slaves did not get shackled and put on a boat by free will. My point is for us to have stayed in that position even though the numbers were on our side means that we were mentally enslaved.

His point wasn’t that slavery never happened nor to take away from the wrong that had been done to his ancestors. But explains that eventually their slavery became a mental prison and that people should not continue to choose to be enslaved years after the institution of slavery has been abolished.

He continued:

[T]he reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years.

It is interesting that he uses the 400 years.

Slavery, as an institution in the United States, started in 1619, was legal in all thirteen colonies when they declared their independence from British rule in 1776, and ended formally with the 13th amendment in 1865.

For those of you bad at math, that is 246 years and not 400 years. It seems the suggestion being made is that some are still mentally enslaved despite being legally free.

Kanye’s point resonates with me as one trying to escape my own mental prison. It is difficult to live beyond our past experience. All my expectations were built around being a Mennonite and, despite my free-spiritedness, it was impossible for me to see beyond this past—I was enslaved.

But I didn’t want to spend my next 40 years repeating the same failures. I wanted to overcome, I called on Jesus to heal me and was willing to do whatever it took to be made whole—even let go of the Mennonite identity that meant everything to me.

It is interesting that the paralytic, Kanye West, and myself are so close in age. I guess there just comes a point when the longing for freedom from our enslavement becomes greater than our fears and we are finally willing to break the rules that keep us bound. And, when you do, when you find your freedom, those who choose to remain in bonds will come for you.

Speaking of “mental prisons” comes at risk of being killed by the victims.

I worked in a factory years ago. It was a sort of dead end job with low pay and certainly not where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. However, when I expressed my dreams of life beyond that place my coworkers would laugh it off and tell me that I would always be there with them. They were serious, from all appearances, and their ridicule only gave me more motivation to leave.

It reminds me of Dr. Jordan Peterson’s advice to those who wish to change the world. He says, “clean your room.” But Peterson also warns that, when you do this, there will be those who prefer their disorder and will resist. They will react negativity rather than with happiness. The critics will question: “Who do you think you are? Do you think you’re better than us?”

Those who are in mental prisons prefer to believe that they have no choice and therefore will hate anyone who tries to show them otherwise. The religious hypocrites, seeing the miracles of Jesus, were more concerned that he had broke their rules and eventually killed him. I’m sure there are many who would rather I stopped speaking my thoughts as well. And, likewise, Kanye West will likely face the consequences of breaking ranks with those still imprisoned.

Victims of racism, other multi-millionaire celebrities, have accused West of being a traitor to his race and have made threats against him. One radio station has already stopped playing his music and I’m guessing there will be many other costs. My own popularity as a blogger will probably never recover from my taking a walk with Jesus away from the Mennonite plantation. Many will never understand and will simply cut you out of their life. There are real repercussions for choosing to be free.

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. (John 15:18‭-‬21 NIV)

I’ve had many conversations in my life. I have always tried to speak the truth in love and have generally been well-received even by those who disagree. But, my own experience trying to talk about race have almost always left me disappointed—sometimes even resigned to the notion that we will always be ruled by our baser instincts. Some of the nastiest words spoken to me came as a result of my taking a stand for truth as it pertains to race.

Apparently as a white man, to the victims of racism, I can’t possibly have anything to offer besides an apology for my own gender and skin color. No, I could not possibly be a person who, like them, has experienced the pain of prejudice, discrimination and rejection, right?

Ironically or perhaps inevitably, it is often the victims of abuse who become the next generation of abusers. And that is because they are still bound to the abuse, the abuse has become their identity, and they’ve never known freedom.

I choose not to build an identity around my skin color and fears. I choose against being bound to my past failures and present anxieties. I refuse to be a mental prisoner to injuries and injustices. I refuse to live as a victim. I choose to transcend. I choose to love.

Jesus means freedom from our past. Jesus means peace of mind, a secure future, even when presently mocked and persecuted.

To silence me you will have to kill me.

God forgives and I forgive.

I am free.

The Day My Little Hope Died

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I was a failure in my own mind.

My engagement ended.  I had hurt someone that I loved deeply.  My lofty romantic ambitions ended in a grinding and painful defeat.  I was not the hero that saved the day.

I was confused, embarrassed, disappointed and determined to make up for my failure to deliver as promised.

That feeling of obligation only intensified when my ex-fiance became pregnant to another man a bit later.  The relationship with the child’s father had not worked out.  I was worried for both mother and child.

I wondered how my friend would be able to provide and decided I would offer the best support that I could as a friend.  When I met Saniyah for the first time my fears began to subside.  Holding her filled me with a fatherly pride.

Eventually, as my friend and her child were sufficiently cared for in her community, my initial fears were replaced with a little hope.  Saniyah was real living proof that something good could come out of failure and represented hope that my friend would have the lifelong companion.

Nothing could prepare me.

It was a normal sunny spring day, March 26, 2009, a Thursday.  I was still getting adjusted to my life on the road as a truck driver and had run hard that week.

I was still on the road when I received a text message.  The contents, something about my friend’s baby being in the hospital, really didn’t register for some reason.

However, the message that came a bit later, the one telling me something unthinkable, I did understand and it hit hard.

“Why!?!”

My mind screamed for an answer.

There was a moment of intense anger.

Saniyah, only eighteen months old, was no longer with us.  She has been found in her crib lifeless and blue.  Her death caused by a combination of asthma and pneumonia.  There was nothing that could be done to save her.

My work week ended abruptly.  I told my dispatcher (whose office I was in at the time) that I would be unable to finish the week and had decided I would drive to be there for my friend.  Soon after I was on the road headed east.

A surreal night and a mother’s wail.

The morning sun had been replaced by dark skies and driving rain.  I drove through the torrential downpour, at the edge of control, the worn grooves of I-80 filled with water, and at a higher rate of speed than safe.

I arrived in Brooklyn that evening not even sure how I got there or what to expect.  I had left without any real plan where I would stay or what I would do.  All that mattered to me was that I would be there for my friend if she needed me.

I was soon feeling a bit better.  My friend was willing to see me, her composure was amazing and soon we were back at her apartment with the small gathering of family and friends.

I had settled down on the couch.  My friend was in the other room, which was connected by a large opening, she was looking through pictures as I chatted and then came a moment that will probably be with me to my dying day.

My strong friend, whose calm had been my comfort until then, let out a groan, a wail only a mother could make, and it was a sound that penetrated me to the deepest depths of my being.

That night, while she cried, I bit my lip and held back trying to be strong.  But in that moment something broke, something tore deep inside me, I stared through the hole down into a hopeless and terrible darkness that I had not known before.

That was the day my little hope died.

We buried Saniyah a few days later.  I recall staring at that little lifeless body, feeling helpless, overwhelmed and knowing that I did not have the faith to bring her back to life.  I would have traded my own life to give Saniyah back to my friend.

The hole that stared back at me.

I stopped talking to members of my immediate family who did not attend the funeral.  Before then I had been frustrated with a couple of my siblings who always seemed too busy when I called and now were too busy to honor the life of Saniyah.

It was not fair to them that they bore the brunt of my feelings (nor was it fair to the online community that I was a part of then) but I had a deep anger raging inside that could not be calmed.  They became the more tangible enemy that I so desperately wanted.

And then there was the guilt.  My friend had told me about Saniyah’s health issue and how the doctor seemed more interested in scamming the state than providing quality care.  Why had I not intervened then and insisted that she see another physician?

I was not thinking rationally.

I was trying to stay one step ahead of a monster inside of me.

But I could not always run fast enough and in moments where I felt helpless, things that would only cause a healthy person a bit of concern, my gaze would turn inside and the nightmare would catch up to me.

I would look deep into that hole that had opened the night Saniyah died and a despair that I cannot begin to describe in words would envelop me.  It is that thing of Lovecraftian horror, the words of Friedrich Nietzsche come to life, a terror that would leave me in pieces and sobbing.

My religion, largely an intellectual project, failed to provide me with good answers.  I was, despite regular church attendance, an agnostic for all intents and purposes.  My inability to protect those who I loved or prove my way to faith, along with a string of other failures to realize my dreams, left me hollow inside and feeling totally helpless.

The return of a new hope and purpose.

Tears still well up when I talk about Saniyah and the circumstances of her death.  Life is never the same after an experience like that.  But those episodes of helplessness and profound loss, of reliving that moment from the night she died, have gone away.

My anger subsided.  My estranged relationships restored and mostly better than ever.  My faith now built on foundation more substantial than the book knowledge that had been so woefully inadequate to save me.  I have a bigger hope now than the little one based in my own efforts.

After years of struggle and questions too big for my own mind, I realized that the hope Saniyah represented still lives on.  It is a hope built on trust on faith not of my own works and found in the sufficiency of God’s grace.

My temporary loss is heaven’s gain.

A time to weep…

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“Jesus wept.”  (John 11:35)

Life can leave us feeling dry.  As one of deep emotions I have felt distressed lately and yet seemingly too exhausted for tears.  It is the feeling of being crushed under a heavy weight unable to move it.

Sunday morning a brother shared his own struggle coping with all the broken lives around him.  He spoke of children who appear to be given no chance in life and are neglected.  I thought of the countless masses of humanity, the millions hurting, the millions helpless and those still looking for a day of salvation, where will they find God’s love?

I came home to my beautiful family.  I shared dinner with my parents and sister.  I was sad, struggling and thinking over the lyrics of a hymn sung at the end of the service.  The final stanza on my mind:

“Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

After the meal mom and I discussed her mother’s mental health since undergoing multiple chemotherapy treatments.  Her mom was always a strong and sharp woman, but now is having difficulty with simple routine tasks. 

Alzheimer’s took my great-grandma.  It is an undignifying end for a loved one who was once independent and strong.  I pondered the loss of my grandma that way, then I thought about my own mother who I love so deeply, who is always there for me, and wondered if I would see her thinking and abilities fade too.

Was this the fate that would befall me as well?

I only wanted one thing in that moment and that was to hold onto mom never letting go.  I gave mom a hug then the floodgates opened.  I wept for my weakness, I wept for mom’s mortality, I wept for grandpa’s fears and grandma’s confusion, I wept for all those in this sick and dying world.

Faith is not impervious to emotion.  Our sorrow is as much of an expression of faith as our joy.  Men of faith weep because they love deeply and share the pain of those hurting.  Tears soften the hard ground of cruelty and judgment of this world. 

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

Tears are the waters of spiritual healing.  Tears lift and carry away burdens too heavy for our own strength to bear.  May we fulfill the law of Christ and share our tears of joy, sorrow and love.  May our love be poured out to all people. 

God bless.