Struggle, Meaning of Life and Suicide

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

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

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

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

So, what did we discuss?

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

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

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

What has changed?

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

The media deluge…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working more for less…

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

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

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

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

Life without purpose…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of community…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A profile of a vulnerable person…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam had basically given up on religion.

He was rightly skeptical too.

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

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

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

He never did answer.

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

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

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Want To Help People In Typhoon Ravaged Philippines?

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Last December (and into January) I had the privilege of traveling to the Philippines.  I traveled to the northern mountainous region of Luzon and met some wonderful people there.  Most of my time was spent in a beautiful place called Baguio, a city around the same elevation as Denver, and the adjacent city of La Trinidad.

This past week these cities, and surrounding area, have been hit by a devastating typhoon and there are many needs.  The area is prone to mudslides given the steep terrain and also flooding in the valleys.  Many have lost everything they have worked so hard for, they have no insurance, no FEMA, and can use all the help they can get.  This is why I’m doing my small part by setting up a site where those who feel led can donate: *click here*

Any funds raised will be distributed through trusted Christian connections (not Mennonite or Orthodox) and go 100% (besides what GoFundMe takes) to those in need in that region.  I know even small amounts can go a long way.  If you can’t give, please at least share this and give others the opportunity to bless Baguio, La Trinidad, and the surrounding areas in Benguet Province.

Thank you!

Paradox of Faith and Believing Before You Believe

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A few years ago, having finally fully embraced the promises of Jesus, I set out on a journey of faith and pursued the impossible love only possible with faith.  I wanted to transcend that “it” that always kept me just short of success and finally put to rest the fear of being the servant who buried his talent.

My mom had always told me that God had saved me for a special purpose.  My name, she told me, meant strong-willed and the name was appropriate given that my first week of life was a desperate fight to survive.  But my fierce determination and persistence could not have kept me alive.  It is only because of the dedicated care of physicians (including my uncle Elam) and nurses, along with the prayers of relatives and friends, that I am writing now.

Still, that was a battle that didn’t end without some scars both physical and otherwise.  I was the late-bloomer, notably smaller than my same-age peers, often riddled with anxieties, and seemed perpetually stuck trying to catch up—but never able.  There have been many times in my life when it felt like one of those nightmares where you know what to do but your reaction is slowed and you can’t avoid the disaster.

Failure and Moving Forward

Over the years I began to doubt my mom’s words.

What great purpose could I have, a thirty-year-old living in Milton?

But, spurred by faith, I decided it was now or never; I put aside feelings of inadequacy and began to write.  I wrote a book, “Paradox of Faith,” and then started to blog here.  I decided to say “yes” when asked to speak at church and my confidence grew as a result.

However, I still wanted to trust God more; I decided to go all in on faith and reach out for something impossible for me.  I thought I should be a missionary overseas (an activity very encouraged in my church) and yet knew that it was something that I would need some help to do.  So I prayed earnestly for a way to overcome my limitations and then reached out to those whom I trusted were my brothers and sisters in faith.

What I got in response was a cold shoulder and harsh dose of the faithless reality behind their well-polished religious facade.  Not only couldn’t they help me, but they smiled to my face then slandered me behind my back, and drove my faith into the rocks with their complete indifference.  I have to wonder how many of them realize that I’ve stopped attending their church six or seven months ago?  I’m obviously not needed there, nor do I feel especially wanted or truly cared for by most who attend there.

I hit the rocks again.

If it was not for one person, someone on the opposite side of the world, who told me, “if you go, take me with you,” I would likely have ended my life by my own hand.  But, I had helped them through their own time of despair and desperation, I believed they would be thrown back into chaos and confusion if I failed them—I could kill my own hope, but I could not rob them of theirs.  My faith had been ruthlessly murdered by those who were supposed to help it, but my precious bhest was determined to pull me back from the grave.

It has been a real struggle, despite all the good things going on in my life, to see past this failure of faith in my church.  I’ve always been a Mennonite, I wore it on my sleeve, it has been my identity both religious and cultural, where I sought acceptance and validation—but there’s no way to remain there after all that has transpired over the past couple years.

But how do you go forward when you lost your faith?

I cared and yet I didn’t.

I was angry and simultaneously indifferent.

I continued living on the outside but my hope inside was dead.

I wanted to forgive those who had hurt me—but, without faith, how was it possible?  Why would I?

One of the reasons I continued writing was because of the unconditional love of a good stranger, now my editor and friend.  They came to me like the angel that ministered to Elijah, telling me that my writing had spoken to them and offering to help.  This wonderful person offered to be my faith when I had none and didn’t abandon or harshly judge me.

I began attending a church of another older Christian tradition.  That choice was the result of a fatherly figure who came into my life about a year prior and had gained my trust with his humility.  I was amazed by his prompt and detailed answers to my inquiries.  For the first time in years I left church feeling renewed.

But then something happened.  I spooked.  I looked back and became mired in those questions nobody could answer.

I did not attend any services for a couple months.  However, a few weeks ago, because of my special someone, my bhest, telling me she needed me to be strong in faith for her, and a timely meeting with my wise fatherly friend, I decided to follow the paradoxical advice given to John Wesley who also doubted:

“Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

As someone who sought to be authentic, that advice (basically “fake it until you make it”) bothered me when I first read it years ago.  It seemed dishonest to me.  It also seemed silly and irrational.  If we must fake something being real for it to become real in our mind, then what’s the point?  Isn’t that the very definition of delusion? Why not only believe what is real instead?

But now the choice wasn’t about me anymore, it was about the one that I loved, my bhest, and to love them properly required me finding my faith again.  I could not find it in those who took it, nor produce it of myself.  I was already reaching down as deeply within myself as I could to find faith and coming up empty.  And yet, right at the right time, right before a meeting with my fatherly adviser, my mind was ready to receive some council.

We met to discuss my “God problem” and first agreed that there is no rational means to prove the existence of God.  With the mystery of God established, he broke my dilemma down to two options: 1) accept a life void of deeper meaning and purpose—nihilism, or 2) live with the assumption of something greater to come, embrace the mystery of God, and have faith.

He encouraged me to attend services again and that’s what I did.  My questions are not all answered, but with his help I’ve established the right trajectory again, and—oddly enough—my feelings of faith have begun to return as I act in faith for those whom God loves.

What is the paradox of faith?

Jesus, according to the Gospel of Mark, came upon a crowd in an uproar and asked what was going on.  A man, the father of a sick child, explained that the disciples could not heal his son.  To this, Jesus tells the crowd, “You unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you?” and then requested the boy be brought to him.  The father explained the boy’s condition then gave his plea:

“…if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus.  “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22b‭-‬24)

This father seems to have both belief and unbelief in him.  His initial plea is so weak that Jesus repeats it back as if to test the man a bit.  At this the exasperated father beautifully expresses a contradiction that only a person who has truly ventured out in faith can know: “I do believe, so help me to believe!”

It is this father’s contradiction that has become real to me as I ventured out in faith, the deeper we go the less we can rely on ourselves and must reach for something bigger.  Here are three paradoxes of faith I have encountered:

A) True faith is acting in faith before you have faith.  Faith is setting out in a direction, even when the outcome is uncertain, often while facing controversy and even despite some self-contradiction.  Faith is not the absence of doubt.  Faith is taking the first bold step in spite of your fears, anxieties and doubts.  Faith means deviating from what is our natural inclination, letting go of our own human understanding and reaching for what is only possible with God.  Faith, from a practical standpoint, is courage in the face of the impossibility.

Faith requires different things of different people.  It could mean swallowing pride and dipping in your own version of the river Jordan like was required of Naaman.  It could mean selling all you have, giving up your awesome plans and leaving your family behind.  It could mean marriage or remaining single.  There is no one-size-fits-all prescription in faith.  But faith is never passive, nor does it mean being placid; it takes persistence, and requires that we step out of the boat, like Peter:

But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:27‭-‬31)

That is an astonishing story.  Peter is both believing and disbelieving at the same time.  He challenges Jesus to prove that he is who he claims to be: “Lord, if it be you…”  Peter, bold as ever, asked for a miracle that applied to him.  There is no passivity or hesitation there, either.  Peter is willing to get out of the boat and attempt the impossible.  He is actually putting to practice the “take courage” part.  He, like the father with the sick child, is asking Jesus: “I believe, so help me believe!”

There are many religious people who avoid the humiliation of coming up empty-handed by re-branding their true faithlessness as “godly contentment” or being “realistic” or not testing God.  But the truth is that it takes no faith at all to sit on your hands, take life as it comes and do nothing.  Faith aims for the impossible at risk of failure.

You don’t have faith unless you practice faith and to practice faith means to love as Christ loved.  Faith is like a muscle that must be exercised to become strong and atrophies when unused.  The exercise of faith is to love your neighbors and especially brothers and sisters in faith.

Faith comes from praxis of faith.

B) Faith is acting in love before you feel love.  Anyone can love as the world loves.  Anyone can “fall in love” with someone who is attractive, adventurous and otherwise convenient to their own personal ambitions.  It is easy to love those who have already proven their value or have what you want, but loving only those who are like you and only because you anticipate getting something in return is not Christian love.

The church of my childhood is good at loving their own and especially good at loving those who represent their ideals.  (I know, because I am like them; I have shared their ambitions, I wanted a Mennonite wife and friends.)  But we are not good at loving those who are different.   We do not love courageously or in faith.  Sadly, with few exceptions, the love I’ve received at my church seems primarily to be a very explicable human kind of love (for biological family or for their religious cliques) and not the exceptional kind of love that transcends differences.

Why don’t we love as Jesus commanded?

The problem is when feelings lead rather than faith.  Many go through the motions of outreach and missions.  However, it is too often only a do-gooder project, a chance to prove our religious chops, a way to feel good about ourselves, and not sacrificial or done in sincere love.  The problem is not that we are bad people.  The problem is that it truly is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to love those who do not produce feelings of love within us first.  We may excuse our lack of love as “being a good steward” and wise use of resources, but could it be that we simply do not have the faith to go beyond our own calculations of another person’s worth?

We use what we know about other people as a reason not to invest in them.  We treat idioms like, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” as if they are truths.  We use our past and prejudices as guides rather than give freely to those who ask (Matthew 5:42) and trust God.  We do not act in an open-handed way towards others when we presume to know the future based on what we know of past performance.  Unfortunately, in doing this, we too often feed a self-fulfilling prophecy and are actually contributing to their failure.

The paradox?

Sometimes feelings of love come only after you practice love first.  Sometimes it is only after we have invested significantly in another person’s success that we begin to care about their circumstances.  Faithful love is not based on feelings.  Faithful love is doing more than what we are able to rationalize or justify as prudent in our own minds.  Faithful love means loving even when you may never see the results.

Faithful love is only possible for those who know that they did not deserve love themselves and act accordingly.  We were saved by grace and therefore should show grace to those who need salvation.

C) Nobody can save themselves.  Some of us can live in an illusion of independence, but even those without my traumatic birth experience needed the life support of a mother’s womb to survive and could not exist otherwise.  We are not self-creating nor self-sustaining creatures and all have gained through the work of others.  Nobody gives birth to themselves—not even a hermit in Alaska or Chuck Norris.

The same is true of our Christian life.  No man has saved themselves through their own efforts.  We cannot come to faith and remain faithful outside of Christ and the church he established.  I did not come to faith by my own efforts nor has anyone else.  Even the Bible is a written testimony of faith given, compiled, preserved, translated and interpreted by the church.  We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8) and this means that someone else acted graciously on our behalf to even give us a choice to act in faith.

I could get more into the theology and theory here.  But cutting to the chase…

Here’s How the Theory Played Out For Me

My own journey of faith started a new chapter a few years ago.  My faith was stronger than ever, but still could not overcome that invisible enemy that always seemed to keep me just short of success.  So, putting it all on the line, I prayed, “God, make the impossible possible for me” and believed (despite my unbelief) that faith would prevail.

But I did not sit and wait around doing nothing.  I resolved to be an answer to prayer before getting my answer to prayer.  I began to say “yes” (despite my feelings of inadequacy) and became more willing to take on new friendships with strangers that my religious peers would consider risky or dangerous.  I decided to love as I wished to be loved and not worry about my image so much.

Meanwhile, as I reached out in faith, my own hope against hope hit a wall of opposition and from the very people I had trusted to be faithful.  These were supposed to be the ones who would stand up for me, give me a chance, and show me love, but instead I got betrayal and lies.  It was confusing to me.  They would all say that they believed that the extraordinary claims of the Bible were true, but they sure didn’t act like it.

Eventually their doubts became mine.  My experience over the past few years seemed to be only a delusion.  The promises about faith written in the Bible seemed untrue; the existence of God isn’t something we can prove, and I just wanted to be free from the commitment that had just drug my heart through the mud.

Two Are Indeed Better Than One

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.  Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9‭-‬12)

It was because of the words of one very precious person that I didn’t act on my suicidal ideations.  A year before it was my turn to save them from their despair.  She was a single mother at the end of her rope, a little lost sheep, in a cold, dark, indifferent world, and not sure where to turn for help.  In her first message, after I accepted her friend request, she basically apologized and told me she was unworthy to be my friend.  My heart was instantly filled with compassion for her and I made it my mission to restore her faith.

Little did I know that a year later she would be acting as my Jesus and refusing to let go of my hand as I slipped beneath the waves.  She was my only reason not to throw in the towel on life.  I lived for her because there was nothing in myself left worth living for.  Later it dawned on me, in my faithfulness to her over the past year, I had sowed the seeds for my deliverance from despair.  In my love for her I found just enough meaning to the fight when I needed it most.

Around the time I had given up on faith, I got a friend request out of the blue.  This person, someone of admirable conviction and unusual love, was excited about something I wrote in a blog about an unnatural love only possible with faith.  Unbeknownst to them, the paradigm of faith that inspired my words was crashing and burning around me.   As much as I wanted to, I could no longer believe my own words anymore and had given up.

I more or less told this inquiring reader, albeit in different words: “the show is over, I was a peddler of nonsense, so move along now and don’t trip on the wreckage of my hopes and dreams.”  But, this new friend, instead of taking my advice, offered to be my faith, to be as Hur and Aaron who held up the hand of Moses:

As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. (Exodus 17:11‭-‬12)

They believed in the mission even when I was too exhausted to continue.  More than that, they offered the love that could only be explained by faith, they loved me through some of my most unlovable moments, and have not once failed in their commitment to be my editor.  It is probably their encouragement that kept me plugging away and writing my experience.

Angels, Transition and Forgiveness

This is where the story gets interesting.  To me, offering to edit my blogs was something only an angel would do.  So, to express my gratitude, while feeling beleaguered like Elijah in the wilderness, I announced on Facebook that I had found an “angel” and that choice of wording would become significant a couple days later.

But just before all that, not having a clue what would soon transpire, before my faith ran into a road block, I had blogged about a job transition that I knew was coming and also a premonition that something else bigger was lurking ahead.  Since posting that blog, the word “transition” had indeed been a big theme of my life.   That is why I clicked on a link about transitions that came up on my news feed.

The video, posted by a Christian friend, was one of those prophetic speakers that play to confirmation bias in the same way that fortune cookies and horoscopes do.  Basically, if you keep an insight vague enough it can be personalized by the reader and applied to almost any situation.  I’m pretty skeptical of these things and normally don’t pay too much attention.  However, the word “transition” in the title had hooked me.

I listened, nodding, as he talked about the difficulty of transition, he compared our transitioning to how an army is vulnerable when moving and explained how God would send an angel to guard over the transition.  Suddenly he had my full and undivided attention.  His advice?  He stressed the importance of forgiveness as necessary for success in the new endeavor—which is a message hit me right in the heart and, after hearing that word, forgive is what I wanted to do.

I had been given someone as an angel to guard over my transition.  I’m not sure if it is just a coincidence or not.  Maybe I’m reading meaning into it that isn’t there?  But the message was a profound reminder that the only successful way forward is the path of forgiveness.

Some Final Thoughts About Faith, Doubt, Encouragement and Love

No man, no matter how strong in faith, talented or independent can do it alone.  We need each other and often more than we know.

Maybe you are too proud to ask for help?  Perhaps you believe faith means stoicism?  If that is the case, then please consider that even Jesus wanted companionship in his hour of tribulation and that some of the most noteworthy characters in Scripture were sometimes cowards even after seeing amazing things directly from God’s hand.

If Jesus literally could not carry his cross without help, why do we think we can bear our burdens alone?

If our Savior struggled with anxieties in the garden of Gethsemane, why do we feel like we have failed because of our own fear and doubt?

There may be times when our faith is tested while we are alone and we must do our best to stand.  But that doesn’t mean we should leave others alone in their trials and tribulations.  Being a member of the body of Christ means “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26) and James tells us that our faith is expressed by how those in the church help each other:

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 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 for 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)

There will be times where we all stumble and fall in faith.  We should encourage each other.  Do not be impatient when someone does not respond instantly to your love.  Sometimes it takes time for the water and nutrients to soak in.  Healing does not happen overnight for those who have been abandoned or severely wounded by the betrayals and indifference of others.

Who have you encouraged today?

Who have you helped?

My prior investment in others was the only thing that gave me the will to fight on.  The investment of others in my life is the only reason I am here writing today.  Do not neglect the important work of being your brother’s keeper.  Love those nobody else loves.  Love those that are unlovely and require faith to love.

Help With My Impossible Task

The church of my youth is full of nice people; a few did call to check in and probably more do care about me than took the time to inquire.  Most of them are very decent people, in my opinion.  However, I still found myself too often feeling spiritually malnourished while with them and I can’t live with settling for mediocrity or going through the motions.  A final act of betrayal by those in the group whom I trusted most left me spiritually dead and has convinced me of a need to change.  I would not have survived had not God provided ministering angels (in human form) to guard over me and I won’t ask for that again.

Thus, I find myself needing to do the impossible.  I am forced to transition from the church where I spent nearly four decades of my life to an orthodoxy that still feels foreign to me.  It is not my first choice, it has not been easy for me, and yet it is what I must do to remain faithful.  Big chunks of my identity, if not my entire identity, were caught up in my Mennonite denomination and letting go of that is difficult.  And not just that, the church is literally full of my family members; aunts, uncles, cousins and only remaining grandparent.  Until recently it was easy and comfortable to be there just putting in time.  But I know that I must live in faith and Jesus said to leave all behind and follow him.

So, as a final request, please pray for me to have a spirit of forgiveness.  I must do the impossible and move on from the denomination that I loved, but cannot move on while hanging onto my hurts or carrying bitterness.  My sincere faith was treated as garbage, the help provided by those I regarded to be my brotherhood for years was too often given grudgingly and seemingly always too little too late.  It is hard to forgive those do not take responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof) and should do better, but…

“Father forgive them for they know not what they do!”

The Confidence Conundrum

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“Be confident!”  

Two words and some of the most unhelpful advice ever given.

Telling someone to be confident is like telling a depressed person to be happy or a short person to be tall.  A person who lacks in confidence does not know how to be confident or else they would already be confident.  Building confidence takes more effort than making a bold pronouncement upon someone.

People do not simply choose to be shy, unsure, uncertain, doubtful, confused, hesitant, timid, anxious or fearful.  No, those things are a product of life experiences and emotions that are all very real.  A confident person making a perfunctory statement does nothing to change the reality of a person who lacks confidence.

That said, confidence is desirable and something to be shared.  

Unfortunately, people who are confident often do not have reason to be introspective about it.  When you feel good about life there is not much need to know why or question it, there is only reason to be what you already are and enjoy the benefits.

Confidence is both a natural disposition and also something gained through positive experience.  Parents instill confidence in children through example or by helping them to overcome their fears and learn from failures rather than dwell in them.  Confident and successful parents seem to produce confident and successful children.

Confidence goes hand in hand with success, it frees a person to take the plunge rather than waste time in needless deliberation and makes them more attractive.  But, there is a sort of causality dilemma, in that confidence often leads to success while success builds confidence and without one the other becomes more difficult to maintain.

When confidence doesn’t produce success, it leads an intelligent person to doubt.  And with doubt comes less desire to risk effort and that results in even less opportunity for success, which often leads to even less success and even less confidence.  Pretty soon things can spiral downward into the pit of despair without a clear way out.

So, how do we help someone who lacks confidence gain it?

If you want a person to be confident then you must give them reason to be confident and good enough reason to overcome whatever reasons they have to lack confidence. To be helpful one must directly address root causes and not dismiss the realities that created the condition as silly or irrelevant.

What people need is T.IM.E.

Help must be practical.  Encouraging words don’t cut it.  Words, no matter how confident you are in saying them, are only words and do nothing to counteract the real life experience or emotional baggage of someone who has only known failure.  What is helpful, perhaps the only thing that does help in some cases, is meaningful long-term investment in the other person.

Loss of confidence happens over a lifetime, it comes as a result of traumatic experience or neglectful treatment, thus expecting a person to “snap out of it” because you say so is delusional at best and an excuse to be indifferent at worse.  There is more to be done than simple encouragement and that means an investment of time.

Here are three simple steps…

1) Take time to listen.  Confidence goes hand in hand with success, but success can lead to arrogance and unwillingness to hear first.  Many people want to “fix” another person without taking time to actually listen and assess the need.  This could mean many months or only a moment depending on the need.  It takes relating to the other person at their own level, earning their trust, without being in a rush or speaking in judgment of their situation.  Half the problem could be the lack of someone who will actually hear them out and care.  So listen empathically and try to identify with the other person emotionally.  Weep with them, laugh with them, eat with them and imagine with them.

2) IMagine a solution.  Without confidence, our ability to envision a better future dwindles and dies.  A successful person can easily take their ability to see a bright future for granted and yet a person who has continually failed does not share their rosy vision.  The first step towards any solution, therefore, is to think about it, to break the problem down into steps and help the other person mentally develop their path towards success.  After that comes execution of the plan.

3) Empower them.  This is where the rubber meets the road and is probably what is most lacking in our age of dog-eat-dog individualism.  Sure, there are many willing to spew their unhelpful advice and unasked-for judgments, but there are very few willing to partner in the success of another person and by this I mean make a substantive investment.  No, this does not mean a handout done in pity or religious obligation either, but an investment that physically and materially shows our confidence in the person who needs it.  Your willingness to partner together with them in a solution will, by itself, help build their confidence.

Anyhow, some final notes…

This is not a method or formula.  Each person and every situation is different.  Sometimes all that is needed is encouragement (more than saying “be confident”) which could mean something as little as a phone call.  While other times a lifelong commitment may be required.  It will likely require creativity, facilitating the right connections, and making recommendations.  

The goal is to get the person what they need to get on their feet and going in the right direction.  It also means getting out of the way and not being controlling or expecting anything in return besides enjoying their success with them.

Nobody is self-made.  If you are confident and successful, there are reasons why that go beyond your own abilities.  We did not pick our own home, communities, height, intelligence, personalities or luck.  We cannot take full credit for anything we have accomplished in our life.  This is reason to be humble and helpful.

If you are confident then share what you have been given with those who have little or less than you do.  Show your hope in their future with truth of action and not only your confidently spoken (but empty) words, be their heart…


Pie in the sky…when you die…

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The expression “pie in the sky” is used to describe an impractical idea.  It originated in the lyrics of the song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” that was written to the tune of a populis Christian hymn:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and Pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

If you are familiar with Christian hymns, you may recognize it as the same tune as “In the Sweet By and By.”  It was written in 1911 by Joe Hill as a protest song reflecting the frustration of those who were looking for something now. 

Hill pokes fun at Salvation Army street evangelists for their impracticality. His lyrics are cynical, self-interested and agnostic, but honest.

The critique of Christian evangelical efforts is stinging.

True evangelical faith…cannot lie sleeping…

Evangelical Christianity has earned a reputation.  It has frequently centered on condemnation of what those ‘outside the faith’ are doing wrong and yet lacks the introspection to know it is failing to live to the example it claims to promote. 

Jesus did more than sing happy hymns or preach sermons about future glory; he also healed, provided food, wine and urged his followers to give selflessly of themselves. The words of Jesus are reflected in this poem:

True evangelical faith cannot lie sleeping. It clothes the naked and comforts the sorrowful.
It gives to the hungry food and it shelters the destitute.

It cares for the blind and lame, the widow and the orphan child.
It binds up the wounded man and offers a gentle hand.
We must become everything to all men.

Abundantly we have received and gratefully we will respond.
So overcome evil with good and return hatred with love.
That is true evangelical faith.

That is the writing of Menno Simons (1496–1561) urging a Gospel that met real needs today.  It was put to music by Larry Nickel and would be much harder to parody as a message of pie in the sky only.  Each line can be traced to something Jesus told his followers.  It is a evangelicalism of practical value rather than only immaterial abstractions.  It promotes a faith of concrete action in contrast to words-only ministry.

A message that focuses on being a solution…

The mocking words of Hill point to a purely human effort.  While the ‘love’ of too many who profess faith is empty of real sacrifice and true empathy for human need.  Both are an incomplete message.  One piously over-spiritualizes faith while the other is dripping with resentment and bitter carnality.

The true evangelical faith of Jesus is bread today, shelter today and clothe today.  The example is a love of substance and help today rather than of just pleasant words.  It is so much more than impractical pie in the sky promises of something tomorrow.