Where To Go From Here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come and see,” said Philip.

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

“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

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

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

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

Can anyone rival that with eloquent words or elaborate arguments?

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

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

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

Where to go from here?

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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.

Mennonite Ordinances and Anabaptist Disregard for Sacraments

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A good friend of mine, a Mennonite, was quite upset with a particular social media provocateur (who self-identifies as marginally Mennonite) and his attack on Holy Communion—which he described as being “basically symbolic cannibalism” and “a man-made ritual” that “can be left on the shelf with no deleterious consequences.”

Then he goes on to say:

“I urge all liberal-minded Mennonites to just stop eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood. It holds no salvific power. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Nor does it earn brownie points with God. Further, it’s a major turn-off to people outside the church bubble (for those who care about how the church is perceived by outsiders).”

Most Mennonites, even the mainstream ‘liberal’ types, would reject this as profane and ignorant babble. It is an attack on the very foundation of Christian practice and makes me question if this individual is truly concerned with winning people “outside the church bubble” or the future of the church. His religious ideology, having myself sampled some of his writing, seems to be: Nothing is sacred.

What is interesting about this individual is their claim to be an Anabaptist radical. This claim might rankle conservative Mennonites (especially those who see themselves as the true owners of Anabaptist identity) and yet these words spoken against sacraments are truly quite consistent with the words of a feisty Dutch Anabaptist widow (recorded in Martyr’s Mirror) in response to a question about Holy Unction. This is what she said: “Oil is good for salad, or to oil your shoes with.”

I guess nobody told her “Christ” means anointed one?

Whatever the case, most modern Mennonites do not take such a cavalier attitude towards the sacred and are a bit more Orthodox than their radical roots. In fact, Mennonites more formally reintroduced sacraments (albeit in different description) by their acceptance of the “seven ordinances” listed by Daniel Kauffman 125 years ago: Baptism with water, Communion, Footwashing, Prayer Head-Veiling for the Women, greeting with the Holy Kiss, anointing with Oil for the Recovering of the Sick and Marriage.

Kauffman’s ordinances represent a reversal of the Anabaptist woman’s hubris. He obviously saw the use of oil beyond the application to shoes and salads. But, through his use of different language and by his additions and subtractions (Women’s Head-Veils, Holy Kiss, Footwashing gave in place of Chrismation, Confession, Ordination) from the original listing of seven sacraments, he still maintained a deliberate distance from the established tradition of the Church.

What are sacraments?

Sacraments, simply put, are the “sacred mysteries” of the church. It is also important to note that Orthodox Christians, while they do recognize the seven sacraments listed by Roman Catholic, do not believe the sacraments are limited to just the seven listed and see everything the church does as a sacramental, according to to the OCA website: “All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God.”

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56 NIV)

Of the sacraments, Communion (called the “Holy Eucharist” (the word ‘eucharist” means thanksgiving) is the “sacrament of sacraments” for Orthodox Christians and the center of Church life.

Holy Eucharist is simply taking Jesus at his word:

And [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:19-20 NIV)

Jesus clearly calls the bread his body and describes the cup as being the “new covenant” in his blood.

It is interesting that many Protestant fundamentalists—who pride themselves in being Biblical literalists, and modern self-identifying Anabaptists—who insist that they take Jesus at his word more than others do, come to passages like that above, then suddenly start to hem-and-haw and try to explain around what is plainly said.

Perhaps their discomfort is the same as is described in the following account:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:32-66)

With this, Jesus went from being an interesting teacher to being some kind of mystical weirdo and possible lunatic. It is also little wonder that pagans brought accusations of child sacrifice and cannibalism against early Christians. (Sorry, Charlie, it takes no creativity whatsoever to agree with sacrilege that dates the 2nd century AD and it is not a big surprise if this “hard teaching” continues to turn people back from outside the Christian bubble.) Not everyone can believe this claim then nor do all believe now. But that is what Jesus said and is what the faithful have taught for two millennia. The bread and wine encapsulate the sacred mystery of human relationship with the life-giving Spirit and this practice of Holy Communion is a necessary part of the Church together being the incarnation of Christ.

Human knowledge and personal ideals cloud spiritual discernment.

The presumption of absolute knowledge, which is the cardinal sin of the rational spirit, is therefore prima facie equivalent to rejection of the hero—to rejection of Christ, of the Word of God, of the (divine) process that mediates between order and chaos. (“Maps of Meaning,” Jordan B. Peterson)

Unbelief takes many forms. Not everyone leaves the fold when faced with something that seems irrational to them. We know Judas remained on the margins despite his disillusionment with Jesus and his doubts eventually led to betrayal. We also know Peter’s faith seemed primarily a delusion about an earthly kingdom where he would be at the side of an important political leader and the unwillingness of Peter to accept the ultimate sacrifice (and of his personal ideals) led to denial and a sharp rebuke from Jesus:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns. (Matthew 16:21‭-‬23 NIV)

The suffering and death of Jesus was something Peter couldn’t reconcile with his own ideals. It was a horrible ending to his hopes that would need to be fiercely resisted. Peter treats Jesus like I would a friend who is depressed and needed a pep-talk. Unwittingly he used the same reasoning that had tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus faced a hard choice, he needed to be courageous, focused on his mission, and face death head-on—but Peter was encouraging him to take the easy way out in the same way Satan did earlier.

Peter was guided by his personal ideals and Judas by his human rationality—both men failed to understand the divine mystery unfolding before them—both presumed incorrectly and neglected possibilities that went outside of their own established knowledge.

The whole Gospel narrative is centered on Jesus dying on the cross and conquering death. From a rational standpoint, why couldn’t God just have forgiven our sins and granted us eternal life without sending an icon of himself in the person of Jesus? Surely God can identify with his creation without having to go through a physical manifestation for himself, right?

Was it symbolic?

Was it necessary for our salvation?

Perhaps both and more. But, whatever the case, we don’t know why there needed to be an “image of God” (Colossians 1:15) or why our salvation is tied to Jesus having the experience of a literal physical death. All we know is that this going through the motions was important to Jesus and therefore we should not be surprised when our faith requires our participation in rituals that we do not understand. We go through the motions of Baptism and Communion, not because of anything we can prove through human logic and reasoning, but simply because we believe in Jesus and accept a reality bigger than ourselves.

Saying something is *only* symbolic undermines the reason for doing it. One way to rationalize around sacraments is to divide the sacred from the symbol. That is to say, some attack the idea of sacraments by declaring the ritual part of them “only symbolic” and deny any actual value in the going through the motions. If that were true, then we should take the advice of provocateur and cease all activities that might make outsiders feel uncomfortable. I mean, if a practice is only symbolic and our ultimate goal is to win converts, why not?

Everything in our life can be deconstructed or explained away as meaningless. Why go to work when everything we accomplish will eventually vanish into dust? Why stay faithful to a marriage knowing that sooner or later the end will come and the commitment is forgotten? All of the joy and purpose a person finds in life, depending on perspective, can be reduced to electrochemical activity in the brain and lacking in any true substance beyond that. Reason and logic are useful in debates, but they do not provide an antidote for feelings about the futility of the human experience nor answer the question of why to live.

To say a sacrament is only a symbol is like saying a baby is only a colony of cells or math is just numbers and nothing more. Our lack of understanding the significance of something doesn’t make it any less necessary, valuable or sacred—it only makes us ignorant and unwilling to transcend our own knowledge. From a rational perspective, does being dunked or drizzled in water do anything besides make someone different degrees of wet? Why bother to Baptize, take Communion or do anything if it is only symbolic? If salvation is not at stake, if there is no spiritual healing or real benefit, why even bother to go through the motions?

In Scripture, healing is often tied to physical objects and absurd actions. It is one of those curious patterns throughout the books of the Bible. People are saved from ailments and forgiven by God through various rituals. Like that time when the Israelites were complaining about basically everything, then started to get bitten by venomous snakes, and begged for help:

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:8‭-‬9 NIV)

There is also the story of Namaan, in 2 Kings 5:1-19, who had leprosy and to be healed he was told to do something that makes no sense:

Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. (2 Kings 5:10‭-‬14 NIV)

Both of those Old Testament cases required “skin in the game” and tied an individual’s healing or salvation to their performing a specific act. There is no rational explanation as to why someone would be healed of leprosy by dipping in a particular river nor why looking at a brass object would cure a person of anything and yet that is what we read.

So what about the New Testament?

This same pattern of healing through odd and seemingly unrelated acts continues. We read how Jesus mixed spit with dirt to heal someone’s blindness (John 9) and how a woman’s touching of his garment healed her:

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matthew 9:20‭-‬22 NIV)

Note: Jesus didn’t tell her she was silly for believing that touching his clothes would heal her or otherwise correct her action. No, she is commended for her faith and immediately healed. And, this pattern of healing through actions—through laying on of hands and involvement of objects—did not end with Jesus either. We read about it in the book of Acts as well:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11‭-‬12 NIV)

Perhaps we are more sophisticated than they were and thus can dispense with this kind of sacramentalism?

Truly, if there is no spiritual value to it, why should we even bother going through the motions of Baptism, Communion, etc?

We can try to turn church life into a totally rational experience and do away with all the mystical nonsense. We can re-label sacred mysteries—call them symbols, ordinances, ceremonies, signs or whatever. We can minimalize the sacraments and continue to water down their significance, condition ourselves in a way that will make the keeping of these practices optional, downplay partaking of the body and blood, do it only twice a year—eventually stop attending services altogether because it is irrational.

A church without sacraments is not a church.

The complaint of Protestants and Anabaptists was not completely invalid. Roman Catholicism had blurred the lines between sacrament and their own institutions and systems. Unfortunately, this led to an overreaction that did not always distinguish well between what was corrupted and the sacred mysteries themselves. The end result of this “reformation” has been a disastrous disunity and disintegration of the church—which is not a sign of spiritual life.

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve entered into Orthodoxy is the strong emphasis on church unity and incarnation. The emphasis is on the special spiritual connection between all Christians (past, present, and future) through partaking of the sacred mysteries together. It is, in fact, through sacraments that the church becomes necessary in the life of the individual. Baptism, Communion, Chrismation, Confession, Ordination, anointing with oil and Marriage are things we do together as a church and underscore the need for God, the things he has instituted and each other.

If the only point of sacraments were only to push against our own human rationality (which is often faulty and is always finite) and seek what is greater, then there is great value in them.

Sacraments bring us together, they give us a common identity and point us to truth beyond our own understanding. In the various examples of miraculous healing in Scripture there was often no logical connection between the action taken (or required) and the result. They didn’t know how it worked, they simply had faith, obeyed and were healed. Perhaps the only way to gain spiritual understanding is to let go, to stop depending on our own limited knowledge and start to depend on something that is greater?

Perhaps it is to counter the heresy of Gnosticism, both ancient and modern?

Whatever the case, to try to rationally explain a sacred mystery entirely misses the point. Furthermore, there is no need to separate or distinguish the healing God does in our lives from the sacraments themselves. We know that the thief on the cross was saved just for saying “remember me” and his faith in Jesus. But that doesn’t mean our own faith won’t require us to sell all we have like the rich young ruler or dip in a muddy river like Naaman. It doesn’t mean we can replace sacraments with our mere mental assent to a proposition and be healed or saved from our sins either.

The words of Jesus are useless to those who do not have faith and, likewise, sacraments are of no benefit to those who do not believe in them. The church should welcome all who wish to repent of their sins and participate in the sacred mysteries. But it does not seem at all reasonable or rational for the church to cater to those who do not hope to transcend themselves, their own experience and knowledge.

In the end, one can call sacraments by any other name and still have a church—but a church without sacraments is really only a social club and not a church.