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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Mary and Restored Womanhood

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A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (Revelation 12:1‭-‬2‭, ‬4‭-‬5a NIV)

Mary is described in splendid terms in the account above. She is wearing a crown with twelve stars symbolizing the tribes of Israel, clothed with divinity and standing above creation. As she gives birth the dragon stands ready to “devour her child the moment he was born,” an allusion to Herod who ordered male children to be killed after Jesus was born as to prevent a challenge to his throne, yet she prevails. It takes a queen to give birth to a king and Mary is described in precisely those terms.

Growing up in a Protestant fundamentalist church the role of Mary was almost always dismissed or downplayed. While nobody in these churches would argue against the significance of Abraham, Elijah, King David, John the Baptist or the Apostle Paul, many do brush off the significance of Mary in the Biblical narrative and, despite claiming that Jesus is their king, would scoff at the idea that Mary should be regarded as Queen Mother. In this view Mary is basically interchangeable with any other woman and nobody special or worthy of the veneration given to faithful men.

The disregard for the example of womanhood that Mary embodies is not without consequence. In fact, it is a disrespect that I would argue leads to male abuses, abuses that lead to female reactions and greater dysfunction. In other words, feminism is a response to traditional female roles being dismissed and downplayed in the same way that Mary’s role is disregarded. Many women feel that the only way they can be recognized is by thriving in what has historically been a male domain and it is no wonder that they do. Why pursue womanhood when only male roles are worth celebrating?

Mary, the answer to Eve…

One Biblical character Protestant fundamentalists have no problem talking about is Eve. They have no problem talking about how Eve was the one first deceived or quoting verses about male authority over women. I know many men who spend an awful lot of time discussing bad female characters, like Jezebel, or any woman who would dare challenge their authority, and continually attempting to blame women for their own failures.

For example, I recall a morbidly obese man who faulted his wife’s cooking for his condition and I know many more men who try to use female immodesty as a means to offload responsibility for their own lusts and abuses. And so it goes. These men are imposters rather than Christian leaders. They want to claim authority for themselves and yet, at every turn, blame women for their failures. They resemble Adam who blamed Eve more than Jesus who took up the cross despite being blameless.

To solve this age old problem we should go back to the beginning and right after the fall of mankind:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15 NIV)

This was what God told the serpent who deceived Eve. It is a prophecy about “the woman” and also specifically a woman. This woman would produce a child that would crush the head of this serpent and this is exactly what we read happened in the book of Revelation:

The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Revelation 12: 9 NIV)

The woman with “enmity” towards the serpent triumphed over the dragon through her offspring and that woman is the answer to those still deceived and stuck with Eve. The parallels between Eve and Mary, the antidote, are too great to ignore and were well-understood by the faithful in the early church:

As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve. (St Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies” [A.D. 175-185])

This is the logical extension of what St Paul’s exposition in his letter to the Galatians about slavery under the law and freedom in the Spirit:

His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. (Galatians 4:23 NIV)

The comparison above is between Abraham’s two sons, one born by human effort to the slave woman and another by divine origin to his wife Sarah, but the greater context Paul speaks of is of our own divine sonship and salvation. The sons of Eve lives in bondage, they are subject to the law and perpetually trying to escape the condemnation of the law through their own efforts. But he writes of another son “born of a woman” who provides an opportunity for us to be a heir of God and a son of the free woman.

Jesus is understood to be the new Adam. Or the Adam who brought the “life-giving spirit” rather than death like his predecessor (1 Corinthians 5:45) and salvation from sin. And, his mother, in the same way, is understood to be the woman whose obedience overcame the curse of Eve’s disobedience and undoes the curse upon women. It is through the man Jesus, born of a woman, Mary, that we are saved. But it was not any woman, it was not a woman under the bondage of sin—it was a free woman.

“Behold your mother!”

There are those who use references to brothers and sisters of Jesus as proof that Mary, after giving birth to Jesus, conceived to Joseph and didn’t remain a virgin. This is another subtle way to belittle her and the significance of her role in the story of our salvation. It is also something routinely used by men to undermine the authority of the church. The perpetual virginity of Mary, for that reason, is important as a theological point and a misunderstanding of Scripture that is easily cleared up.

First of all, because it was not uncommon for older men to marry younger women in Biblical times, Ruth and Boaz for example, and it is widely accepted that there was an age differential between Mary and Joseph. It is quite possible, even probable, that Joseph was an older widower and had other children to another woman. So, in other words, the references to the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus could be step-brothers and step-sisters rather than other sons and daughters of Mary his mother.

Second, it is possible that we are misunderstanding the words used. Indeed, the same words translated as “brothers” and “sisters” could denote a close relative as Aramaic, the language being spoken, didn’t distinguish between brother or sister and a cousin. It seems similar to how Filipinos use the word “tito” (literally uncle) and “tita” (literally aunt) to also refer to a cousin or respected elder. So we may be dealing with a language translation issue.

Whatever the case, it is definitely not advisable to take our cues from those who were in doubt of Jesus, who identified him as “the carpenter’s son” and didn’t accept him as God’s son:

Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. (Matthew 13:55-57 NIV)

Note, the passage does not say that Mary is the mother of the other “brothers” and “sisters” mentioned.

If we should not be offended when Jesus claims to be God’s son rather than that of Joseph, then we should not be apt to resist the idea that his brothers and sisters could be from another woman and the real possibility Mary remained a virgin. This is the view of early church writers:

The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word […] might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity. (Origen, “Commentary on Matthew 2:17” [A.D. 248]).

And the doubt of this answered emphatically by St Jerome:

[Helvidius] produces Tertullian as a witness [to his view] and quotes Victorinus, bishop of Petavium. Of Tertullian, I say no more than that he did not belong to the Church. But as regards Victorinus, I assert what has already been proven from the gospel—that he [Victorinus] spoke of the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship, not by nature. [By discussing such things we] are […] following the tiny streams of opinion. Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against [the heretics] Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man. (Jerome, Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary 19 [A.D. 383]).

We believe that God was born of a virgin, because we read it. We do not believe that Mary was married after she brought forth her Son, because we do not read it. […] You [Helvidius] say that Mary did not remain a virgin. As for myself, I claim that Joseph himself was a virgin, through Mary, so that a virgin Son might be born of a virginal wedlock. (ibid., 21).

If that isn’t enough to clear up the issue, the emphasis that even Joseph became purified through Mary’s virginity (similar to what Paul says about believing spouse “sanctifying” their unbelieving partner and children in 1 Corinthians 7:14), then we should consider again what Jesus did on the cross:

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-29 NIV)

Jesus, in agony on the cross, soon to say “it is finished” and give up his spirit, and his concern is who would care for his mother. Not only does this highlight how important Mary is to Jesus, it would also be completely unnecessary for Jesus to assign someone to care for his mother if she had other sons and daughters. What we do know is that Jesus had to assign someone to care for his mother, to a disciple, and that would be odd if she actually had many children.

But there’s a twist…

Mary, in the same way we have become sons of Abraham through faith (Galatians 3:29) and similar to how Jesus became a son of Joseph through adoption, has also become our mother. If we are coheirs of Christ, sharing in his divinity through our adoption, then we are, likewise, are sons and daughters of Mary his mother. So, rejoice, our inheritance through Eve (sin and death) has been overcome through the Blessed Virgin and by her Son!

“From now on all generations will call me blessed…”

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55 NIV)

It is sad that those words do not carry much weight in some quarters who claim a ‘literal’ understanding of Scripture. I suppose they may think that Mary, a young woman, should not be taken seriously and her words are merely the product of unchecked female exuberance?

In that case these doubters should look at a declaration made by Elizabeth, full of the Spirit, in the verses right before Mary’s exclamation:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:41-43 NIV)

If the witness of two women and the Spirit isn’t enough, what will be?

Mary is most certainly blessed among women. If we should believe anything else said in Luke, then we must accept this is the reality, that it is something spoken through Elizabeth by the Spirit, and should join the generations of the faithful who call Mary blessed.

Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant!

Mary is blessed because she, set apart by her parents, allowed herself to be a vessel. Mary is referred to as the “Ark of the New Covenant” and that is because of the direct parallels in Scripture made between her and the holiest of vessels in Israel…

Mary is overshadowed and filled:

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called b the Son of God. (Luke 1:35)

As the ark of the Lord (in the tabernacle) was overshadowed and filled:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34,35 NIV)

***

David, a man after God’s own heart, revered the ark:

David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me? (2 Samuel 6:9)

Likewise, righteous Elizabeth says the same thing about Mary:

But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:43)

***

David, to the scorn of his wife, celebrated the ark of the Lord:

Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets. (2 Samuel 6:14,15)

Likewise, unborn John the Baptist, in defiance of those who do not honor the mother of our Lord, also leapt at the sound of Mary’s voice:

As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:44)

***

Finally, the ark of the Lord took a detour:

He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household. (2 Samuel 6:10,11 NIV)

And that parallels this:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, […] Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. (Luke 1:39,56 NIV)

So, given these clear parallels, it is only right Mary is called the “Ark of the New Covenant” and Theotokis (“Bearer of God”) and to say otherwise is to be ignorant of Scripture.

And, yes, all those filled with the Spirit do, in a way, parallel Mary in this regard. Christians are told, by St Paul, that they are the “temple of the Holy Spirit” and to “glorify God in your body” by remaining free of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 19:18-20) and this is following the example of Mary in being a vessel. However, Mary literally carried our Lord and Savior in her womb, we are told she is blessed among women and for that she is worthy of our honor and veneration—in the same way as the Ark of the Covenant.

Mary, like that Ark, is also set apart as holy and not to be touched.

“Do whatever he tells you.”

Mary was also an example for motherhood. She did not keep her son for herself by refusing to let him go or holding him back and enabled him to fulfill his purpose instead.

I’ve never thought much about this before listening to Dr Jordan Peterson a few months ago and the contrast he makes between Mary and the devouring (or Oedipal) mother or mother who over-protects her child, attempts to keep them for herself, and is a hindrance rather than a help to healthy development.

Peterson says Mary is the archetype of a good mother for offering her son to the service of God and as a sacrifice to the world. That is what good mothers do, rather than hoard (or, heaven forbid, destroy) the blessings of their womanhood, they give their children for sake of the world.

Anyhow, let’s take a look at the events leading up to the first miracle attributed to Jesus in Scripture:

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:1‭-‬5 NIV)

Some Protestant commentators take the inflection of the English translation (when Jesus says “woman, why do you involve me?” in response to Mary) as evidence that Jesus didn’t have any special regard for his mother. This is to suggest that Jesus would blatantly disregard the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:1–21, Deuteronomy 5:1–23) and go against his own words rebuking those who defied God’s command (Matthew 15:3-9) and basically make him a hypocrite.

This word “woman,” according to what I’ve read, is more to effect of “madam” than the English translation suggests and is also the same word used to denote a man’s wife elsewhere in Scripture. There is no reason to suspect that Jesus would be disrespectful of his mother and those who suggest that this is the case should probably consider the actions that accompanied his words.

We know what Jesus did immediately thereafter. He, like a good son, does and honors his mother by doing what she requests of him. Mary, for her part, does what a good mother does, she prompts her son to action and encourages others to give her son the respect he is due. We should not forget that Mary, in the same way as God the Father (yet as a human mother), also willingly gave her only son.

More on sons and their mothers…

Mary, mother of the King?

When Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah, the king stood up to meet her, bowed down to her and sat down on his throne. He had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat down at his right hand. “I have one small request to make of you,” she said. “Do not refuse me.” The king replied, “Make it, my mother; I will not refuse you.” (1 Kings 2:19‭-‬20 NIV)

It is interesting how good mothers intercede and especially on behalf of their sons. We see how Bathsheba (treated with reverence by Solomon) brought a petition to him and his response. There are also many stories of faithful mothers who prayed, with tears, every day for their wayward sons and I do believe that God hears their prayers. We also see this in the story of a mother who made a request to Jesus on behalf of her sons:

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:20‭-‬21 NIV)

This account is told differently in Mark 10, where the son’s of Zebedee, James and John, to the indignation of the other disciples, make this request themselves rather than through their mother. I’m not sure how to reconcile the two accounts, but I do see the role of mothers as significant. Let’s not forget that it was Bathsheba who prompted King David to name her son, Solomon, as his successor:

Then Nathan asked Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, “Have you not heard that Adonijah, the son of Haggith, has become king, and our Lord David knows nothing about it? Now then, let me advise you how you can save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. Go in to King David and say to him, ‘My Lord the king, did you not swear to me your servant: “Surely Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne”? Why then has Adonijah become king?’ (1 Kings 1:11‭-‬13 NIV)

Now, clearly the prophet Nathan could’ve gone directly to the king himself and made this request on behalf of Solomon. But it seems Nathan, as a man of God, knew a little about the persuasive power that a woman has over a man and therefore makes his request to Bathsheba instead. Good men, like good Kings listen to their Queen Mother, listen to women, especially their wives and even more especially their own mothers.

Honor goes to the humble…

Going back to the question of who sits at the right and left hand of Jesus. We read the answer Jesus gave:

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:22‭-‬23 NIV)

Unlike worldly leaders who privilege themselves, in God’s kingdom “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16) or, in other words, those who have suffered most in this life will hold the highest places of honor in the kingdom.

My own thought is that there is one person who fits this description of suffering more than any other and that being the mother forced to watch her precious child, literally the perfect son, be falsely accused, brutally tortured, viciously ridiculed, and murdered in the most horrible method.

Can you imagine how Mary, a mother, would’ve felt as Jesus hung there dying?

I’ve heard that women, due to their giving birth, have a higher threshold for physical pain than a men. Since pain is subjective, I’m not sure if that is true. But I do know, from personal experience, the sound of a mother’s wail upon the loss of her only and most beloved child. It was something that cut me to my soul.

It would be quite ironic, given that men argued for the honor to bestowed upon them, if the humble mother of our Lord and Savior was given that seat of honor beside her son. We can recall Peter boldly saying to Jesus, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you,” (Mark 14:31) and how the other disciples quickly agreed. But this male bravado quickly faded away as Jesus was taken away to be killed. It was Mary, not Peter, who remained beside Jesus until the end.

Can you think of anyone more worthy of sitting at the right hand of Jesus than his mother?

Anyhow, regardless of where Mary sits in the minds of some, she is the Queen Mother and worthy of our honor or Jesus is not King. Because if we deny this we are basically joining those who used “king of the Jews” as a mocking description. But, if Jesus is Lord, and the lineage to David coming through his mother, then we ought to show due respect to the queenship of his mother. And, given that Jesus listens to his mother and since we already do ask others to pray for is all the time, it doesn’t like a bad thing to follow the lead of Nathan.

Mary, the prayerful mother

Had anyone a few years ago asked me about the importance of Mary I would’ve probably said she was a good woman and shrugged. I would not have understood why Orthodox Christians venerate her (with all the saints) and would say that all we need is Jesus.

However, I was ignorant. Of course Jesus is the center of our faith, he is our Lord and Savior, we worship only the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But that doesn’t mean the other examples in Scripture (and in the history of the church) are worth nothing for us. No, their unique stories of faith are there for our benefit, to encourage us, and as examples we can emulate.

Mary stands out as one of these faithful examples. Her contemplation, how she “treasured” things and “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19,2:51), and her strength in remaining with her son, her willing response to the angel (“I am the Lord’s servant” Luke 1:38), the proper honor she is given by the faithful, provides a restored vision for womanhood.

Certainly there are many good women. Many have even seen their children martyred for sake of the Gospel. But Mary was the mother of our Lord and Savior, the vessel God chose for his son, and (like Eve) not just any woman. She should be honored, her true feminine strength should be praised, and it is through her womb that salvation came to the world.

How Orthodox Christianity Triumphs Against the Odds

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Christianity was systematically opposed and oppressed in the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox church, said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, was heavily persecuted under Marxist rule. Atheism was promoted in government schools, speaking against it outlawed, and it seemed that Orthodox Christianity did not stand a chance against this irreligious secular state.

During that dark period, thousands of church leaders were killed. Many more were imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals or the “gulags” to do forced labor. From 1917 to 1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested and 95,000 of them were executed by firing squad. Later, from 1937 to 1928, in another anti-religious purge campaign, 168,000 Orthodox clergymen were arrested and, of them, 100,000 shot. Religion was ridiculed in the public sphere, believers were harassed and deprived of parental rights, church properties were seized by the state and buildings, including the beautiful Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, were destroyed: Cathedral_of_Christ_the_Saviour_(destruction,_1931)

The Russian Orthodox church, that extended into the Americas (where they didn’t kill the Native populations like their Western counterparts) and had an estimated 54,000 parishes in Russia before WW1, was reduced to only 500 parishes in the 1940’s under the Communist dictatorship. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 left Russian Orthodox churches in Japan, United States, Manchuria, and elsewhere effectively orphaned and without support. Patriarch Tikhon, in 1920, issued a decree for these churches to operate independently until normalcy could be restored and, as a result, many of these churches (because of financial hardship and/or need of pastoral care and governance) were turned over to the Orthodox churches of their national homelands—which is why there is the current disorganized mix of Greek, Antiochian, ROCOR and OCA parishes in America.

However, Orthodoxy has since triumphed over Marxism in Russia. An average of three churches a day are being opened by the Orthodox faithful in Russia, there are currently 40,000 churches and, at the current pace, that number may double in the next decades. In addition, there are now 900 active monasteries (down from 1000 pre-revolution) and this is an expansion based on demand. This resilience against the odds, against the world’s only other superpower besides the United States, is a testament to the strength of Orthodox religious tradition. Orthodoxy in Russia could not be driven into extinction by one of the most powerful and brutal regimes in human history and is as strong today as ever.

The divided (and dying) church of America

America has traditionally divided up according to ethnicity or race. Churches (Protestant, Roman Catholic or otherwise) are not exceptional in this regard. Many churches, including Mennonites and Amish, came as a result of immigrants taking their religion with them rather than as a missionary endeavor. It is not a surprise that traditionally German churches, like the Lutherans, are mostly populated by white people nor is it unexpected that people go to churches that are reflective of their own cultures or where their own language is spoken. People tend to gravitate to other people who look like them.

But this “homogeneity principle” also extends beyond skin color as well. A church that is racially or ethnically diverse is probably homogeneous in other ways (things like level of education, political affiliations, etc) and thus not truly diverse. For example, American Mennonites, from the most progressive or liberal to the most ultra-conservative and traditional Old Order end of the denomination. are (with the exception of a few adoptions and inner-city outreaches) ethnically homogenous. But, as centuries of divisions have proven, that shared genetic ancestry and skin color certainly does not make us the same. And so it is with Protestantism in general. A multi-ethnic church probably has very little diversity in terms of educational level, ideological bent, or income and this is because we prefer to be with people who share something in common with us.

The end result is that everyone claims that they are loyal to Christ and his love. Yet, in reality, there are hidden loyalties that are actually taking precedence. We are divided by our loyalties to our race, our religious/cultural heritage, national/political identities, denominational affiliations, personal preferences, and feelings or any combination of the preceding items. In other words, our pet issues and petty differences are what truly matters to us despite what we profess. And this doesn’t get better for those who are non-denominational or believe they are independently guided by the Spirit and are truly only loyal to themselves. Saint Paul, the Apostle, said that the Spirit brings unity to the body (Ephesians 4:1-6) and spoke out against disunity brought about by their misplaced loyalties:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, a in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10-15)

Note, Paul calls out even those who claim “I follow Christ” in his rebuke and that is not because Christ is not the head of the church either. No, it is because loyalty to Christ means loyalty to his church, to true believers past and present (and future) who together represent his body, and who we are to seek Communion with rather than chase after our own personal ideals. True Christianity is about forbearance, forgiveness, and humility, realizing our own fallibility and showing mercy to others as we have been shown mercy by God. It is little wonder that many are confused about Christianity in America and increasing numbers are checking-out of their denominational and ever-dividing churches. It is because many professing Christians say one thing and do another. They say they love as Christ loves, even call someone a “brother,” but are completely unwilling to sacrifice anything of true consequence to themselves in love for the body of Christ.

Is Orthodoxy any different from this?

Yes and no.

At the time I am writing this there is a break in Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarchate of Constantinople over a Ukrainian schism. In 1992, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, some Ukrainian Orthodox wanted their independence from Moscow (understandably so given regional politics) and, unfortunately, went ahead without having appropriate permission. Making matters worse than they already were, Archbishop Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, decided to recognize the schismatics and over the protests of Moscow. This, of course, is not acceptable, important church decisions have been always made by a council or through the correct channels, rather than independently, and this is reminiscent of the unilateral decision-making that divided the Roman Catholics from Orthodox in the Great Schism.

The explanation above probably comes off as Greek to those outside of Orthodoxy and took some time me to wrap my own head around. However, it is also a good way to illustrate a key difference between Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic perspectives of authority in the church. In Roman Catholicism, the Pope, as “Vicar of Christ” and supreme by his own decree, rules the roost. Protestants, by contrast, essentially believe that every man (and his Bible) is their own Pope and need not be accountable to anyone besides themselves. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, do not see even their highest ranked individual as being infallible or outside need to be accountable and rather (like the early church) build upon consensus and through councils—which means even Peter, the first amongst equals, can be set right as need be.

(On an aside, Anabaptists, in that they believed in individual submission to the group, were traditionally sort of a half-step between Orthodoxy and Protestantism in this regard. The difference being that Anabaptists are only accountable to the local church (and what they cherry-pick from Scripture or early church writings) rather than the universal church and an ordination faithfully passed down, generation to generation, from the time of the Apostles. This unique Anabaptist perspective, while still preserved by the Amish and other Old Order groups, has been largely supplanted by Biblical fundamentalism in “conservative” Mennonite churches and secular/progressive group-think in the “liberal” side—both sides with zero real accountability to the historic church including even their own Anabaptist forebears.)

The Ukrainian schism, while a black mark on the testimony of the those who caused it if left unresolved, is actually proof the triumph of Orthodoxy over the spirit of division or unity formed around the wrong loyalties. The consensus across the Patriarchates seeming to be that the Ecumenical Patriarch went outside the bounds by recognizing the Ukrainian schismatics. The unity of the church is not mere unity for the sake of unity, but a unity of Spirit that doesn’t neglect sound doctrine or the traditions (“whether by word of mouth or by letter,” 2 Thessalonians 2:15) passed down by the church. In other words, the established Orthodoxy has more authority than any one person or group within the church. Orthodoxy is something that transcends all individuals in the church and protects against both abusive patriarchs and also the divisions over personal opinions. The Spirit of truth, the foundation of Orthodox tradition, is what preserved correct doctrines against heresy and false teachers.

Orthodoxy is what delivered the Biblical canon. The same Biblical canon that many that many Protestant fundamentalists and other separatists idolize as an infallible object equal to God while simultaneously not recognizing the authority of the church that wrote, authenticated, and compiled it for them. It is strange that a council was only good for that one thing, creating a collection of books that can’t be changed, and not anything else before or after, isn’t it?

But, I do digress…

Yes, Orthodoxy is messy because, as with the church of Acts, there is still a difference of opinion, politics, legalism, favoritism, and imperfection. We can’t get away from conflict, not even in the church founded by Christ himself and that is disheartening to us idealistic types. But that was also the case from the earliest days of Christianity and that is why there was a need of the Jerusalem Council recorded in the book of Acts.  The church had councils to establish who was right or wrong and how to correctly interpret Scripture.

Orthodoxy (that is to say “right opinion”) is something worthwhile and should be the goal of every Christian. It is that sincere desire to find and hold to what is true that is leading many from the ranks of the most divided and disillusioned branches of Christendom and to the “ancient faith” of the Orthodox Christians.

The triumph of Orthodoxy…

Like king Josiah hearing the Scripture read for the first time, many are discovering the elegant theology and awe-inspiring, aesthetic appeal, and ancient beauty of Orthodox worship. Divine liturgy carries depth, history and meaning unrivaled in an age of flashing lights, cheap gimmicks, and consumerism. This is why people from all denominational backgrounds are finding a home in Orthodoxy today. The majority of those in my parish is not “cradle Orthodox” in that they were born in the Orthodox church and this seems to be the trend. In fact, nearly half of the million Orthodox Christians in the United States are converts and I am just one of the many who did.

It is very exciting to see the interest of those who have read this blog and want to know more. Several are either now attending services, have visited or are planning to visit when they have a chance. There is one, in particular, a single lady born into a conservative Mennonite church, never baptized and made a member, who left the church disillusioned by the pettiness, abusive leadership and message of condemnation, describes the Antiochian parish she is currently attending as “St Philips is beauty for the mind and spirit. A haven, a calm, a refuge,” adding that it is the “truest example of Jesus words put into my own, ‘Come just as you are.'” I have also had the pleasure of conversing with several who are converts from Anabaptist background, including a man who is my cousin through marriage, and have had the same hard-to-put-into-words experience I have had.

To be clear, the Orthodox church, like other churches, did come over with ethnic communities from Greece, Russia, Syria, Africa, Egypt and other parts of the world. Many Orthodox churches in America did often start as a part of an ethnic community and a decade ago may have been compromised mostly of people from one ethnic background. However, as that immigrant population declines it is being replaced by those who come from all sorts of Christian backgrounds. In my own parish, there is everything from non-denominational to Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic. Many of these converts were, like me, at the end of their ropes with religion as it had been presented to them, some agnostics, who were drawn to Orthodoxy through various means and have been forever changed by the experience. The most recent converts at my parish: Two women, one of them a Mennonite pastor, who were Chrismated and welcomed home a few weeks ago.

There is a great documentary on religious “nones” called “Becoming Truly Human,” that describes the journey of various people who have left the version of Christianity they were raised in and have simply stopped attending any religious services. There is clearly a need for an answer, people long for a connection to the historic church, a worship that transcends current fads and trends, something real and authentic, and Orthodox Christianity provides this. Orthodoxy, made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), has withstood the persecution of the past century like it did in the first century and is a bastion for the faithful. Orthodoxy, the church that Jesus promised the “gates of hell would not prevail against” (Matthew 16:18), has and will continue to triumph against the odds.

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