Saturday, November 16, 2019

Blessed Are They That Mourn


Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. (Mat 5:4)

The events of this last week have given many people in our community plenty of opportunity to reflect on this short verse from the Sermon on the Mount.  With the sentencing of a young man from our community to prison for the offense of sexual abuse of 2 minors, it would do us good to seek comfort from the Man of Sorrows, for He knows our burdens:

“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  (Isa 53:3-6)

Mourn for the Offender

Despite pleas from the community, as well as a plea bargain involving both the prosecution and defense, the young man received the near maximum punishment.  He will likely spend many years in prison, in an environment often considered unsafe for people who have committed similar crimes.  By all accounts, he has sincerely repented, even expressing a desire to be rebaptized.   The judge was presented with numerous petitions and letters of reference, stating that this time, the change was real and genuine.  I have no reason to believe that it is not so.  A multitude of witnesses pled that mercy should be given.  
So then it was a massive shock to many that not only did the judge pass over the opportunity to exercise mercy by reducing the recommended sentence of 5 years, not only did he reject the recommended sentence of 5 years, but that the judge nearly doubled the sentence to 9 years!  How can this be so?

Mourn for the Victims

Why is it that our Conservative Anabaptist people, a people I know to be compassionate and loving, too often find it difficult to mourn for the victims?  Many a prayer meeting have I gone to, where heavenly petitions were requested of the offender, but scarcely one for the offended.  It has not been uncommon that I have heard how the victims are described by church people as being steeped in a hyper-sexualized culture, and so that this behavior is not far outside their norm anyway.  That they will lie…  That they are after money…  
While it is true, and I have confirmed, that many (not all!) have received economic benefits in exchange for silence, in the form of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), it is also true that this has occurred against a backdrop of leveraging these agreements in what most of us would consider an environment of extreme poverty.
One Haitian victim I spoke with felt that he was treated as a beggar instead of a wounded brother and a fellow human being - and that Haitians are seen as “dumb, poor, and needy … undeserving of justice.”  He described being rejected by his family for being a homosexual - being accused of “looking for it.” (This is not unusual, with other victims being beaten by their families for this same reason - even when they are children, groomed by adults.)  

“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.”  (Phl 2:2-3)

Mourn for the Family

There will be children without a father, a wife without a husband for many years.  Who will bind the wounds of a wife, who in a whirlwind, had but a moment in time to grieve her marriage?  Of the family, for lost opportunities to shepherd the young man and his family - had the depths of the depravity been fully shared?  Of the children, too young to understand?
When the verdict came down, I wanted to know what one young man, a Haitian victim abused 15 years ago, thought of the sentence.  Was it just?  Was it too long or too short?  The answer surprised me, because, perhaps I also subconsciously bought into the idea that the victims are only concerned about what is in it for themselves.  It also destroyed the common perception that the victims are chained to unforgiveness and a drive for vengeance.  His answer?  “I felt sorry for his family.”  His compassion put me to shame.

Mourn for the Church

 “Jesus wept.”  (Jn 11:35)  

This is the shortest verse in the Bible, but now as then, the meaning of why Jesus wept can be evasive:

“Then the Jews said, “See how He loved him!”  But some of them asked, “Could not this man who opened the eyes of the blind also have kept Lazarus from dying?”"  (Jn 11:36-37)  

Why then did Jesus weep?  Because he missed Lazarus?  No, He knew that in mere minutes, Lazarus would once again be alive and well.  It is because those that knew him best:  His followers, disciples, and friends could not see:  They had a massive blind spot, and it was about to become obvious to the world.

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What I am about to write will, for some, be viewed as “piling on” - kicking our community while we are down in a period of crisis.  No doubt, some will be offended.  It is with EXTREME reluctance that I write the following.  In a sense, it has taken me 6 years to come to this point.  However, I do so because I love the sisters and brethren, our church, our community, and our God.  I also love our neighbors and those within our communities that have little or no voice.   I do not view all these affections as being mutually exclusive - it’s not an EITHER-OR - it’s an AND.  As in medicine, to cure a disease, sometimes surgery and a scalpel is needed, sometimes noxious chemotherapy is needed.  These necessarily involve pain and some suffering, but the intent and goal is to heal, not harm.
It would be easy for me to go with the flow, to join in the general opinion in the community with the presumption that the judge gave an extra long sentence because he felt that he needed to hammer the offender, to make an example of him . . . or that since the young man escaped the jurisdiction of Haiti, where he would have gotten a much stiffer and fearsome sentence, an extra long sentence here was needed to compensate . . . or that he added time for the cases that fell outside of the statute of limitations.  To do so would be a betrayal of my love for the church and my brethren within.  The window of opportunity to propose a meaningful purpose to this tragedy is narrow, so please read on . . . 

“The wounds of a friend are faithful, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”  (Prv 27:6)

Aside from the fact that the majority of the above mentioned considerations would be illegal, and that they also presume the worst intentions and a lack of integrity of a judge whose God ordained job (Rom 13) it is to mete out justice (ironically, while being asked to presume the best intentions and integrity of the offender), there is a much more simple explanation.  And the explanation is this: the judgement was not simply a judgement on the young man.  It was and is, at the same time, a judgement on our community!  I believe the sentence was the judge’s attempt to wake up our community - to draw us out of our blindness - our blind spot.  What did he hope to accomplish?  What exactly is our blind spot?  Before I answer this, I’d like to relate to you another story that happened many years ago . . . 

Many years ago, there was a Conservative Anabaptist evangelist by the name of William.  He came from a non-ethnic Mennonite background, but took the community by storm.  He was a strong preacher, with a strong vision for the future.  Because of his leadership, churches were planted, and missions were established in foreign countries.  Tracts and booklets, with incredible clarity, were published, succinctly explaining our faith to both outsiders and youth, newly growing in their faith.  The imagination and hearts of our people were captured with the almost limitless possibilities of what God could do with our willing hands.  I remember it well, as if it was still just yesterday, being swept away by youthful idealism.  They were heady times indeed.
In almost a flash, twenty five years later, my wife and I sat before the mission board - the one which had authority over the mission in which we had been involved in for the preceding 5 years.  As a board member of the main ministry serving at the mission, and having served as a missionary at this particular congregation, we had grown to love the native people and the church community alike.  We came prepared to dedicate the rest of our lives to share God’s witness in this foreign land.  Coming from outside ethnic-Mennonite circles, we had ethnic and social ties to the foreign country, we connected well with the local converts, and we fully supported the ministry.  But there was a problem.
As it turns out, William had retired to this same mission - the mission in which he was instrumental in starting.  By the time I met him, he was no longer in a sound state mind, due to the infirmities of age.  He passed on to his Maker soon after we had arrived.  By all accounts, his last years were led in a slow, peaceful decline, punctuated by ever diminishing periods of alertness and awareness.  During these episodes of fading cognition, this grand old patriarch was still able to encourage and edify a core of dedicated VSers, much to their benefit and spiritual growth.  
But being part of this mission also allowed me to become aware of a much darker history involving William.  Similar to today’s tragedy, William was deeply involved in sexual abuse.  In this case, it was with young Mennonite men - youth.  I was vehemently told by ministry, that William had sincerely repented and had personally apologized to each and every victim, that the church took care of ALL the victims, and that they had ALL received adequate counseling and care.  As a physician, I had been provided with information from other involved individuals that brought this into question.  Clearly, especially in my duty as a physician, it was important for me to establish, with certainty, that the involved individuals were being well cared for, so I gently mentioned that I would like to confirm this.  I, nor my wife, were not prepared for the angry reply, and would not have believed it possible.
It is now well established that earlier in William’s evangelical career, he traveled to many different congregations - often using young church men as his driver.  It was during these times, on long road trips, that he fell into sexually abusing these youth.  The first time the knowledge of this was exposed, was during tent meetings.  After I had communicated with one such youth (now an old man, and having been granted permission to tell this story), the then young man heard a message  on fornication by another preacher, and in his naiveté, the youth privately asked the preacher afterwards if it was also wrong if a man used a boy like him “like a woman.”  He had no concept of what homosexuality was.   The head preacher confronted William, and told him to apologize.  According to the man, William’s apology was essentially, “You wanted it as much as I did.”  There was no follow-up by the main preacher.  There was no counseling.  There was no care.
I have also sat in the living room of a widow of another young man who was a victim of William’s, as she told her story.  I also have permission to tell this story.  This young man, who in his shame, as a middle aged man, was not able to tell his family about his being abused, ultimately committed suicide, in an attempt to escape the pain.  His wife did not know why until after his demise.*  There was no follow-up.  There was no counseling.  There was no care.  Only accusations of unforgiveness.
There were other young men involved, but I believe you can see the pattern.   The first young man I mentioned grew up to be a missionary, and had this to say: “I think God had to take William through many things before he contacted me for a real apology[.]  I did not need it, but William needed it for personal peace.”  It appears that William came to a place of a sincere apology, though evidently there was no known such apology to other victims.  Graciously, he went on, “I certainly hope to meet him in heaven sometime.”  I pray too, that he came to a place of a genuine repentance, though it is now between William and his Maker. 
Whether or not William reached a broken state of true repentance does not change the fact that we, as a church, being the hands of Christ, were not able to be instrumental in bringing other opportunities for reconciliation about decades sooner, and without horrendous and fatal missed opportunities, possibly sparing other young men of a similar fate.  (It is also sad that during the end of his life on Earth, I am told that William endured many anonymous taunts, threats and provocations against himself and his family.  This too is shameful behavior, that can, in no way, honor the Spirit of God.)
So this brings me back to our meeting with the Mission board.  We were not permitted to return to the people we love.  No explanation was given.  We asked for an appeal, and were told that one would be forthcoming within 6 months of our request.  We did not hear from the board again.  That was 2 years ago.   
As a physician, if I identify a potentially lethal disease in a patient under my charge,  I put a band-aid on the festering wound, and then I tell the patient and his family there is nothing to worry about - that no follow-up is necessary, this would be called “medical malpractice,” possibly criminal negligence.  What is it called when this is done on a spiritual level by those who we turn to for our spiritual health and guidance?
It is important to distinguish this situation from those in which the ministry is simply ill equipped to deal with an overwhelming situation.  As a professional who deals with these cases, almost on a daily basis, I can tell you the deception runs cavernously deep, and the emotions can run dizzyingly high.  It takes a great deal of experience to be able to peel the layers off the onion to find the truth.  While I am in close fellowship with some very capable brothers in whose abilities I have a complete confidence, many in the ministry, while acting in honesty and integrity, do not possess this skill.  Doing a cursory investigation, only naturally wanting to quickly put things in the past (unfortunately to the detriment of the victim), happens too often.  This is why it is so important to report.  Our strength as a church and in the ministry and our roll in these sad situations is to be the hands of Christ, fostering reconciliation and restoration.  There is absolutely a need and roll for church discipline, but it can not be a substitute for the ordained duty of the state to maintain order (Rom 13).
But one final thing jumps out in my mind about that first meeting - even to this day.  The mission board was incredibly perplexed about William’s case: “He has died, and yet this case stays alive - people keep asking about it.  Why can’t it be buried along with him !!??”  It was meant as a rhetorical question, and I didn’t know the answer then.  I believe I know the answer now:  It is because it’s not about William, it’s about blindness in the church.

What is this blindness?  To help gain some insight, I’d like to draw upon the thoughts and ideas of a notorious Atheist.  He is the “father” of modern psychology.  His name is Sigmund Freud.  Dr. Freud’s hypothesis of mental illness was that feelings of guilt are responsible for such illnesses.  He postulated that since there is no such thing as God, it is our rigid social and religious systems and codes that create an unrealistic standard of acceptable behavior.  Get rid of religion, and you get rid of religious laws.  Get rid of religious laws, and you get rid of the guilty feelings when we break these unrealistic laws.  This, in turn will cure mental illness as we know it.  His theories, over the last 100+ years have been shown to be obviously and disastrously untrue, and as Christians, this should come as no surprise to us.  
Yet he did also propose a true concept with which we can better identify, and it is this:  He called sexual abuse “Soul Murder.”  As a psychologist, he saw plenty of the consequences of this sin, and how it can devastate a human being.  The question I’d like to propose to you is this:  How can an Atheist, who believes in no God, recognize a spiritual entity such as the soul?  Not only that, how is it that an Atheist can demonstrate a level of concern and compassion for an injured soul, to such a degree that is not frequently seen among our own people?  (The absurdity of this thought contrast should escape no one.)
I am sorry if this question is offensive, as it will doubtlessly be to many.  But to see if the question is legitimate, let me pose this scenario:  If a Conservative Anabaptist minister became aware of the fact that one of his flock murdered someone, what would be the right thing to do?  My guess is that most would attempt to lead that individual to turn himself into the authorities and humbly seek out the affected family to aid in the healing process, however possible.  Because the soul is so much more important than the body, why then do we tend to do the opposite, rejecting the authority of the state, and in the process, do what we can do to stifle and cover the sin, at the expense of neglecting the offended?  Some of the tools with which this is done are unspoken threats of unofficial bans and other forms of retaliation, Non-Disclosure Agreements, and threat/accusations of non-forgiveness. 

And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.  (Mt 10:28)

This is where I will try to connect our current events concerning the young Man in Millersburg to the case of William - or any of a multitude of abuse cases in our Conservative Anabaptist circles.  The vast majority have the same underlying theme: Where is the compassion?  When whistleblowers show the world the skeletons in our closets, when judges hand down an extra stiff sentence, or when decades old stories of abuse refuse to die - even after the perpetrator has met his Maker, it’s easy to assign ulterior motives:  He has an ax to grind, he hates Christians, people like to gossip, etc, etc.  In reality, while these things do happen, we should not be so quick to hunker down into persecution mode, circling the wagons, trying to endure and outlast the attacks - all the while assigning people into “we’s and they’s” - “us and them” thinking the worst of peoples’ intentions.  This kind of behavior does not glorify God.  
It is much more likely that what all these people are simply looking for, even desperately seeking for evidence that we truly believe the following words:

By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.  (Jn 35:15)

Why assume the whistleblower wants to destroy the Amish and Mennonites?  (We also need to also acknowledge that while rarely, there are false accusers, this should not be our first assumption.)  I strongly feel that if our community came together, and in the midst of serving God and “the least of these”, we are also willing to humbly admit that we and our organizations have sinned on specific occasions such as these being now brought to light, that we will gladly hold ourselves morally accountable (just as some of our big organizations hold themselves financially accountable through the ECFA), and that there is a groundswell of love and support for the Haitian victims, such as through a letter writing ministry, for example - the sensationalizations would quickly evaporate.
Why assume the judge is out to “get us”?  I strongly feel that in addition to a stack of letters vouching for the renewed character and integrity of the offender, the judge also received a stack of letters from church leaders stating that we recognize the authority of the state, that we pledge not to cover up crime, that we recognize the hurt that has been inflicted, that we recognize that children (especially those that have not even reached the age of accountability) can in no way consent to such deprivation, and that as Christians, we are committed to showing our love to the offended - the judgement may well have been very different.
Why assume people gossip - with an idle sense of malevolence?  If the church truly had “taken care” of the victims instead of shaming people to silence, stories, such as that of William, as well as the memory of his deeds, would have quickly faded away.  Secret Non-Disclosure Agreements have NO place in Christian society.  If we have wronged anyone, we need to unconditionally render compassionate aid - without the the specter of legal action.  Nothing secret - no gossip.

One other thing is certain:  this subject matter has evoked visceral emotions within and surrounding our community, almost unlike any other in recent memory.  Strong, even rigid positions of protection have gripped a people who have cultivated a legacy of Christian peacemaking and understanding.  It is only matched by an equally strong vehemence from people within and without the community, set on seeing that justice on Earth prevails.  Protection and justice are not inherently bad qualities. In fact, they are admirable, even good and right goals to which to aspire when set in balance.
However, they also share this negative trait:  Satan can use them to try to destroy individuals and the church - the body of Christ, when held in the extreme.  How do we know when we cross that threshold?  I have taught my children to always look for a sliver of humanity in our fellow man, no matter how reprehensible they are or how vile their behavior.  If we can’t find that sliver, or if that sliver does not appear to be very worthwhile, then we have crossed the line into the enemy’s territory.
The word “compassion” comes from the prefix “com-“ which means together, and the root word “passion”, which means to suffer for the sake of love (as in the”passion of the Christ”).  So to have compassion for someone, means to suffer along with them, because we love them.   
We can disagree on many things, but if we can’t have compassion for the history of abuse the whistleblower went through, that drove him to expose the corruption within our community, even if seen as distastefully done, we are in danger.  If we can’t have compassion for the Haitian victims, only seeing them as a legal vulnerability and financial liability that puts the very existence of our mission organizations into question, we are in danger.  If we can’t have compassion for our authorities, often put into seemingly impossible positions of meting out justice and protecting the community, all the while granting mercy, then we are in danger.  Indeed, if we can not have compassion for the sexual offender, caught in Satan’s snare at a young age, perhaps a victim of sexual abuse himself, or perhaps a victim of the sexual abuse called pornography which our society has chosen to glorify, then we are in danger.
If we can’t find those slivers of humanity, we can not glorify God, and we delude ourselves if we don’t realize that we are indeed consumed by hatred - and so ourselves are in danger of judgement:  

“But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council:  but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”  (Mat 5:23-24)

It’s also very worthwhile to note that, while we are called to love all men, Jesus had a spirit of derision and judgement, and not compassion, for those in positions of spiritual leadership who did not exhibit a sense of compassion and who were derelict in their duty of caring for their whole flock - not just the select few.  (Mat 23)  As you will see below, I too have been guilty of a dereliction of duty.

Mourn for Aggrieving God - A Confession

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”  (Rom 3:23)

I too must confess that I have come up short.  Just 3 months ago, I turned myself in to the authorities.  I had become aware of a case of abuse, personally close to me and my family, years in the past, but did not report, as was required by the law.  (As a physician, I am a mandatory reporter.)  I felt that it was “adequately handled” by myself and the church, but I nonetheless disregarded the law of the land.  Thankfully, the authorities chose not to prosecute, but I remain humbled.  I speak as a fellow sinner who loves his church and the brethren, in calling those of us who have likewise been caught in these tentacles of the sin of apathy, to repentance.
We, as a community have been humiliated before the world in recent days.  We need to thank the Lord for this opportunity to be woken up from our sleep.  Men of conscience and character will act on this awakening to reform the way we think, by rejecting this culture of hidden sin, and silencing or rejecting the offended.  Too many have seen evil among us, and said nothing.  Our strength is made perfect in our weakness. (2 Cor 12:9)  If we believe this to be true, we have no other choice than to live it!   We can build, witness, and sacrifice, but without loving the least of these, the offended, it is all for nothing.  (I Cor 13)  There are NO second class brethren or sisters. 

And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.
Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:
And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you. (Eph 4:30-32)

Of all the mourning, this is the most significant.  For when we sin, we not only sin against an individual, we also sin against the church and against God.  So then, when we sin, it is right to mourn for the grief we have caused Him.  
It is through our kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness among one another, that we show our spirit of contrition.  Without it, our mourning is the mourning of self gratification, and we can have little hope of His comfort.


Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.  Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.  (Jas 4:9-10)







*  Previous mention of the discovery through a journal is corrected.