"the only object of idolatry"

There's been some changes and new people in the community here over the past year, and it's made things more stable. There's obvious benefits to that. But, as is often the case, more organizational strength has led to more community structure and authority. It's feeling to me like there's less space to move. But God continues to provide openings and cracks when we need them, through which we can walk in his freedom.

In resisting these developments, though, I sometimes wonder if it's worth it. The people involved aren't so bad and the changes aren't so oppressive (at least not yet). And the number of people affected are few. Is it a big deal?

Thinking about that, I was reminded of some beliefs that have been important to me, thoughts I wrote about in the essay, "Are we the people?" Reading that again, I'm stirred once more...

The owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were…. “You see, a bank or company… those creatures don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so…. The bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can't wait. It'll die. When the monster stops growing it dies. It can't stay one size….”

And at last the owner men came to the point. “The tenant system won't work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don't like to do it. But the monster's sick. Something's happened to the monster….”

“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours….”

“We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.”

“Yes, but the bank is made up of men.”

“No. You're wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it but they can't control it.

“…The monster isn't men, but it can make men do what it wants.”

That passage, from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, is perhaps the best description of human idolatry that I have ever seen. We commonly think of idols as ancient, exotic things. Little carved statues that superstitious and simple-minded people bowed to in their homes and in their pagan temples. But I have become convinced that idols are, and always have been, us.

Not little carved images, not things at all. The idol is us. People, gathered into a collective, man-made “us.” We, the People.

In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil wrote:
The Great Beast is the only object of idolatry, the only ersatz of God, the only imitation of something which is infinitely far from me and which is I myself.

It is impossible for me to take myself as an end or, in consequence, my fellow man as an end, since he is my fellow. Nor can I take a material thing, because matter is still less capable of having finality conferred upon it than [individual] human beings are.

Only one thing can be taken as an end, for in relation to the human person it possesses a kind of transcendence: this is the collective.



the Lord has kept my feet from stumbling

During prayer this morning I remembered some lines from Psalm 116 that I used to pray often, especially during the years I was on the road. I liked the Grail version best:

I love the Lord for he has heard the cry of my appeal;
for he turned his ear to me in the day when I called him.

They surrounded me, the snares of death, with the anguish of the tomb;
they caught me, sorrow and distress.

I called on the Lord's name: O Lord, my God, deliver me!

How gracious is the Lord, and just; our God has compassion.
The Lord protects the simple hearts; I was helpless so he saved me.

Turn back, my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has been good;
he has kept my soul from death, my eyes from tears,
and my feet from stumbling.

I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.


Bone-tired, on straw,
but beside him sleeps the child.

And he remembers.

(previous years' Christmas haikus begin here)



hilary & kate

This past weekend a friend of a friend was passing through with his band and put on a concert for us. Really intimate and fun, with the kids dancing in the back. Heather and I especially enjoyed Hilary Watson and Kate Feldtkeller playing together, including this original song:


“Common, Spirit-directed decision-making”?

“Do you commit yourself to Common,‭ ‬Spirit-directed‭ ‬decision-making‭ ‬with‭ ‬your‭ ‬brothers‭ ‬and‭ ‬sisters‭ ‬who‭ ‬are‭ ‬part‭ ‬of‭ ‬Plow‭ ‬Creek‭ ‬Fellowship‭?”

‭That commitment is the topic of discussion here in a couple weeks. I usually don’t go to community meetings, but I think I will go to this one. Because this “Common, Spirit-directed decision-making” is the very reason I stopped attending these meetings years ago.

‭In Christian communities, when group decision-making is discussed, the emphasis is usually on discerning God’s will. Trying to pray and listen and discuss together in order to hear God’s voice and encourage each other to do what God wants us to do. The idea is that we can help each other hear God better. And I agree with that (though there are plenty of historical examples of times when an individual heard God’s voice more clearly than the group).

‭If “Common, Spirit-directed decision-making” was only about discernment, then I would certainly support it and participate. But it’s not just about listening to God and helping each other listen. It’s also about making a group decision. A decision that is backed by the power of the group, the social and economic power, a decision that is enforced by that power. If there is mostly consensus, then this power may not be noticed often. But when there is unresolved disagreement, then the majority ends up pressuring or forcing some people to do something they don’t want to do. Perhaps this usually occurs over minor issues. But sometimes it involves, say, pressuring someone into a job they don’t want, or maybe forcing them out of a job. Or out of a house. Or raising rents. Issues that impact people’s lives deeply (which is why they fight over them). I’m not just talking about this community here, but in any communal-type Christian group. I’ve lived in three over the past fifteen years and witnessed many examples of the power of the group being applied forcefully.

‭This is the part that I see diverging from Jesus’ teaching and example. We didn’t get this decision-making model from Jesus, but from the (very un-Christlike) society around us. Jesus certainly helped others discern God’s will. But when there wasn’t agreement about what God’s will was, Jesus didn’t force anyone to submit to his judgment, or to the group’s. (Take Judas, for example.) Jesus tried to get people to do the right thing, but he insisted they do it freely, not under pressure or coercion.

‭So that’s what I think we should be doing as well. Not just to avoid the hurt and resentment that people feel when they’re coerced by the group (though that’s certainly important). But to show that what God’s Spirit really wants is our freely given love, not merely our obedience. And to bear witness that we trust in God’s power, not the power of the group.

‭Some may see this opting out of decision-making as opting out of the community. But it seems to me that these meetings are a very small part of community life. The vast majority of our time is not spent in decision-making meetings but in sharing life together and working together, caring for our neighbors, our families, and others outside the community, and trusting others to care for us. This is what community life means to me.

‭I think Jesus demonstrated that the administrative structures and authority of group decision-making are not needed in a community inspired and directed by God’s Spirit. We don’t need it, and it undermines our purpose as followers of Jesus.




We had a retreat last weekend, a really good one. Great guys; we knew most of them from previous retreats. Ian did great, too. We talked about the story of Thomas demanding to touch Jesus' scars, but instead of focusing on Thomas's unbelief, we focused on the scars. The meaning of Jesus' scars and how our scars can be like his, evidence of God's power. Heather wrote a fictional meditation for it, too. It's from the perspective of another disciple, Simon the Zealot:

All of my scars have stories. But there's none of them I like to tell.

The oldest two, on my arms, are from my father. You can barely see them now. I can see them just like they were, if I think about it. I can see his face just like it was, too. Why would I want to think about it?

The mess on my left leg and arm is from the Romans. I was fifteen. Some officer, going somewhere important in his long red cloak, just rode me down on his horse. I was in the way, and what did he care about some Jewish boy? The rocks beside the road took chunks out of my leg, and my arm up to the shoulder. The wounds turned bad. I was sick with fever for a week and they thought I would die. But I guess he got where he was going on time.

The men in our village talked about it for weeks. But there was nothing they could do. What did Rome care?

It's not exactly the kind of story you brag on.

I suppose that's part of why I joined the Zealots, in the end. Why I decided to fight them. There were other reasons. I wanted to free our country. But the look on my father's face when he said “There's nothing we can do,” and the pain and anger in my belly when I saw it, those things are burned into me as hard as the thick hard lines and ridges on my skin.

I suppose that's why I don't like to tell the stories. There are other scars. The ones you can't see hurt longer. I don't know how long. I don't know if they stop.

The other scars are from the fights that came after that. Battles, I suppose you could call them. The one on my face is one of those, the one people ask about. They generally expect me to be proud, to want to talk about it. There is some of it I'm still proud of, but I don't care to talk about it. One memory brings back another. Believe me, putting a sword into another man and pulling it out is not a thing a man wants to remember.

Those days are gone, of course, since I chose to follow Jesus. I chose to fight for a different kind of freedom. He sent me out preaching, going around the country with the others, telling people the kingdom of God had come. He taught us so much. We saw the power of God in him, and the kindness of God; we saw lepers healed and the dead come to life. We saw him come into Jerusalem in triumph, not at the head of an army, but riding on a donkey with the people all shouting for joy and waving branches. And then the Romans got him after all. The Romans and our own people, our so-called leaders, the cowards. I've seen death enough to know it, but I saw Hell that day.

When the women came to us three days later and said they'd seen angels, when Peter and John came and said he was alive again, I thought hard. He was different from any man I'd known, and I had believed God was in him. If anyone on earth could do such a thing, it wouldn't be anyone but him. But I held back. I'll admit: I held back because I was afraid to be a fool. To be made a fool of by hope.

He came to us that night, very late. We were still awake, with one lamp burning. He wasn't there, and then he was. Someone cried out. He looked like a spirit in the flickering light, like his spirit come to say goodbye on his way to God. That's what we thought he was.

Then he spoke.

He spoke, and his voice had life and blood and strength in it, as much as it ever had when he'd stood up on a hill and shouted his teaching to the crowds. “It's me,” he said. “I'm alive. Look at my hands and feet. Touch me. See if it's me.”

I lit another lamp. I cupped the flame in my hands till it blazed high. And there in the flare of light I saw it. He was reaching out his hand to Matthew, and there on his wrist was the place they'd driven the nail through. It was healed. He'd been dead three days, and it was the clean pink of a fresh-healed scar. And then I looked further, and there in his left side I saw a thing I'd never seen in my life—a thing I could swear no-one had ever seen. I saw the scar of a mortal wound, fresh-healed just like the other.

No-one could have survived a blow like that one. I've seen men take wounds like that, and I know. It went in, right to the heart. And there it was, that awful hole in his side, new-healed just like all the other scars. Testifying. It was him. He had been killed, and he was alive. God was in him, and all our hope had come again.

I believed. The scars did that for me. But I don't know that I would have learned the other thing, the stranger thing, if I hadn't seen what they did for Thomas.

Thomas wasn't there that night. He was afraid, I think. I don't know where he hid, but he came back to us at dawn, and when he heard what had happened he accused us of lying. Then changed his mind on the instant, before we could get angry, and said we must have dreamed it, it couldn't have been real. He said he'd believe it when he'd touched those scars we spoke of, when he'd put his hand in that hole. I saw the tears standing in his eyes, though he turned away to hide them.

It was days before Jesus came again. We stayed together, talking of what we'd seen, of what we ought to do. Thomas said nothing at all. He barely ate. When the others tried to tell him again that it was true, he turned away.

Thomas was my friend. I seem like a hard man to most people, I suppose. But I know how hard life can be when you're young, and it was hard for Thomas. I did what I could for him. It wasn't much.

Then Jesus came to us again.

He wasn't there, and then he was. And he was standing by Thomas. Thomas staggered to his feet. Looking at him. He never took his eyes off his face. I saw the tears start in them when Jesus said “Peace be with you.” And he still stood there just looking at him, looking into his eyes. He never looked down at all till Jesus told him outright to look at the scars.

“Put your hand in my side,” he said, and Thomas looked at him, and I saw his hand reach out, just a little, and draw back. It was shaking. But it wasn't fear. His eyes were wide. He seemed not to be sure it was allowed. Not to be sure he was allowed.

And I looked again at that wound, that open path into his heart. Those holes torn in his wrists and in his feet. He would have them forever, by the look of them. I realized I was rubbing one of the scars on my arm, the one the Romans gave me before I could even fight back.

I remembered what he'd said, what we hadn't understood till later: that he would give his life as a ransom for many. That was the story of these scars. The story of how he had been killed and yet here he was alive. Of how—though I didn't quite understand it all yet—he had saved us all.

But it was also the story of how men drove nails through his wrists, and he could do nothing to stop them. It was also the story of how he hung there nailed to a beam, and a soldier put a spear into his heart.

Thomas reached out his trembling hand, awe in his eyes, and put his hand into that wound. He looked like he was touching something holy. Something that had death in it, and life. The power of God, and the kindness of God.

And standing there watching him, I saw that he was. And he knew it. He saw those scars for exactly what they were.

And I wanted to touch them too.



God chooses to care about us, to value us
Each of us
This grants us true value
Objective, unquestionable value

This value doesn’t depend on what we do or achieve
It isn’t increased when we succeed or grow
It doesn’t decrease when we fail or weaken
It isn’t greater than the value of the person next to us
Or less
It is the gift of God to each of us
An act of God
Not to be taken away
Or lost

It is not how much other people value us
Or how much we value ourselves
We can only embrace it in faith
That the value God has given us is the truth
And forever

Be humble and do not fear


gather ye rosebuds while ye may

For our wedding, eight years ago, we were given two Grandiflora peace rose bushes. They almost died the first winter, when we didn't protect them. But after a seemingly miraculous recovery, they have grown very well over the years, producing lots of large roses. They would usually grow almost 6 feet tall every season.

I carefully protected them every winter since that first one. But two winters ago, it was a terribly hard one. Bitter cold and lasting weeks longer than any other winter we've seen here. When the spring came, I saw a tiny shoot start on each rose bush, but then they both quickly withered.

Because of the unexpected revival after that first winter, I watched and hoped for another sign of life. For months I watched. They were our wedding roses, after all, and I'd cared for them for years. But nothing. By fall, I decided I ought to dig up the dead stumps, to clear room in the flowerbed. The roots were so deep and tough, I ended up having to just break off the first one. Then when I came to the second one, I stopped, astonished. There was a little shoot. It was alive.

Of course there was no chance for it to grow then, it was too late in the season. I knew also that there was little chance for it to last until spring. It had lain dormant through one long, hard winter already, then gone a whole season with no growth, no chance to gather strength from the sun, and now another winter was coming. But I covered it carefully anyway, and fertilized it. I'd at least give it the help I could.

But I wasn't very hopeful for that rose bush this spring when I uncovered it. How could it possibly have survived? I kept looking for life, wanting to see it, all the while telling myself that looking didn't make much sense.

Until one day when I looked and noticed a funny-looking plant poking out of the soil next to the dead, broken stump of the rose bush. Heather confirmed it. It was a rose shoot. Soon the shoot was bigger, and another had appeared next to it. By the end of the summer, those tender little shoots will probably be taller than me.

Somehow this little saga seems important, like a sign or something. Of what, I'm not sure. But it feels very reassuring and hopeful. And I'm really going to enjoy seeing those beautiful, delicate roses unfolding again.

[p.s. Here's how it looked a few months later]