I haven't been doing a lot of writing here lately, though still doing my share of living. I suppose I've been learning how many of these thoughts and ideas "survive the test of a man's life."
And I've been thinking maybe I should gather a few journal entries that seem to have withstood the test, that have been liveable and fruitful and are still important to me years later. Ones I find myself coming back to again and again. In no particular order (though perhaps the last one is the most important)...
It's not success or accomplishment that God wants from us. God can produce all the results, all the justice or abundance or peace that is needed at any time. What God asks of us is to will goodness, love, to will in harmony with God's will. God asks us to keep our attention and intention directed toward true and impossible goodness, not because we think we can accomplish it, but because we long to see God accomplish it and have faith that he will accomplish it.
In other words, God wants us to try...
—from "just keep trying"
What God’s grace and forgiveness offers is a reconnection with God, now. Not just once in our lives, at a unique moment of conversion, but at every moment. We no longer have to be driven by fear and shame but can exist with God in the present moment, act with God’s love in the present moment. And it doesn’t matter if our lives up to this point have demonstrated that we do not have the strength or the wisdom or the love to do the right thing. Of course we don’t. God has the strength and the wisdom and the love. Is anything more than that needed? Can anyone possibly add anything to that? What we are offered is God’s strength and wisdom and love in this present moment, to live, to act, this moment...
—from "this present moment"
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...
—from "are we the people?"
Instead of work being a slavery, the part of our lives we must sell to “pay our own way,” the work Jesus encouraged was to be a free gift of love. Perhaps the best summary of this appeared when Jesus sent out his disciples to preach and heal, telling them, “You received without paying, give without pay.” (Mt 10.8) Their needs were going to be met by God (through others) as a gift, God´s love responding to their vulnerability. And all their talents and abilities and wisdom were also gifts from God, along with the energy they had and the motivation of love to use those abilities for the good of others. All gifts. So they were told to offer their work as a gift to others...
—from "come to me all ye who labor for a living"
Jesus turned our attention away from heroes, people we’re inclined to admire, and away from the admiration others might have for us, and directed our attention towards God. No one is good but God alone. You have only done what you were ordered to do. It is not the servant but the master who is the source of any goodness, and the source of hope...
—from "there are no heroes in the kingdom of God"
The sermon at the Catholic church this week focused on the anawim. It's a Hebrew word meaning the poor, afflicted, lowly, humble, meek. It was sometimes used by the prophets to refer to God's faithful remnant, those oppressed ones who longed for God's deliverance.
What interested me was that the priest didn't just say we should respect or help the poor and oppressed, but pointed out that Jesus was one of the anawim himself...
—from "the anawim"
It was during this time that I remembered the words of Jesus that had been so important to me in years past: "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it." (Mt 10.39)
I had thought of "losing my life" mostly in the sense of letting go of possessions and advantages and ambitions. But now I began to think that a lot of a "life" is its place in society, a good reputation, the acceptance and cooperation of the people around us who have what we need. Being a somebody among those who are somebodies in our social circle. To lose this means not only losing people's help and material support, but also being rejected, ignored, unneeded, losing value in the eyes of the people that seem to make up our whole world. It seems to make us valueless as persons. Nobodies.
Yet Jesus apparently was drawn to society's nobodies, and followed a path that led to becoming a nobody himself, rejected, scorned, mocked...
—from "those who are considered of little or no value"
This pursuit of power makes sense if our purpose is to impose our own will, to shape the world as we think it ought to be. But if our true good is not the exercise of our own will, but the surrender of our own will—faith—then the pursuit of power is not helpful. Because it is not strength that helps us trust God, but weakness.
And this is exactly what I see in Jesus’ way of life. Not the pursuit of power, but intentionally becoming and staying weak. A continual “laying down his life.” Instead of seeking human power like everyone else, Jesus embraces economic and political weakness and preaches it to others. This is seen as subversive by those in power, and as a failure by those who seek power. Yet it is exactly right for helping people towards God through faith. And revealing God's powerful love.
As Jesus said to Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12.9)
—from "in weakness"
Ian, from out of the blue yesterday:
"I am here; don't be scared—that's what Jesus says."
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.
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)
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:
“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.