...they would search for God
and perhaps grope for him and find him—
though indeed he is not far from each one of us.
For “In him we live and move and have our being”... (Acts 17.27-28)
I’ve at times felt a bit concerned that I’ve been spending so little time doing “spiritual” work. Like preaching or writing about spiritual things, or even having those kinds of discussions. And instead, so much of my time is taken up with the everyday maintenance of things and people, feeding and washing and fixing. Not that I’ve found it so much less satisfying. But I’ve wondered if I’ve become caught up in pressing needs and distracted from the “higher things.”
If Paul’s words are true, though (as the mystics affirmed), that “In him we live and move and have our being,” then it looks a little different. If God is intimately involved with all things, not just prayer and preaching, then how is God spending his time? Not mostly in the “higher things.” Because those do not make up most of our lives. Most of our lives is the work of everyday maintenance, the feeding and the washing and the fixing. Those are the things we need. And we experience love when we are helped with those needs. So it is not surprising that God is in all these, too, shaping us through these things more steadily and persistently than in the more intense moments of prayer. Or perhaps the daily experiences in which we seem motionless actually provide the basis and energy that enable the leaps of more “spiritual” moments.
So if God’s work is in all things, and he is spending most of his time loving us through the feeding and washing and fixing we need, then shouldn’t I be content to spend most of my time doing those things with him?
...they would search for God
My father died recently. The memorial was just a week ago, full of memories and joy and sadness. A great few days for our family. Dad would have been so happy to see it.
My niece Rachel sang. Really beautiful: "Precious Lord" (the song I always use as a lullaby for Ian)
I recently dug up this great George Carlin clip to share with someone: "No right to complain"
The kingdom of God is among us. Not easily outlined like our organizations, but it is there, mixed in like leaven, the relationships between its members not outlined in any authority structure or membership requirement, crossing all denominational borders, undefined—yet strong as the most passionate love.
Like the unseen, unorganized web of our friendships. The kingdom of God is an organic community like that, untamed like nature, sprouting life through every crack in the sidewalk.
I wrote that while thinking about "organic community" six years ago, and have been drawn back to that idea again and again. The difference that can be felt between real, God-given friendships and organizational relationships. But I've had enough disappointments in friendships over the past six years that I can understand why people often depend on organizational relationships more. Personal relationships can be fickle and fleeting; not reliable in the long run. People come and go, but the organization (church, business, etc) remains there for you. Not really, but I can understand why people see it that way.
I've had enough disappointments to make me skeptical of a lasting community of friends. But that's not really what I long for, is it? The kingdom of God is an organic community, like friends or family, but it is not just that. Friends (and family) come and go, but the body that is Christ remains. I think this is experienced in God's care in bringing people into (and out of) our lives, supporting us with the living community he provides. It continues to change, and the particular people are often (always?) unreliable and disappointing at times. But the God who is the life of his community remains and is always worthy of our trust. That's why we can continue to enter into new relationships and love again, no matter how often we've been disappointed by people. The kingdom of God remains among us.
The more we recognize and experience that, the less we are fooled by the sad imitations offered by our human institutions.
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)