runaway hit

We hosted a retreat last week, a fun time. Ian especially enjoyed playing guitar with our friend Al. And a lunchtime mishap turned out to be inspirational...


"like a bureaucracy"

I found this passage in an interesting novel by Mischa Berlinski, called Fieldwork. A missionary to the (fictional) Dyalo people shares his view of their gods:

Nobody knows what the spirits really are—maybe they're fallen angels, that's certainly a possibility, or maybe some other being created in the spiritual realm. The biblical evidence certainly associates the spirits with Satan. But you know how I've always thought of the Dyalo spirits? They're like a bureaucracy. Like a giant powerful bureaucracy, which imposes a million and one rules on the Dyalo. Fines them a pig or chicken or something worse when they do something wrong. Punishes them, kicks them around, treats them like dirt. You ever try to get a residency permit here in Thailand? Go from office to office, lose two whole days? It's like that all the time for the Dyalo. If the spirit of the big rock makes your kid sick, ask the spirit of your ancestor to protect you. So you slip him a bribe, a chicken, a pig. Maybe he'll help you, maybe not. If not, you go to another spirit, try and bribe him. So it goes.
Or maybe "the spirits" are just idols, creations of the people who serve them, another very biblical interpretation. But I find it interesting that he notices the similarity there. Between the oppression of the spirits in a more primitive culture and the oppression of a more "advanced" bureaucratic political system in our culture. If they are both indeed the creations of "We, the people," of course, then the similarities are not surprising.

We pity people bound by their group's superstitious beliefs, while not even aware of how idolatrous our group's beliefs are, which control so many aspects of our lives.


homer the heretic


in God

Our boy often comes out with some interesting (or odd) statement right as he's falling to sleep. Yesterday, laying in the quiet darkness with him, I hear:

Let's pretend that God is the house. We're going to sleep in God...

Then he did.


"He raises the lowly"

Thinking back over this past year, I felt too overwhelmed to try to distill a haiku this Christmas (last year's is here). But in church last week I was moved by the reading of Mary's magnificat. Her words have been so important and meaningful to me over the years, and this year they seemed especially powerful:

My soul glorifies the Lord.
My spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.
He looks on His servant in her lowliness;
henceforth all ages will call me blessed.

The Almighty works marvels for me.
Holy His name!
His mercy is from age to age,
on those who fear Him.

He puts forth His arm in strength
and scatters the proud-hearted.
He casts the mighty from their thrones
and raises the lowly.
He fills the starving with good things,
sends the rich away empty.

He protects Israel His servant,
remembering His mercy,
The mercy promised to our fathers,
to Abraham and his sons and daughters for ever.


From The Onion:

Dazed Mike Pence Wakes Up 15 Miles Outside D.C.
After Asking God To Deliver Him From Evil


praying for things

From a letter to a friend today:

I was just reading a similar saying of Jesus this morning (Mt 21.21-22):

Jesus answered them, "Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive."
It seems to me the key is "if you have faith," or asking in faith. Your Mark passage (11.24) uses the term "believe." And I think it should be obvious it's not about believing in ourselves, or having faith in the power of our own prayers. It has to be faith in God, in other words believing that what we pray for is what God wants. Not insisting on it, but believing, submitting to what God wants. And if it really is what God wants, then we can be sure it will be done.

This brings us back to "thy will be done." Which is really the right attitude, of course. But we don't need to just leave it at that. I don't think the best we can do is just pray "thy will be done" in some general sense, like "Just do what you want, God—you're going to anyway!"

I believe Jesus showed us that we can pray in faith, praying that God's will be done, while learning (as you said) to hear more clearly what that will actually is in our circumstances. So we can begin to pray more specifically and with more confidence as we learn to hear and know God better. And Jesus wants us to understand what God is doing and consciously will it with God (Jn 15.14-15):
"You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."
Yes, "thy will be done" is good. But it's better when we can pray with understanding and agreement for the good that God is doing, freely and consciously willing the good with God. I hear Jesus inviting us into that.


the chief axiom

Watched an interesting movie, Experimenter, based on the authority experiments of Stanley Milgram. Here's a bit of it:

And from Milgram's book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View:
As soon as the child emerges from the cocoon of the family, he is transferred to an institutional system of authority, the school. Here, the child learns not merely a specific curriculum but also how to function within an organizational framework. His actions are, to a significant degree, regulated by his teachers, but he can perceive that they in turn are subjected to the discipline and requirements of a headmaster. The student observes that arrogance is not passively accepted by authority but severely rebuked and that deference is the only appropriate and comfortable response to authority. The first twenty years of the young person’s life are spent functioning as a subordinate element in an authority system, and upon leaving school, the male usually moves into either a civilian job or military service. On the job, he learns that although some discreetly expressed dissent is allowable, an underlying posture of submission is required for harmonious functioning with superiors. However much freedom of detail is allowed the individual, the situation is defined as one in which he is to do a job prescribed by someone else.

While structures of authority are of necessity present in all societies, advanced or primitive, modern society has the added characteristic of teaching individuals to respond to impersonal authorities. Whereas submission to authority is probably no less for an Ashanti than for an American factory worker, the range of persons who constitute authorities for the native are all personally known to him, while the modern industrial world forces individuals to submit to impersonal authorities, so that responses are made to abstract rank, indicated by an insignia, uniform or title.

Throughout this experience with authority, there is continual confrontation with a reward structure in which compliance with authority has been generally rewarded, while failure to comply has most frequently been punished. Although many forms of reward are meted out for dutiful compliance, the most ingenious is this: the individual is moved up a niche in the hierarchy, thus both motivating the person and perpetuating the structure simultaneously. This form of reward, “the promotion,” carries with it profound emotional gratification for the individual but its special feature is the fact that it ensures the continuity of the hierarchical form. The net result of this experience is the internalization of the social order—that is, internalizing the set of axioms by which social life is conducted. And the chief axiom is: do what the man in charge says.



nothing can save us that is possible (part 2)

(Continued from yesterday...)

I remember crying that morning. It seemed like our future would be decided in this meeting, with little hope for a good outcome. But I so hoped for something good to come from all these years of struggle and waiting. During the opening prayer, I prayed for a miracle. As the first proposals were offered, however, it became clear that the new owners were being counseled to not let anyone from the community remain. "Nobody here should count on staying. The politics here needs to come to an end." That was unexpected and frightening. We offered a proposal also, for some of us to stay and share the land with poor Latino families in the area. I remember saying at one point, in tears again, "You may not agree, but I'm testifying here that God has saved us." Our proposal didn't get much of a hearing, though. Several people angrily challenged us for withdrawing from some of the community activities. And no one spoke up for us. It felt extremely isolating, in such a vulnerable moment. One of the people leading the meeting tried to be helpful by observing, "When the Lord said, ‘Forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing,’ I think that’s the case here." The implication was that we should be forgiven, for not knowing how we hurt the others by our choices. But I have to admit I took that comment quite differently. Upon reflection, my understanding was that people were just ready to be done, and didn't want ideas about a way to continue. We had no vote in the meeting, as we weren't members. So we went out, waited nervously, then returned to hear the decision. I kept praying for a miracle, even though our proposal seemed to have no chance at all.

It was decided that the land would be given to a nearby Christian campground. My impression was that people were not overly excited about that choice (I heard some criticizing it), but the camp had a large donor base and lots of experience managing large properties. So the decision was not surprising. But it left us confused, with little hope of staying, and no sense of direction elsewhere.

It seemed as if our choices to follow Jesus in his poverty and powerlessness had finally led us off a cliff. In the weeks that followed, I often recalled these lines from a poem by W.H. Auden:

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss...

Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

Then, two months after the meeting, we got a surprising message from the campground. Upon review, the board of directors had unanimously decided to not accept the offer of the land.

There was a confusing scramble over the next few days. Then another meeting. And this time it was decided to give the land to a nearby church, though they didn't have much money or experience. This was totally unexpected. I can't imagine this choice would have been made in the first meeting, but now, at this late date, with limited options... And the people accepting the land for the church happened to be friends of ours.

Over the years, we had volunteered for a variety of tasks as the need arose. Like building maintenance, small plumbing and electrical repairs, grounds keeping and gardening, even bookkeeping, learning lots of skills along the way. Now all those skills were useful to help maintain the property for the new owners. Our friends were very grateful that we could stay and help (and even offered to reduce our rent). We were encouraged to keep hosting retreats. And even affirmed for staying out of "the politics."

It seemed like a miracle. God had saved us.

Later, when I asked our son if he wanted to stay here, he nodded and smiled. "There are lots of pretty flowers here," he said.