Immediately after graduating from the University of Michigan (in chemical engineering), I joined the Navy, served four years as an officer on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier before the tension between following Jesus and doing my job became unbearable, then went AWOL (not recommended, by the way), wandered for five months from monastery to monastery in Great Britain, then returned and turned myself in, to accept punishment, but instead was quietly ejected from the Navy (with an "Other Than Honorable" discharge), then joined a religious order in this country (the Dominicans, Roman Catholic), and struggled with the politics and wealth of big institutions until I was ejected again (after three years, two in the seminary).
I was told I was "not fitting in."
That's when I turned pilgrim. In June 2000, after forty days hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I unburdened myself of tent, sleeping bag, extra clothes, and money, and began walking secondary highways, from Washington, D.C., to Chicago, St. Louis, and down to Florida, and the following year, to Denver and back to Florida (though I only walked about 2000 miles of that) and down to Key West and back that winter.
The point was to follow Jesus' example and be a witness for the kingdom of God, through conversations with individuals and small groups, and through the simple symbolism of pilgrimage. It was basically a faith experiment that turned out much better than expected. People along the way (mostly Christians) provided for all my needs. I didn't even have to ask. Sometimes people offered me rides (which I usually accepted), though I didn't hitchhike. And often people invited me into their homes, or offered me a motel room. Otherwise, I just found a church and slept on the porch. For worship, I joined whatever Christian community I happened to find.
We wrote this essay describing the development and vision of the retreat ministry:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor... (Is 61.1-2)
"If I had a gun right now, I don't know who I'd shoot―him... or myself.”
It was close to midnight when I opened the door and found her standing there. The police car that had dropped her off was pulling away. The house was a soup kitchen by day, a women's shelter by night; Heather and I worked there and shared the house with the guests. People commonly showed up late at night, needing something, asking for a night on the couch. But this woman was shaking, crying uncontrollably.
I let her in, gave her something from the kitchen. She had been saving money to pay a fine, she told me. If she didn't pay she would go to jail. Her court date was tomorrow and she'd had the money ready; she had given it to her boyfriend to keep safe. He had spent it on drugs.
"He smoked my freedom," she cried.
When she demanded the money, shouting, and wouldn't leave him alone, he'd called the police and had her taken away. She had been living with him; she had nowhere else to go. So they left her at our door.
I had to sit with her a long time. She couldn't calm down enough to sleep; she raged and paced and wailed. She wasn't sure who she wanted to shoot. And then, sagging in the chair, she cried, "And no one cares... no one cares."
The next day I thought about those words.
In the midst of her poverty and helplessness and fear of jail, her deepest anguish seemed to be that no one cared what was happening to her. At that lowest point, she had expressed an intense spiritual need. The need to know that someone cared. Perhaps, ultimately, the need to know that God cared.
Weeks later, Heather and I began to attend Al-Anon meetings to become familiar with the twelve-step recovery program. And we were reminded again of the reality and urgency of the spiritual need, even among those struggling with overwhelming physical and emotional problems. The most helpful program for recovering addicts begins with a spiritual act. Admitting that we are powerless to free ourselves from our self-destructive choices and then turning our lives over to God's care. The spiritual need comes first.
By then we were convinced that God was calling us to a different kind of work, a different way of reaching out to people. Struggling to understand what that was, in the months that followed we looked closely at Jesus' life. The first verses of Isaiah 61 offer a clear image of what we saw in Jesus, his life and mission. Jesus applied those very words to himself: "The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor... to bind up the brokenhearted... to proclaim liberty to captives...."
The word translated "the poor" is the Hebrew word anawim. It can also mean lowly, weak, afflicted. In the psalms and the prophets, the word came to refer to those poor, oppressed ones who were struggling to be faithful to God. These were the ones Jesus focused his attention on, the ones he joined, becoming a poor, afflicted man himself, and the ones to whom he could announce good news from God.
That's what Jesus offered them, a word from God. Not money, or human expertise, or political power. He offered something even more powerful: a healing word, a proclamation of freedom, an announcement of God's favor to those who thought they were forgotten. To those who were actually healed or freed by these words it was clear that this was not a work of man but of God. And to those who were interested in money or political influence, it was clear that Jesus had nothing that they wanted. Even those who came for healing had to come to Jesus with the right motive, with faith, or he could not heal them. Because of this, Jesus attracted the anawim, and could announce the good news that was for them. Their cries had been heard. They were invited into a life of freedom and intimacy with God, the life that Jesus himself lived. And they didn't have to become middle class, so-called “respectable citizens” first. They just had to follow him.
We were offered a way to follow Jesus in caring for the anawim when the Mennonite community at Plow Creek farm invited us to start a retreat ministry there. The weekend retreats are free, with guests coming in small groups from transitional programs and from churches in low-income neighborhoods, people in very difficult situations who are struggling to be faithful to God. We offer hospitality in our home, beautiful natural surroundings, and carefully prepared worship and discussion times. Retreat topics vary, but the emphasis is always on listening for a word from God, through prayer, scripture, and one another. Our hope is that Jesus' good news to the poor is heard again and again, by the ones who desire it most, the ones it is meant for.
God's favor rests on the anawim because of their vulnerability, and their dependence on him. Jesus chose to share their vulnerability. And his life of utter dependence on God, and God's faithfulness to him, affirmed their hope. Seeking to follow Jesus in this also, we trust God to provide for our needs and the needs of our retreat guests through the produce of the farm, the support of our community here, and gifts from others far away. And we continue to listen for a word from God, a word to bind up the brokenhearted, free those who are bound, and give comfort and hope to the poor.
(A description of one retreat weekend, with pictures, is available here.)