7.29.2004

where love exists

A nation as such cannot be the object of supernatural love. It has no soul.

That's Simone Weil again. And she points to something there that I've observed before about all institutions--we can't have a personal relationship, a love relationship with them, because they are not persons. They have no soul.

In our modern world we tend to see ourselves in terms of our collective "relationships": as members of corporations, churches, organizations, nations. But if I reject that and resist that, what's left? Personal relationships. I don't want to "fit in," become part of some humanly created and defined collective (the one, unique Community, the body of Christ, is something altogether different--as I wrote in "that they may all be one" and "Is Christ divided?"). But I do want to connect with other people in personal relationship. Person to person, soul to soul. Though this is fragile and unstructured, this is where love exists.

When Jesus was asked what "love your neighbor" means, he told the story of the Good Samaritan, a personal act of mercy. Love felt and expressed between two persons. This is "love your neighbor." And "love God" is also personal...

This is what I need to focus on. Not membership in groups, not finding a place in (or establishing) institutions, but being attentive and responding to the persons I come into relationship with. This is where love exists.

7.28.2004

the Great Beast

From Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace:

The Great Beast [society, the collective] 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 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 think this is true. Our adoration may be directed at a person (such as a leader) or object (such as a flag), but what we really bow down to is the power this person or object represents. And we all acknowledge the great power of the collective, the group, the many: "Alone we can do nothing, but together we are strong." Thus "We" becomes the god we look to for protection, provision, salvation.

Weil gets the term "Great Beast" from Plato. Specifically, this passage from Book VI of his Republic (here Plato critiques those who are "wise" through their study of society):
I might compare them to a man who should study the tempers and desires of a mighty strong beast who is fed by him--he would learn how to approach and handle him, also at what times and from what causes he is dangerous or the reverse, and what is the meaning of his several cries, and by what sounds, when another utters them, he is soothed or infuriated; and you may suppose further, that when, by continually attending upon him, he has become perfect in all this, he calls his knowledge wisdom, and makes of it a system or art, which he proceeds to teach, although he has no real notion of what he means by the principles or passions of which he is speaking, but calls this honourable and that dishonourable, or good or evil, or just or unjust, all in accordance with the tastes and tempers of the great brute. Good he pronounces to be that in which the beast delights and evil to be that which he dislikes...
Society, the "mighty strong beast." There's the obvious power of many hands working together. But Plato points to a deeper, pseudo-moral power of the many, the group. Weil also describes this:
The power of the social element. Agreement between several men brings with it a feeling of reality. It brings with it also a sense of duty. Divergence, where this agreement is concerned, appears as a sin. Hence all returns to the fold are possible. The state of conformity is an imitation of grace.

Because of this imitation, this substitution for God, Weil says things like, "The social order is irreducibly that of the prince of this world." And connects society, the many, the crowd, with "the world" that Jesus spoke against so often. For example, in his prayer in John 17:
"I have manifested your name to the men who you gave me out of the world... I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those who you have given me...

"I have given them your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world."

But what to do about it? I think there's a clue in "I have manifested your name to the men who you gave me out of the world." In Purity of Heart, Kierkegaard also speaks very negatively about "the crowd." And offers some ideas about how to respond:
In so far as the good man is clever, he knows, how in the very face of truth the world wishes to have the Good made agreeable, how the crowd desires to be won--the much feared crowd, who "desire that the teacher shall tremble before his hearers and flatter them." He knows all about this--in order not to follow it, but rather by the very opposite conduct to keep as free as possible of these deceptions, that he himself may not adopt any illicit way of deriving some advantage from the Good (earning money, distinction, and admiration) and so that he may deceive no one...

Whenever possible he will prefer to withdraw the Good from contact with the crowd. He will seek to split the crowd up in order to get hold of the individual or to get each by himself. He will be reminded of what that simple old sage remarked in ancient times, "When they meet together, and the world sets down at assembly, or in a court of law, or a theater, or a camp, or any other popular resort, and there is a great uproar and they praise some things as being said or done, and blame other things, equally exaggerating both, shouting and clapping their hands, and the echo of the rocks and the place in which they are assembled redoubles the sound of praise or blame--at such times will not a young man's heart, as they say, leap within him?"... The same persons, who singly, as solitary individuals are able to will the Good, are immediately seduced as soon as they associate themselves and become a crowd. On that account the good man will neither seek to secure the assistance of a crowd in order to split up the crowd, nor will he seek to have a crowd back of him, during the time that he breaks up the crowd in front of him.

But just how a good man will make use of cleverness in the outer world does not permit of being more precisely specified in general terms, for that which is necesary can be totally different with respect to each time and to the circumstances of each time. [For example,] that stern prophet who went out into the desert and lived on locusts knew how, in relation to his contemporaries, he ought to express this decisively: that it is not the truth that is in need of men, but men who are in need of the truth. Hence they must come to him, come out into the desert.
I like this. It reminds me of what I wrote a couple weeks ago ("kicking the soapbox").

And I see Jesus acting this way, too. Not literally out in the desert, but operating outside social structures and institutions (or passing through them untouched), and saying that if people wanted to come to know Truth (God), they must follow him. Out of "the world," the idolatrous collective, society's "We."

Jesus also did not "seek to secure the assistance of a crowd"--though he could have:
Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did; but Jesus did not trust himself to them... (Jn 2.23-24)
He would not be made king (Jn 6.15); by his radical teaching and actions he "squandered" his popular following (Jn 6.66, Mk 14.50); and he ended up alone, condemned by popular outcry, an apparent victim of the Great Beast.

Can I do this? Can I be patient, waiting, resisting the desire to belong and the desire to have a crowd behind me, calling people out--even when that seems to be a complete failure?

7.27.2004

"Love, from time to time..."

Yesterday I came across this good passage again in Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. I remember copying it into a journal years ago:

Love, from time to time, has in this way helped a man along the right path. Faithfully he willed only one thing, his love. For it, he would live and die. For it, he would sacrifice all and in it alone he would have his eternal reward.

Yet the act of being in love is still not in the deepest sense the Good. But it may possibly become for him a helpful educator, who will finally lead him by possession of his beloved one, or perhaps by her loss, in truth to will one thing and to will the Good. In this fashion a man is educated by many means; and true love is also an education toward the Good.


I like that line, "Yet the act of being in love is still not in the deepest sense the Good." This quote by Simone Weil draws closer to the Good, I think (I liked it so much I made it into a card):

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7.26.2004

detachment and obedience

Actually, my recent feelings of "my life is perfect, please freeze everything as it is" are not too good. There's a definite anxiousness there. Which I think is partially explained by Simone Weil in Gravity and Grace: "Attachment is a manufacturer of illusions... [Reality] is only perceptible through total detachment."

Attachment that distances us from reality also distances us from God. It stirs in us desire and willfulness and ambition, all of which make us less obedient, less submissive to God's will--in other words, less open to God himself. In contrast, Jesus described himself as close to God because...

"I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him." (Jn 8.28-29)

And I like Weil's understanding of obedience. It reminds me of Jesus' words, "So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'" (Lk 17.10) Here's some of what she wrote:
Every creature which attains perfect obedience constitutes a special, unique, irreplacable form of the presence, knowledge and operation of God in the world.

The slave is in a sense a model. So also is matter.

The words of the Breton ship's boy to the journalist who asked him how he had been able to act as he did: "There was nothing else for it."

Good which is done in this way, almost in spite of ourselves, almost shamefacedly and apologetically, is pure.

We should not go to our neighbor for the sake of God, but we should be impelled towards our neighbor by God, as the arrow is driven towards its target by the archer.

To eat when we are hungry, to give a wounded man, dying of thirst, something to drink when there is water quite near. Neither a ruffian nor a saint would refrain from doing so.

We should do only those righteous actions which we cannot stop ourselves from doing, which we are unable not to do, but, through well directed attention [i.e. prayer], we should always keep on increasing the number of those things which we are unable not to do.

7.25.2004

for Sunday

In church today, one of the songs was based on the Magnificat and we sang the line "he fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty." And I was reminded of this quote by Soren Kierkegaard:

In the magnificent Palace Church, a resplendent court chaplain, the declared favorite of the cultivated public, makes his appearance before a select circle of distinguished, cultivated persons and preaches a moving sermon over the apostle's words: "God chose the lowly and the despised." And no one laughs!


And here's something else appropriate for a Sunday (and my current feelings). It's from an old episode of The Simpsons:




"Dear Lord, the gods have been good to me and I am thankful. For the first time in my life everything is absolutely perfect the way it is. So here’s the deal: you freeze everything as it is and I won’t ask for anything more. If that is okay, please give me absolutely no sign."

[Pause]

"Okay, deal. In gratitude, I present to you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, please give me no sign."

[Pause]

"Thy will be done."

7.23.2004

"In him all things hold together"

Walking home this beautiful, cool morning, after dropping Heather off at the commuter train, I was loving life. At times like this I think, "In [God] we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17.28) Or remember this passage:

"In [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Col 1.16-17)
At times like this it's easy to believe the world is in God's hands and it is very good.

But there's another angle to this, which I was reminded of when I then read the familiar story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8.1-11). That mob with stones seemed like a set-up for something very bad. Yet even then Jesus didn't panic, but calmly knelt and wrote in the dirt, demonstrating a remarkable faith that God was in control. I see the same faith behind teachings like these:
"Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." (Mt 5.39-41)

This is powerful. So I've tried to live this and point to this, especially with Christians who feel they need to stop evil--if not by violent means, then by direct nonviolent resistance (such as becoming "human shields," or organizing strikes or boycotts, etc). I recall a discussion on this topic in the Jesus Radicals forum a while back. Here's some of what I wrote:
The only incident in Jesus' life that seems to even remotely resemble these human shield-"getting in the way" methods is his money-changer-tossing. But, as I've written elsewhere, I don't see any evidence that Jesus' (prophetic) outburst in the temple was some kind of strategy to "get in the way" of the money changers' business. How many times was he in the temple, and he does this only once? And I'm sure it was a insignificant pause in their business...

I really don't see anywhere in Jesus' life (or teaching) that he tried to stop people from sinning (by interfering physically, economically, or politically). He appealed to them, rebuked them, set a challenging counter-example by the way he lived. But his actions and teachings (such as the sermon on the mount) are wide open to the accusation that he "let" evil men continue to do evil. I think that's a big part of the "offense" of the Jesus' gospel--but it's there.

The positive side of this (viewed from the perspective of faith) is that Jesus was free from the fear and frustration and despair that plagues most of us in the presence of injustice and evil. He knew he didn't have to stop the evil man from sinning--he just had to be a witness for the truth. Everything else was securely in God's hand.

When Peter tried to "get in the way" of Jesus' arrest, Jesus rebuked him. And John's version shows that it was more than just a concern for nonviolence:
Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?"
Jesus' arrest was more unjust than anything we might encounter. Yet he did not try to stop it (or let Peter do so), except by appealing to the truth (for example, "If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?"). Because he did not have to stop what God had chosen to allow.

7.22.2004

compassion and gratitude

So far two doctors have cancelled their bills for services I received last month. It's a small fraction of the overall charges, but still encouraging. And I've been thinking of a way to send my thanks to them.

Yesterday I found this passage in Waiting for God by Simone Weil, and it seems perfect to send as a thank you card:

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7.21.2004

good news to the poor

It was a joy to meet Kelly yesterday at the Ekklesia Project conference, and I was impressed by the discussions she led. It was refreshing to not be the only one speaking of poverty as a part of following Jesus. Of course there were still plenty of objections and fears. But most people seemed willing to seriously consider and engage "blessed are you poor... woe to you who are rich," rather than reject it outright or interpret it away.

In the afternoon discussion I tried to highlight the importance of gospel poverty as a witness and source of hope for the poor. Not just for our own spiritual good, but also for the sake of others who are struggling under heavy loads that they did not voluntarily take on. Like Jesus, a poor man among the poor, saying to them: "You are not far from the kingdom of God. Right now, where you are, in your poverty and affliction, you are much closer to the perfect life with God than those who are rich and powerful and at ease. Just follow me."

Then, this morning, I read these verses in Psalm 69:

I am afflicted and in pain;
let thy salvation, O God, set me on high!
I will praise the name of God with a song;
I will magnify him with thanksgiving.
This will please the LORD more than an ox
or a bull with horns and hoofs.

Let the oppressed see it and be glad;
you who seek God, let your hearts revive.

For the LORD hears the needy,
and does not despise his own that are in bonds.
I looked up the Hebrew word translated "oppressed" here and found it also can be translated poor, needy, lowly, humble, afflicted, meek. Jesus' deliverance, a poor man being rescued by God--this is "good news to the poor." And this good news is preached again and again when we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, facing poverty and affliction like he did, and God rescues us as well.

Let the poor, the needy, the lowly see it and be glad.

7.20.2004

"He has filled the hungry with good things"

I'm going to the Ekklesia Project conference today, to participate in some discussions on poverty (speaking up for voluntary, holy, "blessed are the poor" poverty). I was originally invited to be a presenter. But the high registration fee made me change my mind, so I'm going today as an unregistered participant. That little protest makes me a bit nervous. But I like going there as an undistinguished, un-name-tagged poor person (not a "paying customer" or official presenter) and I like having the freedom to move in and out of institutional forums like this one, interacting there without being tied to them or limited by them. Because that's how I see Jesus acting. And it's very good.

I also like the theme of the conference (Mary's "Magnificat" from Luke 1):

Mary said,

"My soul glorifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on his servant in her lowliness.
Therefore all ages will call me blessed.
He who is mighty has done great things for me
and holy is his name;
his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
scattering the haughty;
he has cast the mighty from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
but the rich he has sent away empty..."



(I know this doesn't say "he has filled the hungry with good things" in quite the same way, but I thought it was funny...)

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7.18.2004

That night when joy began

Heather gave me this poem yesterday. It's by W.H. Auden. I really like it; and it can be read with one specific relationship in mind or as a description of our overall experience of life (with God):

That night when joy began
Our narrowest veins to flush,
We waited for the flash
Of morning's leveled gun.

But morning let us pass,
And day by day relief
Outgrows his nervous laugh,
Grown credulous of peace,

As mile by mile is seen
No trespasser's reproach
And love's best glasses reach
No fields but are his own.

7.17.2004

shabbat and work

Heather has decided to try to observe a form of shabbat on Saturdays:

I will do no work on a Saturday unless it springs from me so naturally that it's like play. I will plan nothing on a Saturday except visits and outings I can look forward to. If for any reason I have to make an exception, I will then rest on Sunday.
I like that. As a day of rest and reflection on the week's activity...

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...and also as a model for work every day of the week. Our work should be free, joyful, creative--like play. A gift from God that we all need and desire.

But our understanding and experience of work is usually terribly degraded because of what we are taught and shown in our society, and unfortunately this is also often reinforced in our churches. I wrote about some of my struggles with this in an old journal:
Yesterday afternoon was grueling. Harsh sun, highway construction, and nothing for miles. I had to push beyond 25 miles just to find a place to sleep. Then up and walking again till I found this place, just after sunrise.

It's a large lake, hidden above the highway. Trees completely encircle it, and it stretches out fingers beyond where I can see. A frog twangs its throat nearby, sounding like a cheap banjo. Fish leap with mysterious purpose, then fall, making rings on the water's perfect surface. A black-headed bird, which seems designed for fishing, watches. And a soft mist rises from the lake, moving like it has intelligence; I recall "The spirit of God moved over the face of the waters." The beginning.

I was thinking about Genesis this morning. Last Sunday, the Sunday school guide they handed out focused on the Fall and made some comment like "Because of sin, our work is stressful." A reference to Genesis 3.17-19, apparently. The curse on Adam: "By the sweat of your brow..." I've wondered a lot about that curse--what does it mean? Is it the source of our stress over work? Any loopholes? But I think the Sunday school book has missed the truth and may be absolutely false if taken at face value. My sore feet, that's a result of sin. Laboring under the hot sun, fatigue, muscle aches, shivering at night, I can accept all these as part of the curse. But these are not the primary stresses of work. People often choose all these things as an acceptable part of play: camping, mountain climbing, hiking, etc. This "sweat of the brow" is painful, but it can still be satisfying and healthy, a little rest wipes it all away. The stress we usually experience with work, however, is different. It is pure negative, draining, and a vacation doesn't make it disappear. When we come back, it's right there again, devouring us. It is not from God, even as a curse.

I believe the stress we usually experience at work is not because of Adam's sin, but because of our own. We feel the pressure to succeed at work for various reasons (survival, respect, wealth, security, etc.)--most of which are lies. But the stress comes when we start adapting ourselves to worldly methods and standards for success. We set love aside to "do business." We don't give freely, we sell ourselves; we don't put others first, we promote ourselves; we don't turn the other cheek, we fight for "our rights." We make sinful choices and our work becomes sin. That's the source of the horrible stress--not Adam, not God. And this ugly compromise with (surrender to) the world we call 'work'; and we have the nerve to quote Paul and say "Those who don't 'work' should not eat." What a twisted perversion of work and God's word! Work is one thing, selling ourselves to the world and its Prince is another.

I accept "the sweat of your brow." It means sore feet, but it's a soreness that need not disturb the peace of the soul. It's a good soreness, a merciful soreness. Because it is from God, and everything from God is good and compassionate, even his rebukes. The other, life-sucking stress of work, however, I denounce. We are not victims of it, we are perpetrators of it--on ourselves and on others. It is against Christ and to accept it is to deny the good news of his gospel. The product of a "sinful and adulterous generation," as Jesus used to say. God's idea of work is something else entirely. Like the difference between the roaring of the highway behind me, and the gentle splash of a fish on the lake before me.

7.15.2004

speaking of intense discussions...

Here's another good Calvin & Hobbes I just found:


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7.14.2004

kicking the soap box

Because of Heather's work with the interns here (and my interest in them), I've been trying to be more involved in some bible studies and group discussions. But it's not working. I just get too frustrated and impatient. And then when I try to offer something (or respond to what I'm hearing), usually what I say is so "extreme" that it's immediately rejected. So I feel like I'm not helping (and maybe even hurting). I've been feeling the same way during sermons at church, too. I get frustrated by what's being preached and then wonder if I should try to say something about it, but in the rare cases I do that people get pretty upset. Which can be damaging to relationships and harden hearts. It makes me think of Jesus words about not putting new wine into old wineskins.

So I wonder again if I should just avoid engaging in direct debate and discussion in those forums. I don't want to disrupt any good that's happening there, and I don't find the people that gather there being especially open to what I have to offer. They came to hear the pastor or bible study leader, and discuss with other people like themselves.

And I don't recall Jesus arguing with other scribes or rabbis during their teaching. He listened, and often critiqued them and their teaching later. And he responded to their (sometimes loaded) questions--but that was when they approached him (or interrupted his teaching). Otherwise, he simply taught those who were interested in hearing him. He didn't need to try to take over the pulpits of others because people would find him if they really wanted to hear what he taught. And those were exactly the ones who "had ears to hear."

Actually, it seems that Jesus didn't even try to provide direct or in-depth explanations to the public, "the multitudes," but saved that for his disciples. The crowds got only his little stories: parables. This is emphasized in Jesus' words and actions in Mark 4:

When he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables..."

...With many such parables he spoke the word to [the people], as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.


So I think I'll drop the group discussions and focus instead on writing stories again (to share with anyone and everyone). And not try to engage people in in-depth discussions and explanations unless they're coming to me and I get the sense that they're open and ready.

I'd do much better to forget about the crowds gathered around pulpits and soap boxes. And just focus on that one person God puts in front of me.



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7.13.2004

"both extremes at once"

Last night after a group discussion someone prayed that we be delivered from "extreme" views and beliefs and guided into the way between. After the prayer I said to her, "If you keep praying away the extremes, you'll be praying me away."

I could have also said, "You'll be praying Jesus away." Because Jesus is the most extreme person I know.

That reminds me of a discussion I started a while ago in the Jesus Radicals forum. Here's some excerpts...

I recently read this good quote by Blaise Pascal:
I do not admire the excess of virtue, such as valor, unless at the same time I see an excess of the corresponding virtue; [such as] extreme valor with extreme gentleness. For otherwise there is not a rise, but a fall. A person does not show their greatness by going to one extreme, but by reaching both extremes at once, and by filling up all between.
I know I am often disappointed by "radicals" of both the right and the left, maybe because they go to one extreme while abandoning the other (rather than "reaching both extremes at once").

And I see Jesus reaching both extremes, by being courageous and gentle (nonviolent), for example, or forgiving generously and holding an extremely high moral standard.


...Pascal's way of putting it appeals to me because I really don't like the idea of "balance." I usually hear balance used as an admonition against those who would "go to extremes," telling them not too go to far in any one direction.

Also, doesn't balance indicate division within us--in other words, "double-mindedness"? You have to have two sides to balance a scale, and usually people talk about balancing many parts of their life (like keeping a bunch of plates all spinning at once). But I hear us being called as Christians to single-mindedness. To focus on the "one thing needful." To hear God's singular will (for me at this moment) and do it, without weighing (balancing) it with any other concern. All this makes me want to leave the balancing to Aristotle (with his "golden mean") and follow Jesus' higher, more extreme Way.

For example: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes some extreme statements, personally reinterpreting the Law, "You have heard that it was said... But I tell you..." Quite a radically "progressive" thing to do, especially with sacred Law. But he precedes all this with:
"Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.

"For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
Can you get more morally "conservative" than that?


...Jesus' adherance to the "jot and tittle" of the law, denouncing anyone who would relax "the least of these commandments" is very conservative and strict (morally). More extreme to the right than most conservatives. Saying it's adultery to even look at a woman lustfully. Promising hell to anyone who calls their neighbor a fool. Etc.

But then Jesus takes "an eye for an eye" (a conservative's favorite) and extends it to the other extreme with "turn the other cheek." Give to everyone who asks of you. Love your enemy. Do not resist the evil man. This is more to the extreme left than any leftist I've known is willing to go.

I think "do not resist the evil man" sums it up nicely. The evil is recognized and condemned (as "evil")--there's no excuses like "he grew up in a bad environment," "it's not clear what's right or wrong here," etc. But, even with Jesus' extreme condemnation of evil, he also demonstrates the other extreme of nonresistance and unbounded willingness to forgive.


I also liked this comment by a friend:
The call to "moderation" is too often used to subvert the radical nature of the Gospel that calls us to live completely and totally other than the State and our culture would have us live.

This call for moderation is also too often a disguised and philosophical justification of cowardice as well. In the face of evil, in the name of "balance and moderation" we will not oppose, but will sit back and watch because we dont want to be [labeled] "extremists."

7.11.2004

Jesus stayed

I was talking with Eric the other night and he mentioned the tendency to start a new church (of your own) when differences of belief or practice cause too much tension. This seems to be a poor response. For one thing, it sets you up for division again later (when someone in your new church disagrees strongly), and leads to the endless fracturing of denominations that we see in our country today.

But, more importantly, did Jesus do this?

I think it's surprising that Jesus stayed a practicing Jew and did not break away. Though he had extreme disagreements with the religious leaders and teachers of his time, he continued to worship and teach in the temple and synagogues. Though there was increasing tension, he did not leave. And he continued to present himself as the fulfillment of the Jewish law and hopes (not something new), as one sent to call back the chosen people of God.

So it seems to me that Jesus' followers should do likewise. Don't start new churches. At least not where there are plenty already. But go to the churches like Jesus went to the synagogues, calling back the people of God. Call them back by staying but living differently. I see this in Jesus' life, and in his teaching such as at the beginning of Matthew 23:

"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice."
The only way we can follow this teaching is by staying (and living differently). Of course we may be sent away like Jesus and his disciples sometimes were. But that shouldn't cause us to give up and invent a new denomination, one more detached group of people. We should wipe the dust from our feet and move on to the next church, where we will probably find some people we can recognize as brothers and sisters in Christ, and have the opportunity to call others back to faithfulness.

In this way I also see Jesus avoiding the institutionalization of his "Way." He didn't focus on forming organizations or codifying his teaching into a "mission statement" or institutional doctrines. Jesus simply lived the kingdom of God within the existing organizations of his time. He moved and worked freely in and through the existing social structures, without being limited or controlled by them and without having to control them himself. He neither needed institutional support, nor needed to support institutional weight.

I find this wonderful and powerful and hopeful.

7.10.2004

"I live here too!"

Here's part of the message I sent to Erin this morning (the parts in quotes are her comments). I think it's a good description of what's going on right now...

Enjoying a quiet Saturday morning here. Maybe later today Heather and I will go and restore a mural that someone defaced with some especially nasty graffiti. Heather noticed it and wanted to fix it. Cool, huh?

"Your medical bills seem to be generating lots of things for you. How are they going now that you're home?" My bills have slowly risen to about $28,000 now, but I'm more and more sure they will be completely cancelled. Two doctors have already said I don't have to pay (their bills were smaller ones, but they also don't have so many resources to draw on so I thought they might be more demanding). The hospital sent forms to demonstrate my financial situation/need. But they're asking for income tax returns, pay check stubs, bank account statements--none of which I have. The only thing I can send them is a simple form stating that Reba (or Julius) is providing room and board for me. So I think I will qualify for coverage of all my hospital costs (>$25,000).

One thing I learned from this is that in the future I want to make it very clear to everyone involved in advance that I cannot pay them. I'll tell every doctor that sees me. I've apologized for not doing that this time. Telling them that probably won't affect the care (especially if it's an emergency) but I think it's only fair to warn them in advance, and give them the freedom to choose how much time or resources they want to spend.

I think Heather (among others) is learning much from this too. I'm glad she's getting to see it. Because her future might look very similar if we end up staying together long term.

"I want to encourage you in your childlike trust" Thanks. There are plenty of people (including Christians, even people here at Reba) who seem pretty committed to discouraging such trust. When I said I didn't want to go to doctors that "had to" treat me (because they work in a county clinic) but wanted treatment from doctors that "wanted to" treat me (even though they knew I couldn't pay), someone here told me "then you'll die." Because "that's not how the world works."

I replied (a bit angrily), "Don't tell me how the world works--I live here too!"

7.09.2004

a question for parents

I laughed at Calvin this morning. It reminded me of recent conversations on parenting and family...


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7.08.2004

by simone weil

Here's two passages from Simone Weil's Waiting For God that I read to Heather last night (because they echoed some of her own thoughts):


Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one's attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough.

In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail (the miraculous vessel that satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated Host) belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralyzed by the most painful wound, "What are you going through?"

The love of neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: "What are you going through?" It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from a social category labeled "unfortunate," but as a person, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but indispensable, to know how to look at that person in a certain way.

This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.

Only those who are capable of attention can do this.

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We know then that joy is the sweetness of contact with the love of God, that affliction is the wound of this same contact when it is painful, and that only the contact matters, not the manner of it.

It is the same as when we see someone very dear to us after a long absence; the words we exchange with him do not matter, but only the sound of his voice, which assures us of his presence.

7.07.2004

"Follow me"

I've been thinking a lot about community and how it often gravitates towards the "lowest common denominator." Even (or especially) in Christian community. In trying to be "loving" or "accepting" of the spiritually weaker or less mature individuals, the community tends to become characterized by (and ordered around) what the least Christ-like among them can handle. Which tends to drag others down rather than lifting the weakest up.

I know several things Paul says tends to suggest we adapt ourselves to "the weaker brother." And I think there is something important in that. We shouldn't tempt a weaker conscience or push people beyond what they can do in faith. But I like what Paul says in Romans 14 (one of those "weaker brother" passages):

Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
We readily accept the "make peace" part ("Don't rock the boat", "Can't everyone just get along?," etc). But we often overlook the "mutual upbuilding" part. Really, I think those two are often in tension--what makes for mutual upbuilding usually disturbs the peace!

And look at Jesus in his relationship to his close community of disciples. Did he slow down for them? Did he take the wider, easier path because he knew his disciples couldn't keep up if he took the narrow, difficult way? No. He took the hard, perfect Way--even though he ended up leaving all his disciples behind! (At the garden of Gethsemene--though his example there and on the cross helped the disciples catch up with him eventually.)

Jesus' community is definitely not a "lowest common denominator" community. He regularly disturbed the communal peace for the sake of mutual upbuilding, and even warned his disciples about this:
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

"For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a person's foes will be those of their own household." (Mt 10.34-36)


Jesus called his community together with the words, "Follow me." The only way to be a part of his community was to stay close to him, in the very risky and challenging places he was going. Thus Jesus community was (and always is) characterized by him--not by the member weakest in faith, but by the most perfect.

Again, the only way we can be among Jesus' followers is by following (not just by "being loved" where we are). The only way we can stay close to him is by being where he is.

And he's way at the front of the pack.

7.06.2004

kids and grown-ups

I liked this passage from A Prayer for Owen Meany:

Until the summer of '62, I thought childhood and adolescence were a purgatory without apparent end; I thought youth, in a word, "sucked." But Owen Meany, who believed he knew when and how he was going to die, was in no hurry to grow up....

...By the end of the summer of 1962, Owen Meany had made me afraid of what the next phase was going to be. I didn't want to grow up anymore; what I wanted was for Owen and me to go on being kids for the rest of our lives--sometimes Canon Mackie tells me, rather ungenerously, that I have succeeded. Canon Campbell, God Rest His Soul, used to tell me that being a kid for the rest of my life was a perfectly honorable aspiration.


I had thoughts similar to this while visiting Becky's young family this past week. Partially because of the continual contact with the lives of her children, but also because being with her and her husband (with their impressive accomplishments, career, family, etc) stirred doubtful feelings in me that perhaps I wasn't quite a "grown up." I've struggled and thought about that for a few days now.

Then this morning I remembered a discussion I started a while back, at Christmas time: Adults and Children. I opened it with this:
I think Christmas really emphasizes the contrast between adults and children. The delight and surprise seen in the eyes of children, and the tension and fatigue seen around the eyes of the adults. It's pretty much a cliche that Christmas is a time of anticipation for children, but usually a time of tension for adults. Often, I even hear adults admitting that most of the joy they do find in Christmas is experienced vicariously, though the children.

This is a generalization, of course. But isn't there something to it? Doesn't it have something to do with the fact that adults feel responsible for making Christmas happen--while children simply receive it?

The scripture that comes to mind is Mk 10.15:
"Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."
I think there's something important in this contrast between adults and children (not just at Christmas). Something about "receiving the kingdom of God as a child."

Spiritual maturity is not about becoming "responsible" or "building the kingdom of God." It's not about becoming an adult, if becoming adult means taking charge, making things happen, managing the world, etc. Sometimes I think our natural process of aging (old people becoming weak again, like a child) shows us a lot about how we are to mature spiritually.

This is just a brief sketch, but what do you think? Isn't this especially relevant to "adult" Christians who feel responsible for shaping world events, social structures, etc.? (I'm thinking of the "adult" mindset behind phrases such as "The sure way to let evil prevail is for the good person to do nothing," etc.)



Here's Calvin & Hobbes on adults and children...

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7.05.2004

"corporate sin"?

I'm back from Colorado, after a great visit with Becky, Jared, and the kids. I really feel close to them and hope we continue to have opportunities to be together like this past week. And I'm so grateful to them for flying me out there and sharing their family and home with me.

Lots of good discussions. Especially the one about family, and ways to be focused together on a common purpose (or ministry) rather than becoming completely child-focused, like I see so much in young families. This was encouraging. Because I really can't see myself living a family life that's totally dominated and determined by children's desires (or what society thinks children "must" have), and I even think it's better for the children to grow up as part of something more ultimate than their own immediate wants.

We agreed on most things. But I resisted strongly their idea of "corporate sin" (that since we inevitably share/participate economically and physically with the society around us, we are also implicated in the evil/sin of others in society--and this is something we cannot escape; we can only be freed of this evil/sin if we all are freed together, which of course is not happening anytime soon). The discussion reminded me of another discussion from the Jesus Radicals forum (a couple years ago): "Original Sin"? "Collective Sin"?

One of my main objections is that "corporate sin" implies that we are guilty for the sins of others (because we enabled them in some way through our unavoidable inter-connectedness), implying that we sin without meaning to, without even knowing about it. This is not the understanding of sin Jesus preached, i.e. that sin is "in the heart," or in the intention/will (whether or not you're actually able to carry out that intention--for example Jesus said lust is sin, whether or not we actually commit adultery). In the forum discussion, I wrote:

Sins in the OT, especially as defined in books like Leviticus, were fixed, written laws. The Ten Commandments, plus a whole lot more. If you broke a law, if you did what "thou shalt not," then you "sinned." End of story. It didn't matter if you hadn't studied up on the laws. (Kinda like our legal system.) So sin, defined in this way, could be unintentional. All that mattered was whether or not you did it, not whether or not you knew about the law.

However, with the arrival of Christ, things change. For one, we are introduced to a deeper understanding of sin. An example of this appears in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5.21-48), where Jesus says over and over, "You have heard it was said that... But I tell you...." The lesson being that it's the heart, the motivation, the intent, that makes something a sin or not, not just the outward action. That's not to let people off the hook. Evil actions are still evil; we can't say "Yeah, I killed him, but my heart was in the right place." All of Jesus' "revisions" made the requirements much, much stricter. Not only do our actions have to be right, our heart also has to be pure. We have to follow the spirit of the law, not just the letter.

Jesus emphasizes this again during his "Sabbath breaking" incidents. And Paul writes very strongly on "new covenant" issues and "the letter" vs. "the spirit." But I think the point is made: Sin is not "breaking a fixed set of rules." Sin is wrong intent. If love (God's will) is truly our intention, then we are not sinning. If anything else is our intention, we are sinning. Of course, we can lie to ourselves about our intentions (i.e. when our intent is bad and we won't admit it). That's usually the problem. But the question of sin is always a question of intention. Sin is intent.
I think this is important, so we don't externalize (or legal-ize) sin. I also think it's very important understand that sin is something that we can be freed from, that we never need remain in slavery to it (at least not since Christ's coming). Jesus preached the good news of release from the evil ways that bound us, the possibility of freedom and new life in him. That's what I want to preach as well. And preach against any concept of sin that is "unavoidable" or "inescapable."

Jesus made clear what sin is, and opened the path to true freedom for us--right now.

7.02.2004

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7.01.2004

covenant and "neighbor"

I had some good, long conversations with Becky yesterday (only briefly interrupted at times to run and see why one of the kids was being "too quiet").

One interesting thing that came up was the idea of covenant. Becky sees covenant as a much better model for our relational commitments and responsibilities than the more common concept of "contract." Covenant is a much deeper and fuller commitment (more like what you see between parents and children, for example), not limited to narrowly-defined, legally enforced, contractual terms.

And I agree that covenant is a better model for our commitments than contract. But I tend to think that even covenant is not broad enough, and not adequate for Christians for two important reasons: (1) because it defines our commitment too narrowly, diverting our attention from "outsiders" who we should also be serving, and (2) because it obscures our view of the wider community (the Body of Christ), which we are truly a part of, and which we need to be aware of to fully experience and serve God in peace and joy.

The parable of the Good Samaritan (in Luke 10) illustrates this well, I think:

And [the lawyer] answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."

And [Jesus] said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you will live." But [the lawyer], desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, 'Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.'

"Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?"

He said, "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Looking at this first from the perspective of the Samaritan, we see him looking beyond his own community, his obvious responsibilites to his own family and people, and demonstrating a committed love to someone who was "foreign" and even an (assumed) enemy to him. This goes far beyond contract and even covenant to demonstrate the unbounded generosity of the love Jesus spoke of and demonstrated.

On the other hand, from the perspective of the Jewish person, we see a disappointing picture. Two Jewish leaders ignore one of their own in need. Which is disheartening, discouraging. If we identify ourselves merely with the Jewish community, with this covenant people of God, we might conclude that the covenant doesn't mean much, that the "community" is not much of a reality (as we also as Christians may conclude when looking at our churches).

But what if we can recognize that this particular inspiring Samaritan (or this particular inspiring Catholic, or that prophetic Baptist, or even this heroic Buddhist) is also "one of us"? Though he may not be "of the covanent," he demonstrates by his living Love that he too is part of the one Community, a member of the one Body with us. And to see this is encouragement and a powerful experience of brotherhood.

Isn't this what Jesus calls us to (or invites us into) by his powerful answer to "Who is my neighbor?"


I see a similar radical transcending and broadening of relational commitments (even specifically addressing the family commitment) in this little story:
[Jesus'] mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you."

And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother." (Mk 3.31-35)