A couple people have asked why I haven't written much lately. So I guess I should say something without waiting any longer.
Part of the silence was because we were having such a good time in Evanston with our old Reba Place friends and Ric and Helen, Heather's uncle and aunt. But perhaps a bigger part was because I felt my immediate future was so undecided. The feeling of uncertainty and confusion made it hard to gather good thoughts.
When I got back to Champaign, I called the retreat place folks (the Mahoneys, who I had been talking to). They said there were several aspects of my background that made me seem like a good fit there, but now wasn't a good time to come. That really disappointed me. But they offered some good suggestions. Since their ministry is mostly to people that have gone through a 12-step program (like Alcoholics Anonymous), they recommended getting familiar with that program and the spirituality it teaches. They build on that in their retreats. And they also suggested contacting a Jesuit in Chicago who is doing similar retreats with the homeless and recovering addicts. I did that, even hoping to move to Chicago and work with him, but that wasn't possible. So I'm planning to try to stay here and get involved with Al-Anon. The Mahoneys suggested I keep in touch and that they might be able to accomodate me in about six months.
This is hard, because I didn't think I could keep up the work here for much longer. But it would be very good to stay with Heather. She's planning a trip to Africa with a friend that would start about six months from now, so the timing is good. I'll just have to see if I can work out the living and working arrangement until then. I've moved out of the office (where I slept on the couch and had night duty every night), which is good, but now I'm on the couch in the other house. It'll be a little rough. But maybe I can think of it as another experience of poverty, having no bed of my own.
I'm trusting that this is the better way, that God knows what he's doing and it's for everyone's good. But it's taking a lot of faith at the moment.
A couple people have asked why I haven't written much lately. So I guess I should say something without waiting any longer.
In darkness beasts stir
as a sudden tiny voice
sounds the spoken Word
That was my Christmas haiku a couple years ago. I thought of it again after re-reading that last post. With all the turmoil this year, I'm having trouble finding the focus to come up with a new one to send out before Christmas. But Heather and I are going to Evanston tonight for our Christmas break, so maybe there's still a chance.
I'm glad for the break after the past month. And I've basically decided I need to move on from here, though that has been a stressful decision since I haven't known where I could move on to. My one hint (from God, I hope) was a newsletter I happened to pick up here, right in the midst of my desperation, from a Catholic Worker house in the country that gives retreats to the poor. That sounded very interesting to me, and much closer to the ideal I've been leaning toward lately. I contacted them several weeks ago. At first they sounded hesitant, but it turns out they are looking for another volunteer there so I may be able to spend some extended time helping and learning from them. We'll see after the Christmas break.
Not sure what may come of this. But it seems like a possible step forward. And it feels like a way that God may have opened for me just when I needed it the most.
Another wrenching experience last night when a guy showed up at midnight, drunk, having been kicked out of both the men's shelters, afraid of freezing to death in the snow. I listened for a while and then gave him the blankets he asked for, but didn't feel I could let him sleep inside with all the women here. (I saw him again this morning, so I know he survived, but I was worried last night.) Again I am crushed by the inadequacy of the material help we can offer. I know Dorothy Day also complained of this, how wretched it often seemed to her. I'm being pummeled relentlessly with it right now...
One reason I came here to the Catholic Worker was because I saw the danger of our faith, and the spiritual help we offer, being "only words." Material help like we do here seemed much more real. I was very aware of passages like this one:
If any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. (1 Jn 4.17-18)And I think there still is an important point here about not letting our words be hypocritical. If we say we care, we should share anything we have to give.
But this should not be taken to mean that material help is "more real" than words in all cases. It should not make us devote ourselves to material things first, saving the spiritual for later, when the person's life is in order. For many people, this point may never be reached. And this certainly is not the way Jesus acted. He preached to the people first, then fed them; he forgave the paralytic's sins first, then healed him. It was clear what was of first importance with Jesus.
And what of Jesus' many words? Looking at the passage quoted yesterday, we see how Jesus saw his own mission: "to preach good news," "to proclaim release." Words. And this is what he did, not physically opening jails or throwing off oppressors, but announcing freedom. Even his healings came, not through physical skill or work, but through the healing word.
So I think I need to get rid of this idea that material helping is more real. Our words can certainly be hypocritical or false, and our deeds can reveal this, but that doesn't mean our physical abilities or work are more important than our words. Actually, I think those actions only have ultimate value if they are means of communicating, like words. Jesus himself, in all parts of his life, became the living Word.
And for the anawim, the poor, the powerless, who don't have much of material value to offer, isn't it important to see the value of their words? They can still communicate the word of God.
What is to be avoided is hypocritical words, false words, empty words. Jesus' words were true, and they carried the power of God. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power." (1 Cor 4.20) But this power is not the power of wealth or organizations. It is the power of God that is "made perfect through weakness," the power working through his Word.
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. In his poverty, his meekness (powerlessness), and the oppression he endured. This is something I've noticed myself and I think we ought to follow his example in this (and I've been trying for years). But Jesus also saw his ministry directed towards the anawim:
Jesus went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah.Jesus quotes the beginning of Isaiah 61, recalling the prophet's promises to the anawim. This makes me want to become the anawim myself, to receive these promises and to follow Jesus' example, and I also want to direct my attention to them as Jesus did.
He opened the book and found the place where it was written, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor (anawim, in Is 61.1). He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Lk 4.16-21)
Often we do that in our charities. But we don't do it as Jesus did. We offer our help by bringing money and the power of our organizations, while Jesus came as the poor among the poor. But how do we help if we're the anawim ourselves?
The day before yesterday Heather offered to drive the woman to a motel, and there were more tense scenes as we loaded the car and made arrangements. I tried not to argue, since we had all been arguing with her for days.
But later I found out that as Heather was leaving the motel room, the woman hugged her.
O when the world's at peace
and every man is free
then I will go down unto my love.
O and I may go down
several times before that.
That "The Mad Farmer's Love Song," by Wendell Berry. I like it. I think it says the final joy can be enjoyed even now, echoing Dorothy Day's line, "Eternal life begins now." She also used to quote Catherine of Siena: "All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, 'I am the Way.'"
That speaks to my hope and desire (and need) that we are not determined and bound by the limitations of this non-eternal life. That we need not accept that the only way to help some people is to kick other people out (or lock up those people or execute them, etc). That may be the only way if the help we offer is mere human help: money, food, housing. But Jesus offered help that does not run out, that is not limited, that cannot be stolen...
If we're offering what Jesus offered, we need never say, "Sorry, there's nothing left for you." There is always more and more to give. That is freedom. That is joy.
The woman is leaving here today (going to a motel temporarily, then I don't know). Everyone is exhausted. But I refuse to accept the "necessity" of this situation; I refuse to accept it as part of life. It is not the freedom of eternal life. And there is evidence that this freedom does exist, even right now in the midst of it all.
My moments of freedom these past few days:
Going to her room, crying, and apologizing for my part in this and taking myself out of the decision-making process. Saying we both need to find a better place for us, and that I realized I needed to leave too. Telling her I thought we both needed help to find our way ahead and asking her to please accept the help of doctors.
Then, this morning, making breakfast for our guests (something I haven't had energy to do in quite a while): fresh-baked biscuits, bacon, eggs, coffee. Six of us sitting around the table enjoying the food, including the woman who is leaving. Then finding a back-pack and a big container in the attic to pack her things in.
Eternal life can begin right now.
I came across these words in John 4 this morning, reading the story of the woman at the well:
Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."And I quoted similar words of Jesus a few days ago (from John 6): "This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever." It brings to mind again the contrast between mere material help and the kind of help Jesus offered. We feed someone at our table and they are hungry again in a few hours. But Jesus gave us something to offer that becomes a source of life in whoever receives it.
The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw."
Though everyone supports and honors those who are willing and able to provide meals and shelter, it's obvious that Jesus was not satisfied with doing this. He had much more to offer--and his followers should, too.
Yesterday was the worst yet for me here. The way it's usually explained is "We had to ask someone to leave." Of course the person leaving saw it as being kicked out. And in this case she saw it as unfair and cruel, since she doesn't know where else to go and it's winter and right before Christmas. The decision seemed unavoidable because of the disruption being caused in the house involving this woman's struggles with mental illness, but she didn't see it as unavoidable. And it's hard not to agree with her that it was an exercise of power against her by those in control of the house. I agreed she needed to find a better place for herself. But the kicking out is something I cannot feel good about. Or ever do again.
The complexity and difficulty of the situation made it hard to see any alternative, if the house is to be kept livable. I can definitely understand now why people make decisions like that. But if this is what is sometimes required of those who run a house like this, then I have to question whether it's right take on that role (or remain in it once we understand what it asks of us, and what Jesus asks of us). At least I know I can't feel good about doing it.
But I have hope that there is another way. Jesus provided much more than food and shelter, to anyone who asked, and he didn't need property or organizations or fundraisers to do it.
Please, God, show me how...
Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms.
And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, "Look at us." And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them.
But Peter said, "I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk."
And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.
I love that story, from the third chapter of Acts. I've thought of it several times during the last few days as I struggled to express my present concerns and desires to others here (and to myself). Those words: "I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have..." And what he offers is the power of God.
That's what I want. To set aside the human powers of wealth and force and instead offer to people the transforming power of God. To help people not with money or institutional power but through the spiritual power that points directly to God. Like Jesus did. A poor man who set the example that God later explained to Paul: "My power is made perfect in weakness."
Someone responded a couple days ago saying that I shouldn't expect to be Jesus (or Peter either, I suppose) and should just offer whatever good I can and be satisfied with that and "give myself a break." But I don't think it's a matter of demanding too much of myself. I don't expect to save the world. But I see what God did through Jesus and I know Jesus offered us the opportunity to "follow me" and experience God working through us in the same incredible ways. I want this. I don't demand it of myself, I desire it with all my heart and can't be satisfied until I can experience all that Jesus promised. "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do..." (Jn 14.12)
Why should we settle for less? Isn't such a life (the life of the kingdom, eternal life, the life Jesus demonstrated) the pearl of great price for which we should sell everything because it's the only thing that matters?
Walking back to the house the other day, I was greeted by Lupe bounding across the yard. Dan often parks his van (which he lives in) in the parking lot by our house and his dog Lupe is very friendly. And energetic. It's hard to keep her in one spot for any amount of time, or on the ground, for that matter.
So I stopped to talk with Dan for a few minutes, and one thing he said was that some of the guests at soup kitchen were getting rougher. More intimidating. And the first thing I thought about was what it is that attracts people like that. What do they value? I remembered Jesus' warning, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal..."
And here we have gathered treasures on earth, in locked rooms and in bank accounts; though it is not for ourselves, it is still treasure that others want. Though how could we serve others without laying up such things? I'm not sure. But Jesus did it.
Then last night a guest came in excited and announced that she had been hired for a full-time job at Sam's Club. We all congratulated her. But afterwards I felt depressed by that. Is that what I hope for the people I'm trying to serve? That they get a job and can make money (while I'm moving in the opposite direction myself)? And we had just seen a documentary about Wal-mart (the owner of Sam's Club), the largest corporation in the world, known for abuses of many kinds, including many against its own workers. And this is what we have to rejoice about? If she was excited about doing work that she was gifted for, that she found satisfying, I think I could gladly rejoice with her. But it's hard not to think this is just about making money, and probably will come at a great cost to herself. Is this the "abundant life" that Jesus invited us into?
This morning I remembered an incident from a few weeks back. A college student was writing an article about our house, sitting with us at dinner and asking questions of people around the table. And when she asked if we had any last message to tell people, one guy said, "Everyone should be doing this."
It made me uncomfortable at the time, primarily because the guy who said it was a former volunteer, someone who was no longer "doing this." And now I'm even more uncomfortable with that message. I do think that everyone is called to offer hospitality, to care for the poor, to get personally involved in the needs of those we meet and share what we have (these have been my best experiences here). But I don't think everyone should be starting soup kitchens and shelters, or even promoting them. And I understand better why people don't usually last very long doing this full-time (this is true throughout the Catholic Worker movement). I definitely don't think this is the ideal model for Christian service.
Is this the way Jesus served?
"Thou didst reject the one infallible banner which was offered Thee to make all men bow down to Thee alone--the banner of earthly bread; and Thou hast rejected it for the sake of freedom and the bread of Heaven."
That's Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor talking to Jesus (that I quoted a couple weeks ago). And I think the story in John 6 says something similar. It begins:
There was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.Jesus is bothered that they just come back for the food. He cared about their hunger, and he provided for their need very generously, but he does not want to become a one-man soup kitchen. He meant the food as a sign, not just another meal. And he's not willing to provide more food for those who are just seeking that. He rejects the "one infallible banner" of bread, for which the people will gladly come again and again. And here again, as with the devil, his response is that "man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God":
...On the next day boats from Tiberias came near the place where they ate the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the people saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. And when they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, "Rabbi, when did you come here?"
Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you..."
They said to him, "Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"
Jesus then said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world."
They said to him, "Lord, give us this bread always."
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. ...This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever." This he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" ...After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.
I'm not sure what this says about the work here (a work people readily understand and honor and support). But it does seem to fit with my growing dissatisfaction with the pressures and demands to "provide services." The constant flow of people just wanting food or shelter or money. And coming here because it's a soup kitchen and shelter, which are not about inspiring faith (or requiring faith of those who come, as Jesus did) but about putting food on the table.
Are we taking up the "infallible banner" that Jesus rejected?
I do still think it's possible to love people here in a Christlike way, provide "signs" of God's love, and I plan to continue to try to do that (and learn to do it better). But I also think the soup kitchen model is lacking, and I feel the need to look beyond it.
On servanthood (from the old entry I mentioned yesterday):
...not just performing “a service,” but actually putting ourselves in the vulnerable position of a servant. The dependent position. In which our own will and needs are set aside to attend to the needs of another. In which the one being helped is not humiliated (as a beggar) but we put ourselves in the humbler position.
The intention is to direct attention to the God we serve, who is the true benefactor for all of us. The desire is not to direct people’s attention to ourselves or encourage them to put their trust in us or become dependent on us. This would do nothing to address the deeper, more important problem of our separation from God. We are to show—in all areas of our lives, just as Jesus did—that we are all dependent on God. And that it is in faith, trusting God in our dependence and weakness, that we find God.
This morning a man walked in and sat on the couch. I told him we weren't open, but he seemed distressed and complained about falling and hurting his elbow. So I offered him some coffee and Tylenol and let him sit for a while. Talking with him, I guessed that he had some mental health issues (and may have been drinking). But he did ask at one point why I was so caring. I just said God has cared for me.
But I don't think I've focused on this as much as I should have since I've been here. The pressure to "provide services" is pretty strong. From the guests, from each other, even from within myself. That's what a soup kitchen or shelter is for, right?
Bread makes sense to people. A bed makes sense. What does "dependence on God" have to do with anything?
I've been thinking about John 6 lately, where Jesus challenged the people for just coming back to him for more food. And then didn't give them any more. There seems to be something important there. I think I'll take a closer look at that in the next few days...
Illness and fatigue made me take an at-home retreat during the beginning of this week, but I was recovered enough to help with the flurry of Thanksgiving activity yesterday. And I think I'm up for making pizza tonight (people will have had enough turkey and dressing by then).
But I feel like God is trying to get my attention. Trying to call me back perhaps. I think I've gotten distracted by all the action and need here and so have forgotten something important. One thought that came to me during my rest-and-pray time was about handling stressful and challenging situations, and about how the spiritual life is involved:
A deep spiritual life is not required to make us strong in difficult situations; adrenaline and the instinct to survive can do that. The spiritual life is required to allow us to be weak in difficult situations. To keep us from despair or from fleeing. And make it possible to endure and keep loving though we are vulnerable and humanly powerless.
Looking back on this journal entry from a year ago also challenges me now, as it's hard not to be the "benefactor" here. I don't know what to make of all this yet. But I think I'm being called to some sort of change...
The second chapter of Ecclesiastes ends with these lines, which I've found intriguing and hopeful:
To the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God.
This contrasts the futility of the struggle for survival with the joy of being provided for by God. Thinking of that yesterday, I looked again at these words of Jesus that also focus on receiving what we need as a gift from God:
"Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you..." (Jn 6.27)
"Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.
"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." (Lk 12.29-32)
Those verses have been sweet to me. And central in my actual experiences of poverty and need over the past several years. But I feel like recently I've gotten away from the gratitude of being provided for and shifted more to being the provider for the needy. You'd think that would feel good, but it doesn't. How to go back?
I've noticed that the poor are often eager to share their experience and tell others where they can also find help. Can I reposition myself from being the provider to being a co-recipient, sharing with others where they can also find help? That's actually closer to the literal truth for me here...
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
We're looking at the first chapters of Ecclesiastes tomorrow during our bible study. And I've been thinking about those verses a lot lately. Because the futility of the struggle for survival can weigh very heavy around here.
It's most obvious on those unfortunate ones that come to our door with absolutely nothing, and have to work so hard just to make a beginning again. So much effort for so little. And the fulfillment of their hopes is such a terribly long way ahead of them, often too far to even imagine.
But also I've experienced the futility of my own efforts here. The impossibility of keeping anything clean or in order; too many other hands to take and use them, too many tired or despairing people that leave things worse than they found them. And for every person that is helped, two more needy ones step into his place. "Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, and I feel it.
Yet there is also this reminder from Paul: "the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope" (Rom 8.20).
I believe even in the futility there is purpose. It helps turn our hearts away from dedicating ourselves to, and putting our trust in, these things that do not last. Away from any hope in what our own hands can gather or accomplish. Even if we are doing "charitable" work, these false hopes are very much a temptation. I've felt busy Martha's irritation several times in the past few days. So I am grateful to be shown the futility of my efforts so that I am reminded of the "one thing needful."
If I give away all I have,
and if I deliver my body to be burned,
but have not love,
I gain nothing...
Love bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.
That's Fritz Eichenberg's Lord's Supper. Our newsletter just came back from the printer with that picture on the front page (and it looks great).
Our supper last night was very good, too. A full table (around homemade pizzas, my Friday specialty) because Vicky and the four boys were home for dinner. And we found out they got an apartment with the help of their church, which is great news. Though that may mean that was our last evening with them. There was a shaving cream incident, one minor buttocks injury (a failed cartwheel), and an awkward moment when the seven-year-old asked Heather if she had underwear on. And lots of laughing. All in all, a great success.
And there were a few slices of pizza left over for the couple that we asked to move out (they're still in the process). They said they're going to be able to stay with a friend for a while. And they're still friendly with us (Heather even got a hug). It's been difficult and we definitely made mistakes, but I was impressed that there's still good feeling there, even friendship--how often does that happen when there's such trouble that people are asked to leave? So we must have done something right. Thanks, God, for your grace in that situation.
And thank you for being at our table tonight.
Lately I've been so focused on dealing with the stresses and questions of suffering that I've forgotten to mention some joyful moments:
Sharing a pint of Guinness with Heather as we listened to musicians playing traditional Irish music together. There were fiddles and penny whistles, a guitar and a drum, and also some singing. They just sat in a circle and followed each other's lead. And we got to listen (Heather also happily sang along on a couple of the songs she knew).Our hope is in you, Father, who richly provide all things for us to enjoy.
Enjoying the sweet, flaky baklava that David (a soup kitchen guest that Heather has befriended) brought to us.
And the excellent chicken parmesan and tomato soup that Bob brought from restaurant at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. He also offered to get complimentary tickets for us.
Seeing Heather Clark (a Reba Place friend) at her sister-in-law's farm not far from here. They also had new kittens there, which Heather adored. Then, last night, seeing Cliff Kindy (Erin's dad) here giving a presentation on life in Iraq. These familiar faces have been a comfort; and we're planning to see more at Christmas time back in Evanston.
Sitting, thinking and praying in the little chapel at the Wesley Methodist church, my new quiet getaway now that the weather is cold. There are usually flowers there. And I like to look out the old, leaded windows at the stonework outside.
The Grand Inquisitor to Jesus:
"The freedom of their faith was dearer to Thee than anything in those days fifteen hundred years ago. Didst Thou not often say then, 'I will make you free'?
"But now Thou hast seen these 'free' men," the old man adds suddenly, with a pensive smile.
It is very painful to watch. To see people making choices that seem sure to lead to dead-ends, to dig them in deeper and leave them more desperate. And now that the cold has arrived, these missteps seem all the more frightening. I try to offer a better answer if I see one, but it is often not accepted. Then there's the tightness in the back of my neck as I watch them turn and set off on their tragic mission.
But what is the alternative? To take over people's lives? To threaten them with eviction if they do not accept our control over their decisions? Some ministries and most social services take that approach, because it does seem more effective, more efficient. But it doesn't respect people's freedom.
And, as the Inquisitor rightly says, Jesus held our freedom dear. He would not compel or buy our obedience, our love. He would rather endure our disobedience, painful as it was to him to watch us destroy ourselves, than force us to obey. God watches our excruciating disobedience every day. And then he continues to provide sun and rain for both the just and the unjust.
Can I bear to do that as well? To try to help with basic needs, to endure the pain of wrong choices, to hope they will learn and become more open to the wiser path, to plead for their voluntary turning. Respecting them as free persons, as Jesus always did.
Tonight our discussion will include reflections on Dostoyevsky's "Grand Inquisitor," especially this passage, where the Inquisitor challenges Jesus on how he responded to the devil's first temptation in the desert:
"Judge Thyself who was right--Thou or he who questioned Thee then? Remember the first question; its meaning, in other words, was this: 'Thou wouldst go into the world, and art going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread--for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom. But seest Thou these stones in this parched and barren wilderness? Turn them into bread, and mankind will run after Thee like a flock of sheep, grateful and obedient, though for ever trembling, lest Thou withdraw Thy hand and deny them Thy bread.' But Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth if obedience is bought with bread? Thou didst reply that man lives not by bread alone...
"Thou didst reject the one infallible banner which was offered Thee to make all men bow down to Thee alone--the banner of earthly bread; and Thou hast rejected it for the sake of freedom and the bread of Heaven."
And isn't this true? Jesus insisted on treating people as children of God, not simply animals to be fed and sheltered. This greatly complicated his mission, and he was ultimately rejected because of it, yet it was his central purpose and he never diverted from it no matter what the cost.
This also makes the work here much more complicated and confusing. It's straightforward enough how to feed and house people. But how to draw them out as children of God?
Often it seems like suffering people have come to see themselves as animals struggling merely to survive, and it's difficult not to take that same view of them. Yet I believe there is more in them, even at their lowest point. Yesterday I remembered one thing that the woman kept repeating in her despairing cries the other night. "...And no one cares. No one cares." That's not the complaint of an animal. It's agony of a person who seeks love, who seeks God.
I hope I demonstrated in a small way that night that someone does care. And I hope I can continue to care, though the suffering seems overwhelming and the needs keep coming. Dorothy Day preached that we should try to see Christ in every needy person. I don't believe in that. But I think it may be possible to see a person in every needy person, and care about those persons, encouraging them to discover themselves as children of God.
One of the passages read at church Sunday was Mk 6.31-34:
Jesus said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves.
Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them. As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd...
They keep coming. Friday night after we closed the house there were two emergency calls. One woman was stranded at the bus station and the security guard was calling to find her a place for the night. The other call was from a nurse at the hospital who had a woman there who was fleeing domestic abuse but could find no room at the local domestic abuse shelter (it was after midnight by this time).
I managed to let them in and provide a place on our couches. And the next morning Heather helped me sort out their stories and find bus fare to get them on their way. Heather was very good with the woman who was fleeing. She was nervous and needed to be comforted, and Heather invited her into her room and helped her prepare for her journey to a safer place. We felt good again about helping those two women.
But they keep coming. The very next night a woman showed up on the porch late, very drunk and crying. Her boyfriend had spend her money on drugs, money she had been saving to pay a fine that would keep her out of jail. When she got angry, he called the police and had her removed. Since she had no where else to go, they left her on our front porch.
She cried and talked for a long time. About her losses, her life of pain. And God. She said she believed in God, she believed there was a God, and she believed he hated her. She said she now understood how some women turned to prostitution, how others became criminals. Mostly I listened. And gave her some sliced turkey (she was ravenous for meat, since she had been living on noodles for quite a while). She thanked me for being a friend and eventually was able to sleep.
I felt pretty good about that night, though I was exhausted the next day. Heather helped me get some more rest. But the experience of the "great throng" in need makes me feel vulnerable. And the couple that was asked to leave our house is still around, having trouble actually making the move and not very open to my efforts to help.
I'm resisting the tendency to try to take control. I'm trying to rest in God's handling of the world and just do what I can to show love through personal contact and being a helpful servant. But it feels scary. Like many of the moments when I was out on the road and not knowing how things would turn out.
I'm reminded of these lines by Raissa Maritain, who I quoted in a journal entry this summer during my walk (there's also some other good insights in that journal entry, so I put it in our newsletter that's coming out this week):
I have the feeling that what is asked of us is to live in the whirlwind, without keeping back any of our substance, without keeping back anything for ourselves... in fact to let ourselves pitch and toss in the waves of the divine will till the day when it will say: "That's enough."
I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
I smiled as I chanted those lines from Psalm 40 this morning. The words fit me well, though perhaps I hadn't been waiting so patiently.
A few days ago the tensions in the house came to a head and some strict actions were taken to get things under control. Like in most situations where we begin to feel vulnerable, a more authoritarian approach was taken, and decisions were made that helped restore order quickly. And I agreed (though I tried to soften the blow to those affected by the decisions). But later I felt we hadn't been as wise or compassionate as we could have been. We were more concerned with feeling secure and solving the problem than with loving the "troublemakers."
That night I had a crisis, a kind of anxiety attack, a feeling of being trapped, of losing my bearings. "The desolate pit." And the next morning I realized that in slipping into the role of master in this house, I had lost my spiritual support. I was not called here to kick people out or force them to do right or decide their fate. I was called here to share the lives of the poor and vulnerable and try to help them. Shaken by the wrongdoing of some of these people, I had slipped into the role of master and gone along with the fears of myself and others, pulling away from the very people I was called to help, putting myself over them.
So that afternoon I went and ate at the soup kitchen with Heather. We enjoyed the lively conversation and there met the woman who had confused us with her long bath a few nights before. But instead of pulling away from her, we listened and helped her get the bus fare she needed. It felt great.
Then yesterday we got involved with another young couple (with some mental health problems) who were stranded without money and without identification. They could find no help. We tried everything, but could neither find them shelter (without ID) nor the large amount of money they needed for the trip home to Minneapolis. But we invited them to dinner and enjoyed their company anyway. And while we ate, a call came in from our church and they came through with the bus fare. The couple jumped up and down with joy. They left that same evening and should be arriving in her home town as I'm writing this.
Heather is also going this morning to help a mother and three kids get to the shelter in Bloomington. We're using the ticket that was not used by the woman who gave us so much trouble last week (she tried to exchange it for cash, but then returned it to us when she couldn't). And Heather said we had enough of our own money left to pay the kids' fare.
It all turned around so quickly and in such a powerful way, it seems like a miracle. My feet feel like they are back on the rock. I feel refined by the fire of this past week; I'm more clearly convicted that I must be a servant here and not a master.
A woman who spent the night with us last night confused and worried us all by spending almost three hours taking a bath. There were also many loud splashing sounds that we couldn't figure out. My best guess was that it was some kind of purification ritual for her (she was a rather unusual in other ways as well).
My shower this morning also felt like a purification after the hardships of this week. But water is not the only thing used for purification, as I was reminded as I read Isaiah 1 for our bible study tonight:
I will turn my hand against youThose words made me think of my comments about suffering yesterday. I think we have to be very careful in talking about suffering as punishment and trying to lay blame, which was the fault of Job's friends. But I think it is good to recognize suffering as a purifying fire. Later in Isaiah, the prophet speaks more explicitly:
and will smelt away your dross as with lye
and remove all your alloy. (Is 1.25)
Behold, I have refined you, but not like silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. (Is 48.10)
In Hebrews also, the writer speaks of God using suffering to purify us, saying "he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." (Heb 12.10-11) And he even says Jesus himself "learned obedience through what he suffered." (Heb 5.8)
We see this role of suffering also in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, where he is pressed hard by his circumstances and so turns back to his loving father.
Affliction and suffering as refinement. As purification. Not because God hates us or does not care (or can do nothing about it), but because God loves us and wants to draw us back to himself, to make us better, to perfect us, to make us one with him. That is one of the simplest spiritual truths to say, and one of the hardest to hold on to in the midst of suffering.
But it may be the "good news" that I can actually say to the poor and afflicted.
God did provide a place for that woman last Thursday, and we were able to get her a ticket to go there. But then that same night there was a very bad incident with another guest involving alcohol and a terrible fight that makes it clear that she needs to find a place that can give her and her husband more help. And the next day we found out the first woman tried to sell her ticket back and had spent the little money we gave her. So she never got to the place that was willing to take her in.
Yesterday I read this from Dorothy Day: "It is an agony to go through such bitter experiences, because we all want to love, we desire with a great longing to love our fellows, and our hearts are often crushed at such rejections." That was exactly how I was feeling.
And I needed to understand. Is this just a tragedy? Why is God letting them sink so low? How can I love them if they will not accept my help or even use the situation to dig themselves deeper in trouble?
Dorothy says, "I can only say the saints would only bow their heads and try not to understand or judge." But I don't find this an acceptable answer. Why not understand? What "saint" would not want to understand what God is doing and so know better how to respond? I don't think Jesus closed his eyes to the sins and faults in others; after all, he was interested in repentence above all and recognizing the need for repentence means recognizing the fault.
In cases like these, it is very clear how our own faults contribute to our own suffering. They are related. I don't think it's a matter of God punishing us, but I do think God presses us hard when we persist in our faults, because he's trying to get us to change. I've experienced this often in my own life. Some people say suffering is evil; suffering just leads to more suffering; we're all fellow victims. But suffering doesn't always lead to more suffering. Sometimes it leads to repentence, to a changed life, depending on our response to it. It's a clear theme in the bible that God "chastises" or corrects us like a parent, warning us with pain when we persist down the wrong path. And God wants us to understand this, so we will stop fighting him (and hurting ourselves).
I know this isn't clear and each person's case is too complex to explain easily. But I think it's important to see the possible good of suffering, and recognize that all of us have things we need corrected and places we need to grow. There are no innocent victims. God is doing hard work in all of our lives.
That doesn't mean we should not help sufferers. Of course we should, even the ones who are hardest to help. When Heather asked what Jesus said about how to respond to people who cheat us, I thought of these words:
"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again.But it's important to recognize that Jesus puts our actions in the context of what God is doing with these people. Which may include his heavy hand upon them, pressing them to admit their fault and change.
"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. ...But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish." (Lk 6.27-35)
Jesus' words are the guide for how we should act. But God has also given us some understanding that, while we humans do not have the insight to know the deepest darknesses in hearts and what is necessary to change them, he does, and he is using every means to bring people around. I don't have to take control over someone else's problems, nor do I have to bear the burden of them. God is doing this. I need to give what I have to give (expecting nothing in return) and trust God with their lives as I trust him with my own.
After losing patience with a woman this morning and making my frustration with her obvious, I remembered this line (from Dorothy Day's journal) that I read yesterday: "It was cruel to be harsh to anyone so absolutely dependent, as they are, humanly, on my kindness."
I wondered myself if I had been too harsh, and she complained that I was being mean to her. But I don't know. She's been hanging around for almost a week now, saying she doesn't want to stay here, but then showing up later with nowhere else to go. She acts like she has things under control, but her "plans" are just one random idea after another, leading nowhere. I'd like to help. But not help her just continue this pattern, pretending everything will work out. That led her to go home with a known rapist yesterday evening (despite Heather's attempts to warn her). She needs to stop and admit that she needs to make some serious changes, and she needs to be willing to put in the sacrifice and effort herself to make her life better, not just hope someone else will do it for her. Maybe a harsh (or at least very firm) response is what is needed to get a person to face such realities. Can't that be love, too?
As long as it's followed by forgiveness and support. Heather was good about listening to her this morning. And I'm going to try to find another place for her to stay in a nearby town (after some thinking, she seems willing to try it). Please God, make a way.
I guess I don't think it's primarily a question of dependence, as Dorothy said. I've gathered from Jesus' example that he was often harsh to the strong-willed and prideful, while always gentle with the humble and repentant. Often those who are dependent are also humble, and so should be treated kindly and gently. But sometimes there are those in need who will not admit their problems and insist on pressing on, and only want someone to help them keep pursuing their own self-destructive illusion. Then love needs to be more confrontational, I think. Not forceful or coercive, but challenging the wilfulness that is at the heart of the problem.
This situation reminds me of another Dorothy Day line (quoting Dostoyesky):
Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.
Because the needs and requests and problems are so many and can come in such unexpected waves, and because we depend on so many other people, emotions can run very high. And then very low. The lull after a crisis can often be harder to bear than the scurrying.
It was good to read these lines by Dorothy Day this morning:
I should know by this time that just because I feel that everything is useless and going to pieces and badly done and futile, it is not really that way at all. Everything is all right. It is in the hands of God. Let us abandon everything to Divine Providence.
Heather and I went to the park yesterday afternoon, and ate our lunch under a huge tree of yellow leaves lit in the afternoon sun. Its branches covered us and reached down to almost touch the water of the stream before us. Heather had made tabouleh, a Lebanese salad that she used to eat in France; she'd found the makings for it among the donated food. Very good. Then we lay and read in the sun.
The night before I had felt overwhelmed, because I came back tired then found out one of the women were coming in late from work so I would need to get up and open the door for her. And then there were some men who had been drinking and started yelling on the porch around midnight. So I went out and got one of them to leave. No big problems, really, but nights like that always leave me feeling shaky.
And later I thought that there is a fine line between getting burned out and not getting burned out. The experience of being pushed to the edge is the same, I think. The difference is just the small movement of faith, being able to fall over the edge and be caught and carried. The alternative, trying to keep everything under control and manageable, doesn't work. Not if we're going to follow Jesus where he's going. He didn't stay where things were manageable.
My instinct, when I feel overwhelmed, is to either run away or take control. But those are not the responses of faith. I need to just go ahead with the loving task I see right before me and not worry about the chaos that swirls around.
And trust that God will have a picnic beside a stream for me when I need it.
To Heather, for coming over this morning (because I was tired) and talking with the new guest who arrived on the porch late last night with no place else to go.
To Panera bakery, for donating the good bagel I ate while I prayed and listened to Heather laugh with the guests.
To Cynthia, for offering the movie and popcorn last night.
To Mary, for going with Cynthia to the doctor's office the other day.
To Clyde, for fixing our boiler (at no charge) this week so we have heat in the house.
To Lee Ann, from our church, who brought a bunch of teenagers over yesterday and planted some hostas and iris and crocus bulbs that will come up next spring.
To the anonymous giver who brought the new (used) dryer, and to Roy, who offered to bring the tools and connect the gas line for it.
To Serif software company, for offering free desktop publishing software that we'll use to lay out our next newsletter.
To Jeff, who is right now organizing the college students as they prepare lunch for the eighty guests that will show up to eat.
To God, in whom we hope, who richly provides all things for us to enjoy.
Jesus lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Lk 6.20)
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 5.10)
These passages came up in our discussion Tuesday night (which was our best yet). One of the men argued that these pointed to "negations" (setbacks?) of kingdom life, that the kingdom ultimately overcame. But I insisted that this voluntary endurance of poverty and persecution was part of kingdom life, central to the experience of the kingdom of God here and now. So we should expect these and not shy away from them. And we should also question ourselves if we have side-stepped them, fearfully stepping back from the invitation into God's kingdom.
I chose these beatitudes specifically, because while all the others speak of some future fulfilment, these both speak in the present tense. "Blessed are you... for yours is the kingdom of God." And Jesus' own life also demonstrated that these are part of the kingdom experience now. I think part of it is being able to experience this blessedness right in the midst of the things that make most people miserable.
Next week we're starting another book, Robert Inchausti's Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries, And Other Christians In Disguise. And I chose some readings to go with it, from the authors being studied in the book. Two readings, from Kierkegaard and Chesterton, highlight ways that voluntary poverty contribute to kingdom life: in nurturing a "sublime dependence" on God; and in our willingness to invite all (especially the most vulnerable) to come to us. Like Jesus did.
Here's something else from about a year ago, again about Jesus' community. It's from an essay I wrote then: "My power is made perfect in weakness" (this is a RTF file, so any word processor should be able to handle it, 12 pages).
And at our discussion group tonight we're talking about the kingdom of God, so this is relevant to that as well...
What does this community look like?
I think it looks like Jesus and his disciples. They do not have a place that is “theirs,” controlled by them, but rather live and move among the places owned and controlled by those more powerful in society. (How could they have their own property if they will not fight to possess and defend it but instead give freely?) And they are mixed in with the rest of society, allowing any who wish to be among them, so the only way you can tell who is really a part of the community is to identify who really lives like Jesus. There are not clear boundaries of the community, neither property or membership boundaries. They are a scattered few, mingled with many unlike them. But isn’t that how Jesus described his community? He said that his people, his kingdom, would not be easily identified:
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, “Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Lk 17.20-21)Those who followed him could surely be recognized by their likeness to him, in their faith and in their active love. But they would not be recognized as a kingdom, with no clearly defined borders and no identifiable king. Because God would be their king. God would unify them and protect them and direct them through his Spirit. And so they would appear to be leaderless, landless, undefended and unconnected (at least lacking the kind of things that connected other people), yet with a common way of living and a common allegiance different from the kingdoms in which they mingled. “In the world but not of it.” As Jesus prayed:
“I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine… The world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one.” (Jn 17. 9, 14-15)They are hated because they do not identify themselves with the groups in which they mingle, so they are seen as outsiders, “not one of us.” They do not fight to defend their own borders or attack the trouble-makers among them, and neither will they do so for the cities and nations of “the world.” They do not need legal or authoritarian structures to unite or preserve their (God’s) community and so will not support or enforce those structures around them. So they are seen as subversive and hated. And excluded and attacked. And they do not resist this. If they suffer pain or loss they rejoice, and if they are driven away they wipe the dust from their feet and move on.
The reason for Jesus’ community being like this is that it is the perfect way to express faith, experiencing God’s care and encouraging others to look to God with faith as well. Their willingness to embrace weakness voluntarily and joyfully stands out, because no other human group acts in this way. Jesus’ community can be weak because of their faith in God who is strong. Who does (and will continue to) unite and guide and preserve them, just as he promised.
...They are God’s pilgrim people on earth.
This weekend I was looking at my journal entries from last October and noticed this one, which seems to elaborate on some of my comments about "Jesus' community":
Jesus promised the “kingdom of God” experience to those who follow him in a life of radical giving and complete dependence on God. This is God’s gift to us, and only God can make it happen. The experience certainly seems like a miracle. Because most everyone around us does not live the kind of life Jesus taught.
That raises the question of how to interact with those who do not follow Jesus’ way, or who only follow it to some extent. The more extreme the giving and vulnerability, the fewer that practice it. But the path to more giving and more dependence on God is usually a gradual one, so any steps in that direction should be encouraged. Jesus always spoke well of those who gave, who let go of some of their own wealth and self-sufficiency, even if they did not yet give everything. This was a good step. But, at the same time, Jesus was still not “satisfied” with simply giving from our excess. He continued to set the example of radical giving, calling everyone to keep taking the next step.
And Jesus’ life of dependence did not only set the example, but also helped others enter into it by beginning to give. Many who did not leave everything and follow Jesus were inspired to at least begin to give by supporting him and his followers. This offered them the experience of giving, and also brought them closer to Jesus, to know him better. To these, Jesus was thankful and accepted what they chose to give. But he did not direct them to remain as benefactors, to continue to gather wealth so they could share a portion with others, even if it was to his benefit. To all, Jesus said, “Follow me.” Whatever people chose to give was good, a beginning perhaps, that brought them into contact with Jesus’ way of life. But (whatever their particular gifts) everyone was called to be like Jesus in radical giving, in embracing vulnerability, and in complete dependence on God.
From this we can see how others can be drawn in to Jesus’ way. People first see something in the faith of Jesus’ followers and also see their vulnerability and need. So they are inspired to offer some help. This gives them the experience of God’s love, God working through them to support his own children, and also exposes them to Jesus’ way of life. If they then open themselves to this life, they will progressively give more, becoming more vulnerable and dependent themselves. And so they too will become inspirations to encourage giving, both by their example and their need. As people grow in this way, their gifts change. They have less material possessions to share, but their lives become a more valuable gift, both as an inspiration calling others to enter into God’s love and help care for his children and as a model for faith by which we become (and live as) God’s children.
This progression is like a cycle of life which continues to draw others into Jesus’ way.
The last couple days I've engaged in a discussion in the Jesus Radicals forum. Here's something I wrote yesterday:
I'd just like to offer a couple things. One, the discussion of a wholly Christian society, how we would arrange it, how to deal with difficult situations (like psychopaths), etc., is purely academic, isn't it? Do we ever expect society, even a substantial portion of society, to be completely Christian in the radical sense as we understand it? Jesus does not seem to suggest that this will ever be the case. So I'm not sure these are the questions we should be grappling with, and I don't think we should present ourselves with difficult cases that we will never face.
Because Christians will always live in the context of a society that does not follow Jesus. This will greatly impact any situation we face. For example, I work at a Catholic Worker house. We periodically encounter apparently uncontrollable and potentially violent people. In my short time here, I have tried to respond to these people in a loving and noncoercive way, and my experience has been fairly good so far (one example is Willy, who I wrote about on my blog). Others here also try to respond to difficult people this way. But these efforts have to occur in the midst of the not so patient and much more coercive responses of others around us. We can choose to risk our safety and get personally involved and not call the police, but others get fearful or angry or concerned for their property and they call the police, or make threats, etc. We don't want this, don't ask for it. But it happens. So I think our discussion has to take it into consideration. The question is not: If we aren't coercive, no one will stop this person, and they will do terrible damage. The question is: Given that a violent or forceful response is coming soon from someone who loses patience with this troublemaker, how can we try to bring mercy into this situation for everyone involved.
My second point is that this is not "shifting the dirty work to someone else." As I said, we don't ask them to intervene with force. They are quite eager to do so without our asking. They have their own fear or anger or possessiveness to motivate them. There is often the assumption that no one wants to do the "dirty work," that it's some great virtue to take on this unpleasant task, but from what I've seen people are pretty quick to do the dirty work when they get pissed. And they seem to find it pretty satisfying, at the time at least. My point is: They take the dirty work on themselves, we don't shift it there.
I recognize that force is sometimes necessary, and I see God using force to stop some evil from being acted out. This is usually done through the power-wielding of other people who also have not-so-good (usually self-serving) intentions. God uses their actions, but the power-wielders are not justified. They also will be held accountable for their choices and selfish intentions. So God uses evil against evil, force against force, turning "the world's violence back onto itself" as Andy just wrote. God (not us) decides what is necessary and provides it.
Our place as Christians is to try to be a loving presence (for all involved) in the midst of this.
The leaves are changing here, and beginning to fall. It's beautiful.
Another little joy this week: I found out that New Covenant church doesn't have official membership. They just consider those who attend and are involved in the church activities to be the members there. Brothers and sisters are recognized by their deeds and participation, not by whether their name appears on an offical list. I don't know all the reasons behind their decision. But I like it. I remember complaining about church membership practices about a year ago; it's a nice surprise to find out they don't have that problem here.
Last night during our book discussion we focused on this passage in Jacques Ellul's Anarchy and Christianity (where he's commenting on Jesus' teaching: "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you..." Mk 10.42-43):
"But you... it must not be the same among you." In other words, do not be so concerned about fighting kings. Let them be. Set up a marginal society which will not be interested in such things, in which there will be no power, authority, or hierarchy. Do not do things as they are usually done in society, which you cannot change. Create another society on another foundation.I like this idea, and think it is an accurate interpretation of Jesus' teaching (and his actions). Although I'm not sure what exactly is meant by "setting up communities."
...Jesus is not advising us to leave society and go into the desert. His counsel is that we should stay in society and set up in it communities which obey other rules and other laws.
Often this has been attempted through some structured "intentional" community, where land and property is acquired so Christians can live together in an area that can be sheltered and in which they can control the conditions of their life together. But, from what I've seen, this accumulation of property and using the power of ownership to control their environment is a departure from Jesus' way and inevitably leads to power struggles and the same "exercising authority" that Jesus warned against. And the money and political influence required to acquire and hold onto this property are also constant causes for compromise and deterioration of the community's spirit.
A few lines later Ellul writes, "One might rightly object that setting up independent communities outside the political power was relatively easy in the days of Jesus but it is no longer possible today." But I'm not so sure Jesus "set up [an] independent community." They were not well-defined or organized. They were simply those who chose to follow Jesus at that particular moment; all along the way people continued to join while others left. And they were not independent physically or economically. They stayed in the houses of sympathizers, ate at the tables of friends or those who were curious, and were provided for by anyone who chose to give to them. It seems more like an inspired gathering than a "set up" community, and more dependent than independent.
Also, the boundaries of the community were not clearly defined. There were many who followed and contributed in some manner who were not completely committed to Jesus' way. They followed as far as they felt they could, gave what they were inspired to give, but then pulled back when it got too hard or too dangerous. Jesus did not exclude them or reject their contributions. So they were "in" in a way, but not fully in, not fully reflecting what it meant to be a part of Jesus' community. Actually, there were very few that demonstrated this community life very clearly or consistently. (Perhaps only Jesus himself?)
I'm thinking about this because I'm trying to understand how following Jesus should look, and how to understand my relationship with the people I meet and work with here. Because of the Holy Spirit, I do expect to find some real experiences of Jesus' community wherever I go, including here. But I don't think we can expect to see it among a lot of people all in the same place (since even Jesus' preaching and example couldn't produce that). "The gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few." I think I can expect to find many more people who are willing to follow Jesus to some extent, to contribute to his work to some extent, and they should not be rejected although they still might leave us feeling a little lonely when they pull back. That's been my experience here so far.
It helps to see how God uses these "to some extent" folks, and the resources they are willing to share (to some extent), to provide for Jesus' community, his itinerant, inspired gathering (of a few scattered here and there), poor and dependent, who must continually look to their shepherd for care and protection. This allows Jesus' closer followers to live like Jesus and his first disciples, free from the dominating and self-corrupting powers of money and property and politics. It provides a way for them to exist and avoid the spiritual traps of power and wealth. And it also helps others, especially the "to some extent" folks, by providing an example and an inspiration for them, urging them to follow closer. Further, the dependence and scatteredness of Jesus' close followers helps keep them leaning on God while also making them accessible to many others, since they are necessarily mixed in among them.
Like leaven. Like salt. Like lights.
Tim showed up last night and signaled for a pencil and paper. He's deaf and also mute. And apparently homeless; he sometimes stops in for a shower or to use the rest room. "I would like eat the dinner?" he wrote. So Andy got a plate and some of the excellent fried fish that Florence had just made.
This morning I read this in Luke:
Jesus said to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid.
“But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Lk 14.12-14)
I finished the essay last night...
Ever since I had felt the powerful movement in the dark, I had believed that God was in control of what was going on around me. It was easier to believe that sitting in the monastery garden than it was in a lawyer’s office in the middle of the largest naval base in the world, but I still believed it. This comforted me during the months of waiting. I found out my case was being delayed because there was a disagreement between the authorities involved. The naval lawyers wanted to avoid a trial, perhaps because they didn’t think the charges were severe enough to warrant the cost and work of a courts-martial or the bad publicity of an officer going AWOL. But the captain of my ship was insisting on a courts-martial. So the lawyers had to start the trial process and then abort it when the captain no longer had jurisdiction; this took time. I never thought any of the authorities involved had my best interests in mind. Each was pursuing the course of action that they thought was most advantageous to themselves. But through that struggle I saw God’s hand at work, freeing me.
I was amazed how it ended. I had not demanded my rights or asked for mercy. I had stated my beliefs, but never asked for CO status. Then, after four months, they offered to drop all charges and release me. With an “Other-Than-Honorable” discharge. Surprised, I accepted; I had no desire for an honorable discharge from a service I now saw as dishonorable. And I wasn’t interested in taking veterans benefits from the military. I even returned the money that the Navy had paid me during the months I had been waiting (less the amount I had to spend for food and lodging during that time). The pay officer didn’t understand when I tried to explain it to him. But I understood: I was giving to Caesar what was Caesar’s. As for me, I was no longer Caesar’s. I had been delivered by a much greater power. I was God’s.
Now my wife and I live with the Christian community at Plow Creek Farm in Illinois, offering free spiritual retreats to poor people from the city, continuing to conscientiously object, continuing to look to God for justice and mercy.
And once in a while I tell a sea story.
The whole essay is available here (Rich Text Format).
Continuing the essay...
Applying for CO status seemed to be asking for permission to be excused. I wanted to object to the wrong, take a stand against it, refuse to participate in it. That’s what I had done so far. And while I had initially fled in fear of the consequences of that objection, now I had come back to face them. But I was not repenting of my refusal to participate, my refusal to keep giving military orders. I was not asking for mercy from those who I was objecting against. I was not asking permission to be excused.
During this time of waiting and being summoned before military lawyers, I frequently thought of Jesus’ trial. I didn’t see myself as completely innocent; I was at fault for promising to serve in the military in the first place, and for running away. But I still looked to Jesus as my model. And it was clear that he didn’t ask for mercy from the authorities that had charged him. He didn’t defend himself or insist on his rights and often he even refused to answer their questions. Why? Because Jesus wasn’t the one on trial—they were. Their judgment would determine God’s judgment on them. Despite how it appeared, the situation wasn’t in the hands of the authorities, it was always in God’s hands. I remembered Jesus’ words to Pontius Pilate:
Just a little more of the essay today...
My failure to cooperate brought me another charge, "Disobeying a Lawful Order," and two days in the brig. The strip search was unpleasant. But the food was surprisingly good.
For the next several months I stayed at the Bachelor Officer's Quarters on base, waiting for the military justice system to process my case. During this time I read Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You. And I realized that my experiences were not isolated and that there was much in Jesus' life and teachings directing us to choose mercy instead of discipline, meekness instead of power. I came to believe that it was not right to use violence or the threat of violence against others, even those considered our enemies. I suppose I had always thought of myself as a conscientious objector, of sorts. But my reasons had been personal and private. Now I had the convictions that were generally recognized as those of a military conscientious objector. But I never considered applying to the Navy for CO status.
It was probably too late at that point anyway. But the more I became convinced that what the military was doing was wrong—not just wrong for me, but simply wrong—the more I thought it was important to stand against that wrong.
Some more of the essay...
I waited one more month to make sure I understood. I went to Ireland, walked a hundred miles from Dublin to visit another monastery, and said one more prayer before going home.
When I presented my passport in the U.S., the customs agent entered my information, then paused, staring at her computer with a look of concern on her face. For a terrible moment I was sure she was going to call security and have me arrested. I wouldn’t be able to see my parents or turn myself in voluntarily. Then she looked up, smiled, and waved me through.
I watched my mother cry when she opened the door and embraced me. The next day my parents went with me to mass and heard the priest read the story of the prodigal son. Then I rode twenty hours to the naval base in Virginia, staring out the window of the bus, reminding myself what I was doing.
But it wasn’t until I was onboard the ship again that I truly felt fear. I remember standing on the thick carpet in front of the Executive Officer’s desk; he was patiently ordering me to put on my uniform again. I had been an officer and it seemed they wanted to handle my situation quietly. I spoke calmly but my knees felt weak. My face seemed to twitch and tremble and it was all I could do to hold it still. I told him I couldn’t do that—it wasn’t right. He looked at me for a moment. Then he dismissed me.
Not that I considered myself a pacifist at the time. When I joined the Navy I saw military service as honorable, and I believed that some wars could be just. And my recent change of heart had not been theological or ideological. It was caused by the tension that grew inside of me as I tried to be a good officer and a good Christian at the same time. The existential tension between mercy and discipline, meekness and power. Finally, when it had become unbearable, I had admitted to myself that I could not do both. I had to choose. That was all there was to it.
So when I refused to put the uniform back on, it was not because I didn’t want anything to do with the military. It was simply because it seemed false. I wasn’t an officer any more, no one was going to give me the responsibilities of an officer, I didn’t deserve the respect of an officer, so why should I pretend to be an officer? And I hadn’t come back to play along with a lie, hoping for mercy. I had come back to submit to discipline.
Continuing my essay about my AWOL experiences...
A month later I was sitting outside another monastery. At the time I imagined that the monks were worriedly deliberating about me, but the decision probably wasn't a hard one to make. I had asked to join them. An AWOL American who showed up two weeks ago. Did I really expect them to consider this seriously? It was a foolish dream: To flee the merciless world and disappear among the monks, behind monastery walls, where everything was different, where they would understand me. It was foolish because of course everything is not different behind those walls. In his confusion the monk had said the first thing he thought of: “We use the national health care system, and you’re not a British citizen.” But it was also foolish because I should have known we cannot flee. We cannot disappear.
I walked along the garden path, past the cross, high on the rocky hill, and slowly lowered myself onto a mossy rock. To await the answer I already knew. Here was where my dream ended. Here I was finally waking up—I pressed my eyes shut tight.
Then it was all dark and I was alone. Far from everyone who knew me and everyone I had called a friend, far from the land of my home, where I was now considered a criminal. I saw my life broken in ugly pieces. All the opportunities and benefits I had been given I had ruined; all that I had gathered and protected I had squandered. It felt like I was falling, falling into the dark. I cried out.
It was then that I felt the movement again. Again in the deep dark. But this time it was all around me. I was in that forbidding place and the movement was close on every side. The darkness itself seemed alive.
But, just as before, there was no fear. I now knew this thing would consume me, was already consuming me, and I was in awe of it. I lifted up the pieces of my broken life. “Here, take it. It’s ruined.” And I felt the awakened Spirit move again, with such raw power that the garden seemed to lift from the earth. And I knew what I had to do.
I would go to prison. I had no doubt that when I returned I would be arrested and jailed, perhaps for several years. But now I had felt something greater than the thing I feared. I could go back, even to prison. And when I realized that, it was clear that the right thing was to return and submit myself to their judgment. I talked with several of the monks before I left the monastery, and they nodded approvingly, but I could tell they did not understand. That didn’t matter. I was the one going to prison.
Robert and Darcy, who are guests at the house, went to New Covenant with me Sunday and I think they'll keep coming. Rose was also there (she goes to St. Mary's too; we got to know each other because we both go to both churches, and I think she'll be helping out at the house soon).
There was a very good dramatic reading from the play Shadowlands, about the life of C.S. Lewis and his wife. And these words of his caught my ear:
I think that God doesn't necessarily want us to be happy. He wants us to be lovable. Worthy of love. Able to be loved by Him. We don't start off being all that lovable, if we're honest. What makes people hard to love? Isn't it what is commonly called selfishness? Selfish people are hard to love because so little love comes out of them.
God creates us free, free to be selfish, but He adds a mechanism that will penetrate our selfishness and wake us up to the presence of others in the world, and that mechanism is called suffering. To put it in another way, pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Why must it be pain? Why can't He wake us more gently with violins or laughter? Because the dream from which we must be awakened is the dream that all is well.
Now that is the most dangerous illusion of them all. Self-sufficiency is the enemy of salvation. If you are self-sufficient, you have no need of God. If you have no need of God, you do not seek Him. If you do not seek Him, you will not find Him.
God loves us, so He makes us the gift of suffering. Through suffering we release our hold on the toys of this world and know our true good lies in another world.
We're like blocks of stone, out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect. The suffering in the world is not the failure of God's love for us; it is that love in action.
When I visited South Bend this past summer, someone at the Catholic Peace Fellowship said I should write about my AWOL experience and send it to them. Yesterday I started it, and thought I'd post it here as I go...
I was walking alone along the road outside a monastery in England, thinking about where I was. AWOL in a foreign country. I'd gone on a two-week leave several months ago, but instead of driving back and reporting for duty on the aircraft carrier I had boarded a plane. It felt like the only thing I could do. And I didn't think I deserved to be punished for it, so I'd fled.
These weeks of walking the Scottish moors and visiting monasteries to rest and pray had soothed some of the turmoil inside me. But still I didn't know where I was going. The initial gut-wrenching fear had eventually settled into the thrill of a new adventure, but it was now threatening to sink into dread. What would happen if I stopped running? Was my life ruined? Turned inward, I didn't notice the trees around me or the ancient stonework of the monastery. Was this all a terrible mistake?
That was when I first felt it. Deep inside, down in a dark part of myself where I never looked, it felt like something was moving. Like the stirring of a hibernating animal, something large. The slow uncoiling of a hidden predator. I couldn't see anything clearly, but it felt real enough to inspire awe at the power of the thing. It was enough to frighten me, yet the deep sensation was not fear. I remember thinking: Not yet. But it was coming. And it excited me.
A little over two weeks ago, Willy was in a drunken fight and was thrown off our porch, knocked unconscious, with serious bleeding and a fractured neck. Since his release from the hospital he's been belligerently demanding money from us. Even threatening to damage the house if he is not paid. People here have been growing increasingly tense, and some finally called the police to have him removed and banned him from the property for one year.
I've tried to talk with him when he shows up and have offered him food and drink. He sometimes has seemed appreciative of this, and other times seemed to demand it as his due. When I've told him he won't be paid he's gotten angry and yelled. The day before yesterday he got pretty verbally abusive with Heather and me, attacking us personally, saying we were freeloaders here, any self-respecting man would provide his own place for his woman (instead of sharing the house here as we do), etc. I've tried to be patient with this, though I admit it is upsetting.
His anger worried me, and I decided to hang around the house last night in case he showed up again. The previous night he had barged in and grabbed food and spit on the volunteer when she tried to make him leave. I didn't want her to have to face that again alone. But I wasn't sure what I'd do if he did show up. I haven't liked the approach of those who have called the police and banned him from the property. They seem to be primarily interested in protecting themselves and the house and getting rid of "the problem." That doesn't seem like loving our enemies. And I'm sure it doesn't seem like love to Willy, either. I imagine it feels like being thrown off the porch again, only in a more "civilized" way. And isn't that pretty much true? I had hoped that trying to love him would help ease his frustration and anger, but the forceful response of others seemed to be making him more angry.
Then last night, after dark, Willy showed up on the porch again. And asked for me. I went out and we walked down the block a ways. He had been drinking. But he wasn't aggressive this time, he was repentant. He said he was sorry for causing so much trouble, he didn't want to hurt anyone and he would stay off the premises. He shook my hand and thanked me and Heather for "trying to see him as a better person." He was lonely and "just trying to get attention," he said; he thought he might like to volunteer at the house some time. We shook hands again and I asked if he needed anything. He said he'd be all right. Then we said goodbye and he left.
This morning I chanted these lines from Psalm 138:
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies...
On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.
"...joy comes with the morning." (Ps 30.5)
It was quiet this morning. Like the calm after a storm. I got up and made coffee, then woke up Heather. When I came back, Mary was cooking bacon and waffles in the kitchen. The morning sun was streaming in through the large round glass of the front door.
I sat down with a cup of coffee and chanted Psalm 95. "In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it; for his hands formed the dry land." I heard the kids moving around above me. They pounded down the stairs and stumbled happily with their backpacks out the front door, to walk to school. Janine shuffled by in her slippers to get some breakfast. It felt peaceful, domestic.
It didn't even bother me much when Willy showed up. He had been in a scuffle yesterday and been banned from the house, then barged in last night and grabbed some food, upsetting the women here. I went out to him and listened to him yell for a while. Then I asked him if he wanted something to eat. When I brought out two sandwiches and some orange juice, and said he could sit on the porch and eat them, he apologized for yelling. I went back inside to finish my prayers and coffee. When I checked later, he was gone.
"For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand." This morning I felt that God had things securely in hand. When I went back to the other house, Heather was praying quietly. It made me feel happy and safe. It was a good morning.