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?