Having multiple commitments necessarily leads to division and conflicts of interest. This is especially problematic in our relationship to God. Paul warns of this in his advice about marriage:
The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.Paul's concern, though, is not just about marriage. A few verses earlier, he recommends that "those who buy [be] as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world [be] as though they had no dealings with it." Paul is warning about divided loyalties, warning us to avoid conflicting commitments, "to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord."
And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. (1 Cor 7.32-34)
Yet commitments are frequently demanded of us (by friends, institutions, marriage, nation, etc), so what are we to do? If we make these commitments, we end up with divided interests, trying to obey a number of different authorities, each with their own agenda. But if we refuse to these commitments, we seem to be individualists, without a deep concern for or connection to others.
For followers of Jesus there is only one answer, the answer he gave: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." Our single, whole-hearted commitment must be to God. There can be no other loyalty or authority for us.
Yet this undivided, exclusive commitment to God does not cut us off from others. Because the commitment to God is the commitment to love.
Having multiple commitments necessarily leads to division and conflicts of interest. This is especially problematic in our relationship to God. Paul warns of this in his advice about marriage:
Many commitments can interfere with our single-minded, whole-hearted following of Jesus. (Two years ago, I titled a journal entry "commitment and compromise.") Yet there is often social pressure to make such commitments, and sometimes they are even promoted as virtues.
One such commitment that I've been pondering lately is the commitment of "stability." The commitment to a specific place or (often more precisely) a specific institution. Current popular writers like Wendell Berry preach the virtue of commitment to a specific locality, to the land especially, but also to the local community, the people there. (This is also a theme emphasized here at Reba Place.) Usually it's presented as an answer to the rootless, lonely drifting so common in our society. And these writers do offer a compelling critique of our times. But I don't think a commitment to stability is the solution—at least that doesn't seem to be what Jesus showed us.
Committed stability is not a new idea, either. St. Benedict introduced a vow of stability in the early days of monasticism (modern writers often refer to his teaching on stability). He had good reasons for wanting his monks to commit to their monastery, many of which are seen as just as important now. From an article on the Rule of St. Benedict:
St. Benedict perceived the necessity for a permanent and uniform rule of government in place of the arbitrary and variable choice of models furnished by the lives and maxims of the Fathers of the Desert. And so we have the characteristic of collectivism, exhibited in his insistence on the common life, as opposed to the individualism of the Egyptian monks.
...To further this aim he introduced the vow of Stability, which becomes the guarantee of success and permanence. It is only another example of the family idea that pervaded the entire Rule, by means of which the members of the community are bound together by a family tie, and each takes upon himself the obligation of persevering in his monastery until death, unless sent elsewhere by his superiors. It secures to the community as a whole, and to every member of it individually, a share in all the fruits that may arise from the labours of each monk, and it gives to each of them that strength and vitality which necessarily result from being one of a united family, all bound in a similar way and all pursuing the same end. Thus, whatever the monk does, he does it not as an independent individual but as part of a larger organization, and the community itself thus becomes one united whole rather than a mere agglomeration of independent members.
The creation of "family ties" seems like a good thing, and does produce more stable, enduring organizations. Which was the reason Benedict invented the vow of stability. But is this what Jesus preached?
Of course family ties already existed in Jesus' time, natural family ties. Yet even these he challenged:
[Jesus'] mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you."Did Jesus say this because he wanted new (religious?) families to replace the old? Or is the new family Jesus sees original because it is a single family, not various divided (and competing) clans but one united family under God as Father? With no conflicting commitments or questions of which authority to obey, because there is only one Father, one Master.
And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother." (Mk 3.31-35)
Commitments of stability are necessarily commitments to separate, localized "families." They also limit our availability to go wherever, and to whomever, God calls us. Jesus' life (and Paul's, and Abraham's, and most of the prophets') demonstrate the value of this availability and freedom. But I think the bigger problem is the way commitments to place and (limited, localized) community cut us off from the wider community, the one family. And the one Father.
"The wind blows where it will" is a pretty good description of the way Jesus lived, but if we try to follow his example we'll soon be confronted with a serious question. The question of commitment. If we try to live a life characterized by the freedom of the Spirit, unbounded and unattached to things or organizations, people begin wondering (often out loud) if we are "free spirits," if we are unable to settle down, or afraid to commit. I remember an experience on the road several years ago:
When I was almost to town, a van pulled up, an older couple who had passed me more than once over the last few days. We talked a little, then it came out that they were Mormons. They went into full proselytizing mode, so I couldn't say much except a general objection against institutional religion and denominationalism. Then [because I wouldn't limit myself to one denomination] he says, "Well, when you decide to get serious..." At the time, I couldn't imagine being more committed and serious about the spiritual life than I was then. But people have different perceptions of commitment. And these become even more important when the possibility of marriage arises, or involvement with groups that expect long-term commitments. These are the situations I'm facing right now.
I burst out laughing. More serious?!
I can't help but think, though, that there is no actual conflict between commitment and Jesus' freedom of spirit—at least commitment in the best sense. Real love involves the strongest commitment to another person, a commitment that never ends, that "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." And Jesus lived a real love for everyone he encountered. Yet at the same time his life was as unpredictable and un-nail-down-able as the wind.
(And they certainly tried to nail him down.)
I can see that some commitments do necessarily limit our freedom to move with the Spirit, and there are biblical warnings about commitments that can restrict our ability to follow Jesus completely. But these commitments can't be the commitment of love. Because following Jesus with complete abandon is what love really means, and this is the deepest commitment—and fullest freedom—we can ever know.
"The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes;
so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Great imagery. And the Greek word used here, pneuma, has multiple meanings, including both wind and spirit...
I recently watched The Bourne Identity and really liked it. I remember starting to read the book and not being very impressed, but the movie was much better. The relationship between the lead characters, a man and woman thrown together trying to survive and escape their pursuers, was especially appealing.
I've always found spy stories strangely attractive. A few years ago, during one of my long walks, I wrote this in my journal:
Reading another John LeCarre novel (The Honorable Schoolboy)—I really like his books: intelligent, realistic spy stories. This passage caught my eye:
Some people are agents from birth, he told them, appointed to the work by the period of history, the place, and their own natural dispositions. In their cases, it was simply a question of who got to them first: “Whether it’s us, whether it’s the opposition, or whether it’s the bloody missionaries.”Kierkegaard also compared the Christian life to being a spy or God’s agent in the world [in Training in Christianity]:
[The God-relationship] must be for every individual man the absolute, and it is precisely this God-relationship of the individual which must put every established order in suspense, so that God, at any instant He will, by pressure upon the individual has immediately in his God-relationship a witness, a reporter, a spy, or whatever you prefer to call it, one who in unconditional obedience, or by unconditional obedience, by persecution, suffering, and death, puts the established order in suspense.I think that imagery is accurate. Much more so than the “Upstanding Christian Citizen.”
I’m also feeling again the appeal of being on the road. Things are rapidly put back into perspective. The “God’s agent” feeling is more pronounced. And I’m seeing more and more how this plays into other relationships and service to people (when I’m not walking).
Often people ask if I will “settle down.” I’m having a hard time seeing much value in that. Settle down? Jesus didn’t. Neither did Paul. Maybe part of what I like about the spy stories are people who have higher priorities in life than the security of a home and a fixed income.
Now I ask myself if I've changed, if I'm trying to settle down after all. I think I have been trying to at times during this past year, but have been prevented from doing so.
Maybe that's a mercy. Maybe God won't let me settle down too much, and maybe I should remember that that's a part of following Jesus. And embrace it.
Erin was here this past weekend and mentioned the unusual membership "commitments" at Plow Creek church (at the farm I've been visiting and hope to move to). They aren't very unusual commitments for Christians—I'd say I'm already committed to these things—but I don't think I've ever seen church membership vows that look like these. And I've been to a lot of churches.
Here are the membership commitments at Plow Creek church (from their website):
I've written about church membership before; I usually don't like how it's done. But I'm impressed by they way they do it at Plow Creek, because it really seems to be more about being a Christian than about institutional membership, and it even emphasizes some of the most challenging aspects of being a Christian. The only thing I personally might want to have said differently (if I'm going to answer these in church) is "Are you committed to..." To emphasize that I am already a church member, a part of the body of Christ, and that this is just a public declaration and acknowledgment of that among brothers and sisters in this particular place.
An encouraging discovery...
In church this morning it was emphasized that the promises of God are given to his people, not to individuals. It might seem like a strange thing to emphasize, but I've heard this before, usually promoting community involvement as the way to experience the kingdom of God. It's also offered as an explanation of why there are so many individual cases when it doesn't seem like God is fulfilling his promises. The idea is that God gives enough to his people, but when some of his people take too much or ignore their brother's needs, then resources aren't spread fairly and needs go unmet and it seems like God failed. So God is always faithful—to his people as a whole—but if his people do not love each other well, then some promises of God will remain unfulfilled for some individuals.
Thank God this isn't true.
If it was, God's promises wouldn't be worth much. Then God's promises would only be as reliable as we are—which isn't very reliable. I'd hate to think my experience of the kingdom of God (here and now, as Jesus offered) was dependent on the good will of others, even my fellow Christians. I wouldn't risk much based on that. And I wouldn't want God's promises being dependent on me, either.
Just think, if God's promises to Jesus had been dependent on the people of God, then he would have ended exactly where the people of God left him. Dead. In a tomb.
I should say here that I do think that many of God's promises are fulfilled through the good will of his people. I've experienced this myself again and again. And I'm very grateful for it. But if this was all, I would have been left out in the cold (literally) more times than I'd like to think about. God often works through his people—and God also often works despite his people. Taking our ill will (or indifferent will, or fearful will) and working his good will anyway, fulfilling his promises anyway.
When Jesus offered the promises of God, he never added the caveat "for his people as a whole (individual results may vary)."
One good thing about spending this fall in the Chicago area is that I've been able to connect with a couple Jesuits at Loyola University who are doing retreat work with the homeless. It used to be a side project of Bill Creed, but now has expanded into the Ignatian Spirituality Project. Last month I was able to have lunch with one of the Jesuits working with Fr. Creed. And I'm hoping to be involved with a few of their activities in the next few months. I think they'll be a great resource for the future, especially if we get to do retreat work with the poor at the farm, inviting people from the Chicago area.
For many reasons I'd really like to get a chance to live and work at Plow Creek farm. But I know it's far from certain. I've even had intuitions recently that maybe we won't get to start there right away when Heather gets back from Africa. We're invited to go and talk with the folks there in early February, but a lot will ride on their response and it's a big unknown. And there's no plan B—not even a place to live.
That gives me twinges of fear when I think of it. But then I think of the usual alternative. The safe suburban life.
And it's only when our lives are really in jeapordy that we can experience what dependence on God means. The sublime dependence on God.
I'm frantic in your soothing arms
I cannot sleep in this down-filled world
I've found safety in this loneliness
But I cannot stand it anymore
Yesterday on my drive to the farm, I noticed these lines in Metallica's "The Unnamed Feeling." They reminded me of my comments about the "suburban" quest for comfort and security, a quest that leads to isolation and a life so insulated against threat and challenge that it becomes meaningless.
In my last entry I wrote: "The worst part is that most people have a pretty good intuition that such a life is all vanity." Which leads back to the lyrics I just quoted. Because sensing, even vaguely, that our life has become empty and meaningless inevitably results in a feeling of deep anxiety (as it should, since such a life is spiritually perilous). We may try to escape this feeling through activity or entertainment or medication, but this just intensifies the frivolity of our lives, and the unnamed feeling remains underneath. Waiting for us.
I've seen the evidence of this in people, especially as they near the end of life, when they have a harder time distracting themselves. The blessing of old age, I think. It takes everything else away so we're forced to face ourselves.
The only solution I see is to offer our lives to God, who can make our lives meaningful. But this means abandoning the quest for comfort and security, a radical change in the way we live. Look at Jesus' life. Not exactly the suburban ideal...
A recent visit reminded me of this passage from my journal over five years ago. And my thoughts on this subject have only been confirmed in the time since then (though I might not use terms like "jackals" now...)
I mentioned some 'costs' of holding onto domestic pleasures [mortgage, insurance, taxes, homeowners association], but the more I surveyed the suburban scene, the more I realized that I had only scratched the surface. The biggest costs are not economic or political. The sirens of suburbia—Comfort and Security—present a greater danger to us psychologically and spiritually. Not that these only appear in suburbia; they just have established themselves so strongly here. There's the capitalistic individualism, which is so utterly isolating (even small acts of kindness have to be "paid back"). Almost nothing is shared, so everyone has to crowd their whole world into their tiny, fenced yards (backyards touch each other, but are also not shared). And all perceived threats have been eliminated, "for the sake of the children." Unfortunately, that leaves the parents with no more challenging decisions than which fertilizer to use on the lawn, and who will drive the kids to their extracurricular activities. The worst part is that most people have a pretty good intuition that such a life is all vanity. Real life is something much more. But people press on, bored and lonely, "for the sake of the kids," until the kids get so sick of the oppressive, empty "safety" that they rebel and destroy the tranquillity. That pain is usually a blessing. A slap in the face to wake people from their suburban slumber. God finds some way to send us a wake-up call.
The suburban worship of Comfort and Security doesn't just sap the life from suburbanites, however. It drains the rest of society as well. There's the huge flow of resources required to keep all these bored, lonely people sedated with "interesting" food and "interesting" diversions (this occurs at the international level too; our whole country could be labeled "The United Suburbs of America"). And then there's the social pressure of so many people "playing the game." Each additional 'player' makes it that much harder for individuals (especially children) to live differently. To live with meaning. To live. But, again, God always gives people a chance to wake up, to open their eyes to life. It's usually quite painful, but so worth it.
...the reading this morning seemed appropriate:"Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old; with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Lk 12.32-34)
...I remember talking to [my friends] about whether you could live in suburbia without being "suburban." (The question could just as well have been about being part of the military without being militarized, or part of the institution without being institutionalized—or being wealthy without being "the rich," in the biblical sense.) I said I thought you could. I should have added, "But not for long."
And I don't just mean those environments are dangerous. They are, temptations abound, but temptations may be resisted. I mean that if we gain wealth and power, even if we avoid the internal temptations, we will not be able to avoid the jackals. We might be able to enjoy the pleasures of suburbia (or the institution, etc.) for awhile, but if we want to keep those pleasures, we'll have to fight off the jackals. Fight them off or pay them off. Either way, we've become part of "the game"; we're one of them now, we're suburban, militarized, institutionalized, the rich, whatever you want to call it. We've agreed to pay the cost. And that full cost—financial, psychological, spiritual—will be slowly bled from us, as long as we hold on to the pleasures. If we stop paying, on the other hand, the pleasure will be snatched from us and given to someone who will pay. The jackals keep a sharp eye out.
That's why it's good for me to go. I have to remind myself. Because as soon as I hit the road, my body starts urgently asking, "What's wrong with a roof, again? Or a bed, shower, refrigerator..." The answer is: "Nothing, except..." There's nothing wrong with enjoying all those things. But to hold onto those things, to keep those things, to keep anything that other people value means fighting them off or paying them off. And they demand much more than money. The pay-off is obedience (What is a job but obedience for money?). Even fighting is obedience, because fighting is a "way of the world" that identifies its obedient sons. Jesus' followers, on the other hand, turn the other cheek and give to those who would steal from them and obey God alone. They enjoy all that God sets before them, then let it go. They hold onto nothing, so nothing holds onto them. They owe no one anything. Except love.
Blogger recently came out with a new version of their blogging service, and I switched over to take advantage of some of the improved features. An especially good one is the archive, along the right side of the page. Its new arrangement makes it much easier to locate and peruse older journal entries. The search function (move mouse to very top of page to see it) is also much better. It allows you to quickly look for any word or phrase in all the past journal entries. And while I was switching over to the new service, I also decided to redo the layout.
Heard some interesting lyrics this morning, in Audioslave's "Show Me How To Live":
In with the early dawn
moving right along
I couldn't buy an eyeful of sleep
In the aching night
under the satellites
I was not received
With the stolen parts
a telephone in my heart
someone get me a priest
to put my mind to bed
this ringing in my head
Is this a cure or is this a disease?
Nail in my hand
from my creator
you gave me life
now show me how to live
In the afterbirth
on the quiet earth
let the stains remind you
You thought you made a man
you better think again
before my role defines you
Nail in my hand
from my creator
you gave me life
now show me how to live
And in your waiting hands
I will land
and roll out of my skin
and in your final hours
I will stand
ready to begin
ready to begin
Got a good letter from Heather (in Nigeria) this morning...
Tuesday... I spent a whole lot of time just hanging around with the women as they sewed (or just sat around)—which is something I planned to do; I know I really need to learn to feel more comfortable with them if I'm going to teach them and be generally there for them instead of the kids. And I did feel more comfortable. It also gave me some time to observe.
I've been reading a book written for use by Christian development professionals, Walking With the Poor. I'm not very far into it but I have a good general idea of the message from reading ahead! This book emphasizes the need for a Christian worldview on the part of the development promoter—situating the whole situation in the overall story of God's relationship with human beings (rather than in, say, the modernist story of how poverty can be relieved by technology.) Then things like technology (or literacy!) fall into their proper place and do not become "gods".
Another thing it talked about is helping the poor to situate themselves within the story of God—to see their value in God's eyes as His beloved creation and (always potentially) His children. Because often the poor have swallowed lies that the powerful tell them, that they are nothing, unimportant, uneducated, and therefore have nothing meaningful to do with their lives but obey whoever is above them. This is the part of the book that I really connected with—I can see that at Bezer Home.
I started to notice one thing: a difference in the way children are treated. Oh, it may be an illusion, I haven't been here long, but it seems to me that even the women who are there for the classes make a difference between two kinds of children. Some they treat the way I've seen most kids be treated here—like they should be seen and not heard, if not in a verbal sense, at least in an emotional sense. Like they should do what they're told and not argue or they will get a smack. I'm not saying there's no parental affection but it's not real obvious. It's like they're valued but there's a sense that making them too aware of that would be spoiling them. The only ones I've seen real affectionate attention being given to are babies.
But a few kids are treated differently. Mary Beth and Bayo's kids, when they show up. I really wondered about that when I noticed, and whether it was because they were half-white. Then I saw the children of Auntie Sarah, the highest person in the Bezer Home hierarchy besides Mary Beth—she's Nigerian and is a sort of pastor/administrator for the vocational training—and I noticed that her daughter, whom she brings to work, was being treated the same way. The way you're used to seeing kids treated—you know, grown-ups smiling at them, playing with them, laughing affectionately at them.
I've also seen how these... should I say "privileged kids"?... act differently from the others. Act more like kids... more difficult but also more playful, with that childlikeness that makes an adult respond.
And I thought, wow, these women feel like they're worth less than capable, educated, financially stable, HIV-negative people—and they feel like their own children are worth less too.
Now please keep in mind that all this is pure speculation. I have no idea if I was observing accurately.
But as I was thinking these things, Faith Dauda came along. A four-year-old (or so) who came to Hope School, and who that day was probably there with her mom who had come to sew. (I'm not so great at connecting kids with moms yet...) And I smiled at her, and asked if she remembered me, and somehow I just got drawn into having a little time with her. A fun time, where I got her to write what she knew of the alphabet for me, and corrected her mistakes, and praised her, and it was one of those moments you can have with kids where they're learning just because they feel like it and enjoy the attention. (Which is, by the way, what I'm hoping for when I teach these moms how to teach their kids... pray?) The best kind of learning, really, and something I truly enjoy. When she got tired of the alphabet she announced she would draw a motorcar, and she did (kind of) and then she got me to start drawing... it was great, anyway.
And I thought, I want to go on doing this. I thanked God that he had sent me a kid who still behaved like a kid and wasn't scared of me, and given me a chance to treat her like a kid. A "privileged kid." Even if her mom is poor with HIV, for Pete's sake.
And you know, I've been wishing I could still be with the kids, and I've been worried that teaching literacy would mean sitting at Bezer with nothing to do a lot (because I know these women don't usually show up on the dot to appointments!) and now I'm not worried about either of those things. Because anytime I'm sitting there with nothing to do is a perfect time to go find a kid and... treat her like a kid. With learning or fun or hopefully both.
So thank God for Faith Dauda. And will you pray that God shows me how to show the adult women, also, their value in the eyes of God?
The Six Lessons Taught In School
1. The lesson of "the class"
2. The lesson of bells
3. The lesson of authority
4. The lesson of curriculum
5. The lesson of grades
6. The lesson of constant surveillance
Responsibility. I'm reminded of it again now because I find myself between an overly responsible person and someone reluctant to take any responsibility for their own life, trying to help them make sense of their relationship.
But for the past couple years I've been trying to eliminate the word "responsible" from my vocabulary. There's even been times when I've been called responsible and I asked that the person take it back. I don't want to be responsible. I don't think it's a good thing.
In conversations with Heather I've tried to replace the concept of "responsibility" with love instead. But I'm not sure that's clear enough. The problem I have with responsibility is not just semantics but the underlying idea, and all the connotations that go with that word. According to the Merriam-Webster definition, responsibility basically means having to respond, or answer for something. Which doesn't sound so bad. But who are we answering to? And what for? And are we even able to answer—should we be expected to answer?
The word has strong legal and political connotations, having to do with duty and office, answering to authorities or constituents, and paying penalties when we fail in our responsibilities. In these cases, the duties and penalties are determined by the people in power, and it is often hard to find a direct connection to God or a higher morality. Sometimes though, "responsible" is used to mean the ability to decide right and wrong. This would seem to refer to our responsibility for our actions before God, to whom we must all answer. This may be the closest to a meaningful use of the word.
Yet we are often held (or hold ourselves) responsible for things we cannot control. For the safety or happiness of another person, for instance, when there are so many factors in their life that we couldn't possibly understand or manage. Part of the meaning of responsibility includes "being the primary cause," and there is so little that we are truly the cause for.
And even that which we really are the cause for—our own choices and actions—do we really intend to take responsibility for those before God?
If so, we are in for a terrible surprise. Anyone who tries to stand before God and answer for their actions is going to experience a terrifying moment. Even the vaguest thought of it can produce deep anxiety. One of the clearest and best teachings in Christianity (emphasized especially by the more evangelical churches) is that we place the responsibility for our lives squarely on Jesus. Or rather, he takes this weight on himself for us. God takes responsibility for our life if we give that life to him.
In a redeemed life, the responsibility is God's. Just as in the whole of the created world, the responsibility is God's. He is the only one who can possibly answer for it; he is the only one who is the primary cause.
Of course, "responsible" also has some good connotations. Like dependability, trustworthiness. But I think the better word for that is "conscientious." Acting according to conscience, morally, carefully. With love. That's what can be expected of us, to obey what God speaks to us, to act with care, and to direct the trust of others to God. To encourage others to depend on God, just as we do.
Don't call me responsible (and definitely don't try to lay responsibilities on me). But I will do my best to be conscientious, loving. And I'll expect the same of you.