Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, O Lord God of hosts;
let not those who seek you be brought to dishonor through me, O God of Israel.
For it is for your sake that I have borne reproach,
that shame has covered my face.
I have become a stranger to my brethren,
an alien to my mother's sons.
For zeal for your house has consumed me,
and the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. (Ps 69.6-9)
These lines caught my eye this morning. It made me think of something I was just reading in a Christian magazine, two interesting pieces concerning a popular young Christian speaker, author, and activist. A former "evangelical" who switched to a social justice emphasis (a pretty popular move to make these days, partially due to this guy's media exposure). The first piece was critical of one of the largest Christian publishing companies, saying they've turned the gospel into a source of huge profits. Which is a pretty good point. But the writer was a bit conflicted, because he had also just written an endorsement for a new book (by the popular young speaker/author/activist) published by that very same publishing company.
The second piece was by the young speaker/author/activist himself, describing a scene at one of his public appearances. Speaking to a crowd of 10,000 young people, he lamented "the sad irony of us speakers getting paid big bucks to preach a Gospel that says give all your money to the poor." So he asked for the $4000 honorarium in one dollar bills, and offered them to the crowd, telling them to take a dollar to mark their commitment to spend time with someone in need and get to know them. Which is a pretty good idea. He told them, "I could try to do great things with the money, but I don't really believe in great things—I believe in small things done with great love." Not a bad message.
But these two uncomfortable, conflicted situations make me wonder. Especially when contrasted with the lines of that psalm, or the life of Jesus. Did Jesus ever face anything like the pressure to endorse a profitable religious institution, or struggle to figure out what to do with the large speaking fees he was earning?
The only time I recall Jesus being invited to speak at an official religious event, he offended the audience so badly they tried to throw him off a cliff. Usually he just preached on hillsides or along a shore. There was a time when popular support for Jesus was strong enough that the people hoped to make him king, but Jesus carefully avoided that—and the next day he preached such a challenging sermon that many of his followers left him. In the end (as in the psalm), the popular opinion was that Jesus should be done away with.
The message about doing small things with great love is a good one. But if it's love we're interested in, love like Jesus' love, then there's no need for big organizations to draw crowds or big corporations to advertise our message and print thousands of copies. Jesus had no need for the wealth and power of men. They could offer little to further his message of complete dependence on the one God—they actually worked against it. For Jesus' love there was a different way.
We announced our engagement in church yesterday morning, then talked about the wedding in the afternoon. Heather liked the scriptures I had chosen (here and here). But she wanted to add this to the Song of Songs reading:
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. (Song 8.6-7)
I really like that. She also suggested that I read the first Song passage during the wedding, and she read this one. We may read Psalm 34 together, too:
O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!
I put this image together a year ago, combining a picture of us at one of Heather's favorite places in France and a poem Heather gave me almost three years ago. The words are even more true for us now.
I wrote yesterday that Heather and I have been invited to move to Plow Creek farm this summer. And that's what we plan to do. But there isn't space available at the farm to start retreat work right away, and not much for us to do there in the winter. Which leads to the other big development...
Late last year, months before our initial visit to Plow Creek, I got the impression that we wouldn't be able to start work there right away (if at all), and that scared me at the time—we didn't have an alternative plan. A month before our visit, this feeling reached its lowest point. I was begging for a miracle (and at the same time remembering pilgrimage again). Then, two weeks later, several things suddenly came together in my mind. I remembered an article I had seen earlier, about a spiritual ministry to the poor in Boston, which had inspired similar ministries in other cities. And the Ignatian Spirituality Project also had retreat work starting in other cities. I thought visiting some of those ministries might help us gain experience and ideas and connections with people. If only there was a way for us to travel inexpensively...
Like walking. We had been eager to go walking together before, more than two years previously, but (with the encouragement of Heather's parents) decided to wait until after we were married. Now, I thought, we could go. We could visit those ministries, gain experience, make good connections, and spread the word about the work we were starting at Plow Creek. And walking, being poor and homeless ourselves (for a spiritual purpose), would fit so well with the message we were sharing, the work we were promoting. I was already very experienced in this kind of walking. And I even had experience walking with a partner, from the previous summer. It all seemed to fit so perfectly. It felt like a beautiful, perfect gift from God, and my heart leapt at it.
And when I brought it to Heather, she happily agreed (and had a few ideas of other places she'd like to visit). We both really liked the thought of being out on the road together.
So the tentative plan is to move to Plow Creek in April, to help with farm work, get married there in May, and stay through June. Then in July start walking. Probably from Boston going south, working our way down to Atlanta, then into Florida for the winter. Maybe go back to the farm in the spring.
Pretty exciting. We're so grateful to God for opening this way ahead for us. It's so much more than we could have even thought to ask, we're awed.
Je l'aime à la folie!
Yesterday, a month after Heather returned from a seven month trip to Nigeria, two weeks after our visit to Plow Creek to propose opening a retreat house for the poor there, and one week after they warmly embraced the idea and invited us to move there this summer... Heather asked me to marry her.
It was so easy to say yes. I'd been deeply in love with her for years already. But I had been concerned about how a family might be provided for, whether I could feel good about inviting a wife and children into the life of faith and risk that I had entered, following Jesus. I felt like I needed to wait for explicit permission from God, a concrete sign that he was making a way for us. The astonishingly warm welcome from Plow Creek seemed to be that sign. So we step forward together with great confidence in our Father, and great joy.
This morning, I came upon these words at the beginning of Matthew 22:
Again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son..."
In the morning, when I rise,
In the morning, when I rise,
In the morning, when I rise,
Give me Jesus.
Give me Jesus,
Give me Jesus,
You can have all this world,
Give me Jesus.
For Black history month, the church here is using lots of good spirituals during worship. We sang this one on Sunday. That last line is especially good, "You can have all this world, give me Jesus."
It reminded me of some conversations I had recently. Some friends here are impressed by the "new monasticism" movement, and are wondering how to respond to the challenges these young people offer. I replied that I thought their challenges were a mixed bag. Some seem valid and some questionable. And I said we find much more powerful challenges (in the same areas of concern) when we look to Jesus himself—shouldn't Jesus be the one we're responding to? I raised a similar question in a new monasticism forum discussion over a year ago, wondering at their choice of monasticism for a model:
I think we lose something if we copy a copy. There is no second-hand Christianity, as Kierkegaard said. The monastics tried to follow Jesus and in some ways they are helpful to us and in some ways are unhelpful...
...why not use Jesus' life (and his community) as the model we're striving for?
And I thought the same thing Sunday, hearing about the spiritual example of the slaves and the witness of their spirituals. There is a lot there that reflects Jesus' endurance in suffering and hope in God. But there are also aspects of Jesus' witness that seem to be missing, like his announcement of the kingdom of God present, and his demonstration of utter freedom despite the oppressive forces bearing down on him. Like in any human Christian disciple, we see something of Jesus and something missing. Which should direct our attention past the disciple and towards the one they follow.
There's definitely value in paying attention to the Christians who have gone before us. But they are not the best source of guidance or hope, Jesus is. "You can have all this world, give me Jesus."
Destroy their plans, O Lord, confuse their tongues;
for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they go around it on its walls;
and mischief and trouble are within it,
ruin is in its midst;
oppression and fraud do not depart from its market place. (Ps 55.9-11)
Reading these words this morning reminded me of Jacques Ellul's The Meaning of the City. A very thorough look at the biblical symbolism and teaching about "the city." It offers a strong challenge against our gravitation towards and attachment to the cities we build.
That's Ellul's main point (and a very important one): That cities are the work of our hands, centers of human power, that we depend on for our provision and protection. Instead of God.
The story starts in the early chapters of Genesis. The first mention of a city is in Gen 4.17—right after Cain's banishment by God, we are told that he built a city and named it after his son. And the Hebrew word used there (translated "city") tells of the fear and self-reliance that inspired its construction. It means "a place of waking, guarded." And the other connotations of the word—excitement, anguish, terror—provide an even clearer image.
A few chapters later, "the city" appears again. Babel. The psalmist I quoted seems to refer to this part of the story when he prays, "Destroy their plans, O Lord, confuse their tongues." God scattered the people at Babel because their faith was in their collective strength; gathered into a mighty city, they believed they would be secure and be respected. Their trust was in "We, the People."
And this is still the lure of the city. The places we built, promising opportunity and refuge. All around the world, people (especially the poor) feel ever greater pressure to abandon fields and crops and seek their livelihood in the concrete cities. But instead of livelihood, they find violence and strife, oppression and fraud. When we trust in human power, we soon experience what it means to be enslaved by that power. So, as at Babel, it is a mercy of God whenever that power is broken, when the compromising alliances of men are confused and the bricks of their mighty institutions are scattered.
And it is a mercy of God that he has opened a way for Heather and me (and for any children who might join us along the way) to live out beyond the oppressive cloud of the city. There our prayer will be the closing words of Psalm 55:
"I will trust in thee."
In my reading this morning there was another passage that has been very important to me:
Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.Like I wrote yesterday, this has been easier to follow while I've been single. But what about now, as we're considering starting a ministry, inviting guests, having to answer for our use of the property and the behavior of our guests?
"It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mt 20.25-28)
That could lead into the exercise of authority that Jesus warned against. I'm hoping that we'll be able to keep it firmly in mind that we are guests there as well. That the house and land and food are not ours (literally), but gifts from others to be passed on to those who need them. That we can appeal to our guests to treat these gifts with respect (and the people hosting us with love), and then be willing to personally take the consequences if our guests aren't respectful. Rather than trying to rule over them (which is probably what they're used to), to serve and sacrifice for those who come in need.
I came across this favorite passage in my reading yesterday morning:
One came up to Jesus, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "Which?" And Jesus said, "You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?"
Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."
When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Mt 19.16-22)
It's been easier to heed the warning of this story (and follow its call to perfection) while I've been single, with few needs—and even fewer when I'm on the road. Now as I contemplate family life and see a real possibility for a ministry that requires land and house and transportation and food for many, I feel cautious. Jesus didn't just talk about putting aside possessions, joining the poor in their vulnerability, trusting God daily for bread. He actually lived this. And he called his followers to follow him also in this:
"Fear not, little flock, for it is your 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 will your heart be also." (Lk 12.32-34)I'm very eager to continue to follow Jesus in this way. But it becomes more difficult when the needs become more (and when the needs are not only mine).
I found some clues about the way forward when I came to Reba Place and began exploring the possibilities for a more stable life. One clue was the sharing possible in community. This is seen also in Jesus' life, in the way his (and the disciples') needs are met by those in their wider community. Another clue was how Jesus also drew outsiders into the sharing for certain bigger needs, such as the upper room for the passover celebration. With God-inspired sharing like this, I can envision how needs could be met for a ministry and a family, though we held few possessions of our own.
Also, focusing more intently this part of Jesus' life, I've noticed a couple important (and much-overlooked) aspects I'd like to emulate as we enter into life at Plow Creek. One, he did not enter into communal ownership. This has been the economic model for many Christian communities throughout history, but Jesus himself was different. He really was poor. (Not just "technically" poor because nothing was owned in his name.) He had no ownership or claim to the resources that he lived on; they were all free gifts from others, from those who loved him. Second, he didn't call some to follow him in his poverty and some to stay wealthy to support him. Jesus accepted gifts from all, and encouraged giving and sharing to whatever extent people were willing. But his call to all his followers was always the same invitation to join him, to become like him, to give all, to abandon the purses that grow old and fail.
To be perfect as he is perfect.
Got a call this morning from Louise at Plow Creek farm. She said our retreat idea was discussed at the church members' meeting yesterday and received a very positive and enthusiastic response. They want to go ahead with the idea, continuing to explore the possibilities and trying to work out the difficulties. She also surprised me by saying they are trying to find a way for us to move to the farm sooner, perhaps even this summer.
This is very good news for us. Far more than we dared hope for (O we of little faith).
More wedding thoughts. Here's a song I'd like to include: Rich Mullins' "Step by Step." (There's a short audio clip here.) Mullins is one of Heather's favorite musicians, and apparently Psalm 34 was part of the inspiration.
I especially like the version usually sung at Reba Place church, with the Halleluia interlude:
God, you are my God, and I will ever praise you
God, you are my God, and I will ever praise you
I will seek you in the morning
And I will learn to walk in your ways
And step by step you’ll lead me
And I will follow you all of my days
We honor you Lord Jesus and forever we will sing
For you alone are worthy and forever we will sing
I remember copying these lyrics in my journal as I set out on a walk four years ago. A good pilgrimage song. And good for setting out on a life together.
Marriage seems first of all to be a gift of God, meant to share with us something about God himself. The three scripture passages I quoted yesterday focus on God's desire for us, and his faithfulness, two aspects of love that are especially apparent in (a good) marriage. These next three passages focus more on the unity of God, and the unity he offers us (with himself and with one another). The perfect unity of love.
[Jesus said to them] "From the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." (Mk 10.6-9)
"I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
"The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (Jn 17.20-23)
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (1 Jn 4.7-8)
I think together these six passages would be a good presentation of the meaning of marriage, the meaning for all of us, focusing on marriage as a work and gift of God. In a wedding, they could lead up to the vows (or maybe a mutual confessing of faith and love?). Then perhaps breaking into celebration with Psalm 34: O magnify the LORD with me... Look to him, and be radiant...
Now that it seems there is a realistic possibility for family life for Heather and me, I've been thinking more concretely about marriage. Yesterday I was looking at some scripture passages that pertain to marriage. I've written before that I don't like how the emphasis at weddings is usually on what the couple is doing (committing to one another), or what the community is doing (sanctioning and supporting the marriage). It seems far more important to me what God is doing. The married couple are "what God has joined together."
So I focused on God's role and purpose in marriage, both for those who are married and for all who can see in marriage a symbol of God's love, God's desire, God's faithfulness, God's unity. Here's the first three passages I really liked (and may want to use in a wedding ceremony):
God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God saw everything that he had made,
and behold, it was very good.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
"Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
for lo, the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth,
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
"O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
in the covert of the cliff,
let me see your face,
let me hear your voice,
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is comely.
"Catch us the foxes, the little foxes,
that spoil the vineyards,
for our vineyards are in blossom."
The mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the LORD
It was snowy and very cold on the morning after we arrived at the farm, the morning we were to present the retreat idea to the people at Plow Creek. I woke up around 4am and couldn't get back to sleep. I was praying and trying to trust God, but so much seemed to depend on the outcome of that presentation and their response. Heather and I had been seeking for almost two years to find the way ahead for us. Waiting for God to show us how we could live and work together (and raise children), doing the work we felt God leading us to do, and giving it freely to those who needed it most, trusting God to provide for our own needs—not an easy way to live, practically. How to arrange it? Who would be willing to work with us? And we had faced some soul-wrenching disappointments, just when we thought we had found the way forward. These thoughts and feelings crowded around me in the cold darkness.
I got out of bed and wrapped a coat around my shoulders. Sat on the floor and closed my eyes. Tried not to think about the news of the night before, that a tornado had hit the Florida town where my parents live (and that I got only out-of-service signals when I tried to call). Tried not to think about what Heather and I would do if our idea was rejected that morning, where we would go, how much longer we could hope for a future together. Tried to focus on the psalm that had pressed itself into my mind the day before:
This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him,Tried to sense God's presence, reassurance, support. It was so dark out. When I read the words of the next psalm, "Let those who desire my vindication shout for joy and be glad, and say evermore, 'Great is the LORD'," I began to cry.
and saved him out of all his troubles...
I don't know how long I sat there. And I think the sound crept into my consciouness before I looked out and saw it. The wind. It was bright enough by then to see the movement in the trees, the solemn swaying that looks like prayer to me. Or homage. I watched it and remembered.
Then I rose in the peace of that moment and ate and walked with Heather through the snow to find out what God had for us.
As Heather wrote yesterday, we were amazed by the response to our presentation. Though some hard questions were asked, what we heard was almost completely positive. There was a surprising feeling of energy from the Plow Creek folks, and the sense that we all wanted to work together to figure a way through the difficulties. Our personal visits with a number of people in the following days confirmed that impression. We were thrilled.
The next morning I woke up before 4am and couldn't sleep any more. But this time it felt like I was a kid on Christmas morning. I didn't want to miss anything.
Nothing is decided yet, and even in the church members' meeting next week the most that can be expected is a decision to continue to explore the idea and try to work out some of the tricky parts. If we do go ahead, it will probably be a couple years before Heather and I can actually move in and begin there. And it still might not turn out to be God's long-term plan for us. (Though we very much hope it is.) But for now I am encouraged and hopeful and see God providing just enough of an opening to move forward together.
Shout for joy and be glad, and say evermore, "Great is the LORD!"
Thank you for praying!
We had the meeting at Plow Creek Saturday morning, and... all I can say is that it was extremely positive. I walked out of it thinking, Wow, I didn't know it would look so much like a win-win situation. This ministry may actually be a very good fit for Plow Creek. (And that's something subtly yet importantly different from saying that Plow Creek is a good place for the ministry.)
There has been no decision, of course, and the decision may take a long time. And yet people's comments were positive, some of them very positive, and these are not knee-jerk reaction people. They have lived on this land for a long time and built up a strong community and farm and they haven't done it by trying every single new idea that came along. So... Paul and I are very encouraged.
And it's such a wonderful place... when I think of my kids growing up in a place where they can run in the woods and dip their feet in the creek, that just makes me so happy. And helping on the farm, which we plan to do, and eating fresh food we've grown ourselves, and serving that same food to the guests who come for retreats... not to mention how much we enjoy the people here. And how good some of them can be for the retreatants and for us. Speaking of which, I'd better end this email, because we're still out at Plow Creek, and some friends invited us for supper, and it's time to go...
I love you all!
"So, my friends, every day do something that won't compute.
Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing...
Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts." —Wendell Berry
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD;
let the afflicted hear and be glad.
O magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together!
I sought the LORD, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him,
and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the LORD encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the LORD is good!
Happy is the man who takes refuge in him!
O fear the LORD, you his saints,
for those who fear him have no want!
The young lions suffer want and hunger;
but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.