Five days until the wedding and no cold feet so far...
That could be referring to something Jesus said about marriage. Though I tend to think in heaven it will be less like "being single again" and more like loving everyone as much and as intimately as you love your spouse...
Five days until the wedding and no cold feet so far...
I prayed Psalm 18 early this morning by candlelight...
I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies.
In my distress I called upon the Lord;
to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.
He reached from on high, he took me,
he drew me out of many waters.
They came upon me in the day of my calamity;
but the Lord was my stay.
He brought me forth into a broad place.
Our plan for a small retreat house for the poor here was based on the image of "a feast for the poor," from Luke 14 (you may need to click on the image for full size). It follows the desire to offer gifts to the poor, a concern I mentioned yesterday. For quite some time I've been trying to follow Jesus into a life in which all my work and all that I receive are gifts. Now I'm trying to more intentionally direct gifts to the poor.
As I said yesterday, I'd like to encourage that here, too. But I understand that transition will be slow, and may not go as far as I would like. So I've been trying to see how God might have me participate in the work of the community here, while still living Jesus' model of gift giving and receiving.
This desire may fit with the work needs here. Both the farm and bakery struggle financially, and usually cannot afford to pay hourly wages (so the bakery work has been mostly done by volunteers, and the main farm workers all agreed to take need-based shares of the farm income, as well as lots of fresh vegetables!). That's fine with me, because I'm not interested in working for wages. I could just help out as needed, and ask that the farm and bakery make donations to the retreat ministry as they want to and can afford. Outside donations (hopefully!) will also support the retreat ministry, which will be a ministry of Plow Creek church.
Heather and I will then go to the church for our needs, which can be provided from the various donations. God willing.
From what I've seen so far, he is.
I was up on Blueberry hill with Kevin this morning, helping mulch the new plants they put in yesterday. It's nice and quiet up there. And there's more of a calm, unchanging feel there, since the blueberry bushes grow and produce berries for years.
On our walk home, I asked about surpluses of things like watermelons, sweet corn, and tomatoes. Kevin said that he'd tried giving some of it away. He even found one guy from a local charity who would bring people to glean produce that hadn't been picked (because there was an excess of that crop). That sounded good to me. I'd like to encourage and help organize more of that.
One part of work on a small farm (and bakery) that has raised questions for me is how the customers tend to be the more wealthy suburbanites. Especially when, to cover the expenses of a small operation, the farm focuses on growing the more expensive produce, like berries. I think growing good food or making good bread is very worthwhile work. But for me it takes something away to know that only the richer people will enjoy these good things.
It reminds me of a friend who is a potter in North Carolina (we hope to visit him this summer on our walk). He is an excellent craftsman; his work is beautiful. But to make his living by such work he needs to charge prices that only fairly wealthy collectors can afford. That bothers him. Me too.
But much of the produce and breads made here also go to the families who live here. I like that. I'd feel better about the work, though, if we can find a way to produce more nourishing gifts for the poor rather than luxury items for the rich.
Heather and I were clearing brush around the retreat cabin here the other day, preparing it for our honeymoon. And near the cabin under the trees Heather discovered some beautiful deep red trilliums. The flowers are just opening, so I imagine they'll still be around after the wedding.
The shape of the flower is striking. It reminds me of the Celtic trinity knot symbol that we chose for our wedding rings (thanks Mom and Dad for that gift!).
Last week I got a response from Mike O'Grady, a Jesuit in the Boston area, offering hospitality and encouraging us to come for a visit in early July. I had written to him because Heather and I are planning to start our walk there.
It's the location of Ecclesia Ministries, an ecumenical group that has offered church for the homeless outside on Boston Common for over twelve years now. They call it the common cathedral. Here's an excerpt from their latest newsletter:
A man shared about his first experience at common cathedral. He said he had gone to a church dressed in his street clothes, clean and neat, but casual and not wearing a white shirt and tie like all the other men he saw there. The ushers made it clear that he didn’t belong and escorted him to the door.
Hurt and angry he walked over to Boston Common and encountered a woman who said, “You look like you need a friend.” It was Debbie Little who had greeted him many years ago. He now calls common cathedral his home.
When asked how he found common cathedral, a man who always used to sleep on a bench near the fountain laughed and said, “One afternoon when I woke up I was in church.” Our altar and cross were in his bedroom.
Ever since my walk out west, I've been using cimarron as an online name. It's an Apache word, meaning "wanderer," a synonym for pilgrim. But it also has another interesting usage. When the Spanish moved into the Apache territory in western North America, and took it over, they adopted the word cimarron. But the Spanish meaning of the word is "wild." It was used to describe a native Apache who had been "civilized" (enslaved and domesticated by the Spanish) who then escaped and returned to his "wild" (native) ways. I like that image.
I was thinking about wildness yesterday, as a storm front moved in. It's been a concern of mine recently. It may have something to do with my series of reflections on aggression last week; I remember writing, "I don't want to be domesticated."
There's my approaching marriage, but I don't think there's much danger of domestication with Heather, a fiery spirit herself. My attention is drawn more towards the workings of organized community. Especially communities that are intentionally anti-violence, anti-aggression, and that are trying to be places of safety and healing. I think these are basically good intentions, but trying to create such a communal sanctuary by human means—by human organization and group pressure—can really put a damper on the fiery spirit. By constructing external social restraints (rules and authority structures) and also planting internal emotional restraints (taboos and shame) against our wilder, less controllable tendencies. These can produce some desirable social effects. But it's still the attempt to produce security for ourselves through our own efforts, isn't it?
And how does that put us in relation to the Spirit who "blows where it will", the God who is a "consuming fire"?
I believe this will be an important concern for me as I try to find my purpose here. Our wildness is a gift of God, the free expression of who he created us to be. We must not subdue it.
I've been getting my hands dirty here, helping with some early planting and even some weeding already. The physical work is harder than I'm used to. But I've been trying not to work so hard or with such fixation that I'm not aware of what's going on around me.
Like the tree frogs chirping in the woods at the edge of the field. Or the vultures silently circling high above.
Yesterday, we were setting up irrigation piping for the new strawberry plants we just put in. The field was a dry gray expanse, the plants tiny and indistinguishable from the dirt. So we brought out the thirty-foot pipes, hooked them up without too much problem, and soon water was flying. But puddles began to form where some pipe connections were leaking, and some of the sprinklers didn't work right. So we began the slow, frustrating task of fixing seals and adjusting sprinklers and replacing pipes. Some leaks were persistant. And each time we separated the pipes more water gushed out, making mud. Lots of it. The process dragged on and on, and we began to get tired and hungry for dinner.
But when we turned on the water again the last time, I saw something beautiful. In the slanting rays of the low afternoon sun, as the fine spray slowly darkened the soil, I saw them. Where before there had seemed to be only an expanse of dirt, now long rows of tiny green leaves glistened.
I stood there for several minutes and enjoyed the sight.
That's not the president I'm quoting, it's Jesus. The passage I quoted yesterday, "he that is not against us is for us," reminded me of this other saying of Jesus that seems to say almost the opposite:
He who is not with me is against me,
and he who does not gather with me scatters. (Mt 12.30)
In the current political scene, words like these have been used to strike fear and squelch dissent. But in that realm, such a statement is ultimately untrue, in that there could certainly be opposition to certain bad decisions or political positions that is not "against" the president or the country but "for" them, for their good.
This statement is true, however, when Jesus speaks it. And it is not a contradiction of his words quoted yesterday. Both statements say the same thing: We are either with Jesus or against him. There is no neutral ground, no "undecided," and obviously no loyal opposition.
It seems important, though, to repeat yesterday's observation that Jesus' way of seeing who is "with him" is different from our usual way. We see families and political parties, pledges of allegiance and membership vows, alliances and official affiliations. But Jesus sees himself united with "whoever does the will of God." If God is acting through us, we are with him then, no matter what our church membership status. And if we are resisting God's work (even just resisting God's attempts to use us), then we are against him, no matter much we profess Jesus' name.
"You will know them by their fruits. Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Mt 7.20-21)
Last night there was a discussion here about the meaning of church membership. Most everyone agreed that membership in Christ's body is the most important thing, but some also see local church membership as very important, for a number of different reasons. I've complained before about the way local membership is usually done in churches. Last night, though, I said that I could see value in a local gathering of Christians doing something to publicly recognize a brother or sister who enters their area and wishes to worship and serve with them, reconizing them as a member (of Christ) already, recognizing that God has already made them one with each other and is already working through this new person. Membership in Christ's body is something Christ alone can give, but we can recognize and rejoice in it.
Then this morning I read these lines in Mark:
John said to him, "Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us." (Mk 9.38-40)I think the usual push for someone to join a local church organization is often driven by the same feeling that John expresses here. The desire to more clearly define who "us" is. But Jesus has a much wider view of what God is doing. When he sees God working through people, he recognizes members of his body, even if they are not "official" members of the group. "Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother." (Mk 3.35)
Kurt Vonnegut just died. I really liked a few of his novels, like Slaughterhouse Five and Hocus Pocus. Here's a quote of his that bears repeating:
For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes. But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus. I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere. "Blessed are the merciful" in a courtroom? "Blessed are the peacemakers" in the Pentagon? Give me a break!
There are animals totally devoid of aggression which keep together for life as firmly united flocks. One would think that such animals would be predestined to develop permanent friendships and brotherly unions of individuals, and yet these characteristics are never found among such peaceable herd creatures; their association is always entirely anonymous. A personal bond, an individual friendship, is found only in animals with highly developed intra-specific aggression; in fact, this bond is firmer, the more aggressive the particular animal and species is... Proverbially the most aggressive of all mammals, Dante's bestia senza pace, the wolf, is [also] the most faithful of friends. (Lorenz, On Aggression)
An unexpected and very interesting observation. I recalled this passage after a conversation with Heather yesterday, about what I most valued in her and in our relationship. Pre-marital musings had unsettled us a bit. Raised questions about our expectations of each other, stirring up the stereotypical spousal expectations, those things usually valued in a marital partner—did we measure up? But after some reflection, I came back with the two things I value most, two things that I think are bound up together: passion and faith.
Passion appears in many ways, in anger and also in the incredible strength of some relationships. It appeared in Jesus' fiery spirit. The spirit of risk and utter abandon. And this is also the nature of faith, the abandonment of self for the sake of the absolute Good, for the sake of Love. Passionate faith is the way God's Love enters.
What I value most in myself and in a partner, in Heather specifically, is this fiery spirit of abandon that empties us, so that Love may enter. No spousal attribute or skill is nearly as important. Skills can be learned. But the inner fire...
Also, in all the recent talk of marriage and domesticity I've been wondering about how these tend to "settle down" a person (namely me). I don't want to be domesticated. It may help to emphasize passion and faith in our relationship, right from the start. And I'm glad we're going out on the road soon after our marriage; I think it sets the right tone for our life together.
Here's some scenes of the fiery Jesus I mentioned in the last entry:
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. And they watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. He said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come here." And he said to them, "Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent.
And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mk 3.1-6)
"Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets...
"Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets." (Lk 6.22-26)
"I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!
"Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." (Lk 12.49-53)
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard it.
And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons; and he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple. And he taught, and said to them, "Is it not written, `My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers."
And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him; for they feared him, because all the multitude was astonished at his teaching. (Mk 11.12-18)
After yesterday's lofty thoughts, I remembered the little detail that our instinctual aggressiveness remains, even if we reach the spiritual place in which we are no longer struggling to survive. Jesus displayed a temper a number of times, as I recall...
Lorenz wrote about animals finding ways to divert their aggressiveness away from their family or others in their social group. Perhaps our instinctual aggressiveness can also be diverted, away from people (who we love and don't want to hurt) and towards those things that threaten them. Like Jesus denouncing untruths or certain harmful (yet socially accepted) practices. Or his casting out of demons, aggressively attacking something in a person without attacking the person.
So that even when it is not being used for survival, our natural aggressiveness becomes an important good.
If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
[And] we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. (Rom 6.5,9)
These lines appeared in the Easter vigil readings. And they brought to mind thoughts I've had on the question of aggression raised yesterday. Why would Jesus come preaching "turn the other cheek," if our natural aggression is actually beneficial to our survival and physical well-being?
I do accept that natural, instinctual aggression does help a species survive. It helps in the continuation of life on earth. Which is a fine raison d'être for animals and insects. But for human beings? With our consciousness of the inevitability of death (of ourselves, and also our family lines and, eventually, even every human memory of our existence) doesn't "survival" become a rather futile-feeling pursuit? Is this all there is to our lives?
Those words of Paul I quoted suggest that it is (or can be) different for us human beings. And in Jesus' living and his dying—and in his continued, unending life—we see this difference demonstrated quite clearly. Death had "no dominion over him."
A life governed by the struggle for survival is a life driven by the fear of death. This is the natural life. But Jesus called us to something much more. The life that is not threatened by death, the spiritual life that does not end, the life which is not meant for the constant struggling for survival but which is created to seek and to find union with God. With the Source of all life. With Love himself.
Jesus' words and actions showed us what that life, that union with God, looks like. And the more we understand the reality and complexity of the natural life (including its instinctual aggressiveness), as well as its almost complete universality among human beings, the more deeply we can appreciate the contrast of Jesus' life.
His is the life we are offered—"if we have been united with him in a death like his..."
Yesterday I was reading Konrad Lorenz's book, On Aggression, a study of aggression among members of the same species. A good meditation on the day we remember Jesus' crucifixion at the hands of the mob.
Interestingly, the book presents a strong case for the naturalness and even the positive value of aggression. How aggressive behavior in animals drives them apart, preventing overcrowding and exhaustion of local resources, thus improving chances for survival. And how aggressive "challenges" are used to establish hierarchy in a social group, which helps all members find their roles and know who to follow as the leader of the group. This makes sense to me.
Lorenz also explored how strong cultural customs (rituals and taboos) serve to control aggression within a social group. So these are considered very important, even sacred. When these are ignored or flouted, that behavior is seen as an act of aggression in itself.
This helps us understand the response when Jesus entered the scene and started reinterpreting Jewish laws and challenging social customs. He was seen as a threat. And attacked aggressively, for the (supposed) good of the society:
"If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation."And it does seem quite reasonable to perceive Jesus' influence and teaching as a threat to the order of society, at least the order of any natural (hierarchical, survival-based) society.
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish." (Jn 11.48-50)
So if such aggression is natural, and even helpful for survival, why would Jesus come challenging it, preaching another way? Why "love your enemy," "turn the other cheek"?
One thing that intimidates me a bit in our move to the farm is how much the country seems "a land of hard work." Lots of physical labor of course, which I don't mind. But also the image of the farmer rising early and toiling long hours, and the respectability of that, honoring the one who can bear the heavy load. The sense of pride in working to exhaustion. Of course this is not found only in the country, but it's clearly here also.
It reminded me of something I wrote about "hard work" a year ago, commenting on "my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." That and the entries that followed focused on a different setting for work (activism), but I think the point is just as important here. The emphasis on hard work does direct our attention to ourselves, to our own capabilities. Encourages trust in the power of human will and effort. Certainly this can result in many impressive (and valuable) accomplishments—but at what spiritual cost?
I don't find much in Jesus' life and teaching that honors hard work. Jesus honors faith. He emphasizes and demonstrates complete dependence on God's will and God's power. And this clearly directs attention, not to us, but to God. Where our attention should always be directed.
This is what I need to focus on here, as I have been all along. I don't need to try to impress people by my hard work or try to build the retreat ministry quickly through long and intense efforts. God has prepared me already for what he wants me to bring here. And God has offered this place and vision to us as a gift, not as a product of our own minds and hands, but as an act of overwhelming generosity.
That's what I continue to hope for.
We've arrived at Plow Creek farm and are all settled in. Heather is staying in the guest room of a couple here (and we both eat meals with them), and I will move in with her once we're married. A warm welcome. And good to see friends here again.
This morning I helped in the small bakery operation they have. We made thirty loaves of bread and fifteen dozen rolls (an excellent multi-grain recipe from the Hutterites), enjoying the good smells and the warmth of the ovens on a cold day. I'm very glad to be able to have bread like this, and to serve it to our retreat guests. And I enjoy the bakery work.
The only drawback is that bread like this—top quality organic ingredients and made in small batches—can usually only be afforded by fairly wealthy customers. The work is still good, and the results very satisfying. But I'd rather be baking for the poor. I guess I will sometimes, when we make bread for our retreat guests.