You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for us to cultivate,
that we may bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden our hearts,
oil to make our faces shine,
and bread to strengthen our hearts.
We all look to you,
to give us our food in due season.
When you give to us, we gather it up;
when you open your hand, we are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, we are dismayed;
when you take away our breath, we die
and return to dust.
When you send forth your Spirit, we are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
The rain gave us the day off today, so we finally went through all the wedding pictures people have been sending us and picked our favorites. Here's a slideshow.
Thanks to our mothers, and Jim, Dave, Lydia, and Kevin for taking these for us.
(Click here if the slideshow doesn't work)
Some of the young interns from Reba Place were here for a few days this week to help out on the farm. And they were eager to hear about my experiences walking. It felt good to have them ask questions and be impressed by the answers. And having friendly visitors from a sister community reinforces the feelings of acceptance and at-home-ness that I've been experiencing as I contact other friends and communities and ministries that we will visit on our walk this summer.
But too much approval and acceptance begins to make me uncomfortable. It feels good, but it doesn't stimulate much growth (or keep us spiritually awake) and it can be a trap, causing us to confine ourselves to those circles where we are appreciated. To be resisted is more challenging. To be unvalued is more humbling. And I think following Jesus unavoidably leads us in this direction; if we're seeking acceptance and only going where they approve of us, then we will necessarily turn away from the path Jesus is on.
Looking towards the days ahead, I was reminded of the feeling of being on the road. Having good visits with friends and meeting new admirers, but then becoming a nobody, a poor stranger, an outsider to society, on the long stretches between those visits. I looked back in one of my earliest journals and found this entry:
The difference today was surprising. After all those discussions and all that encouragement—today, silence. It was like suddenly moving out of the spotlight and finding myself in complete darkness. I'm anonymous; no one bothers about me. I barely raise an eyebrow or two as motorists notice the oddity of a walker on the highway. No one asks for an explanation, so no one knows, and I just continue on my way in silence. It's a little unnerving. Because it's so humbling—to be nobody—but that is really a very good thing. I should not think I'm so important to God's plan that I have to be constantly used by him. If (when!) I disappear, the Way remains, the Truth remains, everything I've been pointing to remains and only one little pointing finger is gone. That's something I need to be continually reminded of.
"Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.
"Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms....
"Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes..." (Lk 12.29-37)
I read this again the other morning and it stood out because Heather and I had just been talking intensely about being spiritually alive and awake. And I noticed that the verses that lead up to this last one address two of the main forces in human lives that spiritually deaden us: the all-consuming concern for daily needs or the lethargy of wealth.
I've written quite a bit about the way having an abundance puts us to sleep spiritually, trusting in the false security of material wealth. But now I'm becoming more aware that having little and constantly being concerned with providing for ourselves also tends to deaden our spiritual lives. The stress and unending physical labor captivates our attention and leaves us with little time or energy to focus on anything else. Jesus warns of these two things again later in Luke:
"But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life... But watch at all times..." (Lk 21.34,36)The "dissipation and drunkeness" of wealth and the "cares" of those anxious about providing for themselves. Both weigh down our hearts and keep us from spiritual watchfulness.
Jesus' answer was the one he lived. "Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind... Sell your possessions, and give alms..." Neither struggling to provide for himself nor gathering possessions around him for security. Poor yet unconcerned. That left Jesus' attention free to watch. To focus on his Father, who would both provide for all his needs and show him what to do for the kingdom.
I'm getting a little nervous with our walk coming up in a few weeks now. And it didn't help to see a front page Tribune story the other day about a young couple who were attacked and killed, without apparent motive. Not an image I want in my head, though I suppose I should admit the possibility. Then, this morning in church, we sang these lines (written by an acquaintance of mine from the Reba Place neighborhood):
I want to walk with you, JesusIt brought to mind the beginning of Psalm 121, so I looked it up.
Show me the road and I'll go
I look to the valleys, I look to the hills
I look to the sky and I know
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved,
he who keeps you will not slumber.
The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not smite you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
It's a big market day today, with berries going to four different farmer's markets and many people coming here to pick their own strawberries and blueberries in the fields. And I'm feeling a bit disgruntled because my not wanting to get involved in the selling part of the farm business is just making me seem less helpful. There's no time for me to get into any explanation about it. There's just the pressure to come up with another worker and I won't do it.
It mostly makes me feel bad because I can't see how this is any good witness to people. And my trying to keep my work hours down and not push myself too hard probably doesn't look good, either. Maybe there's a better way to go about it. Maybe I'm just not good enough in enough ways to present Jesus' example so people can recognize and appreciate it.
Well, at least it keeps me from feeling proud. I remember Paul writing something about God's treasure in earthen vessels, but I think he meant something different. Maybe the better witness will come when God continues to make a way forward for us, though it looks like I obviously don't deserve it (which I don't). Then the message will clearly be, not that I'm a great or capable person, but that God is merciful and generous with those who trust in him. And who try, even if it's poorly done, to obey.
I saw a big wild turkey the other morning. And, later that day, a red fox zig-zagging away into the woods as I turned up the gravel drive, tires crunching.
The first blueberries have appeared, too, early this year.
Some other recent things I want to remember:
Fireflies rising from the wheat field at dusk. Hundreds of tiny lights floating up from the quiet expanse, its gold fading with the day.
Descending Acorn trail through the dark cool of the woods, splashes of sunshine brightening my way. The wavering chorus and insistant buzz of a thousand cicadas overhead, and then suddenly the heavy but precise chop of a deer's feet as it bounds up the steep ravine. I just see its flagging tail before it disappears into green.
The rich and heady smell of molasses date bread being kneaded.
Finding Heather alone in the strawberry field at the end of the picking day, her red peasant's blouse bent low over the green rows in the straw. Gleaning the day's sweet remains. At my approach she stands and looks my way, tall and slender and curious. The low sun catches in her hair and, recognizing me, she smiles.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house.
And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me."
But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her." (Lk 10.38-42)
I read this familiar story this morning and it fit so well with recent thoughts and experiences. Martha's suffering is not the suffering that teaches obedience. It is the burden we lay on ourselves, pushing ourselves, exerting our own will (even if what we do is considered virtuous). Our own decision about what "needs" to happen distracts us from paying attention to what Jesus is doing. The oppressive feeling of weight on us is the sign.
Mary is free from the demands of what ought to be done. She is free from the responsibility of the moment. Jesus holds the moment for her, she is his.
But Martha holds the ethical high ground; she seems to have every right to demand Mary's participation, her back sharing the weight. Yet Jesus says that what Mary has found "shall not be taken away from her."
Shall not. Jesus suspends the ethical demand in his presence, will not let it be made oppressive. Mary has found the one thing, the one person, the One, who she can focus on without forgetting or neglecting anything important for her or for those she loves. (In Mary's choice, Martha also is served with what she needs.) And no one, and no circumstances, can take this away from her; no necessities exist for her when her attention is focused on him.
"The good portion shall not be taken away from her."
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him (Heb 5.8-9)
In the article on spiritual disciplines that I mentioned a couple days ago, it was said that Jesus also had to learn obedience. And yes, we are told that Jesus did learn obedience, "through what he suffered." But is this suffering the same as the self-imposed discomfort of spiritual disciplines?
Yesterday I pointed out the difference between self-mastery—teaching our bodies to submit to our will through the disciplines we choose to practice—and learning to obey God's will. Self-mastery is not the obedience Jesus learned through his suffering. (Or the obedience he asks of us.) He learned to obey God through accepting and walking the hard path, not he, but God set before him. This was perhaps most obvious as he prepared to go to the cross:
Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here, while I go and pray." And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled.
Then he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me." And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will." (Mt 26.36-39)
But Jesus also suffered much throughout his ministry, the mission God had given him, suffering because of those he was trying to help. Mostly when people were so unwilling to accept what he offered them. And most intensely when his closest friends tried to prevent him from doing what God told him to do, and then abandoned him. Some examples:
Jesus 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... (Mk 3.4-5)
Jesus answered, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?" (Mt 17.17)
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken." (Lk 13.34-35)
Jesus began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men." (Mk 8.31-33)
"See, my betrayer is at hand." And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. ...And [his followers] all forsook him, and fled. (Mk 14.42-43,50)
None of this is what Jesus chose for himself (and he certainly didn't take it on for his own spiritual improvement). He accepted this path in obedience to God, and all the suffering along the way tested and strengthened that obedience, challenging him to say again and again to God, "Not as I will, but as You will."
Perhaps the main reason given for spiritual disciplines is to learn obedience. To train ourselves to submit to a higher authority, so that we may be more useful for God's purposes. But that raises the question of who we're learning to obey.
At the beginning of Luke 4, we read that "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit... was led by the Spirit for forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing in those days...." Quite different from a self-imposed fast to kick-start our spiritual lives. It's clear that Jesus is obeying God's leading. But as we pick and choose our spiritual exercises, who are we obeying? Or if our spiritual disciplines are imposed by another person, who are we obeying then?
There certainly may be some value in teaching our bodies to submit to the choices we make, our physical desires submit to our conscious, reasoned decisions, to the authority of our will and its higher purposes. There may be considerable value in such self-mastery. But I'm not sure that self-mastery makes us more fit for service to God. A strong will and practice in obeying our own will even seems like a detriment to abandoning our own will and serving God's will. "Not my will, but yours be done."
I recall that the 12-step program starts, not with self-mastery, but with admitting that "our lives had become unmanageable." This is the starting point for faith. Not the point of self-mastery where we're looking for a greater master to offer our valuable allegiance, but the point of affliction, confusion, and helplessness, where we grasp at the one hand that can lift us. Then we are ready to obey God. Then we are ready for Christ to be everything for us.
Yesterday's entry reminded me of this picture I put together years ago (one I keep coming back to). There's the obvious emphasis on attention directed completely towards Jesus, and the passages also speak of this carrying us through risk and hardships, and stimulating change and growth...
(Mt 14.26-31, 2 Cor 3.17-18)
I've been hearing a lot about "the spiritual disciplines" lately. Someone was pressing a book on it into my hands a couple days ago (though I didn't really want it). And I remembered recently reading an article about a popular theologian who has a book out about the spiritual disciplines—solitude, fasting, prayer, confession, study, etc. I'm quite familiar with the practice of these, from my background with monastic spirituality, but it seems they are coming back into vogue.
As I thought about this, I was reminded that the popular theologian was the one I wrote about last week, who was labeled a "workaholic" by his wife. That made me suspicious. And there certainly seems to be some connection between the self-focused drive to work and the appeal in the "spiritual work" of these religious practices. That was always a problem in monastic practice as well. When I looked back at the article, I even found this disclaimer (by a reviwer of the spiritual disciplines book):
It's important to see that this program of renewal has nothing to do with "works righteousness"... justification is still entirely by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But sanctification is another story. Mortification of the old self and vivification of the new one take not only God's gift, but also our effort.That didn't do much to ease my concern about a work-oriented spirituality. And earlier the review says that the author "tells us that learning to enjoy God forever and to participate in his big project is entirely like learning competitive baseball or the violin or Italian... the only way to get joy out of them is to work at them."
It is notable that Jesus spent very little energy promoting spiritual disciplines. He was even frequently criticized for seeming to undermine the spiritual disciplines in wide practice at the time. By "breaking" the sabbath, for instance. Or eating well (so that some even called him a glutton). When asked why his disciples didn't fast, Jesus answered that they couldn't fast when the bridegroom was with them. He also didn't teach them prayers (as other spiritual teachers did) until they specifically asked him.
This is not to say that such practices have no value; I think they do. But Jesus does not seem to promote them as most religious teachers did then, and as religious teachers do today. Jesus offered something greater than the sabbath or fasting.
Thinking more about this while baking bread this morning, I came to the conclusion that I think the problem with the "spiritual disciplines" approach goes deeper than the misdirected emphasis on our own effort and work. It's not just work-focused, but self-focused. It feels much like the "self-help" craze of a few years back. Spirituality and spiritual practices are presented as the means to become the person you want to be, and specific practices are offered so we can get to work on it right away. So the focus is on our own unfulfilled needs and desires and what we can do to change our lives. We can't do this by ourselves, we are told, we need God's help, but: "Mortification of the old self and vivification of the new one take not only God's gift, but also our effort." And then all the instructions are about our part of the process.
Now that I think of it, the value of this approach may be mortification after all. When we come to the end of all our efforts and still find ourselves woefully short. When the focus on ourselves shows us how unlike Jesus we really are. And how helpless we are to change that.
The difference I see in Jesus' teaching, is that he shifted the focus from ourselves (and our own spiritual achievement) and directed our attention to himself. Despite what these authors suggest, Jesus did not preach a rigorous program of spiritual disciplines. Every spiritual discipline of his time had to submit in his presence. What Jesus said to the one who wanted to know God was, "follow me." Not just to learn techniques and practices from him, but to fixate on him, need to be near him, have to set aside everything that keeps us from him. Consciousness of ourselves, our own weaknesses or strengths, our own efforts, all this becomes nothing. All that we see is him. He—God's gift—is everything.
The book I was given listed sixty-two spiritual disciplines to be aware of and put into practice for a vibrant spiritual life. Jesus simply presented himself. "Follow me."
I've been seeking other ministries to visit during our walk later this summer, but I've had a hard time getting responses, and most of them seem much less developed than the one in Boston. Which was a bit discouraging, because I thought those visits would be a major focus on our walk.
Then, looking over AA's 12 steps recently, I was reminded that the most critical part of the path of transformation is the beginning steps of faith. The steps that have to be taken over and over again. Throwing ourselves into the arms of God (see "In God I Trust"). I think the 12 step program describes this pretty well in the first three steps (slightly edited here):
- We admitted we were powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore our lives
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God
I had been thinking that what we would be looking for on our walk was practical ideas from other spiritual ministries to the poor. But, while I do think these will be helpful, it's much more important for us to learn the movements of faith deeply and well. Especially in situations of extreme need. Because that's what the people will be facing who come to us on retreat. They need to be shown (or reinforced in) real faith, the willingness to risk everything, in the midst of serious, actual threats, when it seems so utterly dark all around.
I've learned much about this on my many walks so far, and I'm sure the lessons will continue on this walk (especially since Heather will be with me this time). So this walk will be different, but maybe not so different after all.
A few days a go I wrote about a correspondence with a friend, in which we agreed about not holding back Jesus' extremely challenging message from those broken and needy people who want to follow him. I've been thinking about that some more.
My friend also said that, to help some people avoid being overwhelmeded or discouraged by the height of the goal, it may be important to help them just focus on their next step in life. That brought to mind again the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. They do a good job of breaking down the daunting journey of spiritual conversion into clear and focused steps, and urge patience and thoroughness in taking each step. That's been very helpful for many people.
There's a couple things I want to adjust a bit, though. The 12 steps do a good job at starting with faith (steps 1-3), then focus mostly on repentance (steps 4-10). I'd like to add emphasis on spiritual growth (step 11). And lots more emphasis on seeking and dedicating ourselves to God's calling for our own lives; step 12 touches on that (and 3 lays the foundation for it), but it's pretty much limited to helping others with similar addictions. God's calling for each of us is much more than that, involving relationships, work, finances, interactions with the society around us, etc. And radical dependence on God goes hand in hand with seeking and obeying his will, his calling, for our lives. We can't have one without the other. "Seek his kingdom and all these things will be yours as well."