Yesterday the library was closed so we spent the afternoon in Fort Yargo State Park. It seemed like we had the whole beautiful place to ourselves. We even bought hot dogs to roast over a fire and warmed our baked beans right in their can. (Heather knew we would find a chance to use the matches she brought along!)
Then there was a change in plans and Heather's Aunt Alice drove out from Atlanta to get us a couple days early. So now we're enjoying her hospitality for a few days. This also gives us the opportunity to visit the street church here, Church of the Common Ground, which has a service in a downtown park tomorrow afternoon. And we may get to stop for the Sunday evening service at the Open Door Catholic Worker, too.
We got a reprieve from the concrete last night when Glenn from Jubilee invited us to stay with him at a house he was house-sitting in town. So we got to spend time with him, and also enjoy fresh farm eggs and coffee this morning.
They are having a New Monasticism "school for conversion" conference at Jubilee this weekend (we would have been there for it, but unexpected rides brought us there a week early). I don't know. I like a lot of what the New Monasticism communities are saying and doing, and we have friends involved with them. But I'm uneasy about their quickly growing popularity. And I imagine that has something to do with their connecting with the monastic model, which historically fit into society by suggesting a two-tiered spirituality—high standards for the religious "heroes," but much lower expectations for most Christians. People like that. Much less confrontational.
I noticed signs of it in the workbook they're using this weekend. In the introduction, there's a line to ease concerns right away: "Not every Christian is called to be a monastic."
Perhaps that is meant in a humble way, to say their way isn't the only right one. But I think something important is lost when we begin proclaiming something narrower (or wider?) than the Christian life, the life of following Jesus, which we are all called into. Jesus said to all, "follow me." And then lived such a radical life that most turned away and then decided he was a threat to society. He wouldn't let them accept him as a monastic. I'm also reminded of Clarence Jordan (who I quoted a couple days ago), who regularly challenged all the segregationist Christians of his time to live their faith and who was seen as a threat for his following of Jesus. From what I've heard, Koinonia didn't try to gain acceptance as a sort of monastic community of their day. They just saw it as the Christian thing to do.
But that's what gets us into trouble. If we say we have a special calling, people say fine. But if we say we're just following Jesus, doing what he said and did, then people who call themselves Christians get upset. Because we're implying that they should be following Jesus that way, too. And he did some pretty upsetting things.
We sure weren't lonely during our visit at Jubilee, meeting lots of community members, volunteers, refugees, having most meals in common, and work and play times together. Got to run our retreat idea by several people, including some who know about a ministry supported by volunteer work and donations. They were encouraging. And they routinely get news from Plow Creek here, so they can follow our future developments.
Also, we enjoyed working in the garden (except for the fire ants!) and eating the produce coming in. Tomatoes, peppers, green beans, various greens, squash, and some unexpected fruits like figs and Asian jujube. Now we're on our way again, so it's back to hobo burritos...
This weekend I was reading some sermons by Clarence Jorden, who started Koinonia Farm, from which Jubilee Partners sprouted. And this passage jumped out at me, both because it's a commentary on "the birds and lilies" (which was recited for me a few days ago) and because I think it supports what I was writing about yesterday:
Suppose now this little lily that he was talking about says, "You know, I don't like it out here in this field. The farmer just drove by with a manure spreader. I want to get into a better environment. The cultural opportunities are horrible out here. So I think maybe I'm going to write to my cousin in the town and see if he can't find me an apartment and I'm going to move in there." Suppose that little lily has the free will, as we have, to determine his own conduct and can move into the city and live on the concrete. Jesus is not saying to that little lily, "Take no thought about tomorrow." It had better! It won't let God take care of it; it better take care of itself. So long as it will stay in the environment which God intended for it, God will take care of it. But when it wants to govern its own course, then it takes itself out of God's care.
This promise is given only to people who are willing to set their eyes on one object, and that is, the Kingdom of God and its righteousness. Jesus said, "You can count on it, from there on out, things will be added to you." And I can speak from experience. I believe this; I've seen it operate time and time again. In the establishment of Koinonia Farm, I remember quite well that we were supposed to pay the fellow $2500 down. Martin England, who was a missionary under the American Foreign Mission Society to Burma, and I started it together. We agreed on the common purse and I had the idea that Martin was loaded. I don't know why I should think that, he being an American Baptist missionary, but he talked about, "Let's do this and let's do that," and I said, "Yeah, let's do" and I thought he had the money. And so I said, "Let's do this and let's do that" and he said, "Yeah, let's do" and when we finally pooled our common assets, we had $57.13. We were three weeks from the time we had agreed to pay $2500 down! To make a long story short, we put down that $2500. A fellow brought it to us and said the Lord had sent him with it. I didn't question him—we took it right quick before the Lord changed his mind.
Years later, a newspaper reporter came out there and asked, "Who finances this project?"
Well, all along, folks who had helped us said that the Lord had sent them, so I said to this newspaper reporter, "The Lord does."
"Yeah," he said, "I know. But who supports it?"
I said, "The Lord."
"Yeah, I know," he said, "but who, who, who, uh, who—you know what I'm talking about. Who's back of it?"
I said, "The Lord."
He said, "But what I mean is, how do you pay your bills?"
I said, "By check."
"But," he said, "I mean—hell, don't you know what I mean?"
I said, "Yeah, friend, I know what you mean. The trouble is you don't know what I mean!"
In a conversation with Pastor Lobe the other day, he spoke of a vision for a widespread support organization for missionaries (among which he included himself and us). So that anywhere they were they could call and find material assistance or a place to stay, or help with whatever need they had. It reminded me of the pamphlet he handed out, that began "With a Union we (believers) are stonger...." I said that God already moves people to help when they are needed, working in them by his Spirit. But he thought this wasn't enough, since often people don't respond to God's prompting. "They don't do it," Lobe said, so then God can't help us.
But I don't believe that. I don't think we can frustrate God's purposes by our refusal to cooperate (unless it's frustrating God purposes for ourselves). If it always depended on our full, willing participation, God wouldn't be able to get anything done. I reminded Pastor Lobe of our experiences on this walk, how God has provided for our needs all along the way. How, especially during the past month, it has felt like we're being passed from hand to hand, though these people have little or no connection with each other, except God's Spirit. That included Pastor Lobe, too.
I think this is a good example of a truly alternative life, and alternative community. Not a life supported, protected, and guided by human effort and ingenuity and ambition, but by God. Every party, culture, and political model, while they may be different in certain aspects, they all are monuments of human achievement. Bearing the motto, "Together we are strong." Each inevitably crumbles and is pulled down, but another is quickly raised in its place, in hope that we will not lose faith in ourselves as a people. The only true alternative to this is the renunciation of the power of Babel, the power of "We, the people," turning to God in the utter dependence of faith. He will provide, he will show us what to do and how to do it (not by our own power but by his), and he will connect us in one community. It is not a union in which we are strong, but it is a support and a union we can depend on.
Yesterday soon after we walked into the library a man struck up a conversation with Heather. He introduced himself as "Pastor Lobe." An African, from Cameroon. When Heather told him her great-grandparents were missionaries there years ago, he got excited and began asking more about our walk. Soon we were at his house, sharing a dish Heather remembered from Nigeria: cassava dipped in a soup made from chicken and spices and greens. Quite good. And he was very impressed that Heather knew how to eat it and dug right in with her hands.
Pastor Lobe also offered to drive us a way down the road. But as we described our next planned stop at Jubilee Partners, and their work with international refugees, he decided he wanted to take us all the way and see the place for himself. So we made some phone calls and by dinner time we arrived here!
We were warmly welcomed and ate with the community and summer volunteers. Then helped unfurl the homemade banner and welcome some new refugees just arriving from Burma. Later we visited some houses of the other families there, from Chad and Burundi. I thought they wouldn't appreciate a crowd appearing at their door, but they seemed quite pleased and welcomed everyone in. Soon the singing started, traditional African songs in their native language, with everyone clapping along and singing and ululation for applause.
Just before we left, Pastor Lobe stood up to say a few words and pray. He spoke in French so someone could translate to the African dialect, while Heather translated into English. He was very impressed by his experience here. I remember him saying before he drove away, "This is how it should be." (Which reminded me of Luke's comment a couple days before.)
I received this message and picture from Sara (I had told 4-year-old Virginia that we didn't have a house of our own):
Hi Paul and Heather!
When we left you at the library yesterday, Virginia said, "I want dem to stay all night, 'cuz I yuv dem." Then she said, "If dey det a baby boy or dirl dey will need a house." Hee hee, I guess that was worrying her, so I told her God would provide one when he was ready and she said something like, "God always helps us."
We really enjoyed your visit. Thank you for taking the time to bless us with your presence. We love you both.
Today we said goodbye to Luke and Sara and the kids, after almost a week with them. Yesterday was Luke's birthday, and we all helped make a magnificent carrot cake from scratch, and sat around the campfire long after dark with Sara and Heather singing folk songs. Sharing life with their family this week seemed like a gift for all of us. "This is just how it should be," Luke said at one point.
It brings to mind a theme in Brueggemann's Prophetic Imagination, about the prophetic role of "alternative" community:
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. Thus I suggest that prophetic ministry has to do not primarily with addressing specific public crises but with addressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation co-opted and domesticated....
In thinking this way, the key word is alternative, and every prophetic minister and prophetic community must engage in a struggle with that notion. Thus, alternative to what? In what way alternative? How radically alternative? Finally, is there a thinkable alternative that will avoid domestication?
I've thought about that quite a bit during our rest time and will write some more about it. Now the library computer is telling me my time's up. Sara and Virginia took us with them grocery shopping and drove us quite a way down the road, so we're well supplied and only a week's walk from our next planned stop.
Yesterday we went to a nearby church and Luke, Sara, and their kids and us were the only white folks there. Good music. "This church is noisy!," little Virginia warned as we arrived. There wasn't communion, so we celebrated back at the house later, with French bread fresh from the oven. Luke made a campfire after the kids were in bed, and we sat around and talked until midnight.
Today, we helped a neighbor clear and burn brush for most of the day. Then enjoyed chili and warm cornbread that Sara made from scratch, even grinding her own meal from corn and wheat. And later there were homemade cookies (oatmeal raisin, with peanut butter—great).
I also met another neighbor who offered his "testimony." Pretty gripping, actually, about being attacked and losing an eye (he tapped the glass eyeball for emphasis). In the hospital he was led to Matthew 6.22-33, which he recited for me very dramatically—and very effectively in his deep Carolina drawl—from the King James version:
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek; for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when I recognized him reciting the passage that has been so important to me, especially out on the road.
Yesterday Psalm 27 seemed important to me. It ends with the urgent words, "...yea, wait for the Lord!" And then today I found this compelling passage in The Prophetic Imagination, by Walter Brueggemann:
Even youths shall faint and be weary,The poet contrasts us in our waiting and in our going ahead. For those who take initiative into their own hands, either in the atheism of pride or the atheism of despair, the words are weary, faint, and exhausted. The inverse comes with waiting: renewed strength, mounting up, running, and walking. But that is in waiting. It is in receiving and not grasping, in inheriting and not possessing, in praising and not seizing. It is in knowing that initiative has passed from our hands and we are safer for it. Obviously this becomes more than a critique of Babylon [or "Empire"]. It is also a critique of every effort to reorganize on our own and it is a warning about settling in any exile as home.
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Is 40.30-31)
The newness from God is the only serious source of energy. ...The prophet must not underestimate his or her urgent calling, for there is no other source of newness. I am aware that this runs dangerously close to passivity, as trust often does, and that it stands at the brink of cheap grace, as grace must always do. But that risk must be run because exiles must always learn that our hope is never generated among us but always given to us.
Another rush of surprises. We arrived at a church last night and met a group of women just leaving a baby shower there. After a brief introduction they offered us fried chicken, potato salad, and sweet tea ("Now I know I'm in the South!" Heather said) and called the pastor. But his wife answered, and didn't want us sleeping there. Sharon wasn't deterred though, immediately calling her own pastor, who let us sleep at that nearby church. The pastor even showed up soon after we arrived to make sure we were comfortable.
And this morning, after heavy rains last night, Pastor Gunn came back and offered breakfast and a ride down the road. We talked all the way (and smiled when his cell phone rang a Dixieland version of "When the Saints Go Marching In"). An interesting, energetic guy, who took plenty of time to make sure we were cared for. He dropped us at the library here, where Sara will pick us up soon. We'd been planning to visit her but thought we wouldn't arrive until next week.
It feels like we've been passed from hand to hand by people the past few days. Carried over daunting stretches and through threatening weather and given warm meals and safe, comfortable places to sleep. It certainly has been much more an experience of grace than accomplishment, bringing forth an overwhelming feeling of grateful humility.
Lake Wylie, SC
A man stopped on his way home from work yesterday and offered us a ride. "I'm feeling a little low on good deeds," he said. He ended up driving us all the way through Charlotte to the edge of South Carolina. We found a church close to where he dropped us, just as a service was starting, and met a woman there who invited us home with her. So we're clean again and well-rested and nowhere near where we thought we would be yesterday.
Back in the library today, getting our bearings again, I've been thinking about a recent article on Mother Teresa. About her apparent inability to feel Jesus' presence for decades. She shared this privately with confessors, but her letters have recently been published as part of the canonization process. Of course I can't say anything about Mother Teresa's spiritual life, not knowing her personally. But the unusual and unexpected revelation does stir up thoughts.
I guess the first concern that comes to mind is whether we can serve God well without a sense of connection with God. I've had many periods of darkness and confusion, and felt lost at those points, unsure of how to move forward. Unsure of where God is right then. But this temporary feeling of isolation has almost always been good for me, a way of making me stop and focus and listen, so that I can sense a leading that I've perhaps been too ignorant or inexperienced (or proud) to grasp before. But I'm suspicious of any encouragement to carry on, even in a "good work," if I've lost the sense of God's continuing presence and leading. When Jesus spoke of his own work, it seemed to be with a continual sensitivity to what his Father wanted him to do and say.
Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise. (Jn 5.19)
But what if we're not sure of God's leading, yet it seems like we're already doing the best, most saintly thing? I guess that's my second concern, the difficulty of pausing or stepping back from something so obviously "good"—especially when there is a great amount of social support and admiration and gratitude—when our only trouble with it might be that we can't sense God's presence any more. Perhaps I'll never face that difficulty. But I would hope I could resist being pushed forward because everyone else is so sure it's what God wants. Because isn't the relationship with God more important than whatever we might do for him?
Maybe that's one of the best revelations in contemplating a story like this: the deep-felt realization that what I really want is simply to be a child, continually held and loved and led by God.
We got a chance to experience some grace last night when the church on the computer map didn't appear in reality. And it was after dark. Really dark. On a road through the Uwharrie forest, with nothing around but trees and night noises and the occasional rush of a passing car.
But just when I was starting to get concerned, a pickup slowed next to us and asked if we wanted a ride (in the distinctive Carolina twang). We gladly agreed and jumped in back. After a blustery ten mile ride we were very close to our destination for today, and immediately found a church porch to sleep on. Then spent the next twenty minutes detangling my hair...
The only other excitement yesterday was finding out that Kevin and Lorie Behrens had their baby back at Plow Creek. A boy, Owen Mark. I couldn't make much of a card, but I did find a good cartoon to send:
While we were visiting Tom, he showed me an interesting article about Anathoth Community Garden, written by a friend of his. It's a community gardening project that has offered healing and hope in Cedar Grove, NC.
One of the parts of the article I found most interesting was the author's understanding of how their work was part of a broader way of life (he's commenting on Jeremiah 29):
Jeremiah teaches us that the way to get along in this world is to skirt Babylon altogether. Don’t waste time fighting the empire, or trying to make it a little less evil... Step around it and go about your business. Grow your own food, for instance.I've often thought of Jesus' "kingdom of God" similarly, as a life lived right in the midst of the empire, but free from it. Uncontrolled by and independent of the powers of empire. And I think we can still live that way; I trust Jesus' promises of that.
I'm just not sure it's as easy as "step around it and go about your business." Even living on the food you can grow yourself is very difficult, with taxes on the land, and the time required for labor, and money for materials and means of preserving food, so that very few can actually do it (Anathoth operates on a grant from Duke University). Small farmers are growing fewer and fewer, much less subsistance farmers. And in other areas of life, it's just as hard or harder to get free from the overwhelming economic and political powers of empire.
I think it takes a miracle. Jesus called us to follow his example, and promised we could, but it takes a miracle to actually do it. It's not just a matter of commitment or technique or cooperation. There has to be the constant influx of God's help—grace—or it won't work. (Which means it also has to be done in obedience to God.)
That's not meant to be discouraging, but it should be sobering. And keep us from relying on our own idealism or communalism and turn us to God in faith.
We started walking again this morning, taking with us some fond memories...
(For more pictures of pot-making and bread-making during our visit with Tom, click here.)
We've really enjoyed our time here with Tom and Slate (he's much bigger now than in the picture). Yesterday Tom showed Heather how to make some small platters, so she got her hands in the clay and shaped fifteen of them. And their appreciation of good food here inspired me to try a recipe for French baguettes, which involves spraying water in the oven to make steam while the bread bakes. I was surprised how good it was. "Outta this world," Tom said. Even Heather was impressed, and she knows the real thing.
Talking about communion with Tom today led to us asking if we could buy one of the chalice and plate sets he makes—but he offered them as a gift instead. It'll make our celebrations of the one Body that much more meaningful. And remind us of how blessed we were in our time here.
We arrived at a church Wednesday night just as people were going into it, so we joined them. After worship, since it was already dark, I asked the pastor if we could sleep outside the church. He seemed reluctant. "There's been some problems and the police come around here..." When I asked if he thought we should just move on down the road, though, he grew more uncomfortable, then consulted with one of the deacons and offered us the man's shed for the night.
But then David, who had overheard our conversation, stepped in. "I'll take care of them tonight," he said. We stopped by his house where his wife made us sandwiches, then he took us looking for a motel. As it turned out, he drove us all the way to Seagrove (where we were headed to visit my friend Tom, though unfortunately I didn't have his address with me at that moment). We didn't find a motel there, but we did find a quiet church and he left us with a gift. I found Tom's number in the phone book the next morning.
Tom is a potter who I first visited on a walk five years ago. It's good to see him and his son Slate again. And in the last few years Tom has become quite a chef; the pizza last night was incredible. (He gave me some tips that I can try with mine.) How quickly we went from nowhere to sleep to gourmet pizza with friends.
We had fun with Ryan, Ashley, Ian, and Jamie. Saturday, after pizza, we watched Little Miss Sunshine. Then Monday we reenacted a great scene from that movie. Ryan and Ashley recently bought an old VW bus, which has since lost its starter, so when we all went for ice cream it began with everyone behind the bus pushing, then a mad rush to catch up and jump in before it stalled. Good movie, by the way.
And good friends. We felt very comfortable and right at home (through our whole week-long break, really) so we're ready to be strangers and guests again. And someone secretly slipped a generous gift into my pack before we caught the bus to North Carolina. God bless 'em.
Yesterday evening I was walking the streets of Fredericksburg and noticed a sign on the sidewalk, "Revolution, a gathering of faith, meets here." It was just about time for the service, so I wandered in. The gathering was in a large space, a cross between an art gallery and a warehouse, overlooking the street. I soon found out this was the same place Ian and Ryan have their studio—when Ian showed up for the service as well. The music started with a familiar song, only louder than I usually hear it. I noticed the bread and wine on the table in front. The wine was dancing in the chalice to the rythym of guitars and drumbeats.
I got a chance to talk with the pastor, Scott, during the greeting time at the beginning of the service, and he was very interested in our walk. They seem to be especially aware of how the Spirit works outside of the established norms of society, and see their church that way as well. When he asked how we support ourselves along the way, I said we didn't support ourselves, "God supports us, just like he supports all of us." Later Scott asked the small group of people there to pray for us. One girl even laid her hand gently on my foot during the prayer. In their church, half the offering is given away to someone else (a pretty good practice, I think) and Scott said he felt moved to give to Heather and me. When he stopped by the house later he handed me $90. Stepping into such unexpected moments of grace like that always leaves me feeling a little dizzy.
So we're well provided for as we ride the bus and then start walking again tomorrow. We've had a good stay here. And a gathering of people almost every day; that's what they want this house to be, a shared place, where people come together and enjoy each other and discuss their faith and ask questions openly. A good place to be.
This morning Heather and I sat and prayed on the back porch, with the dew still heavy on the grass and many vultures sailing high overhead. And, as we read from John, I noticed these words of Jesus:
I do not receive glory from men.It reminded me of what I wrote about several days ago, when "Jesus did not trust himself to them." Here, the word translated "glory" also means opinion or judgment, praise, or approval. It brings up again the tension between God's approval and the approval of society, a tension which the experience of social rejection can help us break through.
[You] receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God... (Jn 5.41, 44)
That was also the theme of the letter I wrote yesterday to our church at Plow Creek. (It's available here.) It begins, "It was a dark and stormy night..."
Yesterday morning we waved goodbye to Dan and Hannah and their three-year-old son Titus, who delighted me by repreatedly calling Heather "your mom" or "the mom." They were good hosts to us. (And I even got a chance to watch a little Buffy!)
Now we're with Ryan, Ashley, Ian and Jamie, friends we met and stayed with last year, and who were a godsend when things fell through at the Catholic Worker retreat place near here. It's good to see them again. We plan to spend the long weekend here before heading off to walk again.
During this time I'm trying to put together a letter to send back to Plow Creek (and perhaps others) as a summary of the first part of our walk. I'll probably talk about some of the experiences and thoughts I've had about social rejection, about being "nobodies." Picking up that theme again in my prayer time this morning, it struck me that the experience of social rejection not only helps us to avoid the idolatry of society, but may also help us love others. Rather than turning us against those around us, it may free us to serve them better. As it did with Jesus. Because idolizing our human society leads to a fear of those around us, fear of popular opinion, fear of rejection. And I think it also leads to a (perhaps unconscious) feeling of bitterness towards others, since we are not made to serve and worship human beings and when we do so it diminishes and oppresses us. If social rejection helps us to shift our dependence to God alone, it will also help us treat people as they were meant to be treated: simply as fellow human beings, loved by God.