I've enjoyed flipping back to past entries (using the link on the right). Here's one from last year that's worth seeing again...
The inspiration for Christmas gift-giving (and for Santa Claus) is St. Nicolas of Myra. Not a whole lot is known about him, but this story seems to be the reason for his reputation:
A poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of their plight, Nicholas decided to help them but being too modest (or too shy) to help publicly, he went to their house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window. One version of the story has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age." Invariably the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Nicholas say it is not him he should thank but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead.
People soon began to suspect that Nicolas was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.
A pretty inspiring example. But right away I notice that his giving was very different from our Christmas gift exchanges. Take each point I mentioned yesterday: Nicolas gives without expecting anything back; he gives to someone who most likely can't pay him back (as Jesus taught us). Nicolas gives quietly, anonymously, avoiding praise. And he didn't give for the sake of a holiday; he gave because he saw someone in need right then, and he responded to that need. That's real gift-giving. So very different from our Christmas distortion.
Where I'm living right now, in a Christian intentional community, Christmas gift-giving has been moved to Epiphany, or "Three Kings Day." To try to connect the traditional gifts with the wise men's gifts, something more meaningful than Santa. But the distortions of gift-giving are pretty much the same (a public, seasonal exchange, among people who don't really need anything).
And what of the wise men? Again, their gift-giving is very different. They give to someone in need, a poor family from Nazareth, who cannot repay. And it wasn't any holiday. They gave when God moved them to give. We made a holiday of it because their giving was truly beautiful.
But why don't we follow their example?
I've enjoyed flipping back to past entries (using the link on the right). Here's one from last year that's worth seeing again...
We arrived back at Plow Creek farm on Thanksgiving day. Our friends from Reba Place, Greg and Heather Clark, are here for a year sabbatical, so we joined them for the feast. Then we spent the weekend in the retreat cabin, figuring out how to stay warm with a wood stove.
It's good to be back. Everyone joined in cutting and splitting wood the morning after Thanksgiving, and there was a common meal that evening. Next weekend we're planning to talk about our walk and tell about experiences that helped shape our ideas for the retreat work.
But we're not sure what space we'll be moving into yet. One possibility is the lower level of the common building (pictured), which seems like it might work well for us and for retreats. That needs to be discussed with everyone, though, and it may take a few weeks to make a decision. So it'll be slow here at first.
That's a little hard, since we're eager to get started. But perhaps it's another good practice of waiting on God. We didn't get this far by hard work and ambitious energy, and we need to be careful to continue to listen and wait and only go ahead when the way is opened for us. It's not our project, or our work.
We're very close to seeing another big part of the gift God is giving. I need to be patient and savor that gift.
I've been thinking of putting together a service for night prayer, which is said right before going to bed, that Heather and I could use, maybe invite others to join us, and also for retreats. And I remembered this song by Dan Schutte, "Holy Darkness," inspired by the writings of John of the Cross. I used to use it when I led night prayer with the Dominicans.
I have tried you in fires of affliction;
I have taught your soul to grieve.
In the barren soil of your loneliness,
there I will plant my seed.
I have taught you the price of compassion;
you have stood before the grave.
Though my love can seem
like a raging storm,
this is the love that saves.
Were you there when I raised up the mountains?
Can you guide the morning star?
Does the hawk take flight
when you give command?
Why do you doubt my pow'r?
I think I also might use Psalm 121 and Psalm 131:
O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother's breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and for evermore.
I was encouraged to see these thoughts in an e-mail from one of the farm managers at Plow Creek, reflecting on his experiences over the past few years:
Might some adjustment to the business model help us actually rejoice over crops as a blessing to be shared, and not primarily as marketable income potential to be realized? If we are relieved from the vice of accumulated riches, shouldn’t we also be free from the vice of seeking after them? If this farm is really a ministry, how can that be reflected in the produce we give out and the money we take in? Part of the solution, I believe, lies in the CSA model which we have already come to appreciate (currently 15% of farm income). Another piece, also a natural fit for Plow Creek and its friends, is to make the charitable giving of fresh produce a central part of the farm’s plan and purpose.It reminded me of something I wrote last spring while working on the farm: "I hope everyone here can enjoy the richness, even luxury, of these good things, and not get overwhelmed by the increasing demands of the farm work. Or distracted by the desire to turn the harvest into income."
He also offered the example of the Food Bank Farm, in Massachusetts, which gives a large percentage of its produce to the food bank there. I'd love to see Plow Creek move in this direction.
I gave a talk this morning at my dad's church men's group, and it was pretty well received. The focus was on the passage that also serves as the basis for our retreat work:
Jesus said to the man who had invited him, "When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid.
"But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just." (Lk 14.12-14)
Tomorrow morning we'll ride the bus back to Chicago, and spend the weekend with friends at Reba Place fellowship. We may also get a chance to meet with Bill Creed, who started the Ignatian Spirituality Project, and who has been supportive in developing our retreat plans.
We're finally getting some prints made of our wedding photos, so we've been cropping and editing. This shot was perfect as is, though (click it to appreciate the vibrant emotion playing across our faces). When we get back to Plow Creek in a week, we'll be staying in the retreat cabin for a few days, without running water or electricity, like we did for our honeymoon. It'll be a bit colder this time, however...
Every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
"Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
I was walking alone along the road outside a monastery in England, thinking about where I was. AWOL in a foreign country. I'd gone on a two-week leave several months ago, but instead of driving back and reporting for duty on the aircraft carrier I had boarded a plane. It felt like the only thing I could do. And I didn't think I deserved to be punished for it, so I'd fled.
These weeks of walking the Scottish moors and visiting monasteries to rest and pray had soothed some of the turmoil inside me. But still I didn't know where I was going. The initial gut-wrenching fear had eventually settled into the thrill of a new adventure, but it was now threatening to sink into dread. What would happen if I stopped running? Was my life ruined? Turned inward, I didn't notice the trees around me or the ancient stonework of the monastery. Was this all a terrible mistake?
That was when I first felt it. Deep inside, down in a dark part of myself where I never looked, it felt like something was moving. Like the stirring of a hibernating animal, something large. The slow uncoiling of a hidden predator. I couldn't see anything clearly, but it felt real enough to inspire awe at the power of the thing. It was enough to frighten me, yet the deep sensation was not fear. I remember thinking: Not yet. But it was coming. And it excited me.
It's a true story. For the rest of it: "A conscientious objection"
I was reading in John 19 the other day, and noticed this line: "So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull..." Perhaps it caught my attention because in the other three Gospels, we are told that Simon of Cyrene carries the cross for Jesus (Mt 27.32; Mk 15.21; Lk 23.26). Maybe Jesus started out carrying his cross then Simon had to take over. I like how that shows Jesus' vulnerability and his need of help, right to the end.
It seems important to me that Jesus didn't carry his cross. We often hear the words about "bearing our own cross," urging us forward under the load. But someone else came when Jesus' cross was too heavy and took it off him (even if it wasn't a voluntary act of compassion, the cross was taken off).
The passage we think of most often actually says, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (Mk 8.34) Take it up, not bear it. The willingness to take up the cross is important, even if we don't think we can carry it. If we can't (like Jesus couldn't), we can trust there will be someone there to lift it from us. It may even me more of a denial of self to admit that we cannot carry our cross and let someone else take it.
A few pictures from the Renaissance fair we enjoyed this weekend, a belated birthday gift for Heather from my parents. To hear the band, the Empty Hats, click here.
I came across these lines in Psalm 72 this morning, and they reminded me of the letter I just sent back to our church. The psalm is about God being glorified, specifically as the one who helps those who have no other help:
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!
For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
Last week I briefly mentioned that housing space has opened up at Plow Creek farm, so we're thinking of returning there soon. There's more to that part of the story. When we left the farm in July, their housing space was completely full (since our wedding we'd been staying with another couple, in their guest room). So there wasn't room for retreat work, and we didn't know when there would be. We were hoping that space would open up by the spring, when we planned to return, or we'd at least have an idea by then when there would be an opening.
We didn't have a good plan for the winter, though. I'd had thoughts of walking down to the Florida Keys, as I'd done years ago, but this time offering presentations to churches dealing with homelessness and our experiences with street churches on our walk. Not a bad idea, but quite a long shot. Churches aren't too receptive to unsolicited offers of presentations by unknown (and unaffiliated) people, I'd guess. And did we really want to start walking again, after three and a half months on the road?
As it turned out, two families decided to move from their places on the farm near the end of October, just as we were ending our walk. And now it looks like the best idea is to go back in a couple weeks. That way we can take part in the discussions about use of the newly open space, and then spend the relatively unbusy winter making preparations for the retreat work.
Oh, I don't think I mentioned how we could afford to move into a new place and pay for the early expenses of preparing guest rooms, etc. There was some money from wedding gifts and a gift from the Plow creek community, which started a church fund for the retreats. But the biggest surprise was a gift from Heather's grandparents. As missionaries they had once been given a very large legacy, more than they needed, so they decided to pass that on to their grandchildren. Heather didn't know about it. Her parents sprung it on us around the time of the wedding, and it seemed like just what we would need during the retreat preparations, before others knew about the ministry and could help. Now it allows us to go back this winter and get things started.
I guess all this is just another way of God providing a way forward, very much like we experienced on the road. I'm praying we can maintain the same spirit of complete dependence on God that I've learned through my many pilgrimage experiences. I know it will be somewhat different as our situation and needs change, but the early signs are that it may not be so different...