"And they all forsook him, and fled." (Mk 14.50)
I read that line again yesterday morning, and again it caught and held me. The other day I had commented on that article on the Jesus Manifesto site, closing with the words, "The cross is a much more powerful witness than the serving spoon." But it left me wondering again about the meaning of the cross. I think this line from Mark says something about the meaning and experience of the cross.
Usually we think of the cross as an experience of being persecuted or attacked, which is not so uncommon for us. Or we see the cross (or similarly, the martyr's pyre) from the perspective of history, as the sacrifice of a hero, the brief trial of one who would eventually be praised for their humility and admired for their victory over all who opposed them. We label our difficulties and setbacks as "crosses" and press on towards the success we expect for God's servants.
But I don't think it's fair to equate the cross with our temporary setbacks. In the experience of Jesus' life, the cross was not a setback. It was failure. The crowds turned against him, all his closest followers abandoned him and fled, and he was condemned and was killed. He died. That's not a setback on the path to success. In human terms, that's the end. And for everyone looking on, including Jesus (who wished not to see it, begged not to see it), it looked like complete failure.
I admit that I am afraid of a failure like that. I am afraid for the severe cost to myself and to my wife. I am afraid of how it would be such a discouragement to my friends and community. I am afraid that, because of me and my poor choices, the good things of God that I tried to share would appear to be worth nothing, the truth of God that I tried to speak would appear to be all lies. I am afraid I would utterly despair if I saw that.
And yet the failure of the cross was the way that God chose to reveal himself most perfectly.
So I must not fear even a failure of this magnitude. Somehow, it was important that Jesus fail, fail to significantly change society (or even the people of God), fail to inspire even his closest followers to stand with him at the end—fail, even though he had done everything right. Fail completely. Die. End his life a failure. So that we cannot honestly say that he succeeded in the end, eventually overcame those who opposed him. He lost. The victory that he experienced was not his accomplishment—how could it be, he was dead—it was given to him by God. After all his efforts failed, God gave the success.
So I must not fear failure. It is tremendously important that the victory, the success, be God's alone. And even when my failure comes, even utter failure, the end, that does not mean that God has failed. Only let my failure, like Jesus', be the moment for God's miraculous success.
"And they all forsook him, and fled." (Mk 14.50)
I was pleasantly surprised to see this article on the Jesus Manifesto site last week: "Who are the 'Least of These?'" (That site seems to be having problems right now, so I'll quote most of it here.)
There is a judgment scene in Matthew 25 which has become a new favorite of progressive evangelicals and Christians in North America (the word ‘Sojourners’ comes to mind). Matthew recounts a series of parables Jesus told about what kinds of events his followers ought to expect at the eschatological ‘coming of the Son of Man’ (cf. Daniel 7), a series which culminates in the separation of the ’sheep’ and the ‘goats’. Contra the conservative imagination of judgment which affirms salvation by grace through faith, and not by ‘works’, the separation of sheep and the goats, in the very words of Jesus, is a function of how they have treated ‘the least of these’—presumably the poor, the outcast and the downtrodden (salvation by works?). Hurray! cry the progressive hordes, for they have rediscovered a biblical impetus for social work.
I would love to work slowly through some of the crucial concepts here: ’salvation’, ‘grace’, ‘faith’, ‘works’, and so on. I have neither the space nor the competency to do so, but needless to say, the biblical picture is far richer and more complex than its various ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ flattenings. What I want to do here is make a simple observation. The ‘least of these’, in Matthew 25, are adamantly not the generic ‘poor’, or otherwise socially disadvantaged. And since misreading (i.e. mistreating) Scripture is a recipe for a faithless Christianity, it is well worth taking a closer look at the text.
The New English Translation reads: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. [...] And the king will answer them [i.e. the surprised, righteous, 'sheep'], ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me’” (Matthew 25:31-40). Read closely and in context, there are four parties in this scene-the Son of Man enthroned, the sheep, the goats, and the ‘least of these’. The important point, for my purposes, is that the ‘least of these’ are the king’s ‘brothers and sisters’. And as much as we want to affirm God’s solidarity with the poor, within the context of this passage (which begins roughly at the beginning of Matthew 24), Jesus is talking about himself (the Son of Man, soon to be enthroned) and his family, his disciples, who are, or soon will be, ‘the least of these’.
The significance of this point might be rephrased by saying that the judgment parable of Matthew 25 is a description not of a universal judgment, but rather of a judgment of the (pagan) nations, soon to be hosts of the newly exiled (from Jerusalem, because of its imminent destruction) Christians. The disciples are showing Jesus the Jerusalem Temple (Matthew 24:1), and he launches into a long diatribe against the Temple, saying, basically, that sucker’s comin’ down. Not only that, but the disciples will be persecuted and betrayed (Matthew 24:9), and things are going to get so bad, the inhabitants of Judea are going to have to flee to the hills (Matthew 24:16)-and many people won’t make it (Matthew 24:22). Which is why Jesus says: be ready! This is the point of the reference to the days of Noah (24:37ff), the reference to thieves in the night (24:43), the parable of the faithful and wise slave (24:45ff), the parable of the ten virgins (25:1ff—note the introductory phrase, ‘at that time…’), and the parable of the talents (25:14ff). It is because Jesus foresees things getting so tough for his disciples that he makes the prophetic announcement of judgment upon the nations based on their treatment of his disciples (who will be displaced and poor). Jesus cares for his fledgling family, and is promising that God will care for them, and will be with them, even as they depend upon Gentiles, upon pagans.
...The upshot of all this, beyond simply not misusing a biblical expression, is the reminder that Jesus’ first followers didn’t expect to be world-changers or world-fixers (at least, not by their own strength). Rather, they expected danger and vulnerability—in economic and political dimensions—and rested in the sovereign care of the Creator. We too often forget the humble beginnings of the Christian family.
I agree with the author's interpretation of this parable; actually I agreed years ago in the journal entries "All the Nations..." and the two that follow. The usual "serve Jesus in the poor" misinterpretation of this parable can lead to much spiritual confusion and misdirection if we actually try to apply it.
And, hopefully, we can see that it wasn't just the early followers of Jesus that he was describing as the "least of these." We should expect the same for ourselves now—both the peril and the care of God for us in that peril—as we follow him ever more closely.
We had thought it might be a quiet Christmas for us this year, but it was pretty lively in the end. Angela was here for Christmas eve dinner, and Tony, too, Bev's friend from Florida who stayed with us over the holiday. The church service included a reading of Heather's Mary story. We had read that together last year; also like last year, Heather made "chicken with forty cloves of garlic" and petits pots de crème au chocolat, rich dark chocolate custards with shaved chocolate on top. And we were glad that Brandon could join us for dinner, too (and our usual after-dinner theological discussion).
There weren't any presents under our perfect $1 Christmas tree (the stores were practically giving them away this year). Until Bev slipped a couple there. So Heather got to unwrap something after all, a bird feeder, something she'd been thinking she might like.
Before bed we read the passages from Luke and Isaiah that I put together last year. A good day. And there's still a couple of those custards left.
For maybe ten years now, I've been writing a haiku for Christmas (the last few are here), to share with family and friends.
This year I was thinking of Joseph, after the birth of Jesus, listening to noises on the street outside the stable. And I also had in mind our troubled times now (when most seem to be trying to find hope in larger-than-life presidents and billion-dollar bailouts).
I didn't mention yet that it looks like we will be having another retreat in February. One of the pastors we have been talking with suggested that we do a mid-week retreat for people (like pastors) who can't come on weekends. So now she and another pastor friend we know from Chicago are planning to come in late February. Maybe we can get a few others to come as well. Like the retreat we are doing in January, this would be an introduction to our retreats here, for people who work with the poor and are interested in referring some of the people they serve to us for retreats in the future. We're very happy there are a few more willing to work with us.
And yesterday I heard back from a dentist in town who offered to give Heather and me a cleaning and checkup, with x-rays, for free. I had written to him after hearing he attends a neighboring church. (It's been years since either of us have seen a dentist, due to the cost.) We had been hoping that we could keep our financial needs lower by building relationships with doctors who liked what we are trying to do here, and who were willing to provide some support by their personal care. A dream of how the world might work if everyone focused on giving freely to others in need. In this case, I thought it was pretty unlikely that we would even get a response, so we were bowled over when the response was so generous. It definitely feels like the care of God.
The other Christmas gift came the day before that, when a woman from our church asked if we could host her friend for Christmas week. He had been struggling in Florida and she had offered to bring him back home here, to live with her for a while, but she already had many guests for Christmas. We were very impressed to hear what she is doing. So, wanting to support her, and glad for a guest for the holiday, we agreed. They came with her kids for dinner last night, and we had a really good time. I get a little intimidated by social gatherings with people I don't know, but they were all fun to be with, and I'm glad to get to know them better.
It's a bit hard to believe, but I'm turning 40 in about a month. ("Nooooo!" Heather wails.) And the other day, I started wondering if I was having some sort of mid-life crisis.
I was mulling over a frustrating conversation, and I guess I began to realize that it had been a hope or dream of mine to one day be recognized as an important thinker. It's embarrassing to admit. I guess it was just that I spent so much time thinking, and came to a few conclusions that seemed pretty important and good, and perhaps I wanted someone (or lots of people) to notice. Appreciate my probing and incisive intellect. Maybe I'd argue with important theologians. Anyway. I realized that now it seems, with where I am and what it looks like I'll be doing, that that little hope will probably never be fulfilled.
Of course I know it's not a very noble hope, and I've told myself enough times that I don't really want that. And I think I really don't. But I guess there's still some emotional attachment to childish self-aggrandizing hopes.
Considering this, though, I remembered that I've often told others that if we truly have a deep understanding of something, we should be able to explain it to anyone, on their own level, in the language they understand. So perhaps the bigger challenge that is before me is to be able to share some of these good and important conclusions with the people who come here, who are very far from theologians. Who would probably laugh at theologians. Who have little patience or respect for big words and big theories that don't have much to do with the day-to-day challenges they face.
That seems to me a worthy challenge. And one that won't gratify any remaining desires for attention or appreciation by "important" people. This also seems much closer to what Jesus used his (divine) intellect for—not for impressing theologians, but for preaching good news to the poor.
I had a heated exchange with someone long-distance the other day, and it left me feeling troubled. I had felt like I was being patronized, by someone of rising prominence in a popular Christian movement. Called him "condescending." But, afterwards, I wasn't sure if I had gotten angry because I was jealous, or my pride had been hurt, or if maybe I had some good reason to be upset.
Today I recalled his words about doing "the work of God's kingdom." It reminded me of what I've heard many others say about "building the kingdom of God," a concept I've challenged before. I suppose it's easier to get caught up in thinking you're an important part of the work of building God's kingdom when the microphone it put in your hand and so many are ready to follow you.
Looking at it from this angle, I think at least part of my anger was justified (though probably not communicated very well). As I wrote before, I believe strongly that God's kingdom is God's work and a gift to us:
God's kingdom isn't built by our work or through our struggling. It's offered to us if we will receive it as God's work, God's gift, for God's glory. "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." (Mk 10.15)So presumption of being an important worker in the building of God's kingdom seems to me to be a reason for at least some righteous indignation. There are certainly celebrities and big shots in all human groups, but in the kingdom of God we are all (truly) "unworthy servants," or better yet we are all children. Receiving the kingdom as a gift. At most, announcing the great work that God has done. There are none of us who are crucially important, none upon whom the work depends. We all receive God's kingdom as a complete gift, or we do not receive it at all.
I am also led to appreciate again my place as a nobody, spared the temptations of thinking that I am important in "the work of the kingdom." Even the suggestion that such work actually depended on me is overwhelming. I am glad, like a child, to simply do what I'm told by my Father, day by day. And trust that his kingdom is present and growing, while I accept and rejoice in that, until one day he wipes away everything that is not his kingdom so that we all can see clearly what God has done.
I've been working on a letter to send out, an update for those interested in the retreat work here. There's not a whole lot to report, except for the waiting. So that's what I'm writing about, which fits with the season of Advent pretty well; so far it looks like this:
O my God, in you I trust...
for you I wait all the day long. (Ps 25)
The poor wait.
I often find myself thinking about waiting during this time of year. Two years ago Heather and I were anxiously waiting to come to the farm and propose a retreat house for the poor here. Last year, we had just spent months on the road, while waiting for living space to become available that would work for retreats. This year we are waiting for ways that more retreat guests can come.
And I am reminded that the ones who wait the most are those who are lowest and weakest. They wait because they have to, because they have no other choice. Those who are proud, those who have other options, refuse to wait. The poor wait. Even in the ministries meant to serve the poor, where volunteers come to "wait on" the hungry or homeless, who are the ones that are actually standing out in line waiting?
I've struggled with the waiting we have had to do, felt oppressed by it at times. Waiting for God to provide or show the way, any way, and wondering why it is necessary to leave us in such helpless suspense.
But in our waiting I've been reminded that God also waits. Not because he has to, but because he chooses to wait. For us. For us to be ready, for us to give ourselves voluntarily, for us to consent to accept a gift as a gift. God waits for us.
So I've hoped to meet God in our waiting, to encounter God in our feelings of uncertain longing. To wait with God. I've sometimes wondered during Advent services, when we speak of our yearning for the coming Messiah, our longing for justice, our impatience for promises to be fulfilled, do we really now experience "God with us," who has already come? Are we waiting for God to show up? I hope we can learn to wait with God, while we wait for God to act. I hope we can encounter God in the waiting and gain some understanding of the reasons God delays, how his waiting is an act of patience and mercy for us and others. So we can wait more gently, and with confidence, that God will act and we will not be disappointed.
Please pray with us also for more opportunities to share this hope with the poor, with guests who come here for retreats. That their waiting not be an experience of abandonment, but a waiting with God, waiting close to God, waiting and depending on their God each day to provide for needs and show the next step. "O my God, in you I trust. For you I wait all the day long."
The morning after I wrote that last entry, I had a hard time getting out of bed. Struggling with a feeling of despair. It may be true that we can find God in our experiences of rejection, but somehow it still left me feeling pretty depressed. I think it was recognizing that so much depends on the cooperation and help of others, and we so often let each other down. Sometimes due to our lack of love and sometimes just because we are limited and unable to do enough to meet all the needs presented to us. Facing that, it seemed like the work we are trying to do, the life we are trying to live, is hopeless. When others fail us, God may indeed be with us, feeling the frustration and disappointment along with us—but aren't we still left with failure?
I was reminded then of my belief that God's purposes, while they are often done through people, cannot be held back by people's faults or failings. Somehow God finds a way anyway. And our experience of the promised kingdom of God, while it certainly involves others and is usually given through our relationships with others, it is not dependent on them. Others can fall far short and God can still fulfill his promises to us. I don't understand how, but I do believe it.
That same afternoon, I got a note from one of the people we were waiting to hear from about a January retreat (trying one last time to still get the advent retreat group together, if a little late). And he said he could come, so we're going to do it after all. We're relieved and grateful. I had felt that this group had been an unexpected gift, and then had been so confused and disappointed when our weeks of trying seemed to fail; I really needed it not to fail completely.
I know this is such a small thing, and so many more unlikely steps have to happen before we actually have folks coming for retreats here regularly (and enough support to provide for their coming). I guess it still seems as impossible as it did that morning.
But perhaps not hopeless.
For the last several weeks I've been struggling with feelings of confusion and darkness (due to our latest retreat attempts failing), and more recent apparent failures in relationships here have added to those feelings. I've noticed that these failures (when I thought I was doing what God wanted) have especially bothered me because they've left me feeling distant from God. Left alone. I tell myself that's not true, but I haven't been able to shake the feeling, which has scared me more.
This morning, though, I recalled my recent thoughts about finding God in grief. And I wondered if we could also encounter and unite with God in our feelings of failure and rejection. I guess I usually don't associate God with those feelings. Those feelings usually drive me to question my actions and beliefs, think that I have gone wrong somehow, or that what I am offering is of little or no worth. I have a hard time accepting that God would lead me to do something if it is just going to end in rejection or failure. But when I think of Jesus' life on earth, I imagine he experienced those feelings often. I imagine God must also often feel rejected now, though what he offers is true and good. Perhaps when we're trying to do the same thing and feel that rejection, we can actually be closer to God in that feeling, not separated from him. Our apparent darkness may be much closer to light.
Uniting with God in the middle of these feelings may also be the only way to find the energy and love to continue to be open and reach out to those who reject us. Their rejection need not make us feel worthless or cause us to reject them. Rather it could cause us to be and feel closer to the God who was rejected (and is still, again and again).
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of men take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.
Jesus said, "The kingdom of God
is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground,
and should sleep and rise night and day,
and the seed should sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
"The earth produces of itself,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle,
because the harvest has come."
Ps 36.7-9; Mk 4.26-29
I liked that last line in the article yesterday. Once, on a walk, a woman I met on the street told me, "the bible says God helps those who help themselves." I asked her to show me where it says that.
At the time, I thought you might be able to find this message in the bible: "God helps those who help others." And perhaps that is true, to some extent. But I was thinking of that saying this morning and now I think you're more likely to find, "God helps those who cannot help themselves." (Maybe I should add, "...and look to him for help," but in any case it's much closer to the truth than the commonly used version.)
It made me think of the first of the "twelve steps": "We admitted we were powerless over our addiction...." When we realize we cannot help ourselves, we are more ready to be helped, and then it is clear that the help is a gift, and it builds our trust and dependence on God. I'm thinking of including these ideas in a teaching on the shepherds to whom the angels announced Jesus' birth. Why them? Why not someone already working for the salvation of Israel, religiously or politically?
God helps those who cannot help themselves.
Yesterday, while we were out spreading straw in the strawberry field, this old (satirical) Onion article came up in the conversation...
Vatican Rescinds 'Blessed' Status Of World's Meek
VATICAN CITY—In a historic reversal of its nearly 2,000-year-old pro-meek stance, the Catholic Church announced Tuesday that it is permanently rescinding the traditional "blessed" status of the world's meek.
"Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ once said, 'Blessed are the meek,'" said Pope John Paul II in a papal bull read before the College of Cardinals. "However, there has always been a tacit understanding between the Church and the meek that this 'blessed' status was conditional upon their inheritance of the earth, an event which seems unlikely to happen anytime in the foreseeable future. Our relationship, therefore, must be terminated."
"Screw the meek," the pope added.
Citing "two millennia of inaction and non-achievement" by the world's impoverished and downtrodden, the pope contended that the meek's historic inability to improve their worldly status constituted "bad faith" on their part.
"Twenty centuries should have been more than enough time for them to inherit the earth," the Supreme Pontiff said. "For years, the Catholic Church has made every effort to help them, but at some point, enough is enough. We are patient, but we are not saints."
..."Everything about the meek, from their simple garments to their quiet demeanors to their utter lack of can-do spirit, goes against Church philosophy," Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte of Montréal said. "Sitting back and expecting the Lord to provide is not the type of behavior for which the Church should be rewarding its followers."
..."The Lord will provide, of course," the pope said. "But He also helps those who help themselves, if you know what I mean."
It looks like we'll be having a good size group at our table for Thanksgiving dinner. Friends from here and some from Evanston, too. So I've been making arrangements with people and figuring out what we need (we'll probably get a couple young roosters from friends near here and Erin and Heather will slaughter them). Party planning is not a usual interest of mine. But somehow this has seemed more important, maybe because it's a way of building and strengthening relationships.
Next week we're also starting a new "small group" (sharing and prayer group). I've also put energy into this, though it's not the kind of thing I am naturally inclined to do, not the way I usually pray. When we first meet we'll probably discuss what we're looking for in the group and I'm not sure what I'll say. Maybe that I want to deepen our relationships. And I think this is best done on a more intimate level, in quiet conversations in living rooms, in smaller groups where each can get to know the others more completely. And in more naturally-occurring groups, where friendships have already begun to draw people together. That's how we decided who to gather in this small group.
Maybe this is my way of contributing to the health of the community here. On the low-profile level of personal relationships. I've become suspicious of organizational solutions and higher-level group decision-making, and basically dropped out of the church members meetings. I guess I think things will get better, not by the work of committees or the introduction of new structures, but by the growth of each individual and the deepening of love between them. So, rather than council meetings, feasts and prayers seem to be the way to go.
We had a campfire last night with the teens and discussed the election and our participation in government. Talked a little about early Anabaptist history, how they were persecuted. And I read this passage from an Anabaptist pamphlet, written in 1528:
Those who think they possess their goods want the government to protect them. They think it necessary to use force to keep peace, to protect their own possessions and the possessions of others. In fact, all use of force comes from the possession of property. From the holding of property comes all government and force in the world. But the communities of Christ are not based on the holding of property, but on Christ.
...God only permits, he does not promote the use of worldly force. The use of force does not come from that which is good, but from that which is evil, and God only tolerates it out of necessity. God knows that if he would take the use of ungodly force out of the world, society would become totally chaotic. So, for the good of his children who must also live in the world, he lets it go.
For the sake of peace among the rebellious children of Israel, God gave the sword to Moses, to enforce his laws. Joshua, David and others were given the sword for the same reason—to keep an outward, temporary peace among unconverted men. But Christ and his followers have another calling. Christ does not bring the peace of Moses, nor an outward peace of the flesh. Rather, he calls his followers to have peace one with another and says: "I give you peace. I leave it with you, not as the world gives" (John 14)...
The Lord Most High, Christ Jesus, did not come to rule, force, judge, accuse, or have anyone accused before him. Rather he came to serve, and to allow himself to be ruled over, forced, accused, judged, condemned and mistreated. He is the mirror into which we must look if we want to see whether we resemble Christ or not. If we would do so, the question of whether we should take part in worldly government would soon be resolved!
That's quoted in Peter Hoover's The Secret of the Strength. We also talked about more recent Mennonite thought on political involvement, which they are more familiar with. But I wanted them to get a little exposure to their radical roots (which I think are much better than what we see now).
I wrote about Claire, our adopted cat, a few weeks ago. It seemed like a touching story then, except that right after I wrote that, the cat disappeared for three weeks! There were sightings of her back in the valley, but no one was feeding her there. She wouldn't let Heather close to her (I never saw her). It seemed she was living on mice, sleeping under one of the barns, and avoiding human contact. More than once during those three weeks I wondered if she was just going to curl up and die under there.
But last Sunday she started pestering people for food, and then let Heather bring her up here again. Now she's been here for five nights, sleeping in a little cat house Heather prepared for her, and seems to really enjoy the attention we're giving her. She's exploring the area now more, which seems healthy. But when she's gone for a while I start worrying that she'll crawl back under that barn.
I call her "that dumb cat" mostly because I don't like how she keeps jerking my feelings around. I find myself attached to the animal despite myself (I'm more of a dog person, and wanted the cat only for Heather), feeling bad when she rejects help, hoping that she'll let us give her a home. Liking it when she crawls into my lap and rubs and purrs, even though I'm allergic!
Somehow this story seems to illustrate the emotional difficulty of the "grace in grief" I've been thinking about lately. Caring for someone you can't control and being hurt by their bad choices. Hoping and being disappointed, then hoping again, then another disappointment, and not being able to stop hoping (though the emotional roller coaster is no fun anymore). Wanting to believe it will turn out okay, but not being sure.
But then there's the inordinate joy when Heather announces, "The cat's back!" Maybe something like God having more joy in finding the one lost sheep than in the many that remained, or the father's joy at the return of the prodigal son. I don't know if I'm completely convinced that the possibility of such joy is worth the risk. But I am inclined to believe that if we want to be one with God, that also means caring for those long-shots that God cares for, feeling the pain God feels.
And the occasional inordinate joys.
I'm going to use this Taizé song for our evening prayer tonight. We just heard that none of the people can make it for the advent retreat, so we have to cancel, and I'm feeling very much in the dark at the moment.
The words of this song mean: By night we go, by night, to find the spring (or source). Only the thirst lights our way, only the thirst lights our way.
Jesus 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.
And 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... (Mk 3.1-5)
The appearance of grief as a sign of God's love for us (when we turn from him) makes me think grief is also the feeling of love when we are parted from one another, through conflict or sin. I have often felt anger, or sometimes pity (which can so easily be just veiled contempt), when a relationship seem broken through what seems to be the wrongdoing of the other person. In this scene, Jesus feels anger at their wrong. But also grief. He hurts because of their hardness of heart; he wishes it were not so, that they had not turned themselves against him. He wants them with him.
If both people feel this grief, because of the love they have for one another, it may be the beginning of their reconciliation (like I wrote about in the last entry). But the other person may harden their heart against grief. We do not like to be hurt by others, and so often use anger or coldness to detach ourselves. Even if the other person doesn't grieve with us, though, our grief is an expression of our love for them. And I think it also connects us with God, who is certainly also grieved by our break, our separation from one another. So we can still find grace in our grief, union with God, source of the love that alone can unite us all.
Somehow I think the feeling of grief is also the best motivator for our own response, to do whatever we can to make reconciliation easier, and also to inspire in the other person the grief that leads to repentance.
Heather and I spent the last few days in the retreat cabin here, a sabbath time at the close of the farm season. The first evening, though, we got into an argument and couldn't get past it. Strangely enough, the one place we could find common ground was in the pain we both felt. We were both deeply grieved that this difference stood between us. I realized that we both felt this grief because we loved each other, and even though we couldn't immediately resolve our difference, this powerful (though painful) reminder of that love was enough to bring us back together.
We enjoyed the rest our time together in the cabin. Took a walk down to the creek and got caught in the rain, warmed ourselves in front of a fire in the wood stove, chanted psalms together as we watched the sun set, accompanied by coyotes and a lone owl.
In the quiet time, I thought about that grief. Pain caused by love, because someone we love is parted from us. It seems like the pain that God must feel for us, when we separate ourselves from him, when we turn ourselves away from the good he offers us. It's not a suffering imposed on God, who really is not diminished without us, but a pain endured because of his free choice to love us. Such grief is good and not bad, not a barrier to love but an effect of love.
And I thought that perhaps it is at the moment when we grieve also, when we realize our separation from God and feel the pain of it, that is when we can find ourselves one with God in that grief. That is when our our heart, our desire, is the same as God's. We need not have already corrected all our faults or righted our wrongs, just come to an honest grief at our separation—and there we find God.
I think that is perhaps the experience of forgiveness. Meeting God where we least expect him, and where we don't deserve to find him. Grace in grief. And it is there, in that reconnection with God, that we find the love and energy and inspiration to begin to change our path and change ourselves.
"The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear." (Mk 4.26-28)
I'm reminded of these words of Jesus as we come to the end of our first full year on the farm. It's been good to see the complete cycle of life here, as it progresses so surely and irresistibly, but so slowly that it's hard to notice any change day to day.
It also gives me another perspective on the slow development of our retreat work here. I am prone to moments of panic when I don't see the results I want, or the progress I think I'm supposed be seeing. Yet then there are other moments of quiet assurance that what has been promised will happen in the right time. And when I look back (sometimes using this journal) I am reminded how far we have already been carried, though time and again it seemed we were pressed up against a wall.
I think perhaps the imperceptibly slow but irresistible progress that we see in nature reflects God's usual way of acting. He works on us the same way. Often I am discouraged when people reject a radical challenge presented to them directly, but then I see them being softened and turned gradually over a span of several years. I expect the same kind of work is happening within the community here.
These thoughts bring to mind a favorite quote by William James:
I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time.
Barack Obama's campaign slogan is “Change you can believe in.” But he doesn't just want you to believe that he can bring change; he wants you to believe that you can. He wants you to believe that, together, we can change this country and change the world. He's even selling t-shirts with big letters that say, “Yes, we can!”
There are many differences in the policies of the two presidential candidates. But they clearly agree on one thing: They both believe in the power of the people. The power of people working together, combining their strength, their will, and their resources. That is the power they are seeking, that is why they want your vote. Without the power of the people, they are just men and can do very little. But with the support of the people, they will have great authority and power in the world, and great wealth that can accomplish great things. That is their hope. They believe in the power of the people.
Everyone's attention is on these men right now, but in our reading from Hebrews we are reminded to “look to Jesus.” And when we look to Jesus, we don't see someone who believed in the power of the people. We don't see someone who preached “together we are strong and can change the world.” We don't see someone who tried to get the support of the crowds. When they tried to make him king, he refused. He did not seek their power or their wealth to accomplish great things. Jesus accomplished great things not through the power of the people, but through the power of God. It was by the power of God that he fed the hungry and healed the sick and raised the dead. It was by the power of God that he spoke words from God, giving us real freedom and real hope. Jesus' life did not show that people working together can change the world, but that, through one poor, lowly, vulnerable man, God can change the world. It was the power of the people that crucified Jesus, the voice of the crowd, their leaders and their soldiers. It was the power of God that raised him up.
Today we also remember the saints, the many heroes of the faith. But, like Jesus, they did not encourage us to believe in the power of the people. They were the first to admit that the church is not great because of the people, because of them. They made it clear that all the good that we see in their lives was not their work, but God's. As we read in the psalm, it is God who gives food to the hungry, freedom to prisoners, justice to the oppressed. For all the good that the saints did, God gave the inspiration, the direction, the energy, the resources, everything. God once said to Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” And it is in the saints' humility, their poverty, their vulnerability, their weakness, that we can see more clearly the greatness and the power of God. They are heroes to us because their lives pointed, not to the power of the people, but to the power of God.
That is also our mission: To point people to the power of God, to help people believe in the power of God. Let's not join our voices to those who preach the power of the people, those who rule by the authority and wealth that comes from people, those “princes, in whom there is no help.” Let's join our voices and our lives to those who proclaim the power of God, “the Lord who will reign forever.”
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
We're leading worship this Sunday, which happens to be just a couple days before the election, so I thought we'd use Psalm 146. I think I'll say a few words about it in church, too, which I usually don't do. It offers a good opportunity to contrast the national community that believes in "the power of the people" (the power that the candidates want to use) and the community of God that trusts in his power, not their own. This Sunday also happens to fall right after All Saints day, so we want to be celebrating the community of God.
I suppose most Christians would say they trust God and not "princes," but in practice it looks different to me. Apparently the power of the people seems a lot closer, more frightening at times, and more useful for our purposes if we can get it working on our side. So people organize themselves into influential groups, and vote for the candidate they would rather have in power.
Maybe it's enough to simply remind people that God is trustworthy, and that God's reign will continue no matter what happens in the election. I don't imagine anyone will admit their trust in princes, especially not in church. But if you don't trust them, why put them in power?
This past week was the last trip of the season delivering vegetables to the city. Heather rode along, too, to visit friends in Evanston. And I had dinner as usual with the large household that I lived with for almost four years; some good old friends and some new friends there now too. I'm hoping I'll continue to be able to visit them while bringing the vegetables in the future.
Since it was my last visit this year, they offered me the tin can napkin holder I had decorated while I lived there. This touching cartoon is on it.
I've been decorating the prayer room upstairs, a place for the community here and also for our retreat guests. I gathered the leaves that are now falling and arranged them on the wall to give the impression of wind blowing through the room, scattering leaves up and around the corner and even onto the ceiling.
And today I recut some old matting to frame this prayer by Thomas Merton. I found it during our walk last summer and thought it might be a good guide for some who find themselves in our prayer room.
A conversation with Heather the other day reminded me of these lines from my journal eight years ago. They seem appropriate for this time now, entering the quiet winter months, not knowing what retreat work we will have (though an advent retreat is looking possible at the moment):
We dread the emptiness of time. Because with no distraction, we become conscious of ourselves as is, not in relation to other things but isolated, alone. Or rather in relation to God, from whom we are never isolated. This results in a consciousness of sin, guilt, negation. But that could all be collected under the heading of nothingness. And our fear of nothingness is fundamental—the fear of death.
I see the struggle against nothingness becoming obvious in several ways. First is the basic struggle for physical survival. But this struggle doesn't stop at "daily bread"—it continues into the quest for security and material wealth and power. The clutching of physical reality to convince ourselves that we are something and will continue to exist as something. Second, the struggle for fame and political power. We attempt to become something real in the minds of other people—the more, the better. With this is all identities based on role, profession, hierarchy, etc. And third, the struggle to fill time with activity. If we can just keep moving, building, theorizing, then we're convinced that we're something. We try to carve out a place for ourselves in the material world, in people's minds, and in time. If we're taking up 'space' then we must be something.
We struggle against nothingness feverishly because nothingness is death. To be hungry, poor, ignored, forgotten, lonely, bored is to be threatened at the core of our being. Such experiences question our very existence. It's not just the physical discomfort; it's the threat of death. So we try to establish ourselves in things, in people, and in time—yet these all disappear just as we do. It's a futile struggle, really, but I suppose it does keep us occupied and distracts us from facing our fear directly. And that's generally enough. Because we cannot face our fear directly; we simply cannot face death.
By ourselves, that is. We cannot, by our own power, face death and live. We can, however, be resurrected through faith, by the power of God's love. Faith is the death of self in which we face our own nothingness, only to be raised by God's free and loving affirmation of our somethingness. This is a somethingness not carved out of crumbling stone or fading time, but an absolute value granted by God. Only God creates, and this is God's re-creation of us. Our second birth.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of men take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of thy house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light. (Ps 36.7-9)
The spiritual disciplines were discussed after church Sunday. I'm not a big believer in the power of spiritual disciplines; I've written about them before. But I have been interested in meditation in the past, and I'm still drawn to contemplative spirituality, the prayer of quiet listening and directing our attention and love towards God. The lines above are favorites in contemplative writing.
I've been reminded of my contemplative side recently, mostly because of the stresses and uncertainties we're facing right now. Going into the winter with no solid retreat plans (though I've been trying hard—so much depends on the response of other people, very busy people). Our money from Heather's grandparents running out soon, and our expected income unclear for the months ahead. And the retreat work probably has to get going (which will take a while) before we can expect outside financial support. Plus the challenges of community life around here now. It has made me want to find a safe place to hide.
I really like the image used in the psalm: "The children of men take refuge in the shadow of your wings." The phrase "in the shadow of your wings" is used a number of times in the Psalms; I quoted another instance a couple days ago. A favorite image for David, I guess. I like how it describes a place of safety that is not a physical location but a refuge "in God." A safe place that is always available to us, wherever we are, a place to hide "till the storms of destruction pass by."
This describes a place of spiritual quiet, a movement of the soul, stepping back from the distractions and demands and threats that bombard our senses, seeking a place of inner quiet to hear what is really happening and what God offers in this moment. A place "in the shadow of your wings." Where we find what we need, and also find some light to offer to others.
Be merciful to me, O God,
be merciful to me,for in you
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
I think Heather finally convinced the cat to make our back yard her home. Claire (the cat) used to live in the valley, but her owners are moving to the city and can't take her along. So we've been trying to lure her up to our place. But even with our feeding her only up here, Heather had to bring the cat up at least ten times. She's a skittish cat and kept wandering back down to her old home, where she felt secure, even though there was no food there.
With patience, though, and a lot of coaxing and stroking, I think we convinced her that we'll take good care of her up here. She even caught two mice the other day, which probably makes this place more attractive as well. I think it will be a much better life for her here, with more attention and care and more territory to explore (without trucks and tractors roaring through). I was beginning to think we'd have to give up, and was frustrated that she seemed to prefer to starve rather than move to a new territory. But she's spent the last two nights here now.
It made me think, too, that we're usually a lot like that cat. We're being offered a life that is much better for us but we cling to our comfortable habits and places that make us feel secure just because they are known. We are so slow to trust. Especially when we are so used to just scraping by, and the offer seems too good to be true.
But God is patient and persistent with his offer.
Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved, but abides for ever.
As the mountains are round about Jerusalem,
so the Lord is round about his people,
from this time forth and for evermore.
That was part of my prayer this morning, from Psalm 125. Good words when you're feeling a bit shaky. The prospects for a retreat in December are not looking good right now, and we're uncertain again about how to proceed. It's easy to get people interested but much harder to get them involved in a real way, especially ministry workers who are very busy already. So we're left entering the slow winter season with not much on the retreat work horizon.
But I think I'm realizing that I've relied too much on the success of the retreats; my hopes and identity have been too much connected to that work. The opportunities that have opened up here have been a very helpful and hopeful sign for us of God's leading. But it's God's care and leading that we need to trust in, not the success of some particular work, even if it's a good work that God has provided for us. Writing this now, it seems rather obvious, but it's felt like a revelation to me. It's so easy to slowly, imperceptibly shift our trust from (the invisible) God to some visible group or work that seems concrete and reliable and able to sustain us.
Some friends are visiting from Evanston to help weed the strawberry fields today. In the field, women's struggle for voting rights came up, and I was reminded of G.K. Chesterton's commentary on that subject (in What's Wrong With the World). He argued that government, and therefore voting, was an ugly business. I'm not sure it's as good an argument against women's voting as an argument against anyone voting:
Seemingly from the dawn of man all nations have had governments; and all nations have been ashamed of them. Nothing is more openly fallacious than to fancy that in ruder or simpler ages ruling, judging and punishing appeared perfectly innocent and dignified. These things were always regarded as the penalties of the Fall; as part of the humiliation of mankind, as bad in themselves.
...This is the first essential element in government, coercion; a necessary but not a noble element. I may remark in passing that when people say that government rests on force they give an admirable instance of the foggy and muddled cynicism of modernity. Government does not rest on force. Government is force...
All government then is coercive; we happen to have created a government [democracy] which is not only coercive; but collective.
...In self-governing countries [the] coercion of criminals is a collective coercion. The abnormal person is theoretically thumped by a million fists and kicked by a million feet. If a man is flogged we all flogged him; if a man is hanged, we all hanged him. That is the only possible meaning of democracy, which can give any meaning to the first two syllables and also to the last two. In this sense each citizen has the high responsibility of a rioter. Every statute is a declaration of war, to be backed by arms. Every tribunal is a revolutionary tribunal. In a republic all punishment is as sacred and solemn as lynching.
Our next discussion with the teen group is going to be on voting and the political process. Should be interesting.
A couple months ago I sent a description of our first retreat to a mailing list for street churches across the country. Soon after, a guy from Connecticut wrote me. He said he had volunteered at a soup kitchen in Chicago years ago, a Franciscan place, and they might be interested in our retreats. It seemed like a long shot and not exactly the kind of place we had in mind, so I forgot about it. But then last week something made me remember that suggestion and I tried contacting them.
A reply came right away. The Franciscan priest who directs the soup kitchen, the Marquard Center, said he was "quite interested" and would be "honored" to come for a visit sometime. Folks there call him Father Manny. (There's an article about him available here.)
So we're hoping to get to meet him in person soon, maybe if we can get another "come and see" retreat organized for December. For church and ministry staff people who might refer folks to us in the future. We'd like to do an advent retreat, focusing on Mary's magnificat again, which seems perfect for that season.
Last week we spotted two box springs in front of someone's house with a "FREE" sign on them. We were waiting on a box spring that someone had promised us (a volunteer here is still using it) and another one we had was ancient, so we're glad to replace it.
And when I was in Evanston delivering vegetables last Wednesday, Brandon shared some of the many gallons of (excellent quality) juice he had saved from the dumpster. He also told of being confronted by the police at another dumpster that he and some friends were exploring. The cop asked them what they were doing. But one of the guys (a visitor from South Africa) thought he had asked how they were doing, so he answered, "Good... good."
We're having a discussion night this weekend with the teens here. During the last discussion there was interest in the topic of "community" (something we're also discussing in Sunday school), so I thought we'd follow up on that. But I'd like to talk about the different forms of community, like friends, or family, not just the "intentional community" form that is usually discussed. I think the teens might be more interested in these forms, and they are also more able to affect these communities, make them stronger.
I was reminded of something I wrote in my journal two years ago ("organic community"):
"The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear..." (Mk 4.26-28)
The problem of idolizing our institutions arises with the power and pride of gathered people. So the temptation is greatest when we come together in groups. But we are meant to come together, we need to. So how do we come together without institutionalizing our communities, how do we cooperate with one another without idolizing our organizations?
I think there are clues in the imagery used to describe community in the bible. Images like a growing plant, a living body. Images of marriage and family. These are natural, God-given, God-created relationships and organisms. Not man-made institutional relationships or humanly designed organizations. The difference is quite stark. Yet what we call "community" (clubs, religious organizations, political groupings) are almost always of the institutional sort. Even among Christian intentional communities, the designation "intentional" speaks of how much these are human creations. Yet most people's more satisfying experience of community is among naturally occurring friendships and family relationships. Natural community. Organic community. The kind that sprouts and grows "we know not how."
This is also how I envision the one, true community we all long for, the body of Christ. A living being, given by God, spreading like leaven and growing like a plant, not designed or governed or ordered by us, with diverse members known by the head and coordinated by the head, the head being Christ.
Can we recognize and let ourselves be drawn into the life of this organic community, instead of continually constructing (and idolizing) our own organizations?
In distress you called, and I delivered you;
I answered you in the secret place of thunder...
Hear, O my people, while I admonish you!
O Israel, if you would but listen to me!
I am the Lord your God,
who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.
But my people did not listen to my voice;
Israel would have none of me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
to follow their own counsels.
O that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!
I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.
I want to focus on listening to God's voice, as both a source of guidance and our basis for unity (as opposed to the usual organizational structures and decision-making). I'll also use Jesus' image of the sheep recognizing and following the shepherd's voice:
The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice...
I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd. (Jn 10.3-4,14-16)
There's a white peach tree in the yard near us that's been so loaded with peaches we thought its branches might break. I wondered if the growing season here is long enough to ripen them, but now they're getting sweet enough to eat and people are starting to gather them. Heather added some to the grape juice she made. If there's still enough ripe ones out there I think I'll cobble some for the teen gathering tonight.
It reminds me of a funny song I heard a couple days ago: "Movin' to the country, gonna eat a lotta peaches... Millions of peaches, peaches for me, millions of peaches, peaches for free..." (Listen here)
Thoughts about hospitality have been hounding me lately. I've strongly encouraged hospitality in the past, and there is definite biblical support for the practice. But I've struggled with the situations that arise in intentional communities concerning hospitality, situations we now find ourselves in the middle of.
Hospitality in the usual sense has to do with people that either are friends that want to come and visit you, or people in need of help, the poor or strangers that have no place to stay. In both of these cases I see the spiritual value of hospitality and the emotional motivation behind it. But in intentional communities there tends to be people that request to visit, not because they want to visit any of us personally, and not because they are in need of a place to stay, but because they want to "experience community" or are on a tour seeing different forms of such communal organizations. Because of the regularity of such requests a hospitality coordinator is usually assigned, who then tries to find housing and meal hosting for guests among different households in the community (unless there is some form of guest house or communal meals). So you end up with the rather strange situation of having guests that you did not invite and who are not coming to see you particularly. I'm finding it hard to muster much enthusiasm for this kind of hospitality.
I think part of the problem is the institutionalization of hospitality. Because the community has been made into a communal organization, both the approach of guests and the response of the hosts becomes less personal. Guests come not to see any particular persons but to see the organization. And (at least here) the individual hosts do not personally invite the guests that they want to welcome, but instead fill a more generalized hospitality function. Of course there are possibilities for personal connections in the actual hosting, but I think the institutional way it is arranged make these connections much less likely. As I've said before, institutions are not persons and so cannot love. And the more we depend on and conform to them the more we become like them.
So it's very important, I think, to preserve the personal nature of hospitality. We have prepared a place here for hospitality, so I'm sure we'll be doing a lot of it, but it seems important to resist being drawn into (or pressured into) the more institutional version of hospitality that appears in intentional communities.
This is just another example of the difference between the body of Christ and the organizational "bodies" that we create. In Christ's body there is no external form or structure for people to try to interact with impersonally, no hierarchy or standardization that separates us from one another as persons. The Spirit that connects us and gives the body its nature works only from within individuals. Through the love that only individual persons can give.
Something unusual happened at the barn dance the other night, though I guess it's not unusual for me. I just didn't expect it there. Somehow the situation seems symbolic or worth remembering.
The dance was going well, and even though it's not my favorite activity I was enjoying myself and was glad to be there with Heather. The the caller for the dance announced that someone else wanted to lead a dance. One of the more senior dancers there, I think. But after a few minutes it became clear that he was trying to teach a pretty complicated dance (where couples wove over and under the other couples from square to square across the whole room) and that he wasn't a very good teacher. Most people were confused and had to be shown what to do. Other dancers who had done it before began trying to tell the new dancers what to do (since the leader was not explaining it well). I joked, "When the music starts, it's going to be chaos."
It wasn't exactly chaos. But there were many mistakes, and our group repeatedly didn't know what to do next. I kept looking to the more experienced dancers and they just shrugged, not knowing either. The caller made a few comments about us not paying attention, which didn't help. And the more mistakes people made, the more it messed up others and everyone was getting frustrated.
I tried to hang in there though I could tell Heather was getting irritated by the caller. And people kept just shrugging and trying to muddle through. Then the caller gave another direction and we didn't know what to do and were looking for help, and then another dancer hits me in the back.
I guess he was just impatient and wanting me to move, maybe frustrated with the whole thing. It was a pretty rude thing to do in any case. And that was the last straw for me. I just walked off the dance floor.
Heather followed, not too disappointed to be out of that dance. But then the caller ran after me, urging us to come back. "I'm through!" was all I said. I guess by the tone of my voice he could tell I was angry and really wasn't coming back. Then I could hear him frantically trying to find someone to take our place (in the middle of the dance!). I didn't think this through before I walked off, but that must have thrown a big monkey wrench in the works because with a complex, interconnected dance like that one every couple needs to be in their place for it to work right. I can see why he ran after us.
Then there was a break, and after that we went back and danced the rest of the dances (with the original caller, who was quite good). We enjoyed ourselves, and so did a number of other people from the farm here. We sang songs in the van on the way home.
But I thought about that experience, about how I've done it in many other situations in my life. With the Navy, for example. Most recently with the church decision-making thing. I'm not sure if it's always the best response, but it does make quite an impression sometimes. And I do think it's better than everyone shrugging and continuing to muddle along because it would be too disruptive to just stop.
I know it's important not to leave completely. But refusal to participate in certain things does make a sharp statement, without attempting to force others to do what I want. Our participation is a choice, and an expression of who we are, so we should be careful and intentional with it.
We're getting a lot of the unique experiences of country living lately. Tonight there's a barn dance that a number of us here are all going to. Heather has been to a number of them near here, but this is the first one she's convinced me to attend. The only one we've danced together at was the one we had at our wedding reception (and I kinda had to be there for that one).
Heather has also been putting away fruit for the winter. I helped her freeze peaches (and whipped up a fresh peach cobbler). And she made grape juice from the concord grapes that are ripe just now. Canning pears is the next project, if we don't run out of canning jars first.
This morning I helped with that quintessential country activity, moving and stacking hay bales. The folks that brought the hay also bought a horse from a family here, and took it away this morning. The horse didn't seem to happy about that, stamping and whinnying and banging the door all the way down the road.
Saw this hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch yesterday:
I've been reminded that my current response to church decision-making is about the same as my response to the secular political process. Years ago I decided there were better ways to work for the good of all, ways that don't involve the use of political power or other forms of coercion. Jesus' ways of personal example and speaking the truth and suffering force rather than inflicting it on others.
I guess I feel pretty much the same way about the church, the body of Christ. The Spirit directed it pretty well in the early years before people decided they needed to get organized and make the church an institution, and then when the Reformation hit and there was no longer one (human) leader or unified organizational structure for the church, the Spirit managed to keep the body functioning and united.
Right? I mean, we still believe there is just one body of Christ, don't we? One body, working together as one? Yet there's not a single leader or hierarchy or organization that unites it all. Someone else is still holding it all together and directing its work towards the same end. Right?
Yet we can't seem to recognize this unity or direction unless we set up a leader or devise a system of organization that we can see. I've heard people here concerned about becoming "leaderless" or "systemless"—but how can we be? Isn't Jesus always our head, our leader? Doesn't the Holy Spirit always provide the connection and the "system" by which we are organized and directed in the work of God?
Based on the history of the church (and its continual attempts to organize and manage itself, despite endless disappointments) I suppose I shouldn't expect the majority in any group to trust the Spirit to manage us without the usual organizational workings that we see in every other human group. But I don't think that changes the reality of how the Spirit works for the body of Christ. We think we are organized into congregations and denominations, fractured and struggling between (and within) these factions, but the Spirit sees the one body, spread through all of these and working as one. As we are able, I think we should trust this and work with it as consciously as possible.
Our awareness of (and faith in) the work of the Spirit can then relieve us of the burdens and contentions and temptations of organizational power struggles and experience the freedom and joy of living in God's kingdom here and now. Even if others do not agree, do not see it, and continue with their struggles to manage the church. We can, right now, experience the Spirit uniting and guiding us, giving us the miraculous common life of the body as a gift.
After some conversations with friends and lots of thought and prayer, I decided to write a letter to the other folks in the church here. When Heather and I became official members back in March I had hesitations, but decided I was satisfied with the membership commitments. I still am, mostly. But the one about church decision-making has caused problems for me since then, bringing back all my objections to institutional membership. Finally I've decided I have to ask to be let off that one (though I should say that I don't think decision-making is worse here than in other churches; it's probably better).
My biggest disappointment is that I may have overlooked this before because church membership seemed necessary for us to be able to do the retreat work here. I might have overlooked the problem because I didn't want to see it, or was afraid of the consequences.
Here's the letter I think I'll give to people today or tomorrow:
“Truly, I say to you,
whoever does not receive
the kingdom of God like a child
shall not enter it.” (Lk 18.17)
I want to apologize for the complete discouragement I expressed at the recent church meeting. That was not helpful to anyone. Since then I've had some time to think and pray about it, and I want to try to explain what's behind my strong feelings, and make a request.
For a number of years I've been troubled by how churches appear to operate so much like other human organizations, when the church, the body of Christ, is supposed to be so unique. Jesus seemed to offer so much to his followers when he gave the Holy Spirit. He promised we could always be connected to him like branches to the vine, and that he would unite us all as one and guide us all by the one Spirit. This seems very different from any human organization, since it offers what no amount of human effort or ingenuity could ever produce.
In my experience, churches seem most like other human organizations when they are gathered for church councils or members meetings. This is when I have seen most clearly the dependence on authority structures and the struggles to influence and make use of the power of the group. (Decision-making by vote is perhaps the clearest exercise of this power.) Fears of group power often appear then also. And these times of group decision-making seem to be when the temptation is greatest to follow and trust the will of the people, rather than the will of God.
When Jesus invited us into the kingdom of God, I believe he was offering us an experience of common life incredibly better than any human organization can accomplish. God himself would be our father and master, leading us not by any hierarchy but directly, through his Spirit within each of us, and not by group pressure but by our free acceptance of the Spirit's prompting. We could be parts of Jesus' own body, with him as head. This means we could experience a unity beyond our ability to achieve, and a power working through us much greater than “the power of the people,” the power of our organized groups. I believe this also means that we are not responsible to manage this common life that Jesus offered. We do not set the policy for this group or determine its membership or make the decisions that guide its course. We are not in charge of it. The weight of oversight and decision-making does not rest on us. In this family of God none of us are the parents, we are all the children. All that is asked of us is to obey our Father, trust in his care and oversight, and enjoy the miraculous common life that he gives us as a gift.
This is what I see in Jesus' description of the kingdom of God, and what I see him asking of us. So it seems to me that what we generally call church decision-making is not something that Jesus requires of his followers, not a necessary part of being a Christian or loving one another. I believe we can experience true unity and accomplish the work of God together without authority structures and “the power of the people,” and without all the temptations that come with that power.
I don't expect that everyone here will agree with all of this. But I do wish to change my own behavior based on these beliefs, so I am asking to be excused from the church membership commitment regarding church decision-making. I'm sorry for making that commitment without fully understanding what it entails. I think we could offer a better witness and discover a fuller experience of the kingdom of God without it.
If anyone has questions or objections, I am open to discussion. I imagine some people may think this affects my membership status in the church here. I don't think so; I still feel one with you all and plan to continue working together as the body of Christ in this place. But I understand the concerns some may have and I will accept your decision on this matter.
Yesterday I found this footage of Homer Simpson's baptism...
(if the video player doesn't work, try here.)
The attempts in our church to select people for leadership (or develop a new leadership structure) have left me frustrated and disillusioned. I'm feeling that I shouldn't have gotten involved in church decision-making at all, and wondering if it even has anything to do with the real church, the body of Christ.
These thoughts reminded me of this journal entry from two years ago, especially the second part of it:
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you." (Lk 17.20-21)
Yet, despite Jesus' words, Christians have often put forth their organizations as examples of the kingdom of God. "Come see, here it is!" This always ends in bitter disillusionment. We can certainly say "there it is" about our churches and other institutional communities, but with those words we also confess that these are not the kingdom of God.
Yet the kingdom of God is among us. Not easily outlined like our organizations, but it is there, mixed in like leaven, the relationships between its members not outlined in any authority structure or membership requirement, crossing all denominational borders, undefined—yet strong as the most passionate love.
Like the unseen, unorganized web of our friendships. The kingdom of God is an organic community like that, untamed like nature, sprouting life through every crack in the sidewalk.
Jesus called them to him, saying, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." (Lk 18.16-17)
A child does not receive the kingdom sitting in a conference room, making policy decisions. A child does not plan the ministry strategy of the kingdom. (The kingdom is not the child's responsibility.) A child receives the kingdom as a gift, enjoying the community given by the Father, never trying to take charge of it and manage it as we manage our institutions. "For we have one Father" and we are all his children.
Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. (Ja 5.7-8)
We got our first good rain in a while the day before yesterday. I remember walking with the umbrella past the grape arbor and smelling the fruit's dark ripeness, so sweet. Then under the trees down the trail into the ravine and how the falling rain sounded louder under the canopy of leaves, how the green was so intense and the wetness reflected the light. This is the first year we have stayed here all through the seasons, watching the plants and trees sprout and bud then grow to their thick fullness. Now the cooler temperatures are reminding us that the growing will be over soon.
I think I'm also becoming more aware of the patience needed to nurture growth in people. How often the same things need to be said and modeled, again and again, to give it a chance to gradually sink in. It seems we let ourselves be changed so slowly. And when a number of people are involved, the change within the group will probably be even slower, as it requires the growth of every individual, each with their own resistances and illusions and fears.
Fruit comes with patience. "La paciencia todo lo alcanza," Teresa of Avila said. Patience attains all.
But, as I was saying to someone the other day, patience with others is a lot easier when our experience of God (or the kingdom of God) is not limited by their slowness. Our knowing and feeling and living the reality of God's kingdom now is limited only by our willingness to follow Jesus. And he urged us (and empowers us) to draw as close and deep into God as he was when he lived on the earth. We should not blame others for the distance of our lives from what we hope we could be living. I think it is actually our insistence on pushing ahead and drawing radically close to Jesus' life, and finding peace there, that helps us be more patient with others.
A family is moving from the farm and has offered one of their cats for adoption. Heather is considering it. On a more positive note... they also offered us two beds (with mattresses), a nightstand, and several sets of sheets. That's all we needed to complete our third guest room.
Heather got me to help canning some salsa a couple days ago. Lots of tomatoes that need to be used right now or they go to waste. We had a good recipe from our friend Celina, with cilantro and lime, and I think we managed to convert it well into the large batch that we did. Thirteen and a half quart jars. That should hold us for a while.
Heather also canned strawberry and blackberry jam from the berries here, thirty-two quarts of tomatoes, and froze lots of green beans. I'm impressed. Didn't expect us to manage so much our first year here.
Another good conversation with Chico and Tatiana this past week (apologies to Chico for sending his name out into the technosphere). We were talking about the current move in the church to be more honest about our limitations and faults. Admitting the sinfulness of the church or our local community, but trying to accept that "it's the best we can do right now." I am uncomfortable with that acceptance. Not too happy admitting that the church—the body of Christ—is limited or sinful, either, though I know that we who call ourselves Christians are certainly limited and sinful. I raised the question:
"Is the nature of the body of Christ determined by its members?"
I guess I don't think so. I don't think the nature of Christ's body is determined, or even limited, by us. What the body of Christ is, what it has to offer, who it encompasses, all of this is determined by Christ, not us. It's his body. The nature of it has to be his nature or it's not his body. What we offer to people when we invite them into the church is Jesus—his fulfillment, his promises, his provision, his protection—him.
The best way I can understand this along with our experience of people in the church (or in our local communities) being so unlike Christ, is to think that we are only part of Christ's body when we are being directed by him as our head, only when we are acting as part of his body.
That seems like a strange way to think about it, and maybe that imagery doesn't work for everyone. Perhaps we can't think of a body as losing and gaining parts of itself so fluidly; with a body the parts tend to be pretty permanent. Maybe the imagery of Jesus' followers as "the kingdom of God" is better in this regard. That's what Jesus used to describe the church. And I've heard many people talk of this kingdom as not clearly defined (by territory or ethnicity or political boundaries) but as the people who are living under the reign of God, those who obey and are loyal to God. With this understanding it's easier to see that we can and do regularly rebel against God's reign over us, are disloyal and disobedient. And so are we still properly called people of God's kingdom at those moments, during those times of rebellion?
We are always freely invited into the kingdom of God (or invited back into it). And we are offered the power of God to live as his people if we are willing. But the kingdom of God is God's kingdom, not ours, and so he determines the nature of it, its membership, what it has to offer those who enter it, God determines this, not us. We can decide whether or not we will be a part of it, but it is not ours. We don't shape it or limit it. It is God's.
We're celebrating Heather's birthday tomorrow with a picnic by the creek, real French cheese (and homemade French bread), an Italian Merlot, and some peach jam that our friend Mandy made.
Maybe I'll make a computer desktop for her from this bouquet I captured (to send to her in Nigeria) a while back...
We're leading worship next week, and I've been thinking that we need something a little more challenging. I've facilitated the adult discussion times on Sunday this summer, and it's been good to have several weeks of easier topics to talk about and agree on (though I've struggled a bit to keep it engaging). But I feel the need for some of the words of Jesus' that shake us a little. Last week we talked about fruitfulness, and then there's the harvest going on, so maybe this would be good:
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. (Jn 12.24-26)
After some reflection I thought I might mix up those lines and add some commentary. And maybe have different people take turns reading lines from different places among the assembled group. Something like this:
Very truly, I tell you,
whoever serves me must follow me
a grain of wheat that falls
Those who love their life
their place in society
will lose it
But those who hate
the rewards of the world
if they will die with me
they will bear much fruit
they will live
They will not be alone
because where I am
that's where my servant will be also