what if forgiveness is not wanted?

Heather and I were discussing my thoughts from the last entry, and she pointed out that sometimes people seem to want to go through the process of "paying for their sins." I remember reading something like this in Dostoyevsky (in Crime and Punishment, I think) but then it seemed like a matter of piety, a way of feeling the pain of the crime. It didn't seem likely or even understandable in our culture. In the context of a community, though, I suppose there might be other reasons for wrongdoers wanting to go through the society's process of punishment or repayment.

Some people might feel reassured that, even if they cannot control their own wrong inclinations, their community can set them right, and has an established process to accomplish this. The wrongdoer, like the others in society that I wrote about before, could find security in a social structure that seems to be able to control evil (including their own).

But maybe the more likely appeal comes from the desire to atone, "pay for our sins." Recognizing that we have done wrong, we may want to be able to set it right ourselves. Former convicts speak of having "done their time." It offers a way to feel that we have paid our debt, and so no longer carry the guilt or no longer owe anyone for the wrong we did them. There may be something good in this desire. But I don't think society can decide what we owe or tell us when we have paid up. There's even the phrase "paid my debt to society"—but is the wrongdoer's debt really to society?

Jesus' words about forgiveness make it clear that God, not society, decides the nature of evil and what is owed. And his parables (such as "the unmerciful servant") show that we cannot repay all we owe, or set right our wrongdoing ourselves. That's why forgiveness is necessary, and such a tremendous relief. But it will leave us with the sense that we have been given a gift; we did not work our way back out of our hole, we were lifted out. That's not what some people want. They want what society offers, the false sense that we paid off everything we broke.

Jesus had a very different understanding of how our sins were paid for.


social forgiveness

Some recent circumstances have plunged me into thoughts about reconciliation and the social dynamics of forgiveness. Forgiveness is always hard, but I think it's even harder for people to forgive as a group. We'll personally say "No hard feelings," but then feel it's still very important for the wrongdoer to go through the punishment that the society demands or the slow, painful process of regaining the community's good favor.

I think that's because we rely a lot on the ability of our society or community to restrain potential wrongdoers or bring them back into obedience if they do wrong. We need to feel that security. That our social structure can protect us, or restore order when it breaks down. If we feel that people "get away" with wrongs, or that our community cannot bring wrongdoers to submit to the group, then we feel unsafe, always under threat.

So forgiving as Jesus tells us to seems unthinkable to the social body. To just forgive without demanding repayment or some other form of submission to the group would leave us feeling that we have no control over evil among us. But I think that is an important part of forgiveness. Not just freeing the wrongdoer from shame or punishment, but also freeing us from the pressure to prevent and control evil ourselves. We can forgive because we know God is still in control. We can be vulnerable because we know our Father is watching over us. We rely on him, not on our social structure, not on ourselves. He is our security.

And he tells us to trust him and forgive.


"good news to the poor" pt.3

Continuing the write-up about the retreat ministry (the earlier parts have been revised, too, after Heather turned an editorial eye on it):

We were offered a way to follow Jesus in caring for the anawim when the Mennonite community at Plow Creek farm invited us to start a retreat ministry there. The weekend retreats are free, with guests coming in small groups from transitional programs and from churches in low-income neighborhoods, people in very difficult situations who are struggling to be faithful to God. We offer hospitality in our home, beautiful natural surroundings, and carefully prepared worship and discussion times. Retreat topics vary, but the emphasis is always on listening for a word from God, through prayer, scripture, and one another. Our hope is that Jesus' good news to the poor is heard again and again, by the ones who desire it most, the ones it is meant for.

God's favor rests on the anawim because of their vulnerability, and their dependence on him. Jesus chose to share their vulnerability. And his life of utter dependence on God, and God's faithfulness to him, affirmed their hope. Seeking to follow Jesus in this also, we trust God to provide for our needs and the needs of our retreat guests through the produce of the farm, the support of our community here, and gifts from others far away. And we continue to listen for a word from God, a word to bind up the brokenhearted, free those who are bound, and give comfort and hope to the poor.

The whole thing is available here (as a RTF file): "Good News to the Poor"


The last few days we enjoyed having Dan and Katie Piché staying with us. They're from Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco; we became friends with them while they were here working last summer. It was really good to see them again.

And then we house/kid/dog-sat for some other friends yesterday, so they could be in Chicago overnight. A chance for some parenting practice.


"good news to the poor" pt.2

Continuing the write-up about the retreat ministry:

By then we were convinced that God was calling us to a different kind of work, a different way of reaching out to people. Struggling to understand what that was, in the months that followed we looked closely at Jesus' life. The first verses of Isaiah 61 offer a clear image of what we saw in Jesus, his life and mission. Jesus applied those very words to himself: "The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor... to bind up the brokenhearted... to proclaim liberty to captives...."

The word translated "the poor" is the Hebrew word anawim. It can also mean lowly, weak, afflicted. In the psalms and the prophets, the word came to refer to those poor, oppressed ones who were struggling to be faithful to God. These were the ones Jesus focused his attention on, the ones he joined, becoming a poor, afflicted man himself, and the ones to whom he could announce good news from God.

That's what Jesus offered them, a word from God. Not money, or human expertise, or political power. He offered something even more powerful: a healing word, a proclamation of freedom, an announcement of God's favor to those who thought they were forgotten. Those who were healed or freed then knew that this was not a work of man but of God. And those who were interested in money or political influence knew that Jesus had nothing that they wanted. Even those who came for healing had to come to Jesus with the right motive, with faith, or he could not heal them. Because of this, Jesus attracted the anawim, and could announce the good news that was for them. Their cries had been heard. They were invited into a life of freedom and intimacy with God, the life that Jesus himself lived. And they didn't have to become middle class, so-called “respectable citizens” first. They just had to follow him.



"good news to the poor"

Yesterday we gave a short presentation about the retreat ministry to a few pastors in Princeton. We'd like to make friends and connect with other Christians in the area, so this seemed like a good first step. As we prepared what we were going to say, it seemed like a written version might be useful, too, to send to people or use in a newsletter. I thought I'd post it here as I write it.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor... (Is 61.1-2)

"If I had a gun right now, I don't know who I'd shoot—him... or myself."

It was close to midnight when I opened the door and found her standing there. The police car that had dropped her off was pulling away. The house was a soup kitchen by day, a women's shelter by night; Heather and I worked there and shared the house with the guests. People commonly showed up late at night, needing something, asking for a night on the couch. But this woman was shaking, crying uncontrollably.

I let her in, gave her something from the kitchen. She had been saving money to pay a fine, she told me. If she didn't pay she would go to jail. Her court date was tomorrow and she'd had the money ready; she had given it to her boyfriend to keep safe. He had spent it on drugs.

"He smoked my freedom," she cried.

When she demanded the money, shouting, and wouldn't leave him alone, he'd called the police and had her taken away. She had been living with him; she had nowhere else to go. So they left her at our door.

I had to sit with her a long time. She couldn't calm down enough to sleep; she raged and paced and wailed. She wasn't sure who she wanted to shoot. And then, sagging in the chair, she cried, "And no one cares... no one cares."

The next day I thought about those words.

In the midst of her poverty and helplessness and fear of jail, her deepest anguish seemed to be that no one cared what was happening to her. At that lowest point, she had expressed an intense spiritual need. The need to know that someone cared. Perhaps, ultimately, the need to know that God cared.

Weeks later, we began to attend Al-Anon meetings to become familiar with the twelve-step recovery program. And we were reminded again of the reality and urgency of the spiritual need, even among those struggling with overwhelming physical and emotional problems. The most helpful program for recovering addicts begins with a spiritual act. Admitting that we are powerless to free ourselves from our self-destructive choices and then turning our lives over to God's care. The spiritual need comes first.




Jesus waited

Tomorrow most churches will hear the story of Jesus' temptation (Mt 4.1-11). I put together these thoughts to share during worship, with a focus on "waiting for God":

God had led Jesus into the desert.

There he was tempted: Instead of waiting for God to lead him out of the desert, he was tempted to end his hunger, end his trial now, by his own power. He was tempted.

As the devil pointed out to Jesus, God had promised to protect his life.

But he was tempted: Instead of waiting for God to rescue him from death, quietly, in a garden tomb, after he had been beaten, humiliated, and hung in front of the crowds, he was tempted to make God rescue him now, in the middle of the temple, in front of everyone. He was tempted.

Through the prophets, God had promised that his son would rule over all.

Still, he was tempted: Instead of waiting for God to bring down all rulers and humble all nations before him, he was tempted to take and use the power and wealth of nations now, when so much could be accomplished. He was tempted.

As we are.

But Jesus waited for God.


nobody again

Heather and I are leading worship the day after tomorrow, the first Sunday of Lent. Heather chose the theme of "waiting for God," and she and another woman designed banners with images of winter waiting. It's a good thing for me to be meditating on right now.

I'm realizing that I came to the farm (perhaps unknowingly) with ideas that things would be different for us now. That now that we had arrived at the place God prepared and opened for us, it would be easier, things would smoothly fall into place. Not likely, I know. But I have been sincerely surprised and confused by the response of a number of people (outside the folks here) that we have turned to for help. We've been mostly ignored. Can't even get a response to requests or phone calls. I makes you feel rather small to not even rate a "no, thank you."

But the experience reminded me of "nobodies." I wrote about it on the road this past summer, and focused on it in a letter we sent back to the church here. It begins:

It was dark when we approached the church, hoping to find shelter there for the night. Rain was coming. We surveyed the church grounds, not finding much, but it was rather late to be looking elsewhere. Then we saw a light in an upstairs window of one of the buildings. We thought we should at least ask permission before laying down, so we rang the bell and waited, a bit nervously. After a few moments we heard movement inside. Then the blinds on the window of the door parted and two eyes peered at us.

"Whaddya want?"

Heather and I looked at each other, then back at the eyes, and didn't know what to do. Did he really expect us to explain our situation shouting through a closed door? Then his fingers appeared, shooing us away. Heather thought she heard him say "We don't have any" as he turned away.

We found another church in time to hide from the fierce storm that blew in that night. But the next morning I thought again about those fingers, shooing us into the dark. That's the experience of nobodies. I remembered reading John Dominic Crossan's commentary on the Beatitudes in a library a few days earlier, and his description of Jesus' followers as "a kingdom of nobodies." Outsiders. Those who are considered of little or no value to society, and so are pushed to the margins. Or simply ignored. Yet among these Jesus found the ones he called "blessed"...

Perhaps our experiences on the walk prepared us more than I expected. In a way, it's comforting to think that. And I also find myself feeling better to discover that we are still nobodies—it seems right, the place where we will find Jesus with us.

I should also perhaps confess that I have being focusing too much on where retreatants will come from (and where support will come from), and that my eagerness to make these arrangements has been motivated by fear more than love. Fear of failure, fear of letting people down. I think I'm being called to focus more on our calling, sharing what's inspired us—Jesus' kingdom of nobodies, for example. And let God take care of bringing the right people to us.


a fine repast

We've been doing a lot of painting, but I wanted to be sure to remember Heather's other occupation last week. Butcher's assistant. Someone from the farm hit a deer on the way home from work, so someone else came out and got it and brought it home for meat. It was as close as Heather was going to get to hunting her own food (this season, at least), so she asked to help with the butchering. Did very well, too, from what I hear. I chose to pass up that learning experience.

Now we have some nice fresh deer burger, a roast, and some steaks, too. We tried the steak a couple nights ago. Heather marinated it in yogurt with garlic, cinnamon and ginger, then beat it with a small skillet to tenderize and sautéed it in olive oil. Very good.


"keep building..."

Praying the other day about who we will find to come for retreats, I remembered Noah building a huge boat in a place where there weren't many people wanting a boat just then.

And the thought came, "Keep building—it will be filled."

(click on image for full size)