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


"God helps those who..."

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.


"screw the meek"

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."


by feasts and prayers

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.


Deer burgers for us last night, from Heather's most recent roadkill recovery...


"Jesus did not come to rule, force, judge..."

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).


that dumb cat

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.


de noche

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.


"grieved at their hardness of heart"

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.


grace in grief

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.


imperceptible, irresistible

"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.



"the power of the people"

Here's what I'm going to preach Sunday, the day after All Saints day and two days before the election (the readings are Hebrews 12.1-2 and Psalm 146):

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.”