12.30.2010

surprises

I'm sending this letter to the people who have supported us in starting the retreats here:

Friends,

In July I wrote about the fire that destroyed a house here on the farm this spring. No one was hurt, but very few things from the house survived. One thing that did was the sturdy wood stove. (Not the cause of the fire, by the way.) Now that stove is in our living room, making it a much warmer and more welcoming place in the winter. Heather had hoped for a wood stove for quite a while, but we couldn’t afford one. So it was an surprise this year to experience, amidst our grief for our friends’ loss, a feeling of gratitude for God’s unexpected provision. We cleaned the rust off the stove and, with the generous gifts offered by several people, were able to install a chimney ourselves so that the stove was burning before the snow fell.

We were also surprised this year to have three different Chicago ministries come for retreats with us. Guys from Emmaus ministries, which helps men get out of prostitution, were here for the third year now and are becoming good friends. And we had our first women’s retreat for a group from Good News Partners, who showed us the depth of sharing that can happen among sisters who really love each other. One of those women later brought a group from her church, five charming and enthusiastic friends with developmental disabilities. That weekend was a bit of a stretch for us, but with the reward of glimpsing some of God’s true anawim, the poor of spirit. Hopefully all these folks will come to visit us again and again. One more bible study group from a church soup kitchen also planned to come this summer, but last minute health problems forced us to cancel that retreat. Maybe we’ll get a chance to meet them next summer. (Or in the winter, if they’d like to gather around a roaring fire.)

There were some unexpected personnel problems on the farm this summer, so Heather offered lots of hours in the garden to bring in the harvest. Please pray for all the families who depend on the farm here. We’re grateful for our friends and for all the healthy, delicious fruits and vegetables that they give us to eat and to serve to our retreat guests.

One more little surprise came when we received a Christmas card last week from Mary, who was with us on a retreat this summer. She wrote, “May the Savior be in everything that you do and say!”

We’d be grateful if, when you think of it, you’d pray those words for us. We’ll do the same for you.

12.27.2010

try crying

A response to someone having a hard time breaking out of Christmas consumerism because of family expectations...


You know what I found that works? Tears.

I remember one year when I was a teenager, out shopping for Christmas gifts with my mom, having a hard time making myself pick out just the right thing (which I wasn't good at) for people who really didn't need anything anyway. I got increasingly frustrated and unhappy, until I finally just stopped in the middle of the mall. I looked around at everyone else rushing around under the Christmas gift-giving pressure, and I started crying. When my mom showed up I sobbed, "It's just all so bad!"

We had a talk about it and she never pressured me about gifts at Christmas again. Years later, I'm completely out. No one expects a gift from me and no one seems to mind, it's just accepted. I came up with lots of arguments against our Christmas gift-giving traditions, but I don't harp on those any more. I usually just write a Christmas haiku, my own little tradition (like this one) and send it to friends and family. That's it. Not a problem any more.

Seriously, tears work.

12.24.2010



This year's Christmas haiku, a little tradition of mine...

12.20.2010

12.18.2010

"...and on earth peace among men on whom God's favor rests"

From a conversation today...


I agree that intervention was clearly part of Jesus' ministry. And maybe provocation, too, depending on what you mean by that. I don't rule out either intervention or provocation, it's just that there are many ways to intervene and many ways to provoke, and I don't see Jesus intervening and provoking in many of the ways I see political activists (or even CPT) doing it.

One of the biggest differences is that I don't see Jesus coming into a place and attempting to make it peaceful, or free of conflict. He said, "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division." And I think your two examples (the incarnation and passion week) demonstrate this well. As far as I can tell, those places did not immediately or in the long term become more peaceful places after Jesus' intervention there. The most obvious impact, actually, seemed to be that they became more violent (I'm thinking of Herod's killing of the children and the crucifixion). And the conflict in Israel seems not to have abated much since then.

If Jesus' goal was to "make peace" in the way political activists try to do it, then he wasn't much of a success. But then he even said that wasn't his goal. What Jesus did succeed at, though, was what he said he was doing: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you." Jesus demonstrated the fearless peace of God and he passed it on to everyone who would accept it from him. Not a peace that exists only when conflict has been quelled, but a peace that exists in the midst of conflict, the kind that existed in Jesus even when his actions actually resulted in greater conflict around him.

The key to this apparent contradiction, I think, is that Jesus seems to have always expected his followers to be a small minority. So the peace they experienced and demonstrated would certainly affect those around them, but it wouldn't determine the overall way society acted. They wouldn't make the world a peaceful place. (Only a place that now had a few more peaceful people in it.) More likely, as Jesus predicted, there would be more conflict because society would attack the new "outsiders" in its midst.

I can also see Jesus provoking, but I don't think his entry into Jerusalem was intended to provoke the authorities to arrest and kill him. Maybe he knew they would be offended and would choose that moment to act against him; but I don't think his triumphant entry was about the authorities. I think it was about declaring the truth clearly, while he still had the chance (since they already wanted to kill him). And I think it was for the people who waved palms and shouted hosanna and laid their coats before him. That the authorities would likely respond badly was a sad side note, but Jesus was not deterred by that. To make this action primarily about provoking them seems to greatly diminish the meaning of his prophetic act.

And I don't believe Jesus would intentionally provoke anyone to do evil. Do you? I can't say the same of some activists who seem to want to be thrown in jail, or score some damning video footage...

12.16.2010

the baby's here!

Hey Jude (the Beatles)

Hey Jude don't look so sad
Take a long cry and you'll feel better
Remember to let us into your heart
Then we can start to make it better

So let it out and let it in
Hey Jude begin
You're waiting for someone to perform for
And don't you know that it's just you
Hey Jude you'll do
The movement you needed is in your diaper

12.13.2010

"take one or two others along with you"

I came across the famous "Matthew 18" passage again this morning:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
And I started thinking this might be the best approach to take with most things in a Christian community, not just "when your brother sins against you."

I mean start small and from the bottom up. We don't have to wait until people in leadership positions decide to initiate everything, when we see what is needed we should respond as we can: individually first, then if we need more help, ask one or two others. And if it's something that a few can't handle and it needs everyone in on it, only then bring it before the group. So often I've seen ideas presented to leadership or in a meeting, and then watched them get bogged down when everyone feels they have to have their say on it. Or things not getting done because the group can't come to a consensus. When most of the time only a few people are really needed to accomplish the task, and someone could certainly find one or two people that could agree and take care of it.

That approach also has the feel of the Good Samaritan to it. Instead of avoiding problems (or problem people) because "it's not my job to handle that mess," we step in and act, even if it's just as an individual. I think that makes it easier for the Spirit, too. Just having to move one or two people in the right direction, instead of having to overcome the inertia of a large group.

And notice in Jesus' Mt 18 instructions, no leaders mentioned. A troublesome situation like that, and there's no directions for when the people in authority positions should step in and handle it. If it's that way for dealing with unrepentant community members, what's could possibly be so difficult that we would have to call a leader at all?

12.06.2010

I got a letter from Chico yesterday with some really nice artwork in it. Here's his idea of Heather and me appreciating our wood stove:



Chico's a bit of a tree hugger...

12.04.2010

I just found out our friends' baby boy could come any day now...

12.03.2010

the power of empire

Here's something from a conversation today. I was responding to this statement: "I would also like to argue that the power of people is [not] the power of empire. The power of empire is violence."


Is that really true? Your understanding seems to be a common one among those who struggle against empire nonviolently, but I think it misses the deeper truth. Yes, empire uses violence. But so does, say, a mugger. The mugger is not considered "empire," though, is he? The mugger is considered a "criminal" and is arrested and punished by empire, which uses violence to do it. So what's the difference between the mugger and empire? They both use the power of violence, but the violence of empire is considered (by society) right and good, while the violence of the mugger is considered wrong and is punished. Empire here seems to have more power than just violence, they have power to determine guilt, to define justice, to decide what is "good" and what is "evil."

Where does this (apparent) power of empire come from?

It comes from the support of the people. The power of every empire comes from the many, many people that support its laws, its rulers, its organization. People usually support governments because they want to use the power (and wealth) of large organizations of people. For example, Democrats and Republicans both want the power of empire so they can achieve their goals, so they all support the empire, though they fight against each other for control. But everyone thinks "united we are strong." Empire is the result of that uniting of human strength.

Jesus wasn't just against violence. He was also against the pride of people thinking "together we are strong." He saw that the power of humans gathering their united strength was a temptation to us, it corrupts us, it makes us feel like we can provide our own security and food and everything we need. It even makes us think we can define justice, what is "good" and what is "evil." It makes us think we don't need God. It makes us think we can be our own god. Just like with the tower of Babel, when human pride in their united strength tempted them to build a tower to heaven. So Jesus rejected that power of many organized people, the power of the crowd. He stayed small and few and weak and poor. All the power he demonstrated came from God, not the people.

I think we as his followers should do the same. Not try to muster the power of movements or cooperatives or denominations. Not try to use the media to get public opinion on our side. Reject the motto "together we are strong"; reject the call to "Organize!" All of these are simply smaller attempts to gather and utilize the very same power that empire uses: the power of the people.

Jesus, even when he was alone, wielded a power that made the power of all people seem like nothing, truly nothing. Jesus showed the power of God was even greater than death. With that power, we don't need any big organization to accomplish God's purposes, and we don't need to fear anything from governments or corporations or any other human group. We can experience the freedom and power that Jesus demonstrated, right now, right in the midst of empire.

But we have to reject the power of the people. And look to God alone to be our help, our protector, our source of food and shelter and every good thing.

11.30.2010

nonviolence and animals

From a conversation with a vegan friend...


I agree that animals are not sinners. I suppose that does make them superior often. In my understanding, it's part of being a free spiritual being that we can reject God's way and make ourselves "lower" than the other members of creation who always obey the good nature God gave them. I think this explains your correct observation that human beings often act much worse than other animals.

I'd like to follow this idea of the sinlessness of animals to then question what it means to be moral, loving, and merciful in our relation to other animals. Certainly, we don't generally see animals being cruel to other animals, but usually just killing for food or fighting in self defense. So, as you say, we shouldn't be cruel to animals either (our current cruelty, like we see in the meat industry, is a result of our human sinfulness and should be rejected). But doesn't the behavior of sinless animals raise the question of whether all violence against animals is necessarily wrong or unloving, i.e. against God's will?

I understand you differentiate between necessary killing for food and unnecessary killing, when we have other food options. But in my experience it seems that animals do sometimes kill other animals out of "preference" rather than just for nutritional necessity. For example, raccoons eat a variety of foods. But when they get a chance to kill a chicken, they take it (as one raccoon did quite regularly here recently). I see cats do the same with a mouse or bird, though they have cat food available. Do you think this is wrong? I'm just not sure animals would share your definition of morality and love, though I believe they faithfully obey God's will in their nature.

I wonder if your assumptions about nonviolence (or even mercy) towards animals comes from Jesus' teachings about how we should treat other human beings, which seems to me to have a different meaning and purpose than simply reducing physical suffering. Jesus' nonviolence seems to be directed more to the spiritual aspect of human beings. (It doesn't seem to make any sense from a biological perspective.) He wished to inspire a free and willing response from human beings that was not forced through violence or threats, motivated by love not fear. But this only makes sense in relation to free spiritual beings, sinners who need to change by their own free will.

That seems to me to suggest that we shouldn't try to apply the same teachings on nonviolence to other animals. And I don't see Jesus (or other parts of the biblical teaching) applying it that way. Do you?

11.26.2010



We looked up from our meal yesterday and there were two turkeys staring in the window...

11.25.2010

in thanksgiving

Jesus said, "Who are my mother and my brothers?"

And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother."

11.24.2010

for the love of the world

I wrote a letter to a friend recently about a book he recommended on the theology behind "earth care." I'm caring for it, I'm caring for it, I protested. Pretty much agreed with the author's concerns, though, that we have misused the natural world around us, and that sometimes Christian theology has been used to justify our misuse of the earth.

The one part I disagreed with was the author's attack on the traditional Christian "anthropocentrism," the belief that human beings are the center of (and purpose for) the created universe. I think that belief is basically true. It's hard not to see it in the creation story. And, perhaps more importantly, when God comes to earth as a human being he focuses all his time and energy on human beings. Jesus' life makes it pretty clear that man is God's central concern here. I understand that people have used an "it's all for our use" ideology to pillage nature. But I think the real problem is not the belief but the selfish and short-sighted misuse of it.

If God did create the earth (and the universe) for us, then we should respect it as God's gift, as important for our lives. Both as a means of survival and as a way God reveals himself to us. And we should also respect that it's given for all of us (including the many who come after us) and so we shouldn't hoard or destroy it as if it was our personal property to use as we wish. To care for the earth because we care for other people is to care for it rightly, in my opinion. It is motivated by love for our brothers and sisters, the love Jesus taught us.

That's perhaps the most important thing that seems to be missing from the environmental activism I've seen. An emphasis on love. There's lots of emphasis on the destruction being done, and the dire consequences, and usually a healthy appreciation of the beauty and rich complexity of the natural world. But to see all of nature as a gift from God to us, to see its vastness and complexity and generosity and understand that this was dreamed up for us, that's to get a glimpse of the wonder of God's love. Which should inspire us to respect the natural world. And share and preserve it as an act of love for one another.

11.17.2010

now what do I do with it?

I've been enjoying a long overdue visit with my parents, relaxing in sunny Florida. While fooling around I discovered how to make an animated gif image; here I used a recent Calvin comic strip. Pretty good, eh?


p.s. Here's something else I put together (with a little help). I know what to do with this one...

11.16.2010

being prophetic

A recent conversation reminded me of this journal entry from several years ago....


"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;
for I am meek and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls."


For some reason I thought about the prophets yesterday, maybe because the discussion group here talked about Hosea (or because we just watched Prince of Egypt, about Moses). It's very desirable to be called "prophetic" these days. This usually means that, like the prophets, this person or group courageously speaks out against an oppressor, telling them they are doing wrong and that they should repent and act justly. This image is especially popular among activist Christians. But is this all it means to be prophetic?

In modern times, at least among more mainline groups, the "prophesy" part of being prophetic is downplayed or ignored completely. It's seen as "fortune-telling." But I think there is something important in this aspect of the prophetic witness. The prophets did not simply denounce the oppressors' deeds as unfair or evil, they announced God's judgment. They proclaimed that, if the wrongdoing did not stop, calamity would fall on the oppressor from God's mighty hand, which would come to rescue his afflicted people. This is not just telling the future. This is announcing God's will, what God would do. And the difference between a false prophet and a true one was whether this announcement actually came to pass. Did the prophet speak for God or not?

My point is that the prophet was not the one who made things happen, brought about the change for the better—it was God. The prophet simply announced what God would do and God did it.

Modern day prophetic types seem to ignore this aspect. They tend to denounce injustice, then immediately set about trying to fix it themselves. They muster resources and kick off labor strikes and letter writing campaigns, try to elect their political candidate or get their bill passed. A big popular following (usually through heavy use of the media) is seen as the way to victory. They wouldn't presume to say what God is going to do, but they can predict what their strength-in-numbers might be able to accomplish. And hard work. There's always more that can be done for the cause, and the heroes are the ones who work the hardest.

But Jesus wasn't like this. He was prophetic in the fullest sense. He did denounce injustice, but he didn't attempt to fix it himself: he announced what God was doing about it and what he would do in the future. Jesus did not set about the hard work of "building the kingdom of God." He announced that the time was fulfilled, the kingdom of God had arrived for those who embraced it, and that in the future God himself would wipe away everything that was not part of his kingdom. The kingdom of God was God's perfect work, and God's gift to us.

Even in the healings that seemed to be so much of Jesus' initial work on earth, we see not Jesus' labor but God's act. The demons were not cast out by Jesus' professional counseling. The diseases were not healed through Jesus' medical expertise or the work of many hospital employees. Jesus simply spoke the word and God worked. Jesus prophetically announced what God would do for those who had faith.

This is not "hard work" as we know it (and praise it so highly). It is humble work. It is merely being God's instrument. It requires meekness and lowliness of heart, and it offers rest for our souls. Not the burdens of responsibility, the weight of "making it happen" ourselves, but the rest of knowing that this is God's work and God has the power and will to bring it to completion.

11.15.2010

11.14.2010

"take no offense at me"

In a conversation on responding to the injustice and violence perpetuated by governments, someone asked, "What do you think the best methods are to confront that fundamental problem? And how do those methods look like what Jesus did?"

I think these are really the same question, since the best way to respond is the way Jesus responded. Jesus lived under the occupation of the Roman empire, which pursued war and perpetrated atrocities much like we see today. Jesus certainly was against such things. But he seems not to have protested much against them. Rather he pursued a radically different kind of life, showing people that they could find provision and security from God rather than from the violent powers of empire.

I think one of Jesus' most direct responses to the injustices of empire came when John the baptist was (unjustly) imprisoned for speaking a hard truth to the king. Jesus certainly cared about this. But he seemed not to protest or call for a public uprising against this injustice.

In Matthew 11, we hear of John sending a message to Jesus from prison:

When John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"
Supposedly John knew who Jesus was. He seemed to know when he baptized Jesus, anyway. But now he asks again. I suspect that John might have been wondering, if Jesus was the promised messiah, why he wasn't leading the people to freedom. Or why he wasn't getting John out of prison; after all, Isaiah said of the messiah would "proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound" (Is 61.1). Interestingly, Jesus responds to John by referring to that very passage (as he also did in Lk 4.18):
Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.

"And blessed is he who takes no offense at me."

Why does Jesus add that line about not being offended at him? Maybe because, in the face of such deadly injustice, Jesus' response could be offensive to people. People who wanted to see more. I could certainly understand if John was disappointed to get that message.

Jesus' response to war and slaughters and the imprisonment (and execution) of prophets was not protest or organizing a public outcry. Instead, as he told John, he healed people and preached good news to the poor. Pathetic, huh? I can see why people might get upset about that response, especially from a so-called "messiah."

So Jesus adds, "Blessed is he who takes no offense at me."

If we can follow Jesus example in this, if we're not offended by it ourselves and if we're willing to face other people's indignation if we respond like Jesus did, then we will offer the best response to the problem. And then there's the "blessedness" Jesus promised, too...

11.11.2010

for veterans day

Every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
"Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Isaiah 9.5-6

11.07.2010

"so little voice"

In a recent discussion about protesting at churches, one woman said, "I'm just not sure if a desperation to be heard justifies such an action." Good insight. I replied:
I understand that it is difficult to have "so little voice," but isn't that the right place to be as followers of Jesus? And [someone else] keeps talking about not being "given a microphone," but is that really what we need? Did Jesus need a microphone?

I think you're right that desperation to be heard is not the best motivation, yet I think that's behind a lot of "radical" action, and contributes to the ways those actions are often disrespectful, angry, and unloving. We're frustrated and upset, so we resort to less-than-loving methods so our voice can at least be heard.

I've done this also at times, and even recently thought about protesting at my own church. I was quite upset over the use of "church discipline" that pressured one family to the point where they left the intentional community (with pretty limited ability to support themselves). I didn't think the family was innocent, I just didn't think they should have been pressured to the breaking point. As the situation was developing, I spoke out in public. I said it would be harmful for the whole community. I pleaded with the leaders who were pushing the issue, and suggested an alternative. I used my "voice" as adult Sunday school teacher to argue that Jesus never told us to use social pressure to discipline in that way, that the more mature among us should accept wrongs from the "weaker brother" rather than punish them socially or economically. People got angry.

But in the arguments I realized that my voice as the teacher was a form of power over the others that some of them resented. It wasn't just the truth upsetting them, but that I was "forcing" them to listen to it. So I gave up my position as teacher (and occasional worship leader). I had much less voice, but that made me trust more that if it really was the truth then God would back it up and make that truth known. I could have no voice myself because God's voice was the only one that mattered. And no one could silence that voice. Everyone would have to listen eventually.

Jesus didn't need a microphone for the same reason. Matthew quotes Isaiah in describing Jesus: "He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will any one hear his voice in the streets..." (Mt 12.19) He didn't need a microphone because it was never in question whether justice would come. God would bring justice. Jesus could speak with a small voice and without desperation because he had faith that God would back up his words with all the power of the Almighty.

11.03.2010

no right to complain

I've been hearing a whole lot of complaining about politicians recently, and it's getting louder. Here's George Carlin's response: "No right to complain"

For a little fuller treatment of the topic of voting, there's this journal entry I wrote years ago.

11.01.2010

for all saints day

10.31.2010

"yeast leavens a whole loaf"?

In a recent Jesus Radicals discussion, someone replied to me saying,
Doesn't Jesus' teachings on the Kingdom of God describe something that starts small and becomes pervasive and systematic? Yeast leavens a whole loaf. Seed that populates a field of fertile soil. Financial investments that make returns. A crop that grows and gets harvested. Do we do a disservice to the concreteness of the Kingdom if we, a priori, reject the possibility of pervasive and systematic manifestations?

... I find [the author's] desire for reconciliation between powerful and powerless to be spot on. The Lion shall lay down with the Lamb.

I replied:
You seem to be drawing quite broad conclusions from what looks like a rather cursory reading of those parables. Yes, yeast spreads through the whole loaf, but that doesn't mean the whole loaf is yeast. The yeast (like the kingdom) remains a small portion, just distributed throughout. Yes, the seed (of the sower) brings a generous return, but only a fraction of the seed fell on fertile soil, while much of the seed fell on rocks, or was eaten by birds, or was choked by weeds. Again, the kingdom is amazing where it exists, but it still remains a fraction (or minority) amidst the world.

And this understanding fits with the other things Jesus said, that those who find the way of life are few, and about his followers being persecuted (which doesn't happen when they are the majority, in power, controlling the social systems). It also fits with Jesus' example of avoiding the powers of the crowds and the systems of control. Yes, his kingdom is real and concrete, as Jesus was. And it's also small and vulnerable, as Jesus was.

"The lion shall lay with the lamb" is of course escatalogical prophecy (Is 11). Many other escatological promises speak of the rich and powerful being brought down and judged, not somehow reconciled. And then it is to be fulfilled by God, not by our own systemic manipulations, shifting the power we can muster over to God's service.

When we think we're achieving "pervasive and systematic manifestations" of the kingdom of God (perhaps also West's "massive examples"), those successes are more likely failures, our efforts being assimilated for purposes quite far from Christ's. As Jacques Ellul put it:
...These successes, this efficacy as it would be called from man's standpoint, and especially in our own society, will never amount to anything more than the approval given by the world, by society, to certain acts and means. It is the stamp of a group of men, a social body. But if we do not believe that society is good and right, this approval proves nothing except that the action is in conformity with the world. It does not mean that the world has changed; quite the contrary. Each time the people of God becomes effective according to the world's criteria, this only implies that society has absorbed our action and is using it for its own ends and for its own profit. ...The efficacy we think we have is simply a power in the world's service, for the perfecting of its own being, for its better organization....

I think church history has supported his interpretation of this process...

10.26.2010

it's in





It's been a busy week, but we worked together all day yesterday and managed to get the wood stove installed before the first freeze (and before Jason and Julissa arrive for a visit). The natural slate tiles were Heather's idea. Lots of work, but we're both very happy about how well it turned out.

Now I need to go find some dry wood to try it out...

10.17.2010

at the altar

We were supposed to have a retreat this weekend, but something happened. Our guests never arrived at the train station. We're still trying to figure out what went wrong on their end, since we've heard nothing so far. It was a pretty big disappointment, but I guess that just shows how much we were looking forward to having them here. And I imagine we'll get another chance.

So yesterday we served some of the food we prepared for the retreat to our friend Jacob Mau, who was here on his own retreat for the weekend. He was a farm intern this past summer. He's also an excellent songwriter, and gave us a intimate campfire concert last night. Here's one of the songs he wrote (and there's more on his myspace page): "At The Altar"

10.15.2010

I almost sent this to my dad for his birthday, since it's election season...

10.11.2010

"trying to chip away at the tower of Babel"

From yesterday's online conversation on "the grid" and our technological society...


I agree about living as exiles and aliens. I like the tower of Babel imagery, too. Maybe my resistance here is that I think you have misidentified the problem. It isn't the grid or technology, though those do reflect it, to some extent. God didn't tear down the tower of Babel as I recall. The tower (technological marvel that it was) wasn't the problem. The problem was the people, their pride in their collective might, so God scattered them.

Even if we can get out of technological society (and most of us can't, maybe none of us can completely) the pride of collective might and the domination that follows it still remain in the people. That's where the problem lies, in us, not in the technology. So I see the attack on technological society as somewhat misguided. Trying to chip away at the tower of Babel, when it's the people, the builders, who are the problem.

I also think the focus on the personal is important because our hearts can be changed even when the grid around us doesn't change. And God can allow us to benefit from the good that is available in our technological society, and not be enslaved by the evil. Our life can be good, not just when society is arranged well, not just when we're finally off the grid, but when God shows us how to live with freedom in our society. As Jesus did in his society.


...I do agree that there are dangers (along with benefits) and it's worthwhile to weigh these and we may choose not to use certain technologies for a variety of reasons. I also agree children are especially susceptible to the temptations and pressure, so special care should be taken.

And I agree with what you said earlier about evil being the absence of good. That's part of why I can't dismiss the grid or other technologies as utterly evil. There is some real existence there, some conforming to the laws of nature that makes electricity "work" and metals and other materials serve so well for certain useful purposes. Thus I see some good in these things, or at least potential good if they are used well. You're right that it's important to weigh the cost, and often we haven't done that well. But there are real benefits to be weighed as part of the equation and it doesn't serve your argument to dismiss them.

I also believe that every "thing" that God allows to have real existence in the world has at least some potential for good. So we should honor that and try to understand why God would allow it and then be open to the good it may offer. Certainly, there are some things like nuclear weapons that seem to have no potential good except to reflect back on us the evil in our own hearts and show us the devastation that results when we ignore conscience and the needs of other human beings. Maybe you see the grid and most technology in this way. But that's pretty hard to swallow, given that many of us have experienced some goods from a variety of these technologies and are grateful (perhaps even awed) that God has allowed them to have existence.

Again, that doesn't mean we should accept every new technology or use it without care or thought for the costs. It's just that there are many technological goods available to us that need not be completely rejected, and many of them can be used well with the freedom that God offers, and even received as a gift from God. Even acknowledging the pressures and perhaps unholy intentions of the designers, God can help us find the good there and benefit from it. I think that's part of God's gift of the good life in the midst of an oppressive society.

For example, the much-reviled ipod. I received one. I didn't buy it, wouldn't have bought one, can't afford one. But my brother had an old one and sent it to me. I figured out how to use it with free open source software, and downloaded free songs. So now I can enjoy some music when I couldn't before. There was a time many years ago when I gave away my music player and CDs, which was a good choice then, and I went for years without the option of playing music besides the little flute I have. That was fine. But to receive back the ability to listen to lots of music that I really enjoy has been a real gift, and I've seen it as one of the many signs of God's generosity and power to use anything (even technological society) to give good things to those who look to him for our needs.

And I still play my flute, as I did while worshiping outside by the creek yesterday. And I'm probably not using the ipod as Apple hoped I would. But it's an impressive little thing. And I'm grateful for the enjoyment God has given me through it.

10.09.2010

a house warming gift

It's starting to feel like fall. We had a light frost last weekend and now the leaves are quickly turning color. And falling; I was just out raking them, starting to get ready for the retreat we are hosting next weekend.

I also just asked permission to install a wood stove in our place, to make this winter a little warmer than the last few. The stove is free, one of the few things that survived the terrible house fire here this past spring. We'll need to clean off the rust (it got a little wet in the firefighting) and paint it. And then build a stove pipe chimney. But it looks like it could be in place before the cold weather hits, which would be quite a welcome gift. It would also make our place cozier for guests.

The retreat next weekend will be the fourth we've done this year, for groups from four different ministries. That spreading interest is a real encouragement. Maybe the wood stove would make is possible for us to have groups come in the winter as well.

10.05.2010

10.03.2010

just the words we need to hear

A thought this morning from the continuing hospitality discussion on Jesus Radicals...

I think that "radical" hospitality (and other good deeds) that are motivated by passages like the sheep and goats parable of Mt 25 can often be done more for ourselves than for the ones we're serving. Trying to "see Jesus" or "encounter Christ" in our care for the poor. Looking for a fuller experience for ourselves or a deepening of our own spiritual lives. Which is perhaps not the best motivation for loving others, is it?

But we often do encounter Christ in the experience, just not like we expected. It's often not so much Jesus saying to us "Well done, good and faithful servant" as what he said more often with his disciples, "O ye of little faith!" These, though, may be just the words we need to hear. So the experience is what God wanted for us after all.

Part of the learning, at least for me, is that serving others (especially the most vulnerable) shouldn't be about my own encounter with Christ. It should be about loving my neighbor, about their needs, not mine. That's part of why I resist an emphasis on Mt 25 in this context (I notice that in Mt 25 the righteous do not know that it is Jesus that they are serving; see Mt 25.37-39). When their needs are my focus, then there's no value in sentimentalizing them, or pretending they are mystically more holy than they really are. It's just about seeing their real needs and responding the best we can. Like the good Samaritan did. Seeing them not as some "blessed" category (because they are poor or afflicted) but just as human beings who have needs and failings and brokenness like any other. Who need Jesus' healing just as we do. And sometimes Jesus' rebuke, just as we do.

Then I think we're much closer to experiencing Jesus present, not just "to" us, but in us and through us.

9.28.2010

christ on the hillside

A conversation on the (new!) Jesus Radicals site has me thinking about my experiences at the Catholic Worker. Some hard days there. I referenced a journal entry from that time, trying to caution people about the challenges, and it reminded me of my hopes then "that there is a 'blessed' life that we are called to that is blessed in reality and not just in imagination." The vision of "Christ in the Breadlines" wasn't working for me any more.

Jesus described the life of the kingdom of God as "blessed." And when we look at the life he and his disciples lived, we can see that blessedness. It's not a life mired in the dirt and degradation and violence of the "Christ in the Breadlines" ideal, as far as I can tell. During my Catholic Worker days, I felt myself being drawn more and more to the vision of Jesus on some hillside, like when he preached the sermon on the mount, with people coming out to see and be healed by him. Jesus' kingdom life drawing people out of the mire of their lives. His invitation inspiring them to long for and eventually receive the good life that Jesus himself lived. My "Christ on the Hillside" vision. Still a poor, vulnerable Jesus, but living the blessed life of the kingdom.

And, since then, Heather and I have been shown something of how that might be experienced now. We've been led to a hillside of sorts, from which to invite the poor out of the pressures and violence of the city. And we're still able to live a life of voluntary poverty, but a beautiful poverty. A life of the kingdom that is "blessed" not only in a spiritual sense but also materially and relationally, because "your Father knows your needs." I hope that can be a witness and encouragement to others who see it.

In any case, it's been a great encouragement to me. I'm very thankful.

9.26.2010

out in it



This is from a stretch of road I often walk. The setting sun made the grass glow.

9.23.2010

first day of autumn

9.20.2010

stop trying to to make our organizations better

I think I was interested again in the value of "weak ties" because of my current stepping outside the circle of the community here. Visiting other churches, which I think will be my continual practice now. And also involvement with other communities because of the retreats we offer, and increased interactions through web communities like Jesus Manifesto and Jesus Radicals. Trying to think of the value of these "weak ties" for community life.

And moves like these might be helpful, in bringing in new ideas and resources to communities that have gotten a little ingrown. But the more I've thought about it, the more I appreciate the way communities that build strong ties also tend to get ingrown, inwardly focused, often to the point of collapsing in on themselves. Maybe this is how it should be, how God wants it. To help us see that these communities are human constructions and not the one Community we long for, that they eventually collapse like anything we build, that they are not worthy of our trust or allegiance. Only the Body of Christ doesn't have the obvious weaknesses of both strong and weak tie communities.

I've got to get out of the mode of thinking how to make our human organizations better and devote more energy to simply living the life of the Body. It's not an organization that we design or maintain or improve. It's the living community that we can only join or reject (in all the various aspects of its life); it's already here and it can never collapse. And we can't improve it, only because it's already the one true community that we all long for.

9.19.2010

after the rain



Someone gave us peace roses for our wedding, and they're doing great this year.

9.18.2010

"who are my brothers?"

Continuing a series from several years ago, on "weak" and "strong" ties in community...


I came across this passage in my reading this morning:
While Jesus was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But to the man who told him he replied, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?"

And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother." (Mt 12.46-50)
I linked to Mark's version of these words a couple days ago, writing about relationships beyond our close circles of "strong ties," and how that made me think of the way Jesus talked about the kingdom of God community. How it went beyond (and superseded) even the strongest family ties.

I've been thinking more about that. There are the weaknesses of "strong tie" communities that I wrote about yesterday; the kingdom of God community doesn't share these weaknesses. But there are also obvious strengths in strong ties. In the paper I referred to yesterday, Mark Granovetter wrote:
Weak ties provide people with access to information and resources beyond those available in their own social circle; but strong ties [provide] greater motivation to be of assistance and are typically more easily available.
I would expect the kingdom of God community to have the strengths of both strong and weak ties, without the weaknesses of either.

Again and again over the past few years, I've argued that our usual model of the close, well-defined, institutional community (whether political, familial, or religious) does not fit Jesus' description of the kingdom of God. Especially in the way these groups find their unity in something that necessarily separates them from others, thus inevitably forming many distinct "bodies" instead of the one Body of Christ, the one kingdom of God.

My best experiences of the kingdom of God have led to an understanding of a single, God-given, God-directed community (very different from, though not physically set apart from the many divided, humanly-instituted, humanly-ruled groups)—a complex interweaving of relationships that is not limited by physical boundaries or institutional membership. This offers the strengths of "weak ties," and is available to us anywhere (not just in one family or neighborhood).

But what about the greatest strength of strong ties, "greater motivation to be of assistance"? Jesus' community offers this also, but it is somewhat different from the motivation seen in most strong tie relationships. It is still the motivation of love, but it is not based on shared blood or shared location or shared history. It is based on a connection that we may not recognize until we encounter one another, the connection in the deepest part of our being—to the one God. "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother."

I've had the opportunity to experience this in very real ways, on my walks all over the country. People who I never met before embracing me and caring for me as an intimate friend (as is also seen in Jesus' life and ministry, and Paul's). So I know it's not just wishful thinking. It's the truth.

9.17.2010

weaknesses of strong ties

Continuing a series from several years ago, on "weak" and "strong" ties in community...


I've been doing a little more thinking and research on the value of "weak ties." And found another paper by Mark Granovetter (written about ten years after "The Strength of Weak Ties"). In it, he brings in the work of a couple other sociologists, who expanded on his ideas.

Rose Coser observed that being deeply enmeshed in close-knit communities (made up mostly of strong ties) can limit our ability to understand and communicate to others outside our group. "In a Gemeinschaft [close-knit community] everyone knows fairly well why people behave in a certain way. Little effort has to be made to gauge the intention of the other person." Therefore these more complex interpersonal skills are not developed. Further, when our interaction with people quite different from us is limited, it also limits our understanding of ourselves. Being drawn out into "weak tie" relationships helps us see ourselves in relationship with the wider outside world, and forces us to explain ourselves (and our beliefs) to people who do not share our background or assumptions about the world. It also helps us understand that what happens to us is influenced by forces far beyond our local community. Coser saw this as especially important to people of lower socio-economic backgrounds, who tend to live in close (and very disadvantaged) communities and have great difficulty moving beyond them.

Carol Stack studied a black, urban American, midwestern ghetto, and Larissa Lomnitz a shantytown on the fringes of Mexico City. They found very close, strong ties within these communities, driven especially by the economic necessity of sharing and the feeling of security provided by a close group. But the strength of the ties in these areas also tended to fragment the people into small groups, making any collective action very difficult. It also made it more difficult for individuals to adapt to the world beyond their groups, or understand the social and economic forces that were contributing to their condition, thus (in another way) perpetuating the poverty that helped form these close groups.

In this paper, Granovetter made a point of saying that strong ties are not to be dismissed, that they very important in our lives. But it is also important to see their limitations. This is a good reminder at a time when "community building" is becoming more and more emphasized (and especially within communal settings like the one I live in).

9.16.2010

the strength of "weak" ties

Thinking recently about mingling with other church communities, I remembered some journal entries from years ago about "strong and weak ties." So I took a look back. Maybe they're worth seeing again now; there's a series of three of them:



Yesterday I overheard a radio show that mentioned a very influential work by sociologist Mark Granovetter, "The Strength of Weak Ties" (available here, in pdf). The title intrigued me, so I looked it up.

And discovered something very interesting. Granovetter found that "weak ties" (acquaintances, as opposed to the "strong ties" of family and close friends) play a crucial part in both the lives of individuals and in the health of social groups. Our weak ties tend to be with people who are somewhat different from us, and who usually circulate with people we don't know. So they are better able to expose us to new ideas and new opportunities. Groups formed mostly of strong ties tend to think alike and pass the same information around and draw on the same resources. They are usually trustworthy and familiar, but are limited in their ability to produce innovations or prepare us to move beyond the ideas or resources of that particular group. Our weak ties with people are much better at helping us branch out.

Granovetter also observed that "strong ties, breeding local cohesion, lead to overall fragmentation." Meaning that groups that pull closely together usually do so in a way that cuts them off from others outside the group. (I've observed this myself, in my experience with intentional communities.) It's our weak ties, with those outside our close-knit groups, that serve as bridges connecting us with the wider community. And these outside connections can also help keep our groups from becoming isolated and ingrown.

I'm not sure what the implications of this are, but it seems important. Jesus strongly emphasized connections beyond our limited families and social cliques, presenting the "kingdom of God" as the one, true community. These connections are usually dismissed as weak or theoretical (or "mystical") by most people, including Christians. Even so, they may be much more important than we think.

And, from the way Jesus talked about our "kingdom of God" ties, they probably can be a lot stronger than we think, too...

9.13.2010

9.10.2010

"the fool's going to get himself killed"

Heather wrote a story for the retreat this weekend, to go with the passage about the criminals executed with Jesus. She imagines them as freedom fighters (or terrorists, depending on your perspective). Here's one of them, the good one, with his initial impression of Jesus:

There's another man who's going to be crucified today. Name of Jesus, from some village called Nazareth up north. He came into Jerusalem the same time we did—for the same thing, I thought. All the children were running up and down the road waving palm branches and singing, and the men were throwing their coats down in the dust for his mule to walk on. I looked at him and thought, he got a procession but he couldn't even get a horse. The fool's going to get himself killed. All those people shouting and singing about him, shouting that he was the Son of David, the Messiah—the one we pray for every day, the one who'll free us all—but I looked at his followers, and they were nothing. Oh, there were lots of them right enough, but only a handful of men who'd be any good in a fight. They were just like my village people back home—those skinny children, those men worn out with work. Those patient faces—I can hardly bear to look at them sometimes. They're like sheep being led into the slaughterhouse. Just looking at you. And with these people he thought he could take Jerusalem?

Yeah, I thought. The Romans are going to nail that guy. Too bad. And I turned away and followed Jacob.

9.07.2010

yielding rather than struggling


Yesterday I was practicing some Tai Chi again. I haven't done it in a long while. The routine I learned is demonstrated in this video (much, much better than I can do it).

Tai Chi is influenced by Taoism, which emphasizes calmness, balance, yielding (rather than struggling), humility. Years ago I read the Tao Te Ching and memorized this passage:

The best of man is like water,
Which benefits all things, and does not contend with them,
Which flows in places that others disdain,
Where it is in harmony with the Way.

9.05.2010

"save yourself!"

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with Jesus. And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." And they cast lots to divide his garments.

And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"

...And one of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (Lk 23.32-39)

I think we'll use this passage for our retreat next weekend (including the part where Jesus tells the other criminal, "Today you will be with me in paradise"). Looking it over yesterday I noticed the repeated taunt, "Save yourself!" That seems important.

Isn't that the temptation for Jesus on the cross? And isn't that the human measure of a worthy king, or a great man? "Save yourself and us!"

Much of my criticism of Christian community has also been that we prefer to save ourselves, and attempt to use the gathered power and wealth of a group to do that. Or use the techniques that seemed to save other communities in the past. Even when hard circumstances demonstrate how truly helpless we are, as soon as things settle down a bit we quickly move to establish control again. To maintain the illusion that through our structures and cooperation we can save ourselves from future calamities. We feel secure in that illusion.

"Father forgive them; for they know not what they do." The rulers actually thought that they were saving themselves (and their community) by getting rid of Jesus. This drive for self-salvation, this pride, works directly against God's purposes.

Jesus offended the rulers, the crowd, the soldiers, and even one of the criminals, by not saving himself. Instead, he trusted God to save him. And God did.

In their attempts to save themselves, however, the rulers and crowds and soldiers were not so successful.

9.01.2010

"there's a lifting"

I should write something thoughtful about the retreat, but we had a belated birthday celebration for Heather Monday and canned pears (poached in red wine) yesterday and now I'm off to deliver vegetables to the city.

One thing the group really liked was music from the Reba Praise album, recorded by the Reba Place music group (led by Heather's aunt). We always begin retreats with one song from that album, sung by Ken Stewart. He grew up here on the farm and also sang at our wedding. It's called "There's a lifting"

8.30.2010



We slept in this morning, after an intense and fun and satisfying retreat weekend...

8.24.2010

peaches


We had peach juice running down our arms yesterday as we got our bushel and a half ready for freezing (and didn't muzzle the ox, of course).

Not quite as exciting as these guys' peach experience, though. No ninjas.

8.22.2010

a question mark in church

I haven't been attending church here in the community for a while now. That's bothered me. I've thought of it as temporary, thinking that changes had to come soon, that the community situation was not sustainable. But it has dragged on. And, more importantly, some conversations with people lead me to believe that the changes that will come will almost certainly not be what I've hoped for. The people involved will change, but the establishment of human authority and the use of (or at least threat of) coercion will continue. And that power will continue to wound some people and corrupt others. And the church will continue to grant spiritual legitimacy and assurance to the community in this rather than challenging it.

As hard as that was to actually accept, I find myself now strangely reassured by that realization. Because it's not just this place, this church, at this moment. They're not fundamentally different from others in these things. It's this way everywhere, and has been forever; Jesus saw the same thing. And he told his followers to expect it (especially in the religious communities), sending them out as sheep amidst wolves, and he didn't tell them they were going to change it. "The world," Jesus called it, because it's universal.

So I don't need to be waiting impatiently to see what will happen. Or hover in indecision because the others have not made their decision. I just need to take my place in relation to the world like Jesus demonstrated, a place on the margins, a place with the poor and weak, a place in tension with those in power, a question mark placed within the world.

I think I've been moving in the right direction here for a while, towards the margins, towards simple service and away from governance and positions of control. But I've felt conflicted about not attending the church lately. And when I think of the other options, other churches around here, I don't see them as much better in the areas that troubled me so much in this church. What to do? I don't want to reject them all, but neither do I want to affirm them wholeheartedly. Did Jesus show the way to respond to this situation, to the various religious establishments that certainly include many of God's people, but are also human organizations rebellious against God?

My most satisfying church experiences may have been when I was on the road, visiting different churches regularly. A perpetual visitor. And now that I think of it, that seems like what Jesus was, a perpetual visitor in the synagogues of his time. He didn't reject them, though he did challenge their ways (and got thrown out of at least one for telling of God's displeasure with them), but Jesus insisted that the most important thing was not where we worship but that we worship in spirit and truth. (Jn 4.19-24) He also compared that Spirit of truth to the wind that blows where it wills—not where people want it to. I'm thinking that I'd like to try to be a perpetual visitor, in several churches near here. Ready to worship with all of them, standing with God's people in all of them, but also a question mark, holding back from fully identifying with that institutional group. Because the organization is not the Spirit, and that's obvious in so many ways.

I find myself feeling much more satisfied with that as a long term response, even if I do eventually join worship here in the community again (every once in a while). It brings back thoughts on church membership from years ago: "I am a brother to all who are also part of Christ. I will recognize them, not by their official affiliation, but by their Christlike lives."

8.21.2010

"a question put within the world"

I got to visit Chico and Tatiana this past week, on my trip to Michigan to pick up peaches, apples, and pears (two tons of them!) for people around here. Good conversations with them. At one point I tried to remember this passage from Jacques Ellul's The Politics of God and the Politics of Man and did my best to paraphrase it. I'll have to send them the original (the italics are mine):

The action we attempt will always be regarded by the world as a failure, and the more so the more it is authentically faithful. We cannot be successful or show the church to be effective in the world unless we adopt the world's criterion of efficacy, which means adopting its means as well.

As the world sees it, action which is faithful to God will always fail, just as Jesus Christ necessarily went to the cross. Such action always leads to a dead end. It is always a fiasco from the standpoint of worldly power. But this should not worry us. It does not mean that our action is in truth ineffectual. Efficacy measured in terms of faithfulness cannot be compared at any point with efficacy measured in terms of success.

...These successes, this efficacy as it would be called from man's standpoint, and especially in our own society, will never amount to anything more than the approval given by the world, by society, to certain acts and means. It is the stamp of a group of men, a social body. But if we do not believe that society is good and right, this approval proves nothing except that the action is in conformity with the world. It does not mean that the world has changed; quite the contrary. Each time the people of God becomes effective according to the world's criteria, this only implies that society has absorbed our action and is using it for its own ends and for its own profit. ...The efficacy we think we have is simply a power in the world's service, for the perfecting of its own being, for its better organization....

There can be no question of securing the approval of the world or its conformity to us. ...We have simply to be, and we can only be a question put within the world, a question invincibly confronting it. This is our efficacy. It is the efficacy of the question, a question which society and sociological movements cannot assimilate. Israel and the church have never been efficacious except to the degree that the world has been unable to assimilate them. This is the vocation of the people of God incomparably more authentic than "service" or "works."

It is not at the level of works and their results that this efficacy may be seen; it is at the level of inassimilability.

8.20.2010

8.18.2010

empowered by God

Some practical implications from the thoughts on Jesus' authority in the last entry (in a series from two years ago)...


It seems to me that voting someone into office directly reflects the understanding that the power and authority of a leader derives from the strength of the people. In our church meeting, someone even said that: "The elders have authority because we have chosen them." This is the basis of every human authority and power (it's a little different if the leader is appointed by someone in a higher office, but even then the whole authority structure depends on the people accepting it, participating in it, submitting to it—if they don't, there's no power there). Jesus was not chosen, not "empowered," in this way. Neither was Paul. And the earliest church didn't have an official authority structure by which leaders were chosen and their leadership enforced. Paul had to keep writing and preaching and offering his strong example to keep the Christians in the various churches following his teaching; and it's clear from some of his letters that not everyone saw his word as authoritative. But, like Jesus, he didn't have an office to appeal to, he just had to keep speaking the truth to them. With both of them, it was always clear that God (not some group of people) had chosen and empowered them.

Because of the reality of God empowering those he chooses to lead his people, there doesn't seem to be the need for granting them any human authority or backing up their decisions with human force. As I said before, Jesus led without these. And he taught his disciples not to rule over each other, that they had one Father and they were all brothers and sisters. When someone has been given special abilities or wisdom from God, we naturally follow them as "authorities" because we see they have what is good, what is from God. There is no need of human force to make us obey. If we choose not to obey, then our efforts flounder or fail and we suffer the consequences of our foolishness. God backs up the authority of those who he has chosen.

So, in the church at least, it seems to me that we should set aside human authority, offices of power, and the enforcement of leadership decisions through force or threats of force (social ostracism being also a form of force, by cutting people off from the support they need to survive). Set aside the human power that causes resentments and dissension, and tempts leaders to abuses. From situation to situation, let each one lead according to their gifts and abilities from God. Seek out those gifts in ourselves in others, because we need them as a church.

One of the main areas that leaders are often called into, and sometimes feel the need to exercise the authority to resolve, is the settling of disputes between arguing members. This is not easy. But Jesus gave specific practical advice about how to handle such situations (in Mt 18), and no "elder" or other human authority appears in his instructions. Our church here is already committed to following those instructions in resolving conflicts. I'd like to see us do this better.

Of course this kind of decentralized leadership requires a lot more of each member of the church. But aren't we called to live this way, to be strikingly different from the world, to stand out like lights? I believe we would also experience greater unity and sense of being all brothers and sisters, each of us empowered by the Father of us all.



I probably should add a disclaimer, though. I'm not at all sure that the authority and leadership style of Jesus can be applied well when we start involving property. With many groups (including churches and Christian communal organizations), decisions about the use of property are the most problematic and divisive, and human authority is often appealed to. I'm not sure Jesus gives us good advice about this problem. Because he did not face it. He counseled his followers to give away all and not gather up treasures and not resist those who would beg or steal from them. But if we don't follow Jesus' counsel in regarding the gathering and holding of property, I think we probably won't be able to follow Jesus' counsel very well in our attempts to manage our property and resolve conflicts over it. All of Jesus' teaching holds together. We cannot just follow part of it.

8.17.2010

authority not from people

Continuing the thoughts from yesterday, in a series of entries from two years ago...


I find two important aspects of Jesus' authority that differ from the positions of authority we create in human organizations. It differs primarily in that Jesus' authority is from God and not from groups of people.

First, Jesus is not granted authority by the vote of people in an organization or by officials of that group. He operated outside the social authority structures of his time. So people are surprised when he demonstrates authority in teaching and in acts of power (like healing) and in forgiveness of sins, because he had not been granted that authority by his society. Hence the elders' question, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Yet Jesus certainly spoke and acted with authority, and people recognized that. They just didn't know where it came from.

Second, Jesus' authority was not enforced by human power, by threats of punishment, for example. There was no question of being thrown in jail if people didn't obey his word. No one was in danger of being kicked out of the organization or ostracized socially if they rejected his teaching. Anyone was free at any time to obey his commands and follow his example or turn away and dismiss him. No social pressure threatened those who rejected his authority. (Actually, the social pressure soon turned harshly against those who accepted his authority.) When people followed or obeyed Jesus, it was because they believed he spoke the truth. They recognized that he was simply telling them what was truly real, and that to reject him was to reject reality, to reject God. God backed up Jesus' words—no human enforcement was required.

One way I've seen authority like this exist in everyday life, is when we follow the example or advice of someone because we recognize that person is especially gifted or skilled. We follow not because that person holds some office, but because the person is good, because they know what they are talking about. No election is needed and no enforcement of their commands is necessary. We obey because we see that they know the best way to act in their area of expertise.

But of course this means we follow different leadership according to the task at hand. Such leadership shifts from one situation to the next, depending on who is gifted to respond to the challenge we face at the moment. But isn't that how Jesus taught us to be, all of us brothers and sisters under one Teacher, one Father?

More later...

8.16.2010

by what authority?

The church here has restarted the process of selecting elders. That prompted me to look back and I found some good journal entries from more than two years ago, when the church was in about the same place in the process as it is now. It was helpful for me to reread these. I don't think I can say this any better now, so I'll just post that series of entries again...


We've started a process in our church to select a new elder; there's only one now and it is preferred to have two or three. There is no pastor in the church (I like that). That means the elders are considered the leaders, and have more authority than perhaps most churches. Most decisions are made by consensus in the church meetings, but the elders set the agenda for meetings and make some sensitive and crisis decisions. Because of the history here, and strong Christian beliefs, most people are not very comfortable granting or assuming authority. But they seem to feel it is necessary. So the selection of an elder is a rather tense and unwelcome task.

As we began, we looked at a number of biblical passages that refer to elders in the early church, mostly coming from Paul's letters. Thinking of that later, I realized that none of the passages came from the Gospels or contained any guidance from Jesus himself. And when I started looking through the stories of Jesus' life, I found many references to elders, but the elders were always religious authorities that were trying to stand in Jesus' way.

The passage that I think is most helpful in our current situation begins when Jesus is confronted by the elders on the question of authority:

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"

Jesus answered them, "I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?"

And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know."

And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." (Mt 21.23-27)
Jesus' question reveals their understanding of authority, that the authority they wield (and the authority they think Jesus lacks) derives from the support of the people. They cannot answer his question because they are afraid of losing face on one hand, or angering the people on the other. This is the thinking of politicians. Which makes sense because, as officials in social organizations, both elected politicians and religious officials exercise the same power, the power granted by the people that selected them (or that support the legitimacy of their office). Their power, their authority, derives from the power of the group, "We, the People." The chief priests and elders do not want to lose the support of the group, so they do not answer Jesus' question.

So Jesus doesn't answer their question about authority. Because the authority for his words and actions does not come from the people, it is not political authority, it is not the authority that they understand. So he has no answer for them.

More tomorrow...

8.13.2010

another one for chico



I just found a letter from Chico in the mailbox...

8.12.2010

"your hand was heavy upon me"

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

That's from Psalm 32. The imagery really works for me, with the weather that's oppressing us here at the moment. And that phrase about God's hand "heavy upon me" has been on my mind recently.

It's hard, I think, to know how to relate to someone who is experiencing God's hand heavy upon them. Job's friends made a famous hash of it, I recall. It's hard to watch, definitely. And there's the inclination to try to help the person in their distress and struggle—but if we see that God is pressing them, it seems futile to struggle against what God is doing. There is no real help for that situation except real repentance, a broken spirit. And often the person fights against God's hand, denying, hiding, or lashing out, and watching that has often made me frustrated or angry. Which further complicates my attempts to relate well.

I wonder if some of my anger comes from a worry that the person(s) might be able to "declare not their sin" indefinitely, that the denials or hypocrisy might convince others and so pass for the truth. There's the temptation to put my own heavy hand into the situation. Either for the sake of what I see as justice, or maybe to try to bring the struggle to a climax, to get the suffering over with, so I don't have to watch it any more.

Which seems mostly to be a lack of faith on my part. It is by faith that we see the hand of God at work, including when that hand rests heavy on those around us. And it requires faith to trust that God's hand is not there to destroy but to save. Faith, also, to know that God's hand will not be thrown off by evasions or the optimistic words that so easily sway the crowd. Faith to wait on God.

This might even make it possible to be truly compassionate with that person, while still consenting to the righteous weight of God's hand on them. Because who among us has not felt that weight?

8.09.2010

not a fan of smoking

This little guy (not so little, actually) came right up to our front door yesterday. Just nosing around. He knocked over the butt can we put out for smokers during retreats; that's how we noticed him.

It was also a chance to try out the camera we bought with some gift money. I'll be able to show more retreat pictures now, and the occasional groundhog.

8.08.2010

"in holiness and justice"

He swore to Abraham our father to grant us,
that free from fear, and saved from the hands of our foes,
we might serve him in holiness and justice
all the days of our life in his presence.

Those lines are from Zechariah's prophecy (Lk 1.67-79), traditionally sung during morning prayer. I pray it on Sunday mornings. I went to mass yesterday evening at the Catholic church in town (that shares a priest and so doesn't have a Sunday service), and was a little disappointed by how much he focused on just getting to heaven. Though I suppose he's more in unity with most American churches with that message. "That, free from fear, we might serve [God] in holiness and justice, all the days of our life in his presence" sounds much better to me.

That line also speaks to some of my current frustrations and down-ness. I think I've been discouraged trying to offer alternatives here, alternatives to coercion, alternatives to the cycle of suffering, and being repeatedly refused. What good is "holiness and justice" if it is constantly rejected? (Not just here, but everywhere.)

But I think that the goodness of God's offer is just that, that it is offered. The offer stands; the alternative is real. "Free from fear, and saved from the hands of our foes, we might serve him in holiness and justice, all the days of our life in his presence." Not just in heaven, either. Here. All the days of our life. And Jesus' human life demonstrated that it's real and possible, here and now. Even if no one else accepted that offer, that invitation from God, it is still a beautiful and glorious thing that such an offer exists, offered to every one of us.

Offered to every one of us, whether or not others around us accept it too. We can live every day of our lives in God's presence, free from fear and every other bondage that keeps people hurting themselves and each other, free also from the hands that would bind us, free to serve God in holiness and justice, free always to do good, absolute and uncompromising good. That is the prophecy that Jesus fulfilled, and continues to fulfill in those who follow him.

And I have to say, so far I haven't encountered any reason to doubt it.

8.06.2010




I remembered this meditation I put together years ago, because I think I've been getting myself down by fixating too much on people (including myself) and their problems. Too many disappointments. Too much chronic pain without the change and healing that the pain is meant to spur in us. I need to focus my attention more on Jesus again, rather than the waves. More on the one whom I want to be more like, rather than the ones I'm trying so hard not to be like. Finding peace in the one who never compromised, and is always trustworthy.

(Mt 14.26-31, 2 Cor 3.17-18)

8.03.2010

don't fight it

To offset the playing of the national anthem now at Goshen college sporting events, I propose they adopt a thoroughly nonviolent fight song. How about Papa Roach's "Kick in the Teeth"?



We live in a cold dark world with venom in its fangs.
You can spit it in my face but I know I'll be okay
It's on the attack. It's a war. It's a game.
A ball and chain, chew my arm off to get away
Don't fight it, or deny it—invite it

'Cause when it feels like a kick in the teeth, I can take it.
Throw your stones and you won't see me breakin'.
Say what you want, take your shots.
You're setting me free with one more kick in the teeth!

I gotta say thanks cause you kick me when I'm down.
I'm bleeding out the mouth.
I hope you know I'm stronger now.
I'm taking the hate, I'm turning it all around.
I won't go down 'til I'm six feet underground.
Don't fight it, or deny it—invite it

'Cause when it feels like a kick in the teeth, I can take it.
Throw your stones and you won't see me breakin'.

Say what you want, take your shots.
You're setting me free with one more kick in the teeth!

Just imagine a crowd of Mennonite fans dancing and shouting out that chorus (and it would even work better if they're losing...).

8.02.2010

this morning's prayer

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over him who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.

For wickedness shall be cut off;
but those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land.

Yet a little while, and the wrongdoers will be no more;
though you look well at his place, he will not be there.
But the anawim shall possess the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
(from Ps 37)

7.31.2010

"we're not called to trust one another"

Many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing. And they believed in his name. But Jesus did not fully trust them. He knew what people are like. He didn't need others to tell him what people are like. He already knew what was in the human heart. (Jn 2.23-25, NIRV)

I like this translation of this passage. It came to mind after a conversation I had this week with Dan, a new friend in Evanston. He had spoken of past disappointments in relationships, and the difficulty of trusting people again. Trust is something that is emphasized in "intentional community" settings, where long-term relationships are promoted, along with the benefits of learning to trust one another through years of experience. But long experience together doesn't always lead to trust. As we get to know people, we learn to what extent we can trust them and also to what we extent can't. We come to know, like Jesus, what these people are like.

Pretty much every group of people has in their history stories of painful failed trust. Even the story of Jesus' small band of disciples climaxes with the revelation of deadly betrayal. I said to Dan that, while communities promote trust within the group, I didn't see that message in Jesus' story. We're not called to trust one another. We're called to love one another.

But does that mean we cannot trust? Isn't an atmosphere of trust needed to free us to love?

I believe we can trust, and are called to trust—to trust God. Jesus' story is a story of complete, unreserved trust in his Father. And it's out of this trust that Jesus could love with free abandon, even those who he knew would betray him and attack him. Jesus did not trust them (and sent his disciples out among them "as sheep in the midst of wolves," telling them to be "as shrewd as serpents"). But he trusted that his Father would provide and protect him and his followers to carry out the mission God had given them. And preserve their lives no matter what people did.

I've felt shaken recently and more unsure of people, as I've seen them act in ways I didn't expect. When various pressures (especially social pressures) seemed to force decisions from people that went against the convictions I thought they had, or brought out aggression I never knew was there. As if they were not free to act rightly, or even as they wished. In situations like those, there seems to be no basis for trusting, since people may not act like themselves at all. Perhaps this is part of what Jesus saw taking place "in the human heart."

Yet Jesus showed us we could trust God anyway. No matter what people chose to do, God would be faithful to us. (I've sometimes even experienced God doing good with the bad that people intended towards me.) So we can be vulnerable to people, and love them, even when we don't trust them completely. It's complete trust in God that gives us the freedom to love.

7.27.2010

for chico

7.26.2010

"he raises the lowly"

My soul glorifies the Lord,
My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.
He looks on his servant in her lowliness;
Henceforth all ages will call me blessed.

He puts forth his arm in strength
And scatters the proud-hearted.
He casts the mighty from their thrones
And raises the lowly.

We used these words of Mary from the first chapter of Luke for the women's retreat a week ago. They've been a daily prayer of mine for years, a comfort during my walks and words that I thought would be well received by those considered "nobodies" in our society, like many who come for retreats with us. We focused on Mary's embrace of her lowliness, without shame or fear. And it was very well received. The women at the retreat seemed pretty familiar with such humble trust in God (though seemed glad to hear it affirmed once again), and we discussed God's intentional choice to reveal himself through the lowly. "God chose what is weak in the world... God chose what is low and despised in the world..." (1 Cor 1.27-28)

I didn't strongly emphasize the part about casting the mighty from their thrones, though that's been important to me as well. I find myself now, as I have often been in other places and other communities, bringing sharp challenges against some people in organizational leadership here. Against their use of power to punish or coerce, something Jesus strictly avoided. And against their hypocrisy, something Jesus hated. It has gotten to the point that I pray that Mary's words will be fulfilled here, that I realize I have no chance of a good relationship with these particular people until they are brought down, and that I'm pleading for God's arm to move soon and irresistibly.

When I look to our new friends from last weekend, though, my heart melts. It was such a relief to hear their stories and experience their friendship. One of them has already written about bringing another group for a retreat later this summer, and we're eager for it. I need to keep my attention focused on them. That same woman told us of a dream she had here, of many fish being pulled from the big meadow in front of our house, a great catch being drawn in, but then other people intruding, seeming to disrupt or distract from the fishing. As I think about it, we do see all those who come for retreats appear from the direction of the meadow (where the parking area is), though they certainly are fellow fishers as well. And I do need to take care not to be distracted. God is raising the lowly and I want to be involved.

One practical thing I recognized during the retreat was the need to gather a group of advisers again, people to offer ideas and help us coordinate with the rest of the community here. It's fallen apart as different people have left the community in the past couple years. But I want to make sure we don't include people who are in leadership positions this time. There's just too many temptations in those positions, and acceptance of those positions of power really indicates a spirit opposed to the spirit we try to nurture in our retreats. A spirit that embraces lowliness. The Spirit of the anawim.