Recently I was watching a video presentation done by another Christian community, and noticed the emphasis on relationships. They said that Jesus' work was about reconciliation, restoring broken relationships, so that should be our focus too. I suppose that makes sense. They also mentioned a theme common in intentional communities, that our communities should be visible evidence of the kingdom of God, the community of God on earth. An implication of that is that our relationships in community are then seen as evidence of our faithfulness. That might be reassuring if relationships happen to be doing well, but otherwise, as is often the case...
I also recently spent some time with a friend going through a divorce. He didn't want to divorce, but that's not a decision he can make by himself. His situation really highlighted for me the nature of "relationship." It's not just something we can choose or do. It depends also on the choices and actions of the other people involved. And, actually, it's dependent on many other factors as well, like personality, gender, age, culture, "chemistry," and more. All of these play in to the quality of relationship that we can have with another person. From what I can see, a relationship is not something that we can create. I know we can work to improve our relationships in certain ways, but so many other crucial factors play into it, so that good relationships now seem to me more like a gift of God than something we accomplish.
In the truest sense of "reconciliation," too, it seems to me that the restoration of right relationship, real connection, with others and with God, is something we can only receive as God's gift.
And since a relationship is not something that any of us can make or choose (because it doesn't just depend on us), then this isn't the best evidence of faithfulness. As far as I can tell, Jesus didn't call us to "have good relationships." Jesus called us to love one another. That's an important distinction. No matter what the other person chooses, we can always choose to love them. And if we are not granted the makings of a deep, intimate relationship with someone, we can still love them in the ways that are granted to us. Even if the relationship we've had with another person seems to be falling apart, we can always love them. And that's all Jesus asks us to do.
Love one another, believing that, in love, we discover the deepest relationship with all others who love.
This is the new cover she made for my old bible (the one I've carried with me on all my walks).
My friend Jason reminded me of a series of journal entries from years ago, and I've been rereading them. This part seemed especially important for me to remember today:
Jesus’ laying down his life was the perfect act of love. Yet it was not approved or appreciated by either his friends or his enemies. How could love be so misunderstood?
Those who condemned Jesus didn’t appreciate what he was offering, because he didn’t support their management of society. He strongly challenged it. So they saw his death, not as an act of love, but as what he deserved as a subversive trouble-maker. They saw him as a criminal, executed with two other criminals. But Jesus’ followers also didn’t understand his “laying down his life” as an act of love. They could understand why he would preach and heal and feed people, and appreciated his challenging the problems in their society. But they couldn’t see why he would go to Jerusalem and accept execution without resisting, and they tried to prevent it. They could only see his death as a tragic failure. Neither friends or enemies could see the value in Jesus’ perfect act of love.
This illustrates well the difference between God’s purposes and ours. We are intent on imposing our own will, either to keep things as they are or to change things. Some try to preserve and protect what is important to them, such as possessions, traditions, social structure, etc. But at the same time, there are others who do not like how things are. So they try to change the property distribution or the social traditions and structures. What they all have in common is the need for power to impose their will. Those who are in power seek to maintain it, and those who are not in power seek to gain more of it—more wealth and more political influence.
This pursuit of power makes sense if our purpose is to impose our own will, to shape the world as we think it ought to be. But if our true good is not the exercise of our own will, but the surrender of our own will—faith—then the pursuit of power is not helpful. Because it is not strength that helps us trust God, but weakness.
And this is exactly what I see in Jesus’ way of life. Not the pursuit of power, but intentionally becoming and staying weak. A continual “laying down his life.” Instead of seeking human power like everyone else, Jesus embraces economic and political weakness and preaches it to others. This is seen as subversive by those in power, and as a failure by those who seek power. Yet it is exactly right for helping people towards God through faith. And revealing God's powerful love.
As Jesus said to Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12.9)
This morning I thought I should memorize my old favorite, "Precious Lord, take my hand," to use as a lullaby:
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I'm tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm,
Through the night,
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home
When my way grows drear,
Precious Lord linger near
When my hope is almost gone
Hear my cry,
Hear my call,
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home
When the darkness appears
And the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet,
Hold my hand
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home
And maybe I could learn to sing it like B.B. King...
I got back in touch with a friend recently, and was reminded of our first encounter, in an internet discussion. Here's one of my pieces of that conversation:
It's not just an "absence" of the use of human power that I see in Jesus, but an avoidance. He avoided the attempts to make him king. He avoided wealth. And it seems he could have led a (violent or nonviolent) political uprising, since he had enough popularity at some points (though it seems most of those crowds did not understand Jesus' true purpose and would later abandon him). The Jewish leaders feared this, I believe. But Jesus did not do this, he squandered that opportunity, he taught hard things and lost followers (see Jn 6), and instead of using the crowds to achieve a political victory he let himself be arrested without resisting or threatening (like "if you kill me, my followers will rise up and..."). The fact that people in every society use these various forms of human power, and though Jesus could have used them he chose not to, stands out to me. I ask why avoid these? And I see that they offered nothing for his purposes and they also lead to the temptations of pride, the corruption of power, always and everywhere. Instead, Jesus stays poor and weak, avoiding those temptations of human power and relying only on God's power, which builds our faith and points others to God and lets God's power work most perfectly. As Jesus revealed to Paul, "My power is made perfect in weakness."
And we should be the same way as his followers. I'm always leery of the "Jesus had a very specific mission" argument. Which sets Jesus apart from us as unique and not necessarily to be imitated. Jesus told us to follow his example, even the cross part: "take up your cross and follow me." So I think we should avoid putting him in some isolated category. Jesus' mission now, in us, is the same as when he walked the earth. And our methods should be the same as well.
I have a feeling we might have a slightly different opinion about how much things have actually changed in the political realm since Jesus' time. Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent was enlightening to me in its description of how those in power can control the public in modern democratic societies. It seems to me that new "rights" have been allowed in about the same measure that new, more sophisticated forms of political control have been developed. Take the example of public protests. In American society, most all political leaders say they approve of the right to protest, but then they also have well-developed ways of controlling those protests, specific areas designated for them, and ways of "spinning" them to minimize their impact. Rulers in the middle east have not developed these political methods of handling mass protests, so they fear them more and handle them badly. In modern democratic states, violent repression is usually not needed for political control (so the negative political impact of the violence is avoided) since there are other nonviolent ways of controlling the populace. Even allowing a democratic vote is beneficial for those in power if they have ways to make sure they can win and stay in power (and look who does always win, those with the money and political party backing to work the system). Then when they win they can say to the people, "You chose me. Even if you didn't vote for me, you approved and supported the system that handed me this power." (For more thoughts related to this, go here: "modern forms of persecution")
I think the basics of economic and political power are the same throughout history, though the specific forms of that power vary. But it's always recognizable. Economic and political power in every age is the power of Babel, the power of people working together (or uniting their resources), the power that is rallied with the cry "Unite! Together we are strong!" And from the time of Babel, this has always been in opposition to God. It glorifies humanity, not God. It encourages trust in the power of united human beings, not God. And thus it is in opposition to Jesus' purposes, which was to encourage obedience to God, love of God, faith in God. This is also why I see Jesus avoiding human power and relying on the power of God, the power that works in miraculous ways through people who are themselves poor, weak, often uneducated and unorganized (except perhaps by God's one Spirit). Paul points to this when he writes things like "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us." And:
The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
The message of Jesus' words and actions was not "together we are strong" but "God is strong. You can trust God completely. You can be like a child, free and fearless under the care of your loving Parent." Just like Jesus was.
There's a wedding here today, which reminds me a lot of our wedding here a little over six years ago. Again trying to guess if it'll rain or not. Here's the reading Heather and I did together at our wedding, I still really like it, a combination of verses from Psalms 34 and 84:
I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise will continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
The sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young—
a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.
O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
for those who fear him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.