Funny to see this today, after yesterday's entry...
Funny to see this today, after yesterday's entry...
“Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.”
I suspect that when Leon Bloy wrote that famous line, he was not thinking of himself as a hero. Perhaps the other one. If so, it might have been of some comfort to him to discover that actually there are no heroes in the kingdom of God.
At least Jesus didn’t seem to think so. That is, if “hero” is taken in its common sense: a great person who we can look to as a model and source of hope. Jesus resisted even being called “good” himself. “Why do you call me good?” he said. “No one is good but God alone.” (Mk 10.18) And Jesus taught his followers to respond the same way. Should they expect admiration for living the life he taught them?
“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (Lk 17.9-10)Jesus turned our attention away from heroes, people we’re inclined to admire, and away from the admiration others might have for us, and directed our attention towards God. No one is good but God alone. You have only done what you were ordered to do. It is not the servant but the master who is the source of any goodness, and the source of hope. Later, Jesus used imagery of vine and branches to present this even more clearly:
“Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15.4-5)
It is God who is good, and who brings good into the world. Not heroic people. The apostle Paul taught the same thing when some in the early church started choosing heroes for themselves:
When one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Cor 3.4-7)God even intentionally chose servants who were not great, wrote Paul, not admirable, not heroic:
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, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1.27-31)
What matters is not human greatness or heroism. Those are more of a distraction and temptation than a help to the followers of Jesus. What matters is the God who is the source of goodness and life. To live as a child of his kingdom, inspired by God in our actions big and small, noticed or unnoticed, this is all that matters.
When Jesus was asked about John the baptizer, he acknowledged that John was a hero of his time: “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John.”
“Yet,” said Jesus, “the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Lk 7.28)
After a rerun last year, I managed to come up with a new haiku for Christmas this year. How I see the story from where I'm at this year:
A dirty shepherd
stumbling through the stable door
Our cat died last night, a victim of a neighbor's stray dog. We're sorry to lose her. We talked about memories of Claire today and buried her in the flower bed behind our house (where she liked to lay in the summer). And I remembered this entry from six years ago:
With patience, though, and a lot of coaxing and stroking, I think we convinced her that we'll take good care of her up here. She even caught two mice the other day, which probably makes this place more attractive as well. I think it will be a much better life for her here, with more attention and care and more territory to explore (without trucks and tractors roaring through). I was beginning to think we'd have to give up, and was frustrated that she seemed to prefer to starve rather than move to a new territory. But she's spent the last two nights here now.
It made me think, too, that we're usually a lot like that cat. We're being offered a life that is much better for us but we cling to our comfortable habits and places that make us feel secure just because they are known. We are so slow to trust. Especially when we are so used to just scraping by, and the offer seems too good to be true.
But God is patient and persistent with his offer.
I think I’ve distilled a little more about our glorification of the “adult,” productive part of life. It starts early, that seems clear. Partly because children have a distorted view of their parents’ capabilities. It seems to them as if their parents are all-knowing and all-powerful, and that’s what they expect of adults. And they yearn to have that kind of power themselves. By the time they are in their twenties, people usually don’t see their parents as all-powerful, but this is often because they are flush with their own growing capabilities and think they can correct the failings of the generation before them.
Again, it’s a mistaken view of how capable or powerful adults can be. When we’re kids we admire and long for it, as young adults it seems to be coming to fulfillment, and it’s not until maybe middle age that our limitations become undeniable. Relative to children and the elderly, yes, people in the “prime” of their lives are more capable. But we still can’t solve all the problems (sometimes it seems like we can solve very few of them). And we can’t just do anything we dream, anywhere we dream of doing it. There’s lots of frustration and burnout in trying, and everyone experiences lots of failures in life. But we don’t usually see clearly how limited we are until quite a way down life’s road.
And even then, there’s reasons to keep up the illusion of heroic “adults.” The next generation is now looking up to us with admiring eyes. And people are looking for role models to inspire them. I suspect the inspiring picture presented of most role models isn’t quite the whole truth, but it’s for a good cause, right? And society as a whole promotes the idea of capable human beings, able to overcome our problems, especially if people work together. It helps people to hope, right?
The big drawback is that the hope is directed towards a mistaken image, rather than the truth. So there’s confusion and frustration and guilt when we don’t become the heroic adults we believed we would be (or should be). And when many of the problems of our lives persist despite all our efforts.
Then there’s the spiritual side of this. The image of capable, heroic adults focuses our hope and trust on them (us). It doesn’t help us direct our hope towards God and encourage dependence on him. It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus wasn’t like the usual image of a capable hero. And that he said we must turn and become like children to enter the kingdom of God.
If we expected to be “like children” our whole lives, not heroic or even “in charge” but continually looking for guidance and help our whole lives, then we’d be a lot closer to the truth and closer to God. And there would be more of a continuity in our lives. Not a pre-life and post-life tacked on to our prime “adult” years, but practicing the same dependence the whole way. Learning to turn that dependence towards God, and to never turn away.
I haven’t had a lot of time for focused thinking and writing these days. But maybe that’s not so important. I say that because of this little something that’s been nagging at me lately.
For quite a while I’ve believed that my life began sometime in my college years. My real life. Everything before that had been my pre-life, just a preparation, gathering the necessary materials for a life, while being mostly just an accessory in someone else’s life. Then gradually I woke up and my life began. It was when I became aware, and could start making free, conscious choices of my own, when I could begin to shape my own unique identity through the actions, the path, I was choosing. My life began.
Now, though, I wonder if that belief was just another form of the common assumption that the productive “adult” part of our lives is the part that really matters. The middle part, when people are at the peak of their powers. When they are inventing and building things and managing households and businesses and nations. The part when these people are running, and “saving,” the world. This is the part of people’s lives that is reported in the news and written about in history books. The important part of human life.
But, being in that part of life, while spending most of my time caring for people who are not in that part of life, I’m beginning to wonder. The assumed “important” part of life is usually less that half of it. Maybe a third. Is childhood and old age, the majority of our years, just preface and afterword to the “real” story of our lives?
Is that what God had in mind, in creating human life like it is? From what I’ve seen, God doesn’t have the highest view of people “at the peak of their powers.”
I’m going to let this nag at me some more...
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.
Happy are those who make the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after false gods.
Saw this in an article about a new U2 album that was given away free (to a half million iTunes users) at an Apple event. Apparently Apple paid for that album:
“We were paid,” Bono [said]. “I don’t believe in free music. Music is a sacrament.”I don't get it. People should pay for sacraments? Or getting paid makes it more holy, in his opinion?
When I notice a person repeatedly acting selfishly, or unkindly, or unjustly, my tendency is to think that eventually enough people will recognize that behavior and isolate that person. That the community will turn their backs on such a person once they discover what he’s really like.
And that’s true. If you’re living in an animated children’s movie.
In real life, though, that’s not usually what happens, is it? There are lots of selfish, unkind, unjust people who are not rejected by the rest of the community but who are at the center of it, with control of the resources and political power, with many, many people supporting them and vying to be near them. In children’s movies, there are just one or two bad apples, who are found out and punished in the end. But in real human society, there aren’t just one or two bad apples, are there?
Look at the story of Jesus. It wasn’t the selfish, unkind, unjust ones who the community turned their backs on. The one who was rejected and cast out was Jesus.
So I shouldn’t be looking to human society for justice. But that’s not to say there is no justice to be seen. We usually don’t have to wait too long to see consequences for selfishness or injustice, because it’s bound to run up against the selfishness and injustice of other people, and those clashes will result in painful losses for all parties involved. I’d like to think God has some hand in bringing such people together.
And I do believe God is always near to them, pursuing them. Showing them again and again, in love, what they desperately do not want to see.
I just came across this article I wrote over five years ago, and I still really like it. I called it: "Does Jesus need a 'movement'? Lessons from the old new monasticism." And I have to say, I'm not disappointed to note that the "new monasticism movement" seems to have faded over the past five years...
"So you're gonna be a bum?!"
That was my father's initial reaction when I told him I was leaving on a long walking trip, hundreds of miles, without backpack or tent or sleeping bag—or money. I tried to explain that Jesus was my inspiration. Jesus' life and the way he sent out his disciples:
Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals... Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick in it and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.' (Lk 10.3-4,8-11)Three years earlier I had joined the Dominican Order, following that same inspiration, looking for a way to follow those words of Jesus. Dominic, and also Francis of Assisi, had also been inspired by those words when they started the Dominican and Franciscan Orders, introducing a new form of monasticism in the Middle Ages. That's what drew me to them. But during my years of novitiate and seminary I struggled, resisting the wealthy and established organization that the Order had become. Eventually one of the brothers sat me down and told me I was "not fitting in." It was then that I gave away the rest of my belongings and took to the road, to try to experience the life of the kingdom of God that Jesus had described.
Before I joined the Dominicans I read the story of Dominic and Francis and was impressed by their desire to follow Jesus example more closely. The monks and clerics of their time were wealthy and politically connected. Many people were rejecting the Christian message because of the obvious corruption and oppressiveness of the church leadership. Francis, however, found inspiration in Jesus' call to "sell all, give to the poor, and follow me." He gave up his inherited wealth and embraced poverty with a passion, believing that the church would find healing along the path of selfless giving and humble poverty rather than the path of wealth. Dominic had a similar vision. He noticed that the common people had lost respect for the powerful, pampered clerics, while "heretic" preachers wandered among them demonstrating their zealous commitment with lives of charity and extreme austerity. Dominic saw Jesus' life of poverty, and the way he sent out his disciples with nothing but their faith, as the best way to preach the gospel.
I agreed with this when I joined Dominic's Order, and after leaving the Order, and spending months at a time on the road over the next eight years, I was even more convinced. Jesus' life was not just a good way to preach the gospel, it was the gospel. His good news was that God was offering salvation from sin and freedom from fear as a gift. We were only asked to believe, to put our faith in God completely, to depend on his love to protect and sustain and guide us. And this is clearly seen in Jesus' life of poverty. Like the birds and lilies he trusted God for everything, and God provided. He sent out his disciples without money and without power, as "lambs among wolves," to demonstrate what it looked like to depend on God completely. And at the end of his life, when Jesus asked them if they had lacked anything, they answered, "Nothing." This was also my experience. And I saw that presenting this good news to people from a position of weakness and poverty does not diminish the message, but rather directs all attention and honor to God rather than the poor, weak messenger. It encourages faith in God's power rather than faith in our own.
Wash and rub the cornicons to remove the prickles. Then put them in a strainer, sprinkle heavily with pickling salt (or any salt without iodine added), and leave them overnight. A good amount of juice will drain from the cucumbers.
The next day, rub off the excess salt (rinsing is not needed since a little remaining salt is desired). Then wash jars with tight-fitting lids and pack with the cornichons along with:
One or two peeled garlic cloves
Several whole peppercorns
A few sprigs fresh thyme and tarragon
A bay leaf
A little lemon juice (or slice of fresh lemon)
Then fill the jar with white vinegar. The pickles will swell as they absorb the vinegar, so make sure they are covered with a little space to spare. Place the lids on tightly and leave them at least a couple weeks for the cucumbers to absorb the flavors. That's it. Spicy and delicious.
Among most Christians, anger and aggression are more frowned upon than timidity (which is often mistakenly equated with meekness). But there is such a thing as righteous anger. There’s not a righteous cowardice.
And I think it’s even more dangerous when a fearful person manages to get into a position of power than when an aggressive person does. Their evils are done not because they “want to,” but because they think they have to. Jesus was crucified by fearful leaders.
Christian communities (at least the ones I’m familiar with) tend to be largely made up of timid people rather than angry or aggressive ones. So the leaders chosen from among them are generally also the fearful kind.
The more dangerous kind.
I was feeling reminded this morning of Jesus' "move on to the next town" instructions, then found this journal entry from seven years ago. It's really what I need to hear right now:
"Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart. As you enter the house, salute it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.I came across these words of Jesus again this morning. That last line, especially, is something I need to pay attention to right now. I've been struggling with feelings of anger. Anger towards some people I used to feel compassion for, people I've wanted to care for, intending to ease their burdens, to be a friend to them. Now I wonder how my feelings for them have turned so cold. Instead of feeling compassionate, I have to admit I feel more like calling fire from heaven...
"And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town." (Mt 10.11-14)
This has bothered me more and more. Why the anger? Why so much emotion, and why have I had such a hard time sorting it out and letting it go? As I've thought more about it, I've also realized there have been at least two other times during this past year that I've felt similar anger towards someone I was trying to help.
Like in most human conflicts, I imagine there are two parts of it, mine and theirs. I'm sure there has been some selfishness on my part, some ambition to "do good," to be the one to solve someone else's problem. And when that person doesn't cooperate, or doesn't respond right away, I get frustrated and angry, feeling like a failure. This is my problem, not theirs. And, as I wrote before, my experience of failure in this is probably good for me, to get me to stop pushing my own agenda on people, stop serving my own purposes, and let God work with them in his own way, his own time. I need to learn to "go to the next town" with trust instead of anger.
But there's also their part, I think. When others reject some truth or some help we are offering, that's a sad thing. Those people hurt themselves this way, and perhaps also hurt people around them (including us) through their choice, making everyone's life more difficult. So maybe there is some cause for anger there. But it's not for us to punish. It's hard to know what would help in such a situation, maybe some kind of rebuke is called for. Some kind of knocking the dust from our feet.
The calling-fire-from-heaven anger, though, seems to indicate a need for more trust, more submission to God. Letting the work be God's, and being willing to simply do my small part, whatever God gives me to do. And trusting God to handle any rejection, to take care of the consequences in the lives of those affected (including mine).
I think it’s pretty common for new parents to go through something of a “mid-life crisis” as they come to grips with their new daily reality. It can be a very joyful time, but also one of boring routines, in which the parents’ hopes and dreams are no longer center stage (unless maybe it’s the dream of having a baby). The question “Is this what my life is going to be?” can hit pretty hard.
In many ways, this is a critical part of maturing, realizing that the hopes and dreams of our early adulthood aren’t the ultimate goals they seemed to be then. Learning that, to a large extent, they were indeed dreams. And accepting that this child’s care is more important than trying to make the world fit the grand image we had in our heads, or make others believe that we are the heroes we eagerly imagined ourselves to be. This real child helps us set aside the unreal imaginings of our youth.
Too often, though, I think people try to replace those fading hopes and dreams with new ones, based on their new relationship to their child. “I can’t save the world, but I can save this child.” Which is perhaps a little more realistic, but ultimately just another hopeful figment of the imagination. Isn’t it? The child may indeed be saved, but in the end, if we’re honest with ourselves, we won’t be the ones who can take much credit for it.
The best result of this (or any) mid-life crisis is if it turns us away from dreams to reality, especially the reality of finding ourselves in relationship—but in relationship to God. Our adolescent desires aren’t very trustworthy guides. But God’s desires are. And we can’t rely on our resources and abilities to provide and protect and guide our child, but we can trust God to do so, just as we trust him to provide and protect and guide us. The truest longing to save the child is good, as long as we recognize that what we’re feeling doesn’t originate with us. And the purest of our early desires are good also, as long as we realize that those also didn’t originate with us. These are good and real and trustworthy because they are God’s desires for us.
And we open ourselves to God’s desires when we “turn and become like a child,” desperately clinging to God like this baby now clinging to us.
And they've made their music available for free here. Here's two good ones they did for us:
"Peter Patron Saint"
During prayer a few days ago, while chanting a psalm, I was reminded of the monastic influences in my past. My temperament fit well with the quiet monastic life. Years ago I even hoped to join a Cistercian monastery in England. But eventually I moved back to a more in-the-world lifestyle. It seemed to me that while separation from many of the tempting influences of society could certainly be helpful in the Christian life (and sometimes necessary), it was more valuable to others if I could be in more direct contact with society. And I saw Jesus doing this himself, during his ministry.
But now I find myself withdrawing more and more from “society” here, from political structures and community events, and it reminds me of my monastic leanings. I didn’t get to this point by trying to avoid temptations, though. It happened as a result of my experiences of being very much involved in the political and religious activity of the community for years. What seemed to be happening was more and more open conflict, the more involved I became. Until eventually I thought that it would be better for everyone if I stepped away from direct involvement in those activities.
I hope the source of the conflict was something close to what caused Jesus to be in almost continual conflict with the religious leaders of his community. But if so, then how can I step back? Jesus didn’t.
I’m familiar with Christian activists who point to Jesus’ clashes with the authorities of his day as a justification for their political actions, and a model for their lives. Keep pushing, keep fighting! But Jesus actually didn’t fight for long. Only a few years, and then he was crucified. He let them crucify him, too, he didn’t keep pushing and fighting. That’s where I see the activist parallel breaking down. They don’t get crucified, they get interviews and book deals, and keep pushing until they burn themselves out.
And they seem to forget that Jesus’ open conflict with society was only a small part of his life. Just a few years, not a model for a whole life. What about the thirty years before that, in which nothing notable seemed to happen? Was Jesus hiding? Shy?
I do believe we will be called at times to speak out and stand firm and (in love) let ourselves be broken or exiled or crucified. But that’s not every day. Most of our lives following Jesus will look more like Nazareth, I think. Unnoticed and humble, doing the small tasks our Father has given us this day, and grateful that we are spared the lash and the nails for now.
I prayed these words (of Charles de Foucauld) this morning:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands;
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you—
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me
And in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my spirit.
I offer it to you
With all the love of my heart.
For I love you Lord,
And so need to give myself—
To surrender myself into your hands
And with boundless confidence
For you are my Father.
Two friends who have been a part of our prayer group this past year are moving away. So we sent them off with the blessing I usually use at the end of our communion time. I got it from a blessing offered to David in 1 Chronicles 12.18 ("Peace" here is the Hebrew word Shalom):
Peace, peace to you
And peace to those who help you
For your God helps you
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God”
Two weeks after Heather suffered a miscarriage, devastating us both, I wrote about something I had learned through the experience. About how God doesn’t promise to always provide ways to avoid such loss and suffering, but promises to provide what we need to continue to love and do good in the midst of such hard situations. During the two years since then, though, I’ve come to realize I need more of a promise than that.
Maybe it’s just that I find it hard to want to “love and do good” unless I see that’s what God is actually doing. And in moments of loss and pain, that’s hard to see. It may be a long time before we see the good that might come through experiences of suffering, so long that we stop even looking for it. I’ve encountered lots of skepticism from Christians about how much influence God even has over painful experiences and situations in our lives. And maybe I’ve thought at times that it’s “holier” to keep doing good regardless of whether God seems to be caring for us (and those we love) very well. But it seems I’m just not that holy. I need to see some evidence that God is in control and that he is doing good for us, that “all things work together for good for those who love God,” or I’m not going to be able to love and do good myself.
Not that I have to see it immediately. I think I can hold out hope and believe for a while. But I have to see something before too long. It’s been a long two years, with lots of pain and fears and disappointments, but now that I’m starting to see and be convinced that this may have been a path to something good (even something “better”) I’m realizing how much I needed that.
Maybe that makes me a Thomas. I guess what I’d like to be is a “believing Thomas.” I want to have faith even when I don’t see it, but eventually I want to see it. I need to.
I’m grateful that Jesus came back to show himself to Thomas. I’m grateful he showed himself at all. It seems to me that the main message of Easter is that God let us see. That God showed us that the excruciating pain and “why have you forsaken me” darkness was not the conclusion, but part of the hard path to Easter morning, when Jesus was not just restored but glorified. That it was not just good but “better,” and not just for the rest of us, but for Jesus as well.
From the dramatic reading Heather wrote six years ago, when we led the Easter service soon after moving here (this is the end of it, before dawn Easter morning, John speaking):
I can't, I can't, I can't believe it. No. I still can't. God! What has God done!
I knew. There was no question. I knew him. We broke bread together every day, how could I not know him? I watched him break the bread on the hillside, how his eyes were alight in the doing of it, how the bread never ended, his hands giving and giving. His hands. I saw his hands weary with touching cripple after cripple, I saw them go away dancing. But it was more than that. More. I saw him on the mountain, standing between Moses and Elijah, shining with an everlasting light. I knew.
He was the one.
[To God, low and angry] So what have You done?
You were testing him. I knew, I saw, I know what You do! You test Your people beyond endurance, you rule them with a rod of iron, you put them through the green heart of the fire—and then you snatch them out and they're purest gold. You send them to prison, you drive them into the wilderness, you throw them in cisterns where they sink in mud up to their necks. You made Abraham put a knife to his son's throat before you called out to him to stop. I was willing. I know it's your way, for me, for him, for all of us, I know it's the only way—he was willing and I knew he was. I sat on the ground in the garden and watched him sweating and crying, his face to the earth, a few paces away, and I saw that he was willing. He could have stood up and walked away. Anytime, he could have. But he was willing. He loves You... loved You. And where is he now?
I was with him. I heard him scream. I stood there under his twisted body shaking, waiting every moment for the change. For the veil to be torn away, for him to be revealed in the glory of his Father—oh, if they saw, if he had ever showed all that was in him. And I waited, and waited, and listened to him try to breathe. And he pulled himself up and I saw what it cost him, the pain, the breath, and he gasped to me to care for his mother. To care for his mother. When he was gone.
And the change never came.
I never thought. In my wildest and most terrible dreams, I never thought of this. That You could let your servant pass into the fire, and never snatch him out. That I would hear him scream why have you abandoned me and look up into the darkening sky and hear the silence. Only silence. I never thought You were a God like that. I knew You weren't. I knew. He knew. He trusted You.
Was he wrong then? Answer me. Was he wrong?
[then Mary, pounding and calling in a loud voice:]
Peter, John, let me in! You won't believe what I've seen!
Not a lot to write about lately, it seems. There’s been a few retreat contacts, and I’m waiting to see if those will develop into anything. Other than that, it’s been spring cleaning, caring for our elderly neighbor, and lots of baby sitting (when it seems like I’m constantly trying to get him to go to sleep). Lots of time doing the routine things. Enjoyable enough most of the time, but it doesn’t seem very significant, or much different from yesterday.
I’d like to have more spiritual insights or breakthroughs or chances to talk (or write) about some of the ideas I’m passionate about. But I’m reminded of something I told myself often when I was on a long walk. When the routine daily things started to feel like drudgery and I wished I was having interesting encounters or being more of a “witness” to others. I’d remind myself: I can’t tell the story of the walk until I walk it. This was the walking. Later, if it turned out well, there’d be an interesting, encouraging story to tell someone.
Another thought I had occasionally while walking had to do with family life. I’d encounter people with families who felt the kind of radical dependence on God I was talking about sounded good, and was perhaps possible for a single person, but didn’t seem practical for someone with a family. And I thought it might be valuable to try to live it with a family, if I got the chance, to show it is possible. Or at least give a little encouragement to anyone leaning in that direction, who felt hindered by their obligations and situation in life.
I’d still like to do that. But in order to tell the stories about how God made it possible, I have to walk that life first. There’s a little to tell so far, but many more (and bigger) challenges ahead. So I’ll just keep reminding myself that I have to walk it before I can tell the story. And trust that God will have some use for that story somewhere down the line.
Heather's new novel, Defy The Night, came out recently. She finished work on it during her pregnancy. It's a continuation of the story (begun in How Huge The Night) about a family in unoccupied France early in WWII, in a town that helped many Jewish children escape the Nazis. This book focuses on the daughter and her efforts to help children in the internment camps set up in France.
It's fiction, but inspired by actual events. The story of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon can be found here.
“When I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.”
When the boy is waking up, he’s often confused and a little scared at first. What seems to calm him down right away is seeing Heather’s face, or mine. We usually get a smile right away. I thought of that when I read this line in Psalm 17.
I’ve had a hard time waking up lately too. A feeling of futility makes it hard to get out of bed and face the day. Maybe it’s partly this cold, hard winter that has seemed endless. And partly frustrations and lack of progress in much of my efforts and the efforts of people around me. So I’m encouraged by the idea of looking elsewhere, finding satisfaction elsewhere.
I remember putting together a meditation years ago based on the story of Jesus inviting Peter to walk with him on the water. Central to the story is Jesus telling Peter to focus on him, rather than the wind and waves, the hopeless situation all around. When Peter kept his eyes on Jesus’ face, he could take a step forward.
In the New Jerusalem Bible, that line in the psalm reads, “when I awake I shall be filled with the vision of you.” I like that even better. It’s not just a matter of being comforted, but also of being filled, changed. The other part of my meditation came from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.”
I do think it’s important to feel the futility of our efforts from time to time, feel how small we are in the darkness. It helps us look away from ourselves (and our little communities) to seek out the only face that can satisfy us.
I've been meaning to mention my other linux operating system, Puppy Linux. It's tiny, just 150MB total. It can be booted from a flash drive and run completely in RAM if necessary, no hard drive needed. And it runs very light—I've been using it on our 12-year-old Thinkpad X24 (with just 256MB RAM). This laptop would be dead without Puppy.
And it's free, built by enthusiasts who are glad to see others enjoy their achievements. It has a very active support forum too, where I've found lots of help and tips from others who are glad to share their expertise (some of it quite extensive) and software they've written.
There are lots of varieties of Puppy Linux. I've heavily edited the one I use, so it's pretty unique. It's really been enjoyable learning about how computers operate and seeing how well I can make it run and how nice I can make it look:
These are thumbnails, click to view larger. The theme is Owl Light. And the icon set is called Faenza. These were offered free also...
I just came across this letter I wrote ten years ago. A good reminder, and I'm glad to see I haven't been pushed away from this over the last ten years:
I wanted to respond to this interesting paragraph: "I do have my hesitations here when it comes to raising children. ...you must shelter; you must protect your children from some people. You can offer your own self, but I doubt very much God would ask you to put your kids at risk. ...I'd want to be darned sure it was God talking before I'd put my kids in harm's way."
I certainly agree with the "I want to be darned sure it's God talking" part. Of course I want to be darned sure it's God calling when I risk my own life, too. But the concern will be much more when it starts to include others as well (especially those I care for as much as I would my own children). The risk and challenge is multiplied a thousandfold, I agree.
I'm not so sure about the "must shelter, must protect" part, though. Or the (implied?) idea that "normal" life is less risky for kids (depending on what kinds of risks we're considering). Our children's lives are always at risk, I'm sure you realize that. I would think parenting also teaches how incapable we are to shelter and protect our children completely, or even as much as we want to. It's simply too much for us. I think that's something God means to teach us through the experience of being a parent. We cannot do what must be done. I think the news clipping you sent is a good example of this [a girl fell into the water and father died trying to save her but was unable—rescue workers found her unconscious and revived her].
Our kids rely on us—but hopefully we know enough to not rely on ourselves. We have to rely on God, and let our kids provision and protection rest on God's shoulders. If we do not, the only options I see are a life of fear/despair or complete delusion.
Which brings me to "I doubt very much God would ask you to put your kids at risk." Certainly God does allow all of us (including children) to be at risk. Risk is not bad when it helps us towards faith. But I agree that God loves our children even more than we do and is ultimately concerned with their care and safety. So why would I not trust him to provide for them just as well (or better) than he has provided for me? Is he not able? Has he not promised to do so? Do I really need to take things back into my own hands if I get married and have children (because the risk is just too great)?
God provided abundantly for Jesus (whose example I'm trying to follow). But not just for him alone. God also provided for twelve others that lived with him. How is this different from having a family with me?
I like your questions. Several others have not asked questions, but rather have told me that family is impossible while living the way I do (or the way Jesus did). But I'm getting the distinct impression that it's not so much me that they are concerned with, but themselves. Justifying and excusing themselves. Because if following Jesus this way is incompatible with marriage, then as married people they are excused. Or they are justified in their compromises because of the duty and demands of parenting. This is beginning to anger me. Because, to justify and excuse themselves (bad enough) they are throwing a hindrance, a temptation, in my way. And in Heather's way. Very bad.
I don't see you doing this, though. And I am grateful for your sharing and concern. I just hope in this discussion we can be guided by faith and not just by what we see (2 Cor 5.7).
So far so good. Our latest little surprise came when we noticed that the boy has almost outgrown his car seat (an expensive item). Within a couple days a friend asked us, out of the blue, if we needed one. Her daughter's the same age, born the day before Ian, but her mother insisted on buying them another car seat that would fit the base in her car. And it turns out their old one is good for an extra ten pounds—that should hold him for a while...
Thinking about the attempts by our institutions and organizations to redefine our relationships got me thinking about family. Family is a group that often appears to have characteristics similar to man-made institutions, but family is clearly natural, God-given, and not just a human fabrication. I think the clearest difference has to do with the relationships involved.
In our human institutions and organizations, the “relationships” among the members of the group are clearly “created” (I’m using a lot of quote makes here because I don’t think the relationships are actually real) and defined and enforced by human beings. And they only have any reality among those people in the group who believe in them. Such “relationships” are only ideas, figments, in certain people’s minds. We see evidence of this in how easily they are redefined, shuffled, or dissolved. And also how human power and money are required to enforce respect for such “relationships.”
Relationships in a family group, however, have markedly different characteristics. They are not just an idea. There is flesh and blood involved and a deep psychological connection (I would say also a spiritual connection, in that God’s giving of children also includes a spiritual call to care for them, and a call to the children to care for their parents as well). Not at all easy to dissolve or redefine.
Our human societies do try to redefine family relationships, however. These human groups often try to impose family roles and authority structures in accordance with their own laws or religion. That’s where families can start to look like other human institutions, inasmuch as they adopt the rules and roles of the society pressed upon them (or try to impose their own peculiar inventions). But there are real, natural, God-given relationships in families that struggle against these false impositions, making us yearn inside for a real father, perhaps, or maybe for the freedom to be a real child. We can try to redefine these relationships, or renounce them, but God and our own inner being resist when we attempt this.
That gives me hope for family. It’s not just another human institution, for us to shape and enforce and defend. It’s real relationships that God has created. Relationships that can be discovered and honored and submitted to, as we recognize how God has connected us to others with the love that is as real as He is.
There's been some reorganizing going on in the community here, and some of the changes have left me feeling very uneasy. Not that they're unusual at all. They are very common, even expected in most organizations, but that doesn't mean they're right or good, of course. And they don't seem to me to be the way of the body of Christ.
First is the introduction of leases for housing here. Not strange, except we've never had those before. Didn't seem to need them either. Everyone knew each other and there was friendship and trust to provide a sense that we wouldn't take advantage of one another. So it feels odd to have to sign a written agreement now, after six years living in the community. It feels as if the relationship is changing, from one of friendship to a business arrangement, a legal contract. And there'll be a signed document to prove it.
Second is the introduction of a "rule of life." I think it's really just an official belief statement for the community. I don't think anyone actually plans to guide their life by this document, as monks have done with their Rules over the ages. It seems to be an attempt to achieve more unity among the diverse people in the community here, by more clearly defining what it means to be a community member. I'm not sure to what extent allegiance to this document will be required. I may be able to avoid it by accepting the lowest level of "membership" (which puts us first in line to be bumped out if housing space is needed). In any case, again, not a good feeling. And again, an apparent redefining of relationships.
But, as I struggled with these developments, I realized that this redefining of relationship is not something an organization or institution can really do. Relationships are personal, between persons. Institutions (including churches and intentional Christian communities) claim to create and re-create relationships by vote or legislation, but that is an illusion. A lie. The reality depends on the individual persons involved in the relationship and the love between them, not any decree or document.
I don't care so much about signing a lease (if that's what is required to live in someone else's house). And the content of the community "rule of life" doesn't bother me. What bothers me is the group's attempt to define or control our relationships; that's the lie I want to resist. That's not a power granted to any human institution.
Jesus' little community offers a powerful contrast to this. Where was their "rule of life"? How were they united without a clear belief statement that all members publicly swore to? They were united, not around any document or doctrine, but around a person. And it was their relationship with that one person that held them all together as one. It was love. Love, which exists not on paper but only in relationship, is what kept them close to Jesus and to one another.
And it is this love in relationship that is the presence of God that still unites us. God unites us. God makes our relationships real. Not a piece of paper, or the human organizations that keep churning out those pieces of paper.
I just pulled some bread out of the oven. It's oatmeal bread, from the More With Less cookbook (Heather says her mom used to make this when she was little). On a cold day like today, it can take hours to rise. Moist and flavorful, and great toasted.
Mix in a large bowl:
1 c. quick oatsLet it cool until it's lukewarm, then add:
½ c. flour
½ c. brown sugar
1 T. salt
2 T. margarine
2 c. boiling water
½ c. waterAnd knead in approximately 5 cups of flour (or until dough is no longer sticky)
1 T. yeast
Let rise until doubled in size, then divide and shape into two loaves, place in pans, and let rise again (I let it rise until it clears the top of the pan). Bake 30-40 minutes at 350F.
A friend of ours is applying to a seminary and had to write an essay on "The Church." He wrote about some of the usual issues faced by churches today: declining membership, how to be relevant in the world, surviving. And I'm sure those are the challenges that seminary is trying to address.
But I think questions like these are really just concerns of our human institutions (churches or not) that have little to do with "the Church." The more organic biblical imagery for the church, such as "the body of Christ" or "I am the vine and you are the branches," point to something very different. If these are accurate, then the life and nature of church is not determined by us, but by Christ. It is not us, our choices or actions or constitutions, that make the church what it is. It's Jesus. The church is the corporate, communal manifestation of Jesus in the world. It is his presence and nature that make it what it is. If he is not in it, it is not the church. If it is not like Jesus, obeying him as head, doing his work, loving with his love, then it is not the church. This is not something we decide about or make happen. It's not an issue or challenge or question for us to solve. The church is, and can be nothing other than, Christ.
Of course that answers the concern about "survival" as well. Our institutions can die (they all will eventually, every one of them). But Christ will not. If nothing else, the resurrection demonstrates that. So we need not have any fear that the church will not survive. That's not a problem we need to concern ourselves with; if we're fighting for survival, then it's not the church we're fighting for.
The church lives because Christ lives. The church is compassionate and fearless and holy because that's what Christ is. These are not up to us. What is up to us is whether we will be a part of Christ's church or not. Whether we will accept the invitation and embrace of Jesus or not. Whether we will allow ourselves to be directed and inspired and moved by Jesus or not. The church's direction and nature and membership is not in our hands. All we can do is accept the church Jesus offers us, or reject it. Not once, but every moment of our lives.
On my bed I remember you.
On you I muse through the night
for your have been my help;
in the shadow of your wings I rejoice.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand holds me fast.
Heather noticed this entry from nine years ago, and thought I should post it again, as it's even more relevant now. I remembered it last year as I was thinking about the care of our older neighbor. Now every day I'm experiencing the juxtaposition of an old man's life and a new baby's, being constantly reminded of this:
One unique aspect of human life is our complete helplessness for a long time after birth. Other animals quickly become mobile and independent, but human beings need constant care for several years. Our first, most formative experience is one of complete vulnerability and dependence on others. And we usually end life much the way we began it. As we age, we become more and more dependent and vulnerable. I think there is a powerful meaning in this.
If it is true that the purpose of our lives is to impose our own will, then our human dependency and vulnerability can only be seen as an impediment to be overcome. Childhood would then be seen as something to be quickly grown out of, and old age something to be dreaded. And this does seem to be the view of many people.
On the other hand, if it is true that the real purpose of our lives is union with God, and that this comes not through imposing our own will but by surrendering to God’s will in faith, then the natural human experience looks much different. If our aim is complete dependence on God in faith, then childhood is a very good model for human life. As the child is dependent on the parents for care and protection and, though vulnerable and helpless, lives free and happy under the parents’ care, so we are to live under God’s care. Of course childhood is not voluntary. But as we mature and take control of our free will, we then have the choice whether to continue to follow the way of life we were born into, or leave childlike ways of dependence and pursue independence and power to take control of our environment. The choice is ours. And what we choose will shape our experience of life and also how we face the vulnerability of old age (if we don’t face it sooner through disease, injury, loss, etc). But it seems to me that childhood dependence reveals something of the meaning and ideal for our lives, and the similar vulnerability that slowly intensifies as we age calls us back to this and tests what we have learned.
Then our natural human vulnerability and dependence becomes, not a curse or impediment, but a gift. It is not meant to be conquered, but embraced. We are not meant to “outgrow” our childhood, but rather mature and see that our true dependence is meant to be directed towards God rather than other human beings. As children we completely trusted our parents, though this trust was sometimes misplaced. But it symbolized the true desire and goal of human life: To be completely dependent and trusting on God for care and protection and live in the joy and freedom of God’s love. And to help others do so as well.