Bone-tired, on straw,
but beside him sleeps the child.
And he remembers.
(previous years' Christmas haikus begin here)
Bone-tired, on straw,
but beside him sleeps the child.
And he remembers.
This past weekend a friend of a friend was passing through with his band and put on a concert for us. Really intimate and fun, with the kids dancing in the back. Heather and I especially enjoyed Hilary Watson and Kate Feldtkeller playing together, including this original song:
“Do you commit yourself to Common, Spirit-directed decision-making with your brothers and sisters who are part of Plow Creek Fellowship?”
That commitment is the topic of discussion here in a couple weeks. I usually don’t go to community meetings, but I think I will go to this one. Because this “Common, Spirit-directed decision-making” is the very reason I stopped attending these meetings years ago.
In Christian communities, when group decision-making is discussed, the emphasis is usually on discerning God’s will. Trying to pray and listen and discuss together in order to hear God’s voice and encourage each other to do what God wants us to do. The idea is that we can help each other hear God better. And I agree with that (though there are plenty of historical examples of times when an individual heard God’s voice more clearly than the group).
If “Common, Spirit-directed decision-making” was only about discernment, then I would certainly support it and participate. But it’s not just about listening to God and helping each other listen. It’s also about making a group decision. A decision that is backed by the power of the group, the social and economic power, a decision that is enforced by that power. If there is mostly consensus, then this power may not be noticed often. But when there is unresolved disagreement, then the majority ends up pressuring or forcing some people to do something they don’t want to do. Perhaps this usually occurs over minor issues. But sometimes it involves, say, pressuring someone into a job they don’t want, or maybe forcing them out of a job. Or out of a house. Or raising rents. Issues that impact people’s lives deeply (which is why they fight over them). I’m not just talking about this community here, but in any communal-type Christian group. I’ve lived in three over the past fifteen years and witnessed many examples of the power of the group being applied forcefully.
This is the part that I see diverging from Jesus’ teaching and example. We didn’t get this decision-making model from Jesus, but from the (very un-Christlike) society around us. Jesus certainly helped others discern God’s will. But when there wasn’t agreement about what God’s will was, Jesus didn’t force anyone to submit to his judgment, or to the group’s. (Take Judas, for example.) Jesus tried to get people to do the right thing, but he insisted they do it freely, not under pressure or coercion.
So that’s what I think we should be doing as well. Not just to avoid the hurt and resentment that people feel when they’re coerced by the group (though that’s certainly important). But to show that what God’s Spirit really wants is our freely given love, not merely our obedience. And to bear witness that we trust in God’s power, not the power of the group.
Some may see this opting out of decision-making as opting out of the community. But it seems to me that these meetings are a very small part of community life. The vast majority of our time is not spent in decision-making meetings but in sharing life together and working together, caring for our neighbors, our families, and others outside the community, and trusting others to care for us. This is what community life means to me.
I think Jesus demonstrated that the administrative structures and authority of group decision-making are not needed in a community inspired and directed by God’s Spirit. We don’t need it, and it undermines our purpose as followers of Jesus.
We had a retreat last weekend, a really good one. Great guys; we knew most of them from previous retreats. Ian did great, too. We talked about the story of Thomas demanding to touch Jesus' scars, but instead of focusing on Thomas's unbelief, we focused on the scars. The meaning of Jesus' scars and how our scars can be like his, evidence of God's power. Heather wrote a fictional meditation for it, too. It's from the perspective of another disciple, Simon the Zealot:
All of my scars have stories. But there's none of them I like to tell.
The oldest two, on my arms, are from my father. You can barely see them now. I can see them just like they were, if I think about it. I can see his face just like it was, too. Why would I want to think about it?
The mess on my left leg and arm is from the Romans. I was fifteen. Some officer, going somewhere important in his long red cloak, just rode me down on his horse. I was in the way, and what did he care about some Jewish boy? The rocks beside the road took chunks out of my leg, and my arm up to the shoulder. The wounds turned bad. I was sick with fever for a week and they thought I would die. But I guess he got where he was going on time.
The men in our village talked about it for weeks. But there was nothing they could do. What did Rome care?
It's not exactly the kind of story you brag on.
I suppose that's part of why I joined the Zealots, in the end. Why I decided to fight them. There were other reasons. I wanted to free our country. But the look on my father's face when he said “There's nothing we can do,” and the pain and anger in my belly when I saw it, those things are burned into me as hard as the thick hard lines and ridges on my skin.
I suppose that's why I don't like to tell the stories. There are other scars. The ones you can't see hurt longer. I don't know how long. I don't know if they stop.
The other scars are from the fights that came after that. Battles, I suppose you could call them. The one on my face is one of those, the one people ask about. They generally expect me to be proud, to want to talk about it. There is some of it I'm still proud of, but I don't care to talk about it. One memory brings back another. Believe me, putting a sword into another man and pulling it out is not a thing a man wants to remember.
Those days are gone, of course, since I chose to follow Jesus. I chose to fight for a different kind of freedom. He sent me out preaching, going around the country with the others, telling people the kingdom of God had come. He taught us so much. We saw the power of God in him, and the kindness of God; we saw lepers healed and the dead come to life. We saw him come into Jerusalem in triumph, not at the head of an army, but riding on a donkey with the people all shouting for joy and waving branches. And then the Romans got him after all. The Romans and our own people, our so-called leaders, the cowards. I've seen death enough to know it, but I saw Hell that day.
When the women came to us three days later and said they'd seen angels, when Peter and John came and said he was alive again, I thought hard. He was different from any man I'd known, and I had believed God was in him. If anyone on earth could do such a thing, it wouldn't be anyone but him. But I held back. I'll admit: I held back because I was afraid to be a fool. To be made a fool of by hope.
He came to us that night, very late. We were still awake, with one lamp burning. He wasn't there, and then he was. Someone cried out. He looked like a spirit in the flickering light, like his spirit come to say goodbye on his way to God. That's what we thought he was.
Then he spoke.
He spoke, and his voice had life and blood and strength in it, as much as it ever had when he'd stood up on a hill and shouted his teaching to the crowds. “It's me,” he said. “I'm alive. Look at my hands and feet. Touch me. See if it's me.”
I lit another lamp. I cupped the flame in my hands till it blazed high. And there in the flare of light I saw it. He was reaching out his hand to Matthew, and there on his wrist was the place they'd driven the nail through. It was healed. He'd been dead three days, and it was the clean pink of a fresh-healed scar. And then I looked further, and there in his left side I saw a thing I'd never seen in my life—a thing I could swear no-one had ever seen. I saw the scar of a mortal wound, fresh-healed just like the other.
No-one could have survived a blow like that one. I've seen men take wounds like that, and I know. It went in, right to the heart. And there it was, that awful hole in his side, new-healed just like all the other scars. Testifying. It was him. He had been killed, and he was alive. God was in him, and all our hope had come again.
I believed. The scars did that for me. But I don't know that I would have learned the other thing, the stranger thing, if I hadn't seen what they did for Thomas.
Thomas wasn't there that night. He was afraid, I think. I don't know where he hid, but he came back to us at dawn, and when he heard what had happened he accused us of lying. Then changed his mind on the instant, before we could get angry, and said we must have dreamed it, it couldn't have been real. He said he'd believe it when he'd touched those scars we spoke of, when he'd put his hand in that hole. I saw the tears standing in his eyes, though he turned away to hide them.
It was days before Jesus came again. We stayed together, talking of what we'd seen, of what we ought to do. Thomas said nothing at all. He barely ate. When the others tried to tell him again that it was true, he turned away.
Thomas was my friend. I seem like a hard man to most people, I suppose. But I know how hard life can be when you're young, and it was hard for Thomas. I did what I could for him. It wasn't much.
Then Jesus came to us again.
He wasn't there, and then he was. And he was standing by Thomas. Thomas staggered to his feet. Looking at him. He never took his eyes off his face. I saw the tears start in them when Jesus said “Peace be with you.” And he still stood there just looking at him, looking into his eyes. He never looked down at all till Jesus told him outright to look at the scars.
“Put your hand in my side,” he said, and Thomas looked at him, and I saw his hand reach out, just a little, and draw back. It was shaking. But it wasn't fear. His eyes were wide. He seemed not to be sure it was allowed. Not to be sure he was allowed.
And I looked again at that wound, that open path into his heart. Those holes torn in his wrists and in his feet. He would have them forever, by the look of them. I realized I was rubbing one of the scars on my arm, the one the Romans gave me before I could even fight back.
I remembered what he'd said, what we hadn't understood till later: that he would give his life as a ransom for many. That was the story of these scars. The story of how he had been killed and yet here he was alive. Of how—though I didn't quite understand it all yet—he had saved us all.
But it was also the story of how men drove nails through his wrists, and he could do nothing to stop them. It was also the story of how he hung there nailed to a beam, and a soldier put a spear into his heart.
Thomas reached out his trembling hand, awe in his eyes, and put his hand into that wound. He looked like he was touching something holy. Something that had death in it, and life. The power of God, and the kindness of God.
And standing there watching him, I saw that he was. And he knew it. He saw those scars for exactly what they were.
And I wanted to touch them too.
God chooses to care about us, to value us
Each of us
This grants us true value
Objective, unquestionable value
This value doesn’t depend on what we do or achieve
It isn’t increased when we succeed or grow
It doesn’t decrease when we fail or weaken
It isn’t greater than the value of the person next to us
It is the gift of God to each of us
An act of God
Not to be taken away
It is not how much other people value us
Or how much we value ourselves
We can only embrace it in faith
That the value God has given us is the truth
Be humble and do not fear
For our wedding, eight years ago, we were given two Grandiflora peace rose bushes. They almost died the first winter, when we didn't protect them. But after a seemingly miraculous recovery, they have grown very well over the years, producing lots of large roses. They would usually grow almost 6 feet tall every season.
I carefully protected them every winter since that first one. But two winters ago, it was a terribly hard one. Bitter cold and lasting weeks longer than any other winter we've seen here. When the spring came, I saw a tiny shoot start on each rose bush, but then they both quickly withered.
Because of the unexpected revival after that first winter, I watched and hoped for another sign of life. For months I watched. They were our wedding roses, after all, and I'd cared for them for years. But nothing. By fall, I decided I ought to dig up the dead stumps, to clear room in the flowerbed. The roots were so deep and tough, I ended up having to just break off the first one. Then when I came to the second one, I stopped, astonished. There was a little shoot. It was alive.
Of course there was no chance for it to grow then, it was too late in the season. I knew also that there was little chance for it to last until spring. It had lain dormant through one long, hard winter already, then gone a whole season with no growth, no chance to gather strength from the sun, and now another winter was coming. But I covered it carefully anyway, and fertilized it. I'd at least give it the help I could.
But I wasn't very hopeful for that rose bush this spring when I uncovered it. How could it possibly have survived? I kept looking for life, wanting to see it, all the while telling myself that looking didn't make much sense.
We did a retreat a couple months ago, and Heather wrote a new story for it, but I forgot to put it here. It's from the perspective of Andrew...
When he called us, we had just spent two days repairing our nets.
Not storm days, either; we had just spent two good fishing days sitting on the shore tying knots. We had to. Our last net had torn the day before, the big one; we'd been trying to make it through on that one till the next chance to make repairs, and then it caught on a rock deep under the lake and tore a long gash all through it. Simon claimed we'd caught some strange creature that had thrashed its way loose through our net; I told him we were lucky that rock hadn't been any higher, and he'd better remember the place so we could avoid it from now on. We had plenty of time to argue on it, sitting there tying hundreds of little knots, watching Zebedee and his sons out there on the water hauling up gleaming loads of fish.
And I have to say Simon never stopped tying, even to gesture about that creature of his, though anyone who's met him knows Simon scarcely has the patience for a job like that. But he'll do what he has to do. And if there's one thing a fisherman has to do, it's care for his boat and his nets. A fisherman's roof can leak, his door can hang broken for months, but his nets and his boat, they're his life. He depends on those to fill the bellies under that roof.
So as I say, we were fishing that evening with our new-mended nets; an early start, out on the water as soon as the sky'd grown dark enough so you couldn't see a shadow. Fish'll flee from the shadow of a boat, and we couldn't afford to go without a catch after two days mending. We had just found a good place and were laying out our biggest net, spreading it through the water in as wide a circle as we could get with just the two of us. It's delicate work; you can't let the net fold down over itself, or it'll tangle instead of spreading, and the fish will flee while you haul the thing out to start again. We were almost done, and a neat job too, when Simon turns and looks at the shore.
“Simon!” I say. “Look to what you're doing!”
“It's him,” he says. “Over there.”
Him? I glanced over. And it was him, and my hand lost all sense of how the net was meant to go, and Simon dropped his end, and the net folded instantly and tangled. Because it was the man himself, Jesus, out on the shore in the dusk light, and his hands were cupped around his mouth, calling, and it was plainer every second he was calling to us.
I hadn't even been certain we'd see him again. John the Baptizer had pointed to him and told us he was the Messiah, and we'd thought the time was at hand, and then he'd left and gone home to Galilee and John had been killed for a stupid king's pride. So Simon and I had gone home to Galilee too, because what else do you do when things fall apart? We came home and found our nets still there where we'd stored them. When nets fall apart, you can mend them with your own two hands.
Simon turned the sail and tacked into the wind, trying to get near enough to hear what the man—the Messiah!—was saying. He was making broad gestures now, beckoning us in. I pulled on the net, trying to set right the tangle, but the sudden turn made it worse. It was in such a snarl now it was all I could hope to haul it up without another tear. I could see another hour wasted, sitting on the shore untangling the thing. I got most of it in the boat, till something snagged down near the waterline; then I turned again to the shore, where the wind was carrying Jesus' words to us over the water.
“Come with me!”
With him? I looked at Simon, who didn't look back at me, his hand on the tiller and his gaze locked on the man. Did he really mean come with him—not just—
“Come with me, and I will make you fishers of people!”
He did mean come with him. Him. Us to be disciples of the Messiah? Fishing for people. To bring people in to follow him, did he mean—the Messiah—
Simon didn't take his eyes off him, but me, I looked back at the nets. This wasn't like going off to the Jordan for a time to be baptized and hear what John had to teach. If the Messiah wanted us—the Messiah!—well, then we'd mended our nets for nothing, that's what.
The boat beached in a crunch of sand and slap of waves, and Simon jumped out into the shallow water and began to run up the sand. I gave another tug on the nets, my eyes picking out the mended places, all those knots we'd tied. The end of the net still trailed in the water, and I couldn't bring it up over the side. What was going to happen to our boat? Who would take it—would they care for it? Would they scrape the hull over rocks and fail to mend it? What would we live on without our nets to pull fish from the lake? We had no other skill. Only fishing.
And fishing for people—perhaps we had that skill. He seemed to think so. He himself!
“Should we come with you now, Teacher?” Simon was saying. “Where are you staying? What are you doing?”
“Yes, come with me. I am going round Galilee preaching the good news. The kingdom of God is among us now.”
The kingdom of God. The Messiah wanted us, to join him, to fish people into the kingdom of God. If his kingdom was among us, God must have these things in hand. What are you so afraid of, Andrew? Do you still think it will all fall apart? So many things do, in this world. For a moment I thought of God's hands tying knots. Hundreds of knots.
Millions of knots.
I left the end of the net trailing in the water, and jumped out of the boat.
I’ve been feeling pretty down on myself these past few months. Partly because of the experience of being a new parent, I think, and partly because of growing older. When things go badly with a baby, you pretty much have to admit it’s not the baby’s fault. It’s not always my fault either, I know. But it often has been. And I’m seeing more and more my limitations and faults with the perspective of my forty-plus years. This is probably a good thing, seeing myself more honestly, truthfully. But it hasn’t felt the greatest.
So, appropriately for the season, I’ve been really appreciating the meaning of forgiveness and grace lately. It’s much simpler, and more powerful, than I had previously realized.
God’s forgiveness and grace allows us to be with God in the present moment. That’s all, really. And everything.
As I’ve been painfully aware recently, fear and shame tear us away from God and away from the present. Fear throws us into a future we are not ready for. Shame drags on us from the past, a past we cannot change or erase. But it’s only in the present moment that we can act. And it’s in the present moment that God exists. To have our attention continually diverted from the present keeps us both isolated from God and incapable of acting rightly.
What God’s grace and forgiveness offers is a reconnection with God, now. Not just once in our lives, at a unique moment of conversion, but at every moment. We no longer have to be driven by fear and shame but can exist with God in the present moment, act with God’s love in the present moment. And it doesn’t matter if our lives up to this point have demonstrated that we do not have the strength or the wisdom or the love to do the right thing. Of course we don’t. God has the strength and the wisdom and the love. Is anything more than that needed? Can anyone possibly add anything to that? What we are offered is God’s strength and wisdom and love in this present moment, to live, to act, this moment.
That is the essence of hope, no matter what our life has been, no matter how little of it is left here on earth. And that is what life really is. Not the sum of our past experiences or accomplishments, or even relationships. Life is to exist and love and act with God, in this present moment.