In front of this child
she sees that soldier, one day,
casting himself down.
(previous years' haikus start here)
In front of this child
I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love,
because you have seen my affliction;
you have taken heed of my adversities,
and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy;
you have set my feet in a broad place.
O how abundant is your goodness
that you have laid up for those who fear you,
and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone!
In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots;
you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.
Blessed be the Lord,
for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me
when I was beset as a city under siege.
Love the Lord, all you his saints.
The Lord preserves the faithful,
but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily.
and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the Lord.
The result of the recent presidential election was a shock to many people here and around the world. It seems like a pretty destructive (and self-destructive) choice. And it’s very sad, because it looks like many of the most vulnerable people in our society and around the world will suffer the most because of it.
It seems clear, though, that this choice of president was a backlash. The result of an overwhelmingly strong uprising of people who are angry and hurting and scared and resentful. And where did that come from? Some of it, certainly was a result of changes in our society and the world that no one will be able to stop or undo. But a lot of it was a result of changes being forced on people by their leaders. That seemed to be the main focus of the anger and resentment: the lawmakers in Washington. Of both parties. Lots and lots of people have been growing more and more upset by what has been forced on them by government. And the new president is their angry response.
But of course it’s not just the lawmakers that have produced this anger. Those people were put in place and given their powers by a great number of other people. All of these people have worked together to forcibly gather people’s money and enact laws that other people also have to follow (whether they agree or not). That kind of thing pretty much always produces some level of anger and resentment. Looking back over the last decade or so, there’s been lots of signs that a response like this might be coming.
Most people think it’s okay (even necessary) to force others to do the “right” thing. (“Right” being determined by those in power, “the majority” in our case.) But Jesus didn’t do that. And he didn’t teach his followers to do that; quite the opposite. Jesus insisted that people do good only by their own free choice.
But we (in our “Christian nation”) instead imitate every other nation and, whenever we can, we force our neighbors to do what we think is best.
And they grind their teeth and scheme for their opportunity to do the same favor for us.
We had a really good retreat this past weekend (despite the leak from the bathroom above our kitchen). Focusing on Jn 6.66-69:
Many of Jesus' disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?"
Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
Heather wrote this fictional meditation to go with it:
I thought I knew what was happening. I don't anymore.
We were together, and strong. Following a man worth believing in—he woke us up, he brought us together. He made us strong. We used to sit by the fire, me and my friends, Joseph and James and Ben, talking about the latest thing he'd said, talking into the night. And we'd get up in the morning and there'd be new faces arrived with the dawn, crowding in and all talking at once, it's him, it's really him, and you had mothers crying for joy that they'd found him and they could get their little babies healed, and big men with gray in their beards talking seriously to each other: I thought I should come and hear him, how else could I decide if he's really from God?
Well, they heard him. And they decided no.
Now you wake up in the morning and you look around to see who left in the night.
He fed five thousand people on five loaves of bread. Can you imagine? No more hunger. They wanted to make him king, of course they did. I understand why he said no—I think—but I didn't think this would happen. I know he's said things some people didn't like. But it's like watching the wine leak out, after a wineskin has burst a seam. People simply turn around and go home. No, he's not from God. No, this is not the moment we have all been waiting for. Good-bye.
And how are we who've stayed supposed to keep on believing that it is?
I felt our strength, before; the vision we all saw together, the joy, the excitement. We had a destiny with him. How can you have a destiny when you're leaking people like a sieve? Now it's arguing, low voices, glances to the side. Because it gets worse. He has enemies. Rumors are spreading and this time it's not “He can cure anything.” There are people who say he's an enemy of God. We don't just travel the roads now like we used to. It's not safe.
I don't know what's happening anymore.
Joseph's gone. He walked out in the night, didn't even tell us. James went back to John the Baptist's group, where he came from—said he might have been wrong about Jesus—maybe not—but anyway John's got a clearer message, you know where you are with John. He said sorry, he needed to do this, and Ben and I watched him walk away, the road dust puffing up from his feet. Ben turned and looked at me.
“Don't tell me,” I said.
“Don't tell you what?”
“You're going too.”
“That's what I was going to ask you.”
We looked at the ground.
“I don't know,” I said finally.
I didn't sleep well that night. I kept waking. I dreamed of faces turned away from me, of walking down a long, long road that I never saw the end of, into nothing. I woke and saw the stars in the black sky above me and did not know why the sight made me so sad. I remembered what Peter had said two days before, when the Teacher asked if he and the Twelve were going to leave too. “To whom would we go?” I found tears in my eyes. I got up and slipped away, walked down the road by myself in the dark. The road went on and on in front of me and disappeared behind a hill. I walked, and I thought, to whom? where? I looked down the rest of my life, as if down that road. It's not that there was nothing in it exactly. I was pretty sure I could make my way.
But he wasn't in it.
When he spoke, I could see. All the confusion, all the wondering what my life meant, it was gone; like lightning flashing, and the night is turned to day. It was still that way, even after everything.
And it wasn't just that.
When I got back, Ben was awake. I could just see his open eyes, staring into the night. I sat down and heard him whisper, “I thought you'd gone too.”
“I had to think.”
He didn't say anything.
“I'm staying,” I said, and suddenly it seemed like I could breathe.
I didn't know how to talk about it. I never used to talk about that part and what it meant to me, because I don't like to brag. No use making other people resent you. See, he called me. Himself. He walked up to me and called me to join him. I know that doesn't happen for everybody. Lots of people find him on their own. Maybe he knew something about me. Maybe he knew the life I had wasn't what I wanted, though there were people who would've wanted it. Maybe he knew I wasn't ready to admit that. I never talked about it because I knew people wouldn't like it, so I never put words to the way I felt when I looked up and there he was and he said Come follow me. It was a shock. I was shocked that somebody knew me.
We were wrong, they say. There's no great destiny here. He's not from God, they say. I hadn't found the words before. Maybe I should've tried. Maybe I had to wait till God showed me what they were.
“People say this,” I told Ben, “and people say that. But if I admit it to myself, I know. I can't leave if I know. I can't lie. I can't go saying he's not from God. He brought God to me.”
I could barely see his eyes. I don't know what it was. Like the dark around us grew soft. A kind place to be. There was silence a long time. I lay down on my bed-mat again, and looked up at the stars. I was almost asleep again when I heard his whisper.
“Yeah,” he said. “I'm staying too.”
"For this I was born,
and for this I have come into the world,
to bear witness to the truth."
...they would search for God
and perhaps grope for him and find him—
though indeed he is not far from each one of us.
For “In him we live and move and have our being”... (Acts 17.27-28)
I’ve at times felt a bit concerned that I’ve been spending so little time doing “spiritual” work. Like preaching or writing about spiritual things, or even having those kinds of discussions. And instead, so much of my time is taken up with the everyday maintenance of things and people, feeding and washing and fixing. Not that I’ve found it so much less satisfying. But I’ve wondered if I’ve become caught up in pressing needs and distracted from the “higher things.”
If Paul’s words are true, though (as the mystics affirmed), that “In him we live and move and have our being,” then it looks a little different. If God is intimately involved with all things, not just prayer and preaching, then how is God spending his time? Not mostly in the “higher things.” Because those do not make up most of our lives. Most of our lives is the work of everyday maintenance, the feeding and the washing and the fixing. Those are the things we need. And we experience love when we are helped with those needs. So it is not surprising that God is in all these, too, shaping us through these things more steadily and persistently than in the more intense moments of prayer. Or perhaps the daily experiences in which we seem motionless actually provide the basis and energy that enable the leaps of more “spiritual” moments.
So if God’s work is in all things, and he is spending most of his time loving us through the feeding and washing and fixing we need, then shouldn’t I be content to spend most of my time doing those things with him?
My father died recently. The memorial was just a week ago, full of memories and joy and sadness. A great few days for our family. Dad would have been so happy to see it.
My niece Rachel sang. Really beautiful:
(the song I always use as a lullaby for Ian)
I recently dug up this great George Carlin clip to share with someone: "No right to complain"
The kingdom of God is among us. Not easily outlined like our organizations, but it is there, mixed in like leaven, the relationships between its members not outlined in any authority structure or membership requirement, crossing all denominational borders, undefined—yet strong as the most passionate love.
Like the unseen, unorganized web of our friendships. The kingdom of God is an organic community like that, untamed like nature, sprouting life through every crack in the sidewalk.
I wrote that while thinking about "organic community" six years ago, and have been drawn back to that idea again and again. The difference that can be felt between real, God-given friendships and organizational relationships. But I've had enough disappointments in friendships over the past six years that I can understand why people often depend on organizational relationships more. Personal relationships can be fickle and fleeting; not reliable in the long run. People come and go, but the organization (church, business, etc) remains there for you. Not really, but I can understand why people see it that way.
I've had enough disappointments to make me skeptical of a lasting community of friends. But that's not really what I long for, is it? The kingdom of God is an organic community, like friends or family, but it is not just that. Friends (and family) come and go, but the body that is Christ remains. I think this is experienced in God's care in bringing people into (and out of) our lives, supporting us with the living community he provides. It continues to change, and the particular people are often (always?) unreliable and disappointing at times. But the God who is the life of his community remains and is always worthy of our trust. That's why we can continue to enter into new relationships and love again, no matter how often we've been disappointed by people. The kingdom of God remains among us.
The more we recognize and experience that, the less we are fooled by the sad imitations offered by our human institutions.
I haven't been doing a lot of writing here lately, though still doing my share of living. I suppose I've been learning how many of these thoughts and ideas "survive the test of a man's life."
And I've been thinking maybe I should gather a few journal entries that seem to have withstood the test, that have been liveable and fruitful and are still important to me years later. Ones I find myself coming back to again and again. In no particular order (though perhaps the last one is the most important)...
It's not success or accomplishment that God wants from us. God can produce all the results, all the justice or abundance or peace that is needed at any time. What God asks of us is to will goodness, love, to will in harmony with God's will. God asks us to keep our attention and intention directed toward true and impossible goodness, not because we think we can accomplish it, but because we long to see God accomplish it and have faith that he will accomplish it.
In other words, God wants us to try...
—from "just keep trying"
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...
—from "this present moment"
We commonly think of idols as ancient, exotic things. Little carved statues that superstitious and simple-minded people bowed to in their homes and in their pagan temples. But I have become convinced that idols are, and always have been, us.
Not little carved images, not things at all. The idol is us. People, gathered into a collective, man-made “us.” We, the People...
—from "are we the people?"
Instead of work being a slavery, the part of our lives we must sell to “pay our own way,” the work Jesus encouraged was to be a free gift of love. Perhaps the best summary of this appeared when Jesus sent out his disciples to preach and heal, telling them, “You received without paying, give without pay.” (Mt 10.8) Their needs were going to be met by God (through others) as a gift, God´s love responding to their vulnerability. And all their talents and abilities and wisdom were also gifts from God, along with the energy they had and the motivation of love to use those abilities for the good of others. All gifts. So they were told to offer their work as a gift to others...
—from "come to me all ye who labor for a living"
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...
—from "there are no heroes in the kingdom of God"
The sermon at the Catholic church this week focused on the anawim. It's a Hebrew word meaning the poor, afflicted, lowly, humble, meek. It was sometimes used by the prophets to refer to God's faithful remnant, those oppressed ones who longed for God's deliverance.
What interested me was that the priest didn't just say we should respect or help the poor and oppressed, but pointed out that Jesus was one of the anawim himself...
—from "the anawim"
It was during this time that I remembered the words of Jesus that had been so important to me in years past: "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it." (Mt 10.39)
I had thought of "losing my life" mostly in the sense of letting go of possessions and advantages and ambitions. But now I began to think that a lot of a "life" is its place in society, a good reputation, the acceptance and cooperation of the people around us who have what we need. Being a somebody among those who are somebodies in our social circle. To lose this means not only losing people's help and material support, but also being rejected, ignored, unneeded, losing value in the eyes of the people that seem to make up our whole world. It seems to make us valueless as persons. Nobodies.
Yet Jesus apparently was drawn to society's nobodies, and followed a path that led to becoming a nobody himself, rejected, scorned, mocked...
—from "those who are considered of little or no value"
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)
—from "in weakness"
Ian, from out of the blue yesterday:
"I am here; don't be scared—that's what Jesus says."
There's been some changes and new people in the community here over the past year, and it's made things more stable. There's obvious benefits to that. But, as is often the case, more organizational strength has led to more community structure and authority. It's feeling to me like there's less space to move. But God continues to provide openings and cracks when we need them, through which we can walk in his freedom.
In resisting these developments, though, I sometimes wonder if it's worth it. The people involved aren't so bad and the changes aren't so oppressive (at least not yet). And the number of people affected are few. Is it a big deal?
Thinking about that, I was reminded of some beliefs that have been important to me, thoughts I wrote about in the essay, "Are we the people?" Reading that again, I'm stirred once more...
The owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were…. “You see, a bank or company… those creatures don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so…. The bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can't wait. It'll die. When the monster stops growing it dies. It can't stay one size….”
And at last the owner men came to the point. “The tenant system won't work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don't like to do it. But the monster's sick. Something's happened to the monster….”
“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours….”
“We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.”
“Yes, but the bank is made up of men.”
“No. You're wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it but they can't control it.
“…The monster isn't men, but it can make men do what it wants.”
That passage, from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, is perhaps the best description of human idolatry that I have ever seen. We commonly think of idols as ancient, exotic things. Little carved statues that superstitious and simple-minded people bowed to in their homes and in their pagan temples. But I have become convinced that idols are, and always have been, us.
Not little carved images, not things at all. The idol is us. People, gathered into a collective, man-made “us.” We, the People.
In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil wrote:
The Great Beast is the only object of idolatry, the only ersatz of God, the only imitation of something which is infinitely far from me and which is I myself.
It is impossible for me to take myself as an end or, in consequence, my fellow man as an end, since he is my fellow. Nor can I take a material thing, because matter is still less capable of having finality conferred upon it than [individual] human beings are.
Only one thing can be taken as an end, for in relation to the human person it possesses a kind of transcendence: this is the collective.
I love the Lord for he has heard the cry of my appeal;
for he turned his ear to me in the day when I called him.
They surrounded me, the snares of death, with the anguish of the tomb;
they caught me, sorrow and distress.
I called on the Lord's name: O Lord, my God, deliver me!
How gracious is the Lord, and just; our God has compassion.
The Lord protects the simple hearts; I was helpless so he saved me.
Turn back, my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has been good;
he has kept my soul from death, my eyes from tears,
and my feet from stumbling.
I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living.