well-being and comfort

Saw this quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn today, and it seems like a good thing for me to hear right now:

Long periods of well-being and comfort are in general dangerous to all. After such prolonged periods, weak souls become incapable of weathering any kind of trial. They are afraid of it. Yet it is a fact that difficult trials and sufferings can facilitate the growth of the soul. I know there is a widespread feeling that if we highly value suffering this is masochism. On the contrary, it is a significant bravery when we respect suffering and understand what burdens it places on our soul.

And I don't say that just because Heather left yesterday for two weeks...


good discussion

The visit to the Catholic Worker house in Champaign went great. Heather got back just in time to go with me and I was so glad she was there. I even found this Dorothy Day quote from a (very) old journal to use:

Where are our Catholic college youth who will turn their unemployment into a vocation and use it to tramp around the country like St. Francis and share the gospel with these forgotten ones?
I copied that down even before I joined the Dominicans, several years before I first went out walking.

There were eleven people at the CW discussion and they responded well. Good participation and even some heated debate, since there was a nice mix of people from different perspectives and backgrounds. There are only three people volunteering full time in the house there, but many others who help in the soup kitchen or food pantry part-time. I was glad to see so many involved in what they are doing there.


that time of year again

Getting in the Christmas mood...


july 17, 2000

Here's the last story from my journals that I think I'll use at the Catholic Worker. It's supposed to be about the challenge pilgrimage offers, focusing on the image of the tax audit:

That church was definitely the right place to go. The Sunday school was stimulating--good discussion, for the first time in three weeks. Then, before the service starts, a guy comes up and says he passed me walking twice in the last two days, and he invites me to dinner...

I talked over an hour each with the pastor, his wife, and their son, whose home I visited. Many of the challenges of pilgrimage came out in conversation, more than with anyone else I've met, which pleased me. ...I had dinner and supper, stayed the night, and everyone was friendly and inquisitive. At the evening prayer meeting, the pastor's daughter gave me a lunch to take today and another man (her husband?) slipped me an envelope with $25 in it. I slept great and had a good breakfast before I left (also got a shower and my laundry done). A very open and giving family who definitely knows the love of God.

An interesting scene as I left: They were being audited by the IRS. I suddenly saw all the challenges about business and politics drawn together in one image. The IRS auditor coming to their house as they scrambled to put receipts and numbers in order. They had a beautiful house, too (which he built himself, with bargain materials--though the auditor might be skeptical). Taxes, the price to pay for a ruler (as God warned when Israel begged for a king: 1 Sam 8). And here is not just taxes but the threat of punishment if they're not done right. Lots of anxiety, of course. Also the full weight of possessions, all in a pile of receipts and bills ("Walmart has a lot of our money," he says)--he's self-employed, so it's all under scrutiny. Both husband and wife were scurrying around the papers at 8am; the auditor comes tomorrow. As I walked away, with a very light pack, I said I'd pray for them. I pray they (and everyone) be released from the economic and political yoke. But it's really a yoke we each take on ourselves. A very different yoke than the one Jesus called "easy"--his yoke, a relief for the laborer, the overburdened. Just watch an audit and see how different it is.

On the way out of town, I walked by an ice cream/dairy delivery truck and the driver jumped out and ran over to me with an ice cream cone. No explanation, just a smile.


april 18, 2001

Next, I wanted to tell a couple stories about the challenge that my walks offered to the people I met. This is a classic from the second year. It illustrates several of the kinds of responses I got from people:

Last night, I found a little Lutheran church right where I needed it, but there was a meeting going on, so I waited. When I asked the first ones out about sleeping outside the church, they sounded doubtful. One went back to ask the pastor. When he came back out, he shook his head. "I know this doesn't sound very Christian... I know this sounds like we're sending you away...," he said.

But I called him on it. "It doesn't just sound unchristian; it doesn't just sound like you're sending me away. You are sending me away." He talked about insurance and the sheriff, and something vague about vagrancy laws. I said I would leave, but reminded him of Matthew 25. Then he got defensive and said that Paul told us to obey the authorities, which are instituted by God. His knowledge of scripture was weak and his position was indefensible, but I didn't argue with him. These words just popped out: "It seems God has put you in quite a quandary, hasn't he?" "Yes, he has," the man said quietly, as he walked away with his head down.

But there's more. As I was gathering my stuff to leave, the pastor came out, with several other people. "You understand the situation..." the pastor began. He also mentioned insurance, and what the sheriff would do if he found me there. "What the sheriff does is up to the sheriff. I'm more interested in what you will do," I replied. A bold man stepped up, claiming to be in charge of church security, and was eager to take full responsibility for sending me packing. He mentioned laws and vagrancy, saying, "I don't mean to insult you..." And again a reply jumped out of my mouth: "Jesus was not ashamed to be homeless--and neither am I."

Then a little old lady, the pastor's wife, stepped in. She had finally sized up the situation. "Do you need a place to stay? We can take you down to the place down the road..." She looked at her husband, "You know, the motel down there..." And the pastor immediately assented. The church "security guard" was struck silent and seemed to fade from the scene. Peace. Then we were at the motel, with the room paid for, and I was thanking the pastor's wife. "He's really a good man," she said. "Sometimes our advisors lead us astray," I replied, "I'm just glad for him and for the church that he has you for an advisor."


april 9, 2001

I didn't often find myself in very scary situations, but here's another story of God's protection when I was feeling a bit worried:

I came to this church just as the evening service was starting last night. A communion service. So I communed with the Baptists yesterday evening, after communing with the Catholics yesterday morning. An older couple offered me some canned food and crackers from a donation box. And the pastor said I could sleep outside the church, though he warned me that this was a rough area (drug trade). Several, including the pastor, gave me the usual "Good Luck!" as they smiled and went about their business.

Then I met "The Doorkeeper." He wore a full beard and shaggy long hair, and was making the rounds to lock up all the church buildings. He approached me and we talked. "I don't really work here," he said "but somehow I got the keys to the kingdom." He'd been homeless himself, at one time. Maybe that helped him to be more sensitive to my needs. He saw that the mosquitoes were attacking me, and knew that this was a dangerous area, so he opened up one of the buildings and let me sleep inside (despite the fact that he had gotten into trouble doing this before). There was a bathroom, and cushions to sleep on. And time to give my socks and shirt a good washing.

I commented on how I often found generosity in the strangest places, like from an alcoholic at a bar rather than a pastor at a church. He said he had stayed out of churches because of the hypocrisy. "I'd rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than dwell inside with the wicked," he said, then admitted "that's my own version" of the psalm (84.10). He gave me $5 and took off. Now, I don't agree that the people inside the church are "the wicked," but they sure made a poor showing compared to The Doorkeeper.


july 30, 2000

Here's another early story that I thought I'd use to talk about God's protection:

A little brown butterfly, with orange and white splotches on its wings, is enthralled with my socks. It keeps licking them. I just left the church, where God overwhelmed me again. Good rest last night, kept dry, then I discover there's a potluck after the service today. I still had $3, but I didn't know of any store nearby. I talked to a number of people before and during the service, then at the dinner the pastor made me introduce myself and say a little about my trip. I stammered out something. But during the meal, the pastor secretly took up an offering for me. He presented it as we finished eating: $75! I was so surprised, I blushed in front of everyone and didn't know what to say. [When I tried to give some of that collection back, the minister said, "God gave you that much, you're probably going to need it."]

That evening, as I was walking through yet another cornfield just before dark, looking for a town to appear, a trucker picked me up. Within an hour, I was sixty miles closer to Chicago, almost in the southern suburbs. But it was dark. And as I wandered down the expressway off-ramp, I saw only city. Not an easy place to find a safe spot to curl up. But I did see some motels, and I did have an unusually large amount of money in my pocket at that moment. The motels were near the expressway, and almost full, so they were pretty expensive. But I got a room on my second try, with $9 left over. I called Tim so we could arrange to meet in the morning. Suddenly, I was here!

...I had been wanting a ride in a semi, but assumed it was against company policy since no trucker ever offered. Well, I got my ride. But it wasn't so pleasant. The young driver soon made it clear that he was looking for "companionship," and I suddenly felt very vulnerable. [The trucker had changed careers after losing his young wife and daughter in a car accident, and was still very distraught over it.]

Nothing came of it, and the guy even diverted his route to get me closer to Chicago, so overall I could only be grateful. But trucking wasn't what I expected. It felt very cold; a hard world. I also met an older driver outside the motel who had a scar across his throat where a robber had cut him, attempted to murder him, really. A hard world. The voices on the CB radio provided the fitting imagery: anonymous, disembodied, often foul--words without thickness floating through space. Symbolizing loneliness and isolation, strangers sliding by each other, hardened lives. Fear, too; I can see why they don't pick people up. They roam the same roads I do, but the journey is not the same; the difference is immeasurable.


may 22, 2001

I think I'll also use this story to talk about God's provision while I was on the road. It happened on my second trip (from Florida to Denver and back). I had made it into Colorado by this time, but it was still about 250 miles to Denver and I wasn't sure when my friend Michael was leaving for Greece. I was also a little worried because towns are spread much further apart in that part of the country, I'd run out of food and money, and it looked like it might rain much of the day:

Saturday morning I was waiting for the rain to stop, not at the Mormon church but at another one that offered better shelter. Some cars pulled up at 6am [very strange]. One rolled over and asked me what I was waiting for. And within 15 minutes, two of the drivers came over and said, "Going to Denver, huh? Well, we're going to Denver." A youth trip to the amusement park a half-mile from my destination. I had gone to sleep the night before with only enough food for breakfast, and 14 cents in my pocket. As it turned out, that was plenty. Because I was here in Denver by lunch time.

It also turned out to be perfect timing to visit Michael here: he arrived the day before I did, and he's leaving tomorrow--for five weeks.


june 5, 2000

Yesterday I gathered some stories to share at the Catholic Worker. Maybe I'll post them here, too. This one is from my first walk, only a couple days after I started out without any money. It shows some of my early questions. And it's also just interesting, I think:

I had a good breakfast yesterday--the last food I bought with the pastor's money. Then I walked all day and ate nothing. I had planned to ask for food, but when it came time for lunch... which house should I stop at? I didn't just want to get fed. I hoped to go where the sharing could be a blessing for everyone involved. And I wanted my 'begging' to be set apart from other beggars (hobos, etc.) in that it was more clearly guided by God and an act of faith--not just scouring the neighborhood for food. "Is not life more than food?"

...And after the pastor gave without my asking, I wondered. It would certainly be something of a miracle to survive without money and without even asking. Not that I rejected begging; I think we should ask each other for help, when we really need it. But it seemed to give greater glory to God to let him initiate my sharing with people--let him choose, while I wait. So I waited. Two o'clock, 3, 5, nothing. I didn't feel overly hungry, but what was taking God so long? Six... 7:30... I felt a little weak, not starving, though. But I complained: "Is it too much to ask that you bless my pilgrimage in this way?" I don't have the miracle of healing; what about the miracle of bread? Couldn't that be a sign of God's favor, his providence, in a seemingly impossible situation? I began to doubt, however, as 8pm rolled around: Would I even be able to find a place to sleep tonight?

O ye of little faith! I stopped to get water at the WV-MD state line. Just then, a man walked up with his dog and started asking questions. I told him a little, but asked for nothing. Then he points out his house across the street and off-handedly says he has plenty of room, if I need a place to stay. I shouldn't have been surprised. I think I surprised him a little when I accepted. He showed me around, then asked if I had eaten (I hadn't mentioned food at all). The next thing I knew, I'm eating stew, a huge salad, chicken, macaroni and cheese, even an ice cream bar! A shower! A bed! And we talked until almost midnight. He is a lonely man, I think. He's suffered great losses and is trying to get his life back together. I don't know if my words helped, but he seemed thrilled to have the company. He thought I might have a corporate sponsor, like Nike. I told him God is my sponsor...

I didn't leave the man's house till after lunch. Made eggs for breakfast and did dishes before he got up, then talked until lunch. Incredible. He had lost his wife and almost all his friends to cancer, and two daughters to SIDS. He feels extremely alone and is often on the brink of despair. The spice rack in his kitchen was filled with prescription drugs--no room for spices. But our talk was beautiful. He felt it was a message from God, saying don't give up. We also talked about suffering, faith, single-mindedness, and Christ. After lunch, he invited me to stay but I felt I should continue; he gave me a sandwich, $15, and a ride eight miles up the road, on his way to an errand. He looked rejuvenated, and I certainly felt that way, too. I am fed, rested, clean, and blessed by an overwhelming affirmation from God. He put me where I was needed. I've been walking about two inches above the road all afternoon.


on the road again?

Heather and I spent Sunday afternoon together, talking about the possibility of walking together. I'm getting more and more excited about it. Or scared. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

Reading "On Pilgrimage" reminded me of some good things. Aspects of the walking I really liked, and have missed since then. For example, the simplicity and universality of the symbolism involved. The obvious vulnerability and dependence on God for "daily bread" and protection in what seems like a hostile environment (especially to a poor stranger). And how that communicates what faith is. When I wrote that essay in January 2001, my focus was primarily on faith as "dying to self." Which I still think is true, but lately I've been focusing more on faith as radical dependence on God, which may be the deeper truth. A very important thing to preach.

Also the image of the pilgrim is really great. I loved this picture from Iraq, for example:

The pilgrim image is a classic in the history of Christianity. There's a challenge in it, a rejection of the security and comforts society offers (always with strings attached). Living outside the bounds of society's accepted roles and institutions. And there's purpose and meaning in it. Direction. Not just struggling for survival, but going somewhere. Not "settling down" here on earth, because we're headed for home.

And I love how it catches people's attention and imagination. And raises questions. Brings out the best and worst in people.

Years ago, I'd dreamed of having a partner. But recently I'd thought my pilgrim travels were behind me. Now I find myself thrilled to think that maybe Heather and I can go out together. I think it would be very different with her (and more challenging in a good way). Her friendliness and ease with people would draw us into a lot more and better encounters, I imagine. And her desire to be with and care for the poor might help us be of better service to the most needy, something I've felt was a shortcoming in my past walks. This may all be an answer to some deep groanings of my heart. At least it feels that way so far.


back to the beginning

It feels like I'm running out of gas with this series of posts (started Sept 29th). Maybe because I'm not really adding much new to my first draft any more, so it feels like I'm just rehashing what I already wrote. And when I reread the original, it even seemed better (more focused at least) then what I've been doing here recently. So I think I'll just re-post a link to download the original short draft: "My power is made perfect in weakness" (it's a RTF file, so any word processor should be able to handle it, 12 pages).

A recent surprise: Heather said she might like to go out on the road with me. That was big because I'd thought my walking days were behind me, but hadn't been able to find anything that might replace the experience (and witness) of it. When she suggested it, I found myself suddenly excited about the idea.

I'm also supposed to go to a Catholic Worker house early next month and lead the Friday night discussion. They wanted to hear some stories from the road. And I thought I could tie in recent thoughts as well, so I suggested the topic, "On Pilgrimage: practicing radical dependence on God." Maybe I'll start gathering some thoughts for that and post them here.

I think I'll get into it by looking back at some of my road journals, maybe starting with the essay I wrote about the fundamentals: "On Pilgrimage." And see how well it fits with recent thoughts...


respecting freedom

We like to imagine that evil is some external enemy that we can attack and destroy, whether it be demonizing a person or a disease or doctrine or social system. But Jesus knew evil was internal, in the intentions of people’s hearts. In the people he did not want to destroy but save.

This makes the problem much more difficult. Evil cannot simply be attacked and destroyed; people must freely choose to turn away from it and turn towards God. We cannot force others to do this. We can restrain actions, or even end lives, but this does not help people give up their own willfulness and depend completely on God’s will in faith. Using force and violence on others does not help them open their hearts.

And we see that Jesus also responded to the evil in others without using force or violence on them. He named the evil and called them to change, but did not try to make them change. He addressed the evil in their hearts without trying to forcibly restrain their actions. An example of this is found in the scene where a woman who had been caught in adultery is brought to Jesus. Evil has been done by the woman (and her partner) and now others are prepared to punish her by stoning, right in front of Jesus. What is his response?

And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” (Jn 8.1-11)
Jesus does not jump up to stop the killing, but calmly writes on the ground. He does not try to forcibly restrain the crowd at all. Instead, he points out their own sin (and the implied need for forgiveness) and so recommends forgiveness. In this case, the killing is avoided. But Jesus did not prevent it from happening; if they had not freely chosen to walk away, the woman could have died. Here Jesus shows that his struggle with evil (in others) is not a struggle to prevent external actions, but an attempt to free people from the evil in their own hearts. And we see that in the end Jesus also points to the evil in the woman’s heart, hoping that the mercy she has experienced will help her change too.

Our response to evil is almost always a resort to force and violence. Even those who avoid physical violence themselves often use legal force (which is backed up by the government’s physical force) or economic force, trying to pressure others into certain behaviors by hurting their business or source of income. This may be effective in controlling actions. But it does not soften hearts. It does not help people see and turn away from their evil willingly.

Jesus’ way of respecting the freedom of even his enemies and those who do evil showed the best way to love people in those circumstances. He did not try to restrain or destroy those who did evil, not even for the sake of protecting their potential victims, but tried to save every person. From the evil in their own hearts.


against evil

Jesus taught his followers to “turn the other cheek” and “do not resist one who is evil.” Yet he did not teach them to ignore evil, and he did not ignore it himself.

Jesus responded to evil first by rejecting it himself, and living in a very different way than those around him. But he also directly addressed the evil he saw in those around him. His challenging words to the religious leaders of his time, “Woe to you, hypocrites!,” are very familiar and he had similar words for many others who rejected God’s way:

“Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. …Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” (Lk 6.24,26)

Then he began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” (Mt 11.20-22)
Jesus even told his brothers that it was his habit of speaking out against evil that turned many against him: “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify of it that its works are evil.” (Jn 7.7)

Jesus resisted the evil that was in people, yet did not resist “one who is evil,” did not try to forcibly stop those who had chosen to act on their evil intentions. He knew all that happened was under God’s control, and he trusted God to restrain the actions of people. And he knew that evil is not an event or action but an intent in the heart of people. When Jesus challenged the evil of people’s hearts, what he wanted was for those hearts to be free of their evil intent and no longer separated from God.

Jesus wasn’t trying to prevent himself from being hurt by the evil of others, or trying to eliminate evil from society by locking up people or killing them. He was trying to free the people he loved from the evil in their own hearts.



Jesus' response, again

Jesus was very aware of our human vulnerability to attack. He experienced it himself and he warned his disciples about it. Jesus sent them out with the words, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves…” (Mt 10.16) And later there were even more dire warnings such as, “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name's sake.” (Lk 21.16-17) Yet this vulnerability did not drive Jesus into self-defense or fighting against those who did evil against him.

Instead, he responded to our need for protection just like he did to our need for provision—with faith. Not by building up his own strength or security, but by depending on God for protection. And teaching his disciples to do so as well. After his warnings, Jesus assured them, “But not a hair of your head will perish.” (Lk 21.18)

How could this be? Because all things are in God’s hands, therefore we can trust him to protect (or preserve) us in any situation:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul… Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Mt 10.28-31)
And Jesus demonstrated this trust in his own life. We see it especially at the moment of his arrest, when he does not resist but says, “Should I not drink the cup that my Father has given me?” Jesus was not driven by fear of injury or loss, did not spend his effort trying to protect himself (or his money paying others to do so). Instead, he embraced his vulnerability as an opportunity for faith, an opportunity to depend more completely on God.

Such faith is much more important than even the protection of our bodies and possessions. When we open ourselves to God in our need and vulnerability God comes to us, with provision and protection but more importantly with his presence. Which is love. This is the answer to the problem of separation from God, and our vulnerability provides the opportunity to address this deeper problem.

To those who depended on God for justice, for protection, instead of fighting for themselves or insisting on their own rights, Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Mt 5.5) Like children calmly trusting in the care of their father, these meek ones inherit all that is God’s.


our response to vulnerability, again

So far, I’ve focused on our need for provision, for food and shelter and other physical needs. Our other main vulnerability is our need for protection. We can be attacked. Others can use force and violence against us to take away what we have gathered for ourselves. Or use threats to pressure us to work for them. This is another serious human vulnerability, and much of our time and effort is spent dealing with it.

Like with our need for provision, our usual response to our need for protection is to try to reduce our vulnerability. To provide greater security for ourselves. By building walls and fences and installing locks, and by turning to violence ourselves. Usually we do not try to fight our attackers personally, but hire others to do the fighting for us. Soldiers and police officers and jailers. These provide the physical threat against any who would threaten us. And with this physical force backing us up, we can then use various other forms of force (legal demands, economic pressure) to fight against those who attack or injure us.

This effort to secure ourselves takes up a great amount of time and resources, however. And there is the nasty side effect of violence provoking more violence, and the use of force inspiring greater force in return. When people are punished or forced to submit, the natural reaction is anger and the desire for retaliation. Hearts are hardened. And in all this, force and violence are glorified, their use is encouraged, and our world becomes more dangerous.

Yet despite this, we continue to see fighting and force as the solution to our vulnerability. Jesus, however, challenged this response, both in his life and teachings. For example:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Mt 5.38-41)
Teachings such as this indicate that Jesus had a very different understanding about our vulnerability to attack, our need for protection. And about how we should respond to those who do evil.


in the world

Jesus promised the “kingdom of God” experience to those who follow him in a life of radical giving and complete dependence on God. This is God’s gift to us, and only God can make it happen. The experience certainly seems like a miracle. Because most everyone around us does not live the kind of life Jesus taught.

That raises the question of how to interact with those who do not follow Jesus’ way, or who only follow it to some extent. The more extreme the giving and vulnerability, the fewer that practice it. But the path to more giving and more dependence on God is usually a gradual one, so any steps in that direction should be encouraged. Jesus always spoke well of those who gave, who let go of some of their own wealth and self-sufficiency, even if they did not yet give everything. This was a good step. But, at the same time, Jesus was still not “satisfied” with simply giving from our excess. He continued to set the example of radical giving, calling everyone to keep taking the next step.

And Jesus’ life of dependence did not only set the example, but also helped others enter into it by beginning to give. Many who did not leave everything and follow Jesus were inspired to at least begin to give by supporting him and his followers. This offered them the experience of giving, and also brought them closer to Jesus, to know him better. To these, Jesus was thankful and accepted what they chose to give. But he did not direct them to remain as benefactors, to continue to gather wealth so they could share a portion with others, even if it was to his benefit. To all, Jesus said, “Follow me.” Whatever people chose to give was good, a beginning perhaps, that brought them into contact with Jesus’ way of life. But (whatever their particular gifts) everyone was called to be like Jesus in radical giving, in embracing vulnerability, and in complete dependence on God.

From this we can see how others can be drawn in to Jesus’ way. People first see something in the faith of Jesus’ followers and also see their vulnerability and need. So they are inspired to offer some help. This gives them the experience of God’s love, God working through them to support his own children, and also exposes them to Jesus’ way of life. If they then open themselves to this life, they will progressively give more, becoming more vulnerable and dependent themselves. And so they too will become inspirations to encourage giving, both by their example and their need. As people grow in this way, their gifts change. They have less material possessions to share, but their lives become a more valuable gift, both as an inspiration calling others to enter into God’s love and help care for his children and as a model for faith by which we become (and live as) God’s children.

This progression is like a cycle of life which continues to draw others into Jesus’ way.


just a week away

This has nothing to do with what I've been writing about. I just enjoyed this cartoon yesterday:


"Blessed are you poor"

Working without asking anything in return, and giving not only our excess but all—this seems to be a recipe for disaster. It seems certain to result in abject poverty. And it even seems morally irresponsible, since such uncontrolled giving would result in our own dependence and a lack of resources which would hinder any further giving, and severely limit the amount of people we could help.

Jesus readily agreed that following his example would lead to poverty. But he didn’t seem to think this was unfortunate or irresponsible:

He came down on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples… and he lifted up his eyes on his disciples and said, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Lk 6.17, 20)
Jesus was not commending all poverty; it is obvious that all poverty is not “blessed.” But he clearly thought that the poverty that came to those who followed him was good, a part of experiencing fullness of life, “the kingdom of God,” here on earth.

Jesus’ poverty was just as real, just as weak and vulnerable, as any poverty. The difference was God’s power that responded to that weakness, because it looked to him in faith. Those who give recklessly face the same needs as others, and are just as helpless as other poor people, but the Father who knows their needs can and does inspire others to meet those needs. And then all the needs are met through gift giving instead of business deals. People are drawn together by gratitude and sharing. Work is freed from self-interest and the demand that it “pay the bills.” And while those who follow Jesus in this are humbled and must accept the role of poor servants, they find a common lowliness with others that is good, in which they are all brothers and sisters cared for by the same Father. Who takes their small gifts and does great things with them.

This “works,” and is very good, only because God makes it so. Our contribution is only our faith, our utter dependence on God in our vulnerability and weakness, which can make nothing happen except lead us into poverty. But God has promised to respond to such faith and give us the experience of his kingdom on earth. And this comes without removing poverty, but in the midst of it, so that we must always remain in faith and never rely on our own strength or wealth. And also so we may continue to be examples of faith to others, showing them the way to God, and continue to provide opportunities for God to demonstrate his power, providing for the helpless and making feasts of our small loaves and fishes.


giving and faith

Jesus taught radical giving, making our work and even our possessions a gift to others, and taking the humble position of a servant, needy among the needy. But such giving is not respected. The ones who are praised are those who give large amounts, and who maintain their positions of wealth and power so they can continue to give. Isn’t that a more prudent way to help others?

Because it is the rich benefactor who can help the most people, not the poor servant—right? This seems to be the obvious conclusion when “helping” is measured in dollars or the number of people fed, clothed, or sheltered. But Jesus seemed to have a different view:

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” (Mk 12.41-44)
Jesus said the poor widow put in more than all the rich people. And so set her as the example of how we are to give. The important thing is clearly not the monetary size of the gift, but whether or not the gift is all. Because it doesn’t take much faith to make a large contribution when there is plenty more left at home. But it does take great faith to give everything you have left, even if it is a small amount. And Jesus measures the value of our gifts by the faith behind them, not the number of dollars.

The value of the widow’s gift was in her faith and the love that moved her to give. Such faith opens us to God’s love, which is the highest good both for ourselves and as an example and encouragement to others, calling them also to faith. So we can see why Jesus chose the radical giving that demonstrated radical faith. And continued to demonstrate great faith by staying poor and dependent, in the position of a humble servant, continuing to give everything without concern for his own needs. This demonstration of faith makes the gift “more,” even if it is materially small.

It is not the size of the gift, but the faith that matters. Because God responds to faith with a wealth and power much greater than any human power. Like in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, when a small gift offered in faith (it was all the boy had) was many times multiplied by God, to provide all the food the crowd needed with much left over.

So we should not be deterred from radical giving, or embarrassed by the small gifts we can give as poor servants. God is not dependent on our wealth or power. God looks for the one who will give everything, depending completely on him.


not benefactor but servant

Because of Jesus’ radical giving—giving all, and working without asking anything in return—he became and remained poor himself. This set his generosity apart from the generosity of others. He did not give a small portion of his wealth, but gave recklessly. Jesus was not a benefactor who maintained control of his resources, doling them out as he thought reasonable, and being praised for his generosity. He gave all and so became lowly and dependent himself.

Such giving is not praised by others; it is called “irresponsible.” And it is humbling. Because in giving everything we give up control of the situation, give up our position as benefactor and join the vulnerable in their vulnerability and dependence. But this is the way of serving that Jesus modeled and taught:

Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Lk 22.25-27)
Jesus did not help people from a position of wealth or political power, but from a position of vulnerability and weakness. He was not independent or self-sufficient. He gave what he had to give and trusted God to inspire others to supply his needs through what they had to give. In this, Jesus demonstrated the difference between being a benefactor and being a servant.

And Jesus taught his followers to be servants as well:
When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (Jn 13. 12-14)
This is not just performing “a service,” but actually putting ourselves in the vulnerable position of a servant. The dependent position. In which our own will and needs are set aside to attend to the needs of another. In which the one being helped is not humiliated (as a beggar) but we put ourselves in the humbler position.

The intention is to direct attention to the God we serve, who is the true benefactor for all of us. The desire is not to direct people’s attention to ourselves or encourage them to put their trust in us or become dependent on us. This would do nothing to address the deeper, more important problem of our separation from God. We are to show—in all areas of our lives, just as Jesus did—that we are all dependent on God. And that it is in faith, trusting God in our dependence and weakness, that we find God.


implications of radical giving

Jesus’ practice and teaching about working (and giving) without asking anything in return has significant implications. For instance, it makes our services more available to the needy. If we are not working for repayment, then our services are not limited to those who can afford our fees. Then need, rather than ability to pay, becomes the decisive factor and the poor and vulnerable are favored rather than the rich. We begin to respond to the vulnerable as God does.

This is further emphasized when we recall that Jesus recommended the same free giving of our possessions as well. Jesus’ ideal was stated clearly to the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mt 19.21) And in other places, the same radical giving is preached more broadly to his followers:

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” (Lk 12.32-33)
So, in addition to making services equally available, Jesus’ free giving also makes resources available to all. Instead of savings and investments that keep resources in the hands of the wealthy and powerful, Jesus’ giving offers resources to the poor.

This has a leveling effect, reducing the painful separation between the rich and poor, making both resources and services available to the most needy. This is loving and just. But, as was seen in Jesus’ life, this effect is not accomplished by somehow making everyone rich. Instead, we see the expected result of such generous giving: Jesus and his disciples become poor with the poor. As he warned a prospective follower, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Mt 8.20) In this we see Jesus responding to the needs of the most vulnerable, and in doing so becoming equally vulnerable himself.

The result of this is a mutual giving and receiving of gifts. Jesus preached and practiced a radical giving of resources and work freely to those in need, which resulted in his own neediness. Yet Jesus accepts this neediness, trusting God. And happily accepts the gifts of those who choose to follow his example and give freely to him and his disciples. There are many stories of him eating at the tables of others and staying at their houses, and when he sent out his disciples he specifically instructed them to accept gifts (for their needs) in the same way. Needs are met by free giving and receiving, not demanded by deals or contracts or legal rights but motivated by mutual love.

So, through Jesus’ radical giving, work and resources become a way to draw people together rather than a source of contention. And those who follow him are drawn together in mutual vulnerability, in mutual weakness that looks to God in faith and so is content to give all and remain weak.



Jesus seemed to see our physical needs as an opportunity for faith rather than a cause for fear that drives us into hard labor and hoarding. So we don’t see Jesus working hard to provide for himself or his disciples. But this doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t work, or taught others to avoid work. What he did was offer us freedom from anxiety so our work could be given joyfully.

Instead of work being a slavery by which we “pay our own way,” the work Jesus encouraged was to be a free gift of love. Perhaps the best summary of this appears when Jesus sends out his disciples to preach and heal, telling them, “You received without paying, give without pay.” (Mt 10.8) Their needs are met by God (through others) as a gift, God’s love responding to their vulnerability. And their talents and abilities are also gifts from God, along with the energy and motivation of love to use those abilities for the good of others. So they should likewise offer their work as a gift.

This is how Jesus worked. He used the abilities God had given him to serve those around him, and he asked nothing in return (though he did accept the gifts that others chose to give to him). And he taught his followers to do the same, such as in these passages:

He said to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Lk 14.12-14)

“If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great…” (Lk 6.33-35)
Together with “Give without pay” and Jesus’ own example, these provide a consistent model for our work. God’s provision for us allows us to give our service freely to others without asking for payment. And this frees our work. No longer do we need to be driven by our own needs or have to do the kind of work “that sells”; we are freed to do the kind of work that God has created us for, motivated only by love for the one we are serving.


Jesus' response to vulnerability

Jesus knew the vulnerability of human life, of needing food and shelter to survive. And he knew the anxiety that can overwhelm us in this need. Yet he did not respond in the usual way, by working hard to gather up for ourselves what we need and storing as much as we can for the future. Instead, Jesus responded with faith.

Faith is giving up our own will, our own purposes, to God and depending on him completely for our good. And this is exactly what we see when Jesus talks about our daily needs:

“I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! …Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith!” (Lk 12.22-24)
Jesus taught that we should set aside concerns for our own physical needs (“O men of little faith!”) and trust God to supply them, because “your Father knows that you need them.” And not only did he assure us that we would have what we needed, but he also described the life of faith as beautiful, like that of the birds that are fed without storehouses and the lilies that are beautifully dressed without toil. Strikingly similar to the happy life of children well cared for.

Jesus also demonstrated such a life of faith. In what we know of his public life, his needs—as well as the needs of his disciples—were met without laboring for their own daily bread. And when Jesus sent out his disciples, he very specifically instructed them not to take provisions but to trust God to provide through those they met. Later, near the end of his ministry, Jesus asked his disciples, “When I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” They answered, “Nothing.” (Lk 22.35)

Jesus seems to embrace our vulnerability of daily physical needs. Rather than seeing it as a source of anxiety or the driving force for endless work and hoarding, he seems to see it as an opportunity for faith. Our vulnerability, like that of the birds and lilies, is part of God’s creation. And for us it provides the opportunity to freely and joyfully rely on God’s provision rather than struggling to provide for ourselves and fighting to keep what we have gathered. This is the ongoing act of faith. Which God responds to not only by providing for our physical needs, but more importantly by filling us with his presence, in which we experience the fulfillment and joy of total love. Thus our humble physical vulnerability becomes the opportunity to address our deeper problem of separation from God, and experience deeper union with God through our response to the daily needs that arise.

Also, as we see in Jesus’ life, our needs provide an opportunity to encourage others to respond in faith. Our faith (and God’s provision) shows the way to faith for others. That those struggling around us might also know God’s care and presence.


our response to vulnerability

There are two main aspects of our vulnerability: our needs for provision and protection. Provision involves acquiring food and shelter and medical care. Protection has to do with our response to those who would threaten or attack us. These two activities seem to take up the majority of our time and effort, and in both cases that effort is usually focused on reducing our vulnerability, and gaining security and independence. Not surprisingly, Jesus had much to say about both these activities.

I’d like to consider provision first, since this is usually the primary focus of our daily activities. Because our physical needs are so immediate and important, provision tends to dominate our thoughts and work, so that “work” has come to mean the activity we do to provide for ourselves. The assumed solution to our physical needs is “hard work.” And, if possible, we attempt to reduce our vulnerability in this area by gathering up excess provisions for the future.

This gathering and storing of excess provisions or wealth, however, also leads to new problems. Anything stored up must be then constantly protected from decay or damage. And it also becomes a target for theft, especially when we have a great excess and those around us are in need.

Yet despite these problems, continuous work and storing up are the usual response to our physical needs. Jesus, however, seems to challenge this. He challenges the tendency to gather excess provisions in this familiar passage:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Mt 6.19-21)
And he even seems to challenge the assumption that providing for ourselves should be the motivation for our work:
“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you…” (Jn 6.27)

“And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. For all the nations seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek God’s kingdom and these things shall be yours as well.” (Lk 12.27-31)
Together, these passages suggest that Jesus responded to the need for provision quite differently than we usually do, and also that he had a different idea about the purpose of our work.


human vulnerability

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 control 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.

I see in Jesus’ teaching this urge towards this childlike dependence on God as well:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 18. 1-3)

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mk 10.15)
And there are many more examples of this in his life and teachings. His voluntary embracing of a childlike weakness, vulnerability, dependence. I want to look more closely at how he lived this practically, and so better understand how to live it myself.


"in weakness"

Jesus’ laying down his life was the perfect act of love. Yet it was not approved or appreciated by either his friends or his enemies. How could love be so misunderstood?

Those who condemned Jesus didn’t appreciate what he was offering, because he didn’t support their management of society. He strongly challenged it. So they saw his death, not as an act of love, but as what he deserved as a subversive trouble-maker. They saw him as a criminal, executed with two other criminals. But Jesus’ followers also didn’t understand his “laying down his life” as an act of love. They could understand why he would preach and heal and feed people, and appreciated his challenging the problems in their society. But they couldn’t see why he would go to Jerusalem and accept execution without resisting, and they tried to prevent it. They could only see his death as a tragic failure. Neither friends or enemies could see the value in Jesus’ perfect act of love.

This illustrates well the difference between God’s purposes and ours. We are intent on imposing our own will, either to keep things as they are or to change things. Some try to preserve and protect what is important to them, such as possessions, traditions, social structure, etc. But at the same time, there are others who do not like how things are. So they try to change the property distribution or the social traditions and structures. What they all have in common is the need for power to impose their will. Those who are in power seek to maintain it, and those who are not in power seek to gain more of it—more wealth and more political influence.

This pursuit of power makes sense if our purpose is to impose our own will, to shape the world as we think it ought to be. But if our true good is not the exercise of our own will, but the surrender of our own will—faith—then the pursuit of power is not helpful. Because it is not strength that helps us trust God, but weakness.

And this is exactly what I see in Jesus’ way of life. Not the pursuit of power, but intentionally becoming and staying weak. A continual “laying down his life.” Instead of seeking human power like everyone else, Jesus embraces economic and political weakness and preaches it to others. This is seen as subversive by those in power, and as a failure by those who seek power. Yet it is exactly right for helping people towards God through faith. And revealing God's powerful love.

As Jesus said to Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12.9)



The experience of God’s presence, filling me and acting through me, this is love.

This experience is wonderful, the ultimate fulfillment, yet it is not just a feeling. Love is living and active. Love is the will of God in us, directing our heart, motivating our actions. There is no more powerful motivation than this. The love of God in us drives away all fears, satisfies all longings, and moves us to act with a power stronger than death.

Much goes by the name of “love.” Yet the presence of God which comes through faith is unique, the only love worthy of the name, the one love that can satisfy us. And because it is God’s love, it acts like God. Those who love with God’s love seek what God seeks; their purposes are God’s purposes. Such love is not merely “being nice,” or “accepting people as they are.” The love of God in us moves us to act towards others in the same way that God acts everywhere by his Providence: encouraging others towards faith, so that they too might be united with God. This is what love does, both in us and all around us.

Sometimes this is pleasant and sometimes painful. Depending on the hearts of the persons involved and the needs of the moment, love is sometimes gentle and sometimes harsh. Sometimes comforting and sometimes frightening. Just as Jesus sometimes offered healing and soothing words and sometimes shouted “Woe!” and flipped tables—and led his disciples to the cross. All this was love.

The cross was even presented by Jesus as the ideal model for love.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15.12-13)
I see God’s love in this “laying down his life” because it is the perfect example of faith. Jesus showed us what it is to trust God with our lives—even through death. And this is exactly what we need: an example of the way to God and then the response of God’s power carrying him through death. We need this much more than physical healing or food or moral teaching. The love of God is perfect in Jesus on the cross because it shows that we find God in faith, in surrender of our lives into God’s hands. And this is the highest good for each of us.



So what am I to do? How should I respond to the problem of our separation from God, to the evil that exists not external to us but in our hearts? How should I respond if it is true that our will is free but everything else is controlled and ordered for our good by God?

It seems clear that my response should be to turn my own heart towards God. Not try to fight some external evil or attempt to control the events around me, but bring my own will into union with God’s and help others do so as well. But how? It’s not enough to simply identify God’s will and agree with it or try to cooperate with it. It’s not enough to figure out what is “good” and do it. This might gain me the approval and admiration of many other people, but it would not unite me with God. If I still stand apart and decide for myself what is good and to what extent I will participate, then I am still separate from God. To approve or cooperate with God is still separation from God. I would have achieved nothing.

What I need is God’s presence, God’s goodness filling me, so that we are not apart but together, not two but one. And God has shown that there is only one path to this union. Faith.

But this faith is not the blind acceptance of religious beliefs without evidence. That is useless. Faith is not an intellectual exercise, or an exertion of the will. Faith is the surrender of the will. It is letting go of my ego and ambition and trusting God to preserve and guide me, accepting God’s will in place of my own. So there is only one will, one intention. Sometimes this is described as “dying to self,” in which we give up the one thing we have to give, our freedom of will, to God. This is faith.

A good example of a moment of faith in Jesus’ life was his prayer in Gethsemene. Jesus struggles with how to respond to the dangers that approach him. He seems unsure about God’s will. But his response is the response of faith: “Not my will, but Yours, be done.” (Lk 22.42)

This surrendering of self doesn’t achieve anything in itself. It doesn’t unite us with God. But God has shown that he will respond to those who set aside their own will in faith. God freely gives himself to the faithful, to the heart that trusts him. When I trust him. For as long as I trust him. At the moment I take up my own will again, God lets me, and I make myself separate again. But when I surrender my will in faith, God fills me with his presence.



God grants human beings freedom of will, but I’ve come to believe that everything besides the human heart is under God’s control. And that all things that happen are allowed and ordered by God for our good.

This is often denied because the things that happen often seen chaotic, without meaning or purpose. Or so painful and destructive that we cannot imagine that God could allow such a thing, or that it could be for the good of anyone. But our idea of “good” is usually defined primarily by physical pleasure. A long, secure, comfortable life is our goal. But if our true good is union with God, then pleasure, security, and long life are not always in our best interest. Often it is not in times of comfort or security that we turn our hearts towards God but in times of pain and confusion, when we feel vulnerable and threatened. Often we are not willing to seek or accept God’s will until our will has been completely frustrated. And it is often painful or “bad” experiences that bring us to this point. So both pleasurable and painful things can be for our good, serving God’s purpose, if they help us turn our free hearts and open ourselves to God.

I cannot know the hearts of others, or what experiences would be most helpful to them at any moment. Even if I could control the events of their lives, I don’t know how those events would impact them. But God knows our hearts. God knows what the experience will be like for us if certain things happen to us or to those we know and love. And God can control what does happen to us. Through the workings of nature and through preventing or allowing others to act out their intentions, God can offer to us the experiences that are most valuable to us at any moment in our lives. God doesn’t control our response to these experiences. I can reject the opportunity of the moment and turn my heart away from God in a painful experience, and I have often. But I have become convinced that there is meaning and purpose in the things that happen to me, and that even the most painful and confusing situations are allowed by God and meant for my good. Every experience is meant to draw me closer to God.

Perhaps the most striking example of this belief in Jesus’ life was at his arrest. This was a situation that horrified his disciples and threw them into a panic. Peter pulled a sword. But Jesus said to him, “Should I not drink the cup that my Father has given me?” (Jn 18.11) These words did not justify the arrest; it was still a horrible injustice. It is easy to see the evil at work in the hearts of those who brought violence against an innocent man. Yet Jesus sees God's hand controlling what was happening. People were acting with evil intentions, but God was allowing the things that would provide the opportunity for good.

Believing and experiencing this is crucial to understanding Jesus' response to the situations he found himself in and being able to respond in similar ways ourselves.


free will

The reason evil is possible, the reason we can turn our hearts away from God, is that we have free will. I find that I can turn my will any way I choose. I can know what is right and do the opposite; I can have a strong desire and yet refuse to act on it; I can even choose to act in a self-destructive way. My will is free.

Yet my ability to will anything I choose does not mean that I can do anything I choose. I am often restrained from actually carrying out what I intend to do. One thing that often limits my action is physical reality: the laws of nature, my limited physical abilities, the resources available to me. I can intend to push my hand through a brick wall but I am not able to actually do so. Another way I am limited is the actions of other people, either because I need their help or because they intentionally try to stop my action. I can intend to rob a bank, but to actually do it I’ll have to also succeed in convincing some people to work with me and I’ll have to struggle against the many people who will try to prevent me from robbing the bank. So I find that while my will is free, I am not free to do everything. What actually happens is limited in many ways.

As human beings, we are in control what we want to happen, what we intend to happen. But we are not in control of what actually happens. What actually happens is influenced and limited by many things, too many for any one person or any group of people to understand and control. Only God can control what actually happens.

And I believe God does. But this doesn’t restrict the freedom of human beings to will whatever they choose. Our will is free, even when we cannot complete what we intend. Being limited or hindered by other people or by physical reality doesn’t prevent us from willing anything and hoping to find a way to do it, and even if what we will is completely impossible we can still stubbornly choose to will it. We can refuse to accept our limitations. We can rebel in our hearts against the way things are, even if there is no hope of achieving what we desire. We always have that freedom.



Evil is separation from God. To be with God, to experience God’s presence, to desire and will and act in harmony with God’s will, this is beauty, truth, goodness. To turn away from this, to resist God, is evil, the ultimate source of all suffering.

To be attacked or harmed is not evil in itself. It is not evil to endure wrongdoing as a victim; it is evil to cause the suffering, to be the attacker, the oppressor, the abuser. The ugliness and horror of violence and destruction is evidence of evil, but destruction itself is not evil. Usually it serves as an unmistakable sign that evil is near, that evil motivations are involved, that some or all of the people involved are turned away from God at that moment. But evil is not an outward effect, it is an inward cause.

Evil is not something outside of me, that happens to me. Evil comes from within. I am not tainted by evil because of what is done to me or forced on me; any evil in me has to be born within me. As Jesus taught:

“Hear me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him…

“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mk 7.14-16, 20-23)
Often when I have been hurt (physically, emotionally, financially) by the evil of others, I have retaliated with evil of my own. And often when I am in physical pain or frustrated I have turned against God because I refuse to accept the reality of my situation. But this evil also is my own. It was not forced upon me, and it was not inevitable. It was my own choice.

And while evil is often recognized in outward actions and their effects, evil itself is not an outward act. Evil is intent. Evil is in my motivation, in my will, whether or not I am able to carry out my intention. A good example of this appeared in Jesus’ sermon on the mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt 5.27-28)
Evil does not exist as some external thing, it exists “in the heart.” In the ever-changing movements of our will. In the moments when I turn my heart away from God.

So the fight against evil is not a struggle with something external. It is not a fight against disease or economic structures or soldiers. It is first of all a struggle in my own heart, not once, but moment by moment. And then it is a struggle with others—not against but with—that their hearts also might be free from evil.


a problem

OK, here goes. I'm attempting to do some longer, organized writing, expanding on the essay I posted about (and linked to) yesterday. And I think I can write in short pieces, posting them here daily, and have each piece be coherent in itself but all of them together presenting something more valuable than the parts. We'll see...

Obviously something is wrong.

I look around and I can see it everywhere. In my struggles every day, in the difficulty I have in working, in my reactions to other people, in the pain in my body. And I know I’m not the only one. There is suffering everywhere. People in pain, people in anguish, people in a rage, the people I spoke with today as well as people far away that I hear about. We have a serious problem.

But I have become convinced that the problem is not pain, or disease, or war, or poverty. We have struggled with such things for thousands of years, and managed to eliminate or reduce many of them, and yet the problem does not go away. New forms of suffering replace those that are removed. The problem is deeper. As far as I can tell, acts of violence and destruction are not the problem but rather symptoms of the problem. Disease and hunger and loss and death are not the problem, but rather severe challenges by which the problem becomes known. The effect of all these things on us is what makes us aware that there is a problem.

The problem itself is deeper. Many people have described it in many ways, but there is a similarity in their conclusions that I agree with. The problem is separation from God. This is the ultimate cause of all suffering.

This is not a physical separation; God is everywhere. God is here. I cannot go anywhere and be out of God’s presence. But I can turn myself against God. I can direct my heart, my will, my intent away from the will and intent of God. I have done this. And in doing so I have become confused, so that even when I want to turn back and unite myself with God again, I am not sure how. Since the moment I chose to act independently of God, I am no longer sure what is my desire and what is God’s, what is my intent and what is God’s. And this confusion is present in every choice and action in my life. Every moment. Often I recognize afterwards that my intent and action was not of God, and there is suffering in me and in those around me. And I know that there is a separation between me and God. This is my problem.

And from what I can see, it is not mine alone. It is the fundamental problem of human life.


"Put not your trust in princes"

Well, life here is back to normal today. Everyone's home again. And I did write, though it's only a start. I decided to begin with a brief sketch of what I thought following Jesus meant, especially focusing on the words "My power is made perfect in weakness." And I wrote it to Heather, since she will be most immediately impacted, and I want to know her opinion. It's a good conversation starter for us, I think. But really only a rough outline of what I see as unique and intriguing in Jesus' way. I'm thinking of fleshing it out more, hopefully with the help of some feedback from others.

Maybe I could even serialize it here in my journal. Hmm...

Sunday, the pastor opened the service by reading Psalm 146, an excellent choice:

Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have being.

Put not your trust in princes
[and here the pastor added, "or presidents or politicans"],
in a son of man, in whom there is no help.
When his breath departs he returns to his earth;
on that very day his plans perish.

Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD his God,
who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith for ever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the sojourners,
he upholds the widow and the fatherless;
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

The LORD will reign for ever,
thy God, O Zion, to all generations.
Praise the LORD!

The irony was, after that great line about not putting our trust in politicians, he closed the announcements by saying there would be a table for voter registration after the service...


taking a break

It looks like I may have less time to post for a while. Several people from the house are on vacation starting today, which means lots more for the rest of us to do.

I've also been thinking of putting some of these ideas together in a more presentable and comprehensive way. Like a short book. Or at least some longer essays. Something that could be offered as a more substantial gift, rather than just pouring out these thoughts piecemeal, in a disorganized way. I think I'll try it. But to do so it might be good to take a break from posting here and focus instead on collecting and organizing some of the stuff I have been writing here and in previous journals.

Let's see what happens...


turn and become like...

I think I'll ask if there are any documents about the beginning of this community, especially the ideals and original purposes of those who started it. This thought came to me as I contemplated origin and "calling back."

I already know there have been several changes over the years that I see as detrimental to the community here. Such as centralizing leadership, denominational affiliation, accumulation of property, increasing collaboration with government organizations (to get funding). Most of these were connected with increasing membership and trying to expand their ministries.

It's interesting how the history seems to follow that of most all organized communities (monastic orders, for example, or Protestant denominations). As they grow in numbers and wealth and influence, there in an increased institutionalization and a decrease in the spirit which inspired the community. These communities usually begin as reform movements (again, going back), then "mature" into almost exactly what they broke away from. It's like the human generations: Each new generation of young people are idealistic, dissatisfied with the compromises and spiritlessness of their parents, but then they get older and degenerate (become "realistic") in the same way so the next generation sees them too as compromised.

Can this be avoided? Can we stay with the originating, inspiring Spirit?

There seems to be a "maturing" or becoming "adult" that sends the Spirit away, or causes the Spirit to flee. A shift towards independence or self-dependence. A "responsibility" that makes it a duty to increase physical and economic security (usually by accumulating wealth and establishing law and authority structures). The drive for "effectiveness" or productivity (which again calls for increased wealth and political power). Jesus preaches against these things, and avoids them. To him, "maturity" seemed to mean something very different:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

And calling to him a child, [Jesus] put him in the midst of them, and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 18.1-3)

I am thirty five, contemplating marriage--the pressure to "be an adult" is huge. It's been conditioned into me; I've been taught to grow up and have been doing that for many years. Just the past five years have I been attempting to "turn and become like children." It's getting harder, not easier.

But this turning back is crucial. Because the Spirit is not with the adult-like, the owners, the authorities, the benefactors, the managers. The Spirit is with the childlike.



This is from an internet discussion two years ago:

Who is "the establishment"? Who is in control? If society's governments are in control, we could be rightly seen as rebels and subversives, trying to subvert their purposes and undermine their systems (the puposes and systems that we see controlling the world--to our dismay).

But if God is in control (insert words like "Providence" and "Sovereignty" here), then the puposes and systems of governments and corporations do not control the world. Rather those things that are commonly perceived as "in control of us," "ruling the world," are themselves acts of rebellion and subversion (against God's sovereignty). Is this not the truth?

Thus God (and we with him, hopefully) is not trying to overthrow the powers of the world, but they are trying to overthrow, or throw off, God. We stand with God's Establishment (which cannot be overthrown, by the way). It's not for us to rage against the powers that claim to control society and us--they are raging against God (and persecuting us, who stand with God, as an outlet for their rage...)

I was thinking along similar lines yesterday, trying to sort out how I fit both with Heather and in the Christian community. Though I seem to have radical or extreme ideas, I don't seem to fit the role of a revolutionary or activist, initiating change and pushing in new directions. Then I remembered that "radical" doesn't mean "new."
[F., fr. L. radicalis having roots, fr. radix, -icis, a root]

Of or pertaining to the root or origin; reaching to the center, to the foundation, to the ultimate sources, to the principles, or the like; original; fundamental; thorough-going; unsparing; extreme...
What's most radical is what has the deepest roots. That which reaches to the center, the source, the foundation. The Origin.

And I thought about the prophets. They were not "prophetic" in the sense of being visionaries or coming up with new ideas. Rather, they called the people back to God. For example, here's God's call of Zechariah:
Say to them, Thus says the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.

Be not like your fathers, to whom the former prophets cried out, 'Thus says the LORD of hosts, Return from your evil ways and from your evil deeds.' But they did not hear or heed me, says the LORD. (Zech 1.3-4)
The prophets called those who had strayed to return. They were certainly radical, but not "progressive," not innovators. They were not creating a new thing, inventing their own new way of life. They called people back to God's creation, to the ways God had revealed from the beginning.

I see the same thing in Jesus, in his mission to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." Calling God's people back. He seemed to be subversive to society and their traditions and structures, but really it was society that was rebellious and destructive, not him. Jesus stood, rooted to the absolute Source, and said "Return to me, says the LORD of hosts."



Sunday some people became members of the church here. Each person made a few comments, and one woman said, "I've felt like a member here for a while, this is just a formality." Which is exactly right.

The ceremony wasn't about becoming a member of the church, Christ's body. These people were already members in that way (the only way that really matters to me). This was about organizational membership, joining "this" church. The pastor even made several references to "this body." I find this very confusing and even harmful--because Christians are all part of one Body, right? Not this body or that body...

It's the entering into the one Body, God's family, that unites us and makes us members of one another. That connection and the experience of relationship and interdependence is what makes us "Us." It's very sad that we don't recognize this, but instead find our identity and "unity" in limited, institutional memberships, making our churches just like any other worldly organization or club (where you're not considered "one of us" unless you're on the official roster; and of course this is also tied in with establishing institutional authority--one of the membership vows was declaring that "the leaders of this church are my leaders"). I don't know what to do about this, except reject such institutional memberships myself, and urge others to do so as well.

Why should any group of Christians demand that I become a member? I am a member!

Also, rejecting such limited, man-made memberships, I want to declare that my family, my "Us", is not restricted by institutional or denominational lines. Only God determines who is a member, not any human council, so I will ignore their rosters. I am a brother to all who are also part of Christ. I will recognize them, not by their official affiliation, but by their Christlike lives.


"which you did not build"

Some favorite passages that I was looking at again this morning:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land which he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you, with great and goodly cities, which you did not build, and houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which you did not hew, and vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant, and when you eat and are full, then take heed lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Dt 6.10)

For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. (Eccles 2.26)

That first promise was fulfilled. And these promises continue to be fulfilled now, for those who "do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink... [But] instead, seek his kingdom." (Lk 12.29-31)

p.s. To see how God provided for us since I wrote this five years ago, read these entries: "morning prayer," "wedding pictures," and "we'll be taking the bus back"


not a hair

Last night Heather and I talked about yesterday's post. And one important thing that came up was the value of having nothing to lose. For example, there's a freedom in knowing that I don't have anything that a collection agency would want or could take from me. But how does that apply to the relationships we don't want to lose?

This morning I thought of this passage that I didn't quote yesterday:

You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name's sake.

But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives. (Lk 21.16-19)
It is important not to give in to family or friends who use their valued relationship to pressure us. As Paul warned about marriage (1 Cor 7.32-34), important relationships can divide us between pleasing God and pleasing our friends or family. But Jesus countered this by radically redefining family:
Then [Jesus'] mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him for the crowd. And he was told, "Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you."

But he said to them, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it." (Lk 8.19-21)

But what about these loved ones "who hear the word of God and do it," who don't tempt or persecute us but who are one with us in God's family? They can still be threatened. We can fear losing them, and be tempted to do anything (or compromise anything) to protect them. I wonder about that as I grow closer to Heather and consider having children. Wonder and tremble a little.

But just as we are not to fear for ourselves, trusting that our lives are protected in God's hand, should we not also trust that the lives of those we love are protected? Isn't that what "eternal life" means? That though we who hear the word of God and do it will be "hated by all" and "some of you they will put to death," still "not a hair of your head will perish." Not a hair of our head, and not a hair of their head.

Which is so good, because I don't want to lose even a hair of the one I love.


"Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy!"

Erin was here yesterday on her way back to Colombia, and we talked about my medical bill situation (it's been sent to a collection agency now). An important part of that discussion, for me at least, was reaffirming that Christians are supposed to be attacked because of the way we live. Not honored, thought of as "good people," but attacked and hated.

Do we know this? Does this fit with our version of Christianity? Or, more importantly, do our lives fit with Jesus' version of Christianity?

I was reading in John this morning and came across this line in Jesus' prayer (17.14): "I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world." Here's some more:

Even his brothers did not believe in him. Jesus said to them, "My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify of it that its works are evil." (Jn 7.5-7)

"If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me.

"I have said all this to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God." (Jn 15.19-21, 16.1-2)

"If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. ...Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes will be those of his own household." (Mt 10.25,34-36)

"Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets." (Lk 6.22-23)

"You will be hated by all for my name's sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved." (Mk 13.13)

And of course Jesus' life (and death) showed the reality of this. I'm not sure then, where we get the idea that Christians can be seen primarily as "nice people" or how we can expect to "fit in" with society--when our leader, our guide, our model was crucified.

Yet we do fit in so well, in so many ways. Doesn't that indicate a problem?

Do we "testify that its works are evil"? Are we excluded, reviled, our names cast out as evil because we "do not belong to the world"--economically, politically, spiritually? Jesus demonstrated what this looks like, in poverty, despising worldly power, obedient to and trusting God alone. And he showed us how society would respond to those who followed him.


the Christian ideal

From What's Wrong with the World by G.K. Chesterton:

The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting.
It has been found difficult; and left untried.


"providence vs. a slugfest"?

Stephen offered an interesting reply yesterday, and I want to respond to it. Here's part of what he wrote:

...it is a stretch to think that everyone will forgo payment for professional services rendered. The doctor didn't go to work that morning as an act of charity, and he is only using the tools his institutions offer as the most efficient. I think it would be stubborn to insist that he change to your way of seeing things if he's not there of his own accord.

You would be resorting to the use of the "system" to resolve this matter, which would no doubt be stuck in your craw for a long time to come. As you've made such a point of allowing providence to provide for you, it seems prideful to turn it down when it is offered as an act of love.

Yeah, I was wondering about that last part myself. That's why I bounced the idea off a few people first, but they didn't seem to think it was prideful.

Maybe part of why I see this gift differently is that I don't have a need for money. I did have a need for medical care, and that was provided for--that I see as a providential act. But I don't accept this demand for payment as a need on my part. If that doctor really would only help me if he was well-paid for it, then (for his sake) I wish he hadn't helped me at all. I thank God for taking care of the needs I had. I'm sorry for the way the doctor (or his employees) are trying to meet their own needs now.

And I'm actually not insisting that the doctor change. I'd like to appeal to him to change, though I don't know who I'll get a chance to talk to during this process. When I told the billing person today that I couldn't pay, she said, "Then you leave us no recourse but to send it to collections." Of course that's not true. There is another option, and I said that, but if they reject that then I won't fight what they choose to do. There will be no "slugfest." And I will not use "the system." If there will be any attempts at coercion, any use of the legal system, it will be on their part not mine. I simply don't have what they want.

But the deeper I get into this, the more twisted it seems, the more grieved I am that our health care works this way, and the more it seems worth the suffering to make the evil more obvious. For the sake of everyone.

And isn't that the example Jesus set? He went to Jerusalem voluntarily, though he knew what awaited him there, and even though his good friend wanted to spare him (Mt 16.21-25). He simply lived as God taught right in the midst of the world, then suffered the world's response to him. And he even seemed to believe that this suffering (because of and for the world) was the most important part of his life...