Heather and I went to see "A Very Long Engagement" yesterday, in French (for her) with subtitles (for me). And during the sunny walk through the snow to get there, one of the topics that came up was effectiveness (or success, accomplishing something, being seen as a "hero") and faithfulness. Which reminded me of this favorite passage in Jacques Ellul's The Politics of God and the Politics of Man (my italics):

The action we attempt will always be regarded by the world as a failure, and the more so the more it is authentically faithful. We cannot be successful or show the church to be effective in the world unless we adopt the world's criterion of efficacy, which means adopting its means as well.

As the world sees it, action which is faithful to God will always fail, just as Jesus Christ necessarily went to the cross. Such action always leads to a dead end. It is always a fiasco from the standpoint of worldly power. But this should not worry us. It does not mean that our action is in truth ineffectual. Efficacy measured in terms of faithfulness cannot be compared at any point with efficacy measured in terms of success.

...These successes, this efficacy as it would be called from man's standpoint, and especially in our own society, will never amount to anything more than the approval given by the world, by society, to certain acts and means. It is the stamp of a group of men, a social body. But if we do not believe that society is good and right, this approval proves nothing except that the action is in conformity with the world. It does not mean that the world has changed; quite the contrary. Each time the people of God becomes effective according to the world's criteria, this only implies that society has absorbed our action and is using it for its own ends and for its own profit. ...The efficacy we think we have is simply a power in the world's service, for the perfecting of its own being, for its better organization....

There can be no question of securing the approval of the world or its conformity to us. ...We have simply to be, and we can only be a question put within the world, a question invincibly confronting it. This is our efficacy. It is the efficacy of the question, a question which society and sociological movements cannot assimilate. Israel and the church have never been efficacious except to the degree that the world has been unable to assimilate them. This is the vocation of the people of God incomparably more authentic than "service" or "works."

It is not at the level of works and their results that this efficacy may be seen; it is at the level of inassimilability.

In The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder makes a similar point in this memorable sentence:
The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.


...and tasty!

I don't have to file a tax return because I don't make enough income. But this might be fun...


another very short story

I wrote a new story last week, the first in a long time. Heather helped revise it. (And inspire it.)

Song of songs

“Oh that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine…”

She looked up at the shiny black box at the front of the church, and noticed the silence. Not even a whisper. It made the shabby little church seem even more depressing than usual. She’d been coming here with her parents since she was a little girl, more reluctantly each year, and she knew every inch of every pew and every face. All these people who had come to pay their respects to her grandmother were exactly the same ones she saw on Sunday. Sunday after Sunday. And she was sure the pastor’s words would sound exactly the same as they did every time he got up behind the pulpit. She’d heard them too many times to pay attention for long. So before the service even began she’d reached for the bible in the rack in front of her and flipped to her favorite book. “My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh, that lies between my breasts… Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely.”

She didn’t have a boyfriend yet, but there was someone she liked and she thought he liked her too. And this time she was going to do something about it. She and her friends had been telling each other about their crushes for years. But it usually never amounted to more than whispers and crumpled notes and a lot of embarrassed giggling. She was tired of that. She wanted more than daydreams and empty talk. She wanted to know what a real relationship was like.

The pastor interrupted the silence and she looked up. The usual funeral words. The usual songs about heaven. She wasn’t sure if she believed in heaven; it sounded a little too good to be true-at least it seemed unlikely that all the people they said were going there actually were. She hoped her grandma was at peace, though. She hadn’t known her very well, but her grandmother had been a nice lady. And a good cook.

She realized she was hungry, and as she scanned the lines of poetry in her lap, images of honey and milk and fruit appeared again and again. This part was her favorite: “How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden! You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth. I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me. Come my beloved, let us go forth into the fields…” Yes, she wanted a real relationship, not a daydream. Someone who was really hers and she was really his and they would go out to face the world together.

“Margaret was an inspiration and model for us all. I could always count on her smile from the third row, right over here, and she always showed up for the women’s bible studies and prayer breakfasts. She helped organize the church potluck every month…” Grandma had spent a lot of time at church after Grandpa died. The thought made her kind of sad. “…because Margaret loved her Lord. That’s what made her such a faithful servant in this church, doing the Lord’s work. She was the first one here every Sunday, making sure the doors were open and there were fresh flowers on the altar.” She looked down again and read, “If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and none would despise me…” “We’re glad Margaret is in a better place now, but this church will miss her. We’ll all miss her. And I’m sure she’ll miss us too; this church was her home. Now if any of Margaret’s friends or family would like to say a word…”

“Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning on her beloved?” She looked up as her Aunt Helen strode up the aisle. Helen lived in some big city down south and they didn’t see her often. There seemed to be something vaguely scandalous about her aunt, at least that’s the feeling she picked up from her parents. “I wasn’t planning to say anything,” Aunt Helen began, “but I get the distinct feeling that my mom’s not missing this place much right now.” A long pause, as if she wasn’t sure what to say next, then Helen spoke again. “I believe she did love Jesus. Or at least she longed for him in her heart; I could see that. She just never knew what to do with that longing. I suppose she was a little afraid of it. Now maybe Mom finally has the kind of love, the kind of life, she could have had all along. Not bible studies and potlucks and tending this old church, but a life walking next to Jesus.” Suddenly a memory rose up. She was small. Her mother and Aunt Helen were in the next room arguing. Helen was leaving. And her mother wanted to know “why do you want to throw your life away” and “how are you going to survive in a place like that.” And she remembered Helen’s voice, so soft she could barely hear it: “Because that’s where Jesus is.”

“It’s like he said, ‘Where I am, there my servant will be also,’” Aunt Helen continued, the words tumbling out faster, and it somehow didn’t feel like a funeral anymore. “And we know where he was and what he was doing during his lifetime… I mean, among the poor, preaching good news to them, and suffering at the hands of the rich and powerful. He’s still doing that now.” Then, softer, her eyes shining, “Do we really love him? Do we love him enough to want to be with him?” Helen seemed to run out of breath and her eyes fell to the casket, then she stepped away from the pulpit and returned quietly to her seat. The only sound was the creaking of the pews as bodies shifted uncomfortably.

“Amen,” the pastor said with a smile. “Thank you for that sharing… uh… ” Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning on her beloved? “Is there anyone else…”

She glanced over at Helen, who smiled at her with flushed cheeks.


follow with me

As I think about the image of service I hold in contrast to "benefactor," it's something like a peer relationship. On the same level as the one I want to help. A brotherly relationship rather than a parental one. "...for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren ...for you have one Father, who is in heaven ...for you have one master, the Christ." (Mt 23.8-10)

And that seems to fit well with the important themes I wrote of before, about not enfeebling the one I help, about encouraging them to step forward in faith themselves, about Jesus' invitation to "follow me." I'd like to help by saying, "Come follow Jesus with me."

To have such a peer relationship and encourage following in faith, it seems necessary to remove those things that separate people into "classes." These are primarily issues of money and power. And while it is not possible to make everyone rich and powerful, it is possible to lower myself to be poor and powerless, and so become a peer with the weak and lowly. To be poor with the poor, weak with the weak, scorned with the scorned, as Jesus was. And this also happens to be the best way to demonstrate faith, the utter dependence on God that I also want to encourage in others.

More concretely, I see a life among peers as a life of sharing. Sharing the same house, the same food, the same source of clothes, etc. And, perhaps more importantly, sharing my life, my thoughts, my struggles (which is not easy for me, as introverted as I am). Often the person asking for help is expected to bare their soul, their needs, their anguish. Their story is heard and analyzed and discussed by others. But they don't get to hear the stories and needs of their "benefactors." And so they get little chance to respond with love or even see their helpers as real human beings. I need to work harder at being more transparent, sharing more of myself. I've already seen the effect it can have on people, how they can respond in a way that demonstrates real growth, because they were motivated by compassion for the one struggling to help them. Such love is God's presence, which work miracles in people. And that's how we take steps following Jesus. But if I want to encourage people to follow Jesus with me, I have to share more and more completely my own experience of following Jesus.


post-birthday thoughts

It was my birthday on the 19th, and it didn't start out too well. Another letter from a collection agency. That's not horrible--five of the seven medical bills have been cancelled, and the vast majority of the charges are gone--just a bit of unpleasantness. A reminder that poverty is no cake walk. And a reminder to stay poor by giving away whatever I'm not using.

I also found out that it's possible we may not be needed in Champaign. Which would be a big disappointment, because lots of things seem right about it. Well, we'll see. Heather and I are going down the second week in February and will have a chance to talk more with the people there.

And that brings me back to thoughts about helping others like Jesus did. The point I mentioned in the story (and also wrote of before) is not wanting to be a "benefactor." Not wanting to take control over the life of the person I'm trying to help. This often happens because the giver controls the things the other person needs (like money, food, housing) and so can pressure them to do certain things or make certain choices, under threat of cutting off support. Jesus didn't do this. Partly because he wasn't using human power or money to help people, so there was no possibility of using these to control people. Also, I don't want to be dependent on these things, nor do I want to teach others to do so.

I also want to avoid the benefactor's honor. Many give precisely because it makes them look good in the eyes of others, but I want to specifically avoid this. Both for personal spiritual reasons and because I want to communicate the same things Jesus did. Jesus made it clear that it was God who was the benefactor. We brothers and sisters all receive from our Father. And though Jesus' whole life was about giving and serving for the good of others, he was eventually killed as a threat to society (because his message, the most important good he had to offer, wasn't seen as a gift but as a threat). Benefactors, on the other hand, get presidential medals of honor.

More later...


The least of these my brethren

My recent thoughts about Jesus' way of helping others is partly stimulated by the possibility of moving to a Catholic Worker house next fall. (Heather and I are supposed to visit the Champaign house again sometime during the next month.) The work there would be different from here. The expectations and the possibilities for ministry would be different. So I've been thinking about how I could serve others better, as well as reminding myself of the mistakes I don't want to be pushed into.

I just thought of a story I wrote a while back. I had a Catholic Worker house in mind as the setting:

The least of these my brethren

They were chopping onions when the fight broke out. A coffee mug hit the floor in the dining room and shattered, and there were shouts. She heard Steve sigh "not again" as he rushed from the kitchen. Then she looked out through the serving window and saw Jack take a swing and miss. Steve was there before he had a chance to swing again.

There was a struggle, then Jack said OK, OK. But Steve started him towards the door. "You've been drinking again, haven't you?" Jack didn't say anything, but he tried to get out of Steve's grip. "You know the rules, Jack. You can't be in here if you're drunk." "I'm not drunk." "And if you get in a fight, you're out too. You know that. C'mon, let's go." Jack resisted, but Steve was firm and calm and kept him moving towards the door. Then a brief wrestle and Jack was out. But from the sidewalk she heard "You wouldn't treat Jesus like this, you sonuva..." The door slammed shut. "I would if he was drunk," Steve said angrily, and went to get the mop.

Situations like that always made her uneasy. But she wasn't sure what else to do, and someone like Steve, more experienced--and bigger--usually stepped in right away. And there was the rules, which were pretty clear cut. How could they run a place like this without them? But she still didn't feel quite right--especially when it was up to her to enforce them.

And once again she asked herself the question, How do we see Jesus in people like Jack? I know we're supposed to be able to see Jesus in everyone, especially in the "least of these," but it's not easy. Especially in the "least," the poorest, the most down and out, like Jack...

She wasn't sure what she heard first, the crash or the words. It was almost as if the front window exploded from the force of words alone. "...damn hypocrites--screw you!" Large pieces of glass, and the garbage can he had thrown, crashed to the dining room floor. Steve stumbled back against a chair and fell. But none of the tables were near the window, and no one seemed to be hurt. Steve jumped up and looked, but apparently Jack had fled. She started into the dining room to help, but Steve told everyone to stay back, he didn't want anyone getting cut while he was in charge. She brought gloves and a bucket from the kitchen, and some coffee to refill the mugs of the men still there. They didn't look like they wanted to leave, even with stuff like this happening. Actually, they didn't even look surprised.

As she started on the potatoes, she heard one of the men ask, "Do you want to know why you couldn't see Jesus in that guy just now?" She looked up. The man wasn't a regular, she didn't recognize him; but his army field jacket was familiar, lots of the guys who showed up here wore them. He was looking at Steve when he said, "Because Jesus didn't act like that--and he still doesn't." Steve glanced at the man. Then going back to work, he replied, "Jesus said he was even in 'the least of these'... hey, is there some plastic sheeting back there? Something to cover this window?" She took him the plastic and some duct tape. The man asked, "Did he call them 'my brethren' just because they were 'the least,' the poorest?" The man leaned forward. "Or did those 'least' get that way, poor, powerless, outcast, oppressed, because they were his brothers and sisters, because they did what he taught and followed his example--and so ended up just like he did..."

She didn't hear Steve say anything, but when she was back in the kitchen she heard the man say, "Instead of looking for him, trying to serve Jesus, you should be him. His body--his hands, his mouth, his heart. Be Jesus to others..." Steve came into the kitchen to wash his hands. "We need to replace that with plexiglas. Should've done that a long time ago." She asked softly, "Who is that man?" "I don't know, I don't think he's from around here." He turned off the water. "Someone with too much time on his hands..." Steve smiled and went back into the dining room.

Yeah, she thought. And what's he talking about? We feed over 100 people a day here, take in 30 off the street every night, and are constantly giving out clothes to whoever needs them. How can we "be Jesus" any more than that?

Then she heard the man ask, "How many stories do we have of Jesus feeding people, compared with all the times he was fed at other people's tables? Who did he clothe? And how many did he take in off the street--Jesus, who himself 'had no place to lay his head'?" She looked up. Huh. I never thought... wait--how did he know what I... The man continued, his eyes on Steve, her eyes on him. "You don't have to serve blindly, like those who helped Jesus without recognizing him. You too are called to be one of 'these my brethren.' To be 'one of the least,' in his kingdom where the least are the greatest. To become 'the least of these' yourself. The poor, the powerless, the outcast--who are like that because of him. Who Jesus identifies with because their life is just like his. But then you won't be in charge anymore, you won't be the benefactor..."

"Shut up!"

It was Slim, one of the older regulars. "You shut up about Jesus. He wasn't no bum like you! An' these people here, they're doin' sumthin'. They're makin' this a better place. We need more people like them... so just shut up. Or get out." The old man stopped and it was very quiet. Then the stranger looked at him and said, "The one who has ears will hear." "What? What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Slim was on his feet. Now Steve looked up. "All right guys, we don't need another fight today. I think it's time you took a walk, buddy." She saw the stranger get up, zip his jacket, and move quietly to the door. But before he went out, he bent and said something to Steve that she couldn't hear. Then the door closed behind him.

Steve brought the bucket of glass through the kitchen. But just as he was going out the back, she turned and asked, "What did he say to you?" He stopped, but didn't look at her.

"He said, 'Would you treat Jesus like this?'"

She watched the back door close. And slowly put down the knife. Then she quickly took off her apron and rushed through the dining room, grabbing her coat--then paused at the door. "Tell Steve I won't be here for lunch." And she was out on the sidewalk, looking up the street.

"Hey! Hey mister, wait up!" She jogged to catch up with him.


"The danger for those serving the poor"

That quote yesterday about "Santa Clauses" fits well with what I've thought and wrote before about "benefactors." Simply giving material handouts (or taking control of someone else's life) puts ourselves in the position of power and honor and can end up debilitating the one we're trying to help, enfeebling their spirit, rather than encouraging them to grow. My experience working here (and what I've seen) bears this out.

And I'm reminded of this passage from Jean Vanier's “The Broken Body” (one I found a couple summers ago when I was out walking):

In a special way,
for those of us called to live or work
with very broken people,
our purpose is to help them rise up
and discover and exercise their own gifts,
to discover their beauty and their capacity
to love and to serve.

The danger for those who are serving the poor
is to hold them back
by doing too much for them,
like parents who do too much
for their child with a handicap.
It is always easier to do things for people
than to help them find their dignity, and self-respect,
by doing things for themselves.
When we do too much,
not helping others to grow
or take responsibility for themselves,
are we not just serving ourselves?
--seeking power and a pedestal?
To serve broken people
means helping them, like a mother helps her child,
to discover their own gifts and beauty,
helping them to a greater independence,
so that gradually we may disappear.


a Santa Claus?

I've been thinking more about Jesus' way of serving others, and I was reminded of this passage from The City of Joy (about ministry in a slum in Calcutta):

"I've come to learn the validity of a strange reality here," he said. "In a slum an exploiter is better than a Santa Claus..." Confronted by his father's stupified expression, he went on to explain, "An exploiter forces you to react, whereas a Santa Claus demobilizes you."


two points of view

And from The Onion...

Homeless People Shouldn't Make You Feel Sad Like That

I realize not everybody can make mid-six figures like my husband. But just because you're not as fortunate as others, that doesn't give you the right to go around depressing people. That's my problem with the homeless: They spend all their time shuffling around in their tattered, smelly clothes, making you feel awful about having a nice home and job. Well, I don't think they should make you feel sad like that.

...Why sleep on benches, anyway? Can't the homeless at least put the effort into finding a room at a city shelter? How can I head home on a frosty evening to enjoy a cup of cocoa and a warm bed when, along the way, I have to trip over a man sleeping on a grate? It's especially galling in light of the fact that my husband pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes to buy places for these homeless people to sleep, and they aren't even using them. Instead they're sleeping outside, wasting our dollars, and making me feel bad, to boot.

...And, if I may make a request to any homeless person reading this, please don't ask for money from people with children. Trying to explain your miserable plight to a child is one of the hardest things a parent can do. They're too young to understand what makes certain people fall through the cracks of society, and it's not fair of you to force parents' hands with your presence.

The homeless need to understand that other people have feelings, too, and that it's really pretty selfish of them to display their suffering out in the open like that. If they must be someplace where everyone can see them, can't they at least fake a smile? A smile is free, after all. Even a homeless person can afford that.


what do I need to bring with me?

This morning I was looking at some internship information for an organization that serves the poor (including living among them). And I came across this:

All interns are considered self-supporting missionaries. This means that you must find a job to support yourself. However, you will need to bring a total of $3,500 with you to Orientation.
That's not surprising; it's pretty standard for internships like this one. But it stands in stark contrast to the call of Jesus I mentioned in my last entry:
"Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." (Lk 18.22)


"Follow me."

Another good example of Jesus' way of helping people is his invitation to "follow me." This is the greatest gift, but it is not something that people can accept passively. They have to act. And there is great risk involved, so it requires much of the person, much faith, which is central to what Jesus is offering. Because we draw closer to God by faith.

I love Mark's version of Jesus' first preaching. It makes it so clear that Jesus is announcing the kingdom of God present, the long-awaited time is here. And then Mark describes the response of the first disciples:

Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."

And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men." And immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Mk 1.14-18)
Jesus offers something incredible, a new life, here and now. But the disciples have to get up, leave everything, and follow. This is a great challenge for them. But it is the only way to receive what Jesus is offering.

We see this again in the story of the rich young man:
One came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments."

...The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "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." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Mt 19.16-17, 20-22)
The man recognizes what Jesus "help" will cost him and chooses to decline. He can only receive from Jesus if he follows.

People are very ready to receive help when that help lets them continue to pursue their own ambitions. But the help Jesus offers requires a radical change in us. This is the kind of help I want to offer as well.


"Your faith has made you well."

I've been thinking about the kind of service I've been doing around here, and also the kind of work I'd like to do in the future. And one thing that's bothered me a bit is that a lot of my work for others has felt like maintenance. Helping others bear their daily burden of work, caring for their needs, but without much progress or growth in the areas that seem most important to me.

And this reminded me that Jesus' way of helping others required a lot of them. It required them to meet him in faith. He wasn't just offering handouts, but calling people to take a step in faith (a step of spiritual growth) to receive what God had to give them. And when people would not do this, they could not receive his help. Like when Jesus went to his home town, for example:

He went away from there and came to his own country; and his disciples followed him. And on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, "Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.

And Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house." And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief. (Mk 6.1-6)
And there were many other instances where Jesus explicitly connects the faith of the person with the help they receive from him (from God). Such as these, all from Matthew 9:
And Jesus asked the father, "How long has he had this?" And he said, "From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us." And Jesus said to him, "If you can! All things are possible to him who believes." Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mk 9.21-24)

And behold, a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his garment; for she said to herself, "If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well." Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." And instantly the woman was made well. (Mt 9.20-22)

And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, "Have mercy on us, Son of David." When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, "Do you believe that I am able to do this?" They said to him, "Yes, Lord." Then Jesus touched their eyes, saying, "According to your faith be it done to you." And their eyes were opened. (Mt 9.27-30)

And I especially like the story of Peter coming to Jesus on the sea. It too connects Peter's faith with the help and support he gets from Jesus:
And Peter answered Jesus, "Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water." He said, "Come."

So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, "Lord, save me." Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "O man of little faith, why did you doubt?" (Mt 14.28-31)
When Peter steps out of the boat in faith, he can walk on water; when he turns his eyes to the waves and doubts, he sinks; and then when looks back to Jesus in desperation and cries out for help, he is saved. And he has learned something very important.

How can I help others in this same way? I think this is an important part of Jesus' service, not offering help that is merely a commodity to be consumed, but helping others reach out in faith for the help God has to give. That's not just physical maintenance. That's calling forth what is deepest and most important in people.


where is God?

The year began in the aftermath of a horrible disaster in Asia, a tsunami that killed over 150,000 and left many more thousands suffering terribly. This has naturally brought questions about where God is in all of this.

But twice this morning I heard people saying that we should put such questions aside and "do something to help." That such questions were "distractions." And while I agree that mere philosophizing (trying to unravel the tangles of theodicy) can be a distraction, I think it's very important to try to understand where God is in all of this. What God is doing. If we don't, I think it's futile to plunge in and "help" without considering what God's purposes are in this place and time, with these people. Of course, everyone else will just focus on cleaning up the mess and helping people "cope." I'd like to think that those who are more in tune with the deeper meanings of life could see something more than a mess.

I noticed the quote in my last post in December, which seems relevant to this situation somehow. If we can only see physical and emotional pain as an evil, then I think we are very short-sighted.


happy new year

I'm in a joyeux mood since Heather returned from France. Great for celebrating a new beginning.