à la folie!

Heather and I are in France (near Grenoble) visiting her parents, who are missionaries here. And talking to them about our plans for the coming year.

I'm hoping to go to a restaurant so I can order one of these:

And I learned how the French play "He loves me, he loves me not." As each petal is pulled, you say, "He loves me...": "pas du tout" (not at all) then with the next petal "un peu" (a little) then "beaucoup" (a lot) then "passionnément" (passionately) then "à la folie!" (to madness!). Then it starts over.

I think everyone deserves à la folie.

Especially God.


Jesus' authority?

In yesterday's reading in Mark:

As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, "By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?" Jesus said to them, "I will ask you a question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from men? Answer me."

And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But shall we say, 'From men'?" -- they were afraid of the people, for all held that John was a real prophet. So they answered Jesus, "We do not know."

And Jesus said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." (Mk 11.27-33)

I realized it might be worth it to make clear the difference between Jesus' authority and the "human authority" I'm trying to avoid. This passage is a great example of the difference.

Human authority is derived from physical force, political power, or material wealth/ownership, all of which are interrelated. For example: The authority of an office or position in an organization is supported by political power, the might of all the people in that particular group, as well as their ownership of the resources of that group, and this is protected by the physical force of police. Such authority is reinforced by human-made laws and the power that human beings can muster (which is increased when they join and organize). This is the authority we see constantly in human interactions.

Jesus did not use this authority, but specifically avoided it. His authority was not backed up by human power. It did not depend on the support of the masses. It did not derive from some office or position. So the religious/political leaders of his time could not understand where his authority came from. They show where their authority comes from by how they worry over the answer that will please the people (sounding like stereotypical politicians).

Jesus' authority, in word and action, was backed up by God. God's power made the demons flee and the diseases disappear and the storms cease at Jesus' word. And God's power makes Jesus' prophecies true. And it's God's immutable truth that appears in Jesus' teachings. His authority comes from God--an authority that stays with God, keeping God God and man man, children of their Father.

But Jesus doesn't bother explaining this to the leaders. How can such authority be explained to people who only know office, position, structures, politics?


"It shall not be so among you..."

One thing that I'm sure will be a challenge moving into a Catholic Worker house is the use of authority. As a full-time volunteer, I'll be expected to be "in charge" of the house at times, and I know the visitors there will automatically make assumptions about me as an authority figure. So I'll have to be very intentional about how I respond to that.

Yesterday, reading in Mark, I came across this favorite passage:

Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you..." (Mk 10.42-43)
And I was reminded about how my convictions against human authority (authority enforced through the use of political and economic power) have become even stronger during the years I have been here at Reba Place.

Some of that has come through negative experiences of others using power here, but most is from learning their history. There's a discussion group right now that's studying Glimpses of Glory, by Dave and Neta Jackson. It's about Reba's history, and a main theme is the dangers of authority in a growing community, based on the community's own failings and abuses. Though Reba Place Fellowship initially tried to avoid the centralization of power and heavy authority structures, as they grew and attempted to be more effective in ministry abuses of power appeared over time.

And they were also helped along the wrong path by others. For example, a very successful community leader from another state began having considerable influence in teaching here, and part of his message emphasized "strong leadership." He even chastised some for not being authoritative enough:
One of the greatest faults in many communities is that people who obviously have a position of authority refuse to take it because they are afraid that they are going to manipulate their brothers and sisters. And that, I think, is a cop-out from your calling.

Reba followed his leading. But within six years there were serious authority problems both at Reba Place and at the community that this teacher came from. And years later it also came out that this teacher was by that time involved in an adulterous relationship with another man in his community (under his leadership), and that he had affairs with several other men, some of whom he had been counseling. When confronted, he confessed and repented of this terrible "abuse of power and trust." Reba Place also went through a painful time of repentence and lost the majority of their members in the disillusionment that followed.

The sadness of this story has really deepened my focus and commitment to follow Jesus' words (and example): "It shall not be so among you." I know there will be pressure both from housemates and from guests that will push me towards "responsibility" and an authoritative role. But I must use this situation as an opportunity to clearly and firmly refuse such a role, to try to live differently as Jesus did, and try to help others lay down their power as well.


no ways tired

We're singing a lot of spirituals in church this month (honoring Black history month). Sunday I enjoyed this one, and thought it would be perfect to sing out on the road:

no ways tired

I've come too far from where I started from

Nobody told me
that the road would be easy

I don't believe he brought me this far
to leave me

This morning I found James Cleveland's version online (though you need to have a fast connection--or a lot of patience): "I Don't Feel No Ways Tired"


going before us

Heather and I spent a couple days at the Catholic Worker house in Champaign this week and both of us really liked it. It's a well-established house with lots of volunteers and support from the surrounding community. And I think we could really make a contribution there, especially in helping to build a stronger core community of full-time, live-in volunteers who could support each other and think creatively together. Also, it's not too far from here, so we could maintain contact with friends at Reba Place.

Most of all, the good fit (and the way we practically stumbled into it) made me feel more strongly that God is going before us to prepare a way. I really need that right now.


"Come, O blessed of my Father"

More thoughts on the parable of the sheep and goats (which start here)...

Those who Jesus identifies himself with, those he calls "my brethren" in the parable, are people who are hungry, strangers, prisoners. That should not be surprising, since that is what Jesus told his followers to expect: "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you" (Jn 15.20). And Paul described the apostles' experience of this:

To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless... We have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things. (1 Cor 4.11,13)
So it makes sense that Jesus would say "as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me," when "these" refers to those who are suffering as Jesus' followers, those walking closely in his footsteps.

Yet when we think of those who are hungry, strangers, prisoners, we usually do not think of Christians. We think of Christians as responsible, upstanding, respected citizens. We think of Christians as those in charge of soup kitchens and other relief organizations. We don't think of Christians as those in need of help. But Jesus' own life, and his teaching, and his disciples' experience, all show the Christian life as an experience of persecution, vulnerability, need. Sheep amidst wolves.

In the final judgment scene of the parable, however, "the least of these my brethren" are no longer under attack from the world but the world ("the nations", ethnos) is being judged according to the way they treated Jesus' persecuted brethren. They may not have encountered Jesus in person, but they encountered him in his followers. For some this is a dire revelation. But for others, this is very good news.

Which brings up the comforting aspect of this parable for me. There are some who, though they are not quite aware of what Jesus is doing in the world (or what he looks like in the world) yet they come into relation to Jesus through their compassion for his followers. And this is a great good for them: "he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward."

This makes me hopeful, because though I don't find too many people (even among "Christians") who are willing to follow Jesus' example very closely themselves (perhaps because they see that it leads to being one of "the least"), there are many more who are at least willing to show kindness and help someone who is trying to follow Jesus closely. And I have to feel good about that. Because though it's disappointing that they cannot see and more fully experience life walking close with Jesus now, I can imagine them one day hearing these words:
"Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."


on a gray Sunday


goats, sheep, and...

More thoughts on the parable of the sheep and goats (which start here)...

It also seemed odd to me that not only the "goats" but also the "sheep" have no idea that their actions had something to do with Jesus. If the sheep are Jesus' faithful followers, shouldn't they know what they are doing when they love those in need? (Especially since they have this parable...) It leads me to think that this is a judgment scene of those who acted rightly (or wrongly), but in ignorance of what was really going on. That doesn't sound like a description of Jesus' followers, who he called friends, "for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." (Jn 15.15)

Jesus does mention "my brethren" in the parable, but this doesn't refer to either the goats or the sheep. It refers to ones who are hungry, imprisoned, strangers, etc. Not that everyone who suffers is Jesus' brethren; he never taught that. But he did teach that those who followed him would suffer persecutions like these, just as he did. Jesus also taught that anyone who helped his followers would be rewarded. Such as in this passage earlier in Matthew:

"He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet because he is a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward, and he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward. And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward." (Mt 10.40-42)
In this passage we also see Jesus identifying himself with his followers ("He who receives you receives me"), just as he identifies himself with "the least of these my brethren" in the parable ("Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me"). The parable also has no mention of these brethren being judged like the others.

This all supports the interpretation that those being judged are not Jesus' "brethren," his faithful followers, but others. Ethnos, "the nations," those who did not understand what Jesus was doing in the world. But the parable does mention Jesus' faithful followers, and gives an image of what their lives looked like.

More later...


"All the nations..."

Recently I've also been comforting myself with another reading of the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25.31-46). This interpretation also entered into my story "The least of these my brethren." I'd had questions about the usual interpretation, i.e. that when we help the poor we're helping Jesus (and the implication that we are saved according to how well we did "good deeds," feeding, clothing, etc).

Lots of things didn't seem to fit. For example, the phrase "the least of these my brethren" is not very clear. Who is this referring to? It's usually taken to mean any person in need, but is Jesus really identifying himself with every poor person? He never does that anywhere else. And anyone who has had much experience with working with the poor and needy knows that they are often not very Christlike--so it becomes very hard to "see Jesus" in them, if that's what we're trying to do. I also had questions because many of the things that Jesus commends the sheep for, he rarely did himself. Clothing or welcoming people, for example. Or feeding them (just the one or two recorded miracles). Or visiting people in prison; he didn't even visit John. It just doesn't seem to make sense that in this one parable Jesus is presenting a whole new identity for himself or a whole new "works" ethic for his followers.

So I took a closer, longer look at the parable and here's some of the things I found. It begins:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him..."
I noticed the word "nations" and looked up the Greek. It's ethnos. Which can be translated "people" or "nations," but is often translated as "Gentiles." For example, in these other places in Matthew:
"Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things..." (Mt 6.31-32)

"You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you..." (Mt 20.25-26)
In these places the nations (ethnos) are contrasted with Jesus' followers: "Do not be like them." The term takes on connotations similar to "the nations" in the Old Testament, where it referred to all the nations besides Israel. The pagans. The Gentiles. Those who are not considered part of God's people.

That begins to make the scene look very different. More later...


salt and leaven

Ellul's emphasis on "inassimilability" is basically an echo of Jesus' words:

"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot." (Mt 5.13)
I've been struggling a bit to keep my saltiness recently. Amid pressures to envision how Heather and I could live, and perhaps raise children, without income or property or insurance or institutional support. Living on gifts and making our lives gifts. It's hard to imagine, and right now the input of others has not been helping much. Even those who seem to want to be helpful are offering advice like, "You could fit in so much better, and have more opportunities to use your gifts, if you would only..." Be less salty.

It's discouraging to be constantly struggling against the watering-down effect, the tendency towards conformity, compromise, blandness. But there's also the other effect, if we don't lose our "taste." The seasoning effect. Or leavening:
"To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened." (Lk 13.20-21)

And I do see some of that happening here. This morning someone showed me a proposal to shift much of the community-owned property here to a non-profit organization that would continue to serve the poor (with low-income housing as they have been doing). This would effectively take a huge chunk of Fellowship wealth and give it to be used exclusively for the poor. And put the Fellowship members in a much more vulnerable position, having to trust much more on God for their needs, especially now as they are aging.

I'm impressed by that idea, though I'm doubtful that everyone will go along with it. But they have been talking seriously about wealth and faith and solidarity with the poor. Heather's paper on money has also been distributed as part of that discussion. And that's all good.

I'm not sure how this all happened; it definitely wasn't my idea or plan. But that's how leavening works: hidden, quietly. And we don't need to make it happen, we just need to keep our inassimilability--and thank God when we see the results.