the pilgrim way

I was feeling down yesterday. Very discouraged about our chances of actually being able to work something out with Plow Creek. The closer it gets the more unlikely it looks. Heather called from France just in time to revive my spirits. She recently received two unexpected donations, sizeable ones, right when she was wondering how her needs would be met during the next month, as she makes the transition back here. And it was comforting and reassuring just to hear her voice again.

It was also reassuring to find that Auden poem that I quoted yesterday. It expressed my feelings so well. Both that it looks so much like "the pilgrim way" is leading to a dead end, and that I am desperate for a miracle.

But despite these feelings, and despite my intentions (for almost two years now) to find a stable place for Heather and me, I'm still haunted by the image of the Christian life as a pilgrimage. I keep remembering the talk I gave at Plow Creek farm last summer. It was about how "being home" means being with God, so we don't need to be tied to a certain place or property for our security, but are able to be at home anywhere. We don't need to be defensive or possessive about our home, because it cannot be taken from us. It was a pilgrim's message.

And now, going back to the farm, I'm still trying to walk the pilgrim way. I'm still trying to live without the security of property, or a stable income, or the committed dependence on human institutions. Because Jesus stepped away from these, and taught that true security lies elsewhere. But how can I expect others to embrace this also, with all the risks involved, and the obvious conclusion (as Auden wrote) that it leads to the Abyss?

It would take a miracle. At Plow Creek, or wherever else I present myself.

Of course, I didn't expect Heather to embrace it either, but she has (and when I waver I even hear her urging me on). Miracles do happen. And I guess I can think of worse things than having to live by miracles...


The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss...

Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

W.H. Auden


"if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly"

That famous line is by G.K. Chesterton, in What's Wrong with the World. I think his point was that if something is really good or valuable, it's worth trying, even if we can't do it well.

I thought of that this morning, because I recognized that the particular good I'm trying to do right now I'm actually doing very poorly. Making a mess of it. But I guess I do think it's worthwhile enough to do badly.

And maybe, eventually, with some help, I could get better at it...


"the spiritual need is real and primary"

Heather is celebrating Christmas in France with her parents, who are missionaries there. Here's part of her last message from her trip:

Last year [Paul and I] worked at a homeless shelter in Champaign, Illinois; coming out of that (sadder but wiser, as they say), we drew some conclusions: one was that addicts need Jesus, and not just the name of Jesus on their lips either, and another was that spiritual needs are as real as material needs, and are primary, even when you're poor. I kept myself in reserve with those conclusions, though; I've thought about the Third World for years, and I thought, "Is it that way even with real poverty? The kind they have in the Third World?" I didn't consider that I had an answer to that question, but I considered that I needed to see for myself to know.

I have a Nigerian friend whose mother has sold fried cakes in the market to support the family for years. They have no running water even though they live in the city; four people share two rooms and a single mattress on the floor; all the clothes hang in the kitchen, which doubles as a changing room. That's “real” poverty all right, though not the very worst. But the greatest trial in this family's life isn't poverty—it's the behavior of their husband and father, who left, years ago, after (for reasons completely mysterious to me) spreading awful slander about his daughter all over the community. That's what my friend—the daughter—thinks about in bed at night.

That's only one example. But I've had the growing sense, since coming to Nigeria, that even if you're talking about plain human suffering the greatest source of it isn't poverty. It's people being evil to each other.

And in a way that conclusion is the same one Paul and I came to at the shelter: the spiritual need is real and primary. Whether it's the need to feel God's love, the need for God to take control of your interior chaos, the need to know that in God's eyes you are as valuable as anyone—or the need to be turned away from evil. The need to learn to love, to love God and your neighbor.

The ministry Paul and I would like to start is based on this. The basic idea is to bring, for free, people who are poor and/or homeless out into the country for a weekend (or more) of Bible study, sharing, prayer, and alone time with God. It's witness and potential discipleship, done through hospitality. It would be in the US, and so it would be geared toward the American poor—meaning we should expect many addicts among them. Paul and I have studied the Twelve Steps (of Alcoholics Anonymous) and find them very biblical, and we've visited a couple who are doing this kind of retreats-for-the-poor work in Virginia, who use the Bible and the Twelve Steps together in the Bible studies they have at their retreats. Their retreatants often come from halfway houses. We attended one retreat and afterward couldn't stop talking about what we would do if we were doing this ourselves.

Hospitality, discipleship, counseling, sometimes evangelism—and it's not impossible there might be some spiritual warfare now and then. Completely different from what I've been doing in Nigeria—but it sounds very good to me, actually. And I'm sure I would continue having wild ideas (and implementing the best 5% of them) on the side.

So the upshot of all this is: soon after I get back to Chicago, we're scheduled to visit some friends of ours to talk about whether they want to partner with us in this work. They're a group of Christian friends, originally from our home church in Chicago, who live together on a farm called Plow Creek in rural Illinois. We've spoken with them a little about the vision, but the visit in February will be the time when we really present it to them. Basically, we will ask them if they are interested in hosting a retreat ministry for the poor on their farm. We would seek out donors for the expenses of the ministry & our daily bread, organize it, and do the work of hospitality and of leading some retreats, inviting our Plow Creek friends also to lead some of the retreats or Bible studies as the Lord moves them.

But this is very tentative. We really don't know if this is the time for the Plow Creek community to undertake a project like this, or if this kind of thing is part of their calling. So—my last prayer request—will you please pray that if God wants this ministry to exist, he will either make a place for it among our friends at Plow Creek or show us another place? And that if he doesn't, he will show us what he does want us to do?


give peace, Lord

For Christmas, here's a Taizé chant I've been enjoying (from the album Stephen sent me recently). It's Latin, meaning "Give peace, Lord."

(Download it here)


it's not Jesus we're dealing with

I've been inundated with the "see God in the poor" message lately. Someone gave me an article by Jean Vanier, in which he compared care for a handicapped person with Mary's motherly care for Jesus. And in church Sunday there was a poster saying, "Those who can't see God in the poor are atheists indeed." (It was attributed to Dorothy Day, though I think it's a bit of a misquote.) Then I read a sermon yesterday where the writer said Jesus seems to have "gone missing" from the world, but if we wanted to find him we should look among the poor. He even quoted Bono (lead singer for U2 and a prominent activist), who apparently preached last year to the president and other world leaders: "God is in the slums... God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives...."

It's not a bad message, I guess. It's actually pretty good, if you're talking to comfortable people and trying to get them involved with charity work. It's not exactly what Jesus taught, but there's some truth in it; God certainly can be seen among the poor and working with the needy is a good thing to do if we're looking for God. I've tried to follow that path myself.

But if you follow it far, you run into some confusing problems. Because, while God can certainly be seen among the poor, there are also many among the poor that don't reflect God much at all. In the Vanier article, he also mentioned that often the handicapped aren't easy to love because they don't always act like the child Jesus, even when we'd like to see them that way. Vanier didn't offer much help, though, dealing with that discrepancy. He just said it's "a mystery."

This is the problem I find myself facing right now. What happens when it becomes clear that it's not Jesus we're dealing with, but a broken person (like any of us) who needs to face some faults and make some changes and start becoming a little more like Jesus? When it gets to this point, the "see God in the poor" mantra isn't much help. Saying "it's a mystery" isn't much help. What is helpful, I think, is to pay attention to how Jesus worked with sinners, challenging them, not cooperating with their faults, setting a different example, showing them the reality of their condition—and patiently suffering when they don't like what they see and retaliate. Instead of trying to see Jesus in them, try to be Jesus to them, to be used by Jesus to touch their lives. This is what Jesus did teach.

I'm sure the "see God in the poor" message will continue to be popular. I suppose we like the image of us taking care of God. And a person can raise a lot of money and get quite famous preaching that message.

Actually try to be like Jesus, however, and you will most likely get what Jesus got. But isn't it worth it? To not be continually looking for him, but feel him moving in us, looking for others through us...



"he trusted him who judges justly"

It's strange. In my experience, Christians who emphasize Jesus' teachings about mercy and non-violence tend to ignore (or be embarrassed by?) Jesus' warnings about God's wrath and predictions of final judgment. And Christians who think it's important to emphasize God's judgment tend to also support human attempts to apply that judgment now, through force and violence, in police and military action. Jesus' example and teaching about turning the other cheek is forgotten. Why is this? Theologians speak of us being like the God we believe in. But I wonder if the reverse is true, that we shape our "God" in our own image.

Of course there is a valid scriptural (and experiential) basis for what these Christians say. But what they leave out distorts the picture and limits our ability to follow Jesus' example. Yes, we are to follow Jesus in his nonviolent, non-retaliatory suffering. And, yes, we are also to follow him in his belief (and announcements) of God's judgment and wrath.

Like I said yesterday, these are not contradictory but seem to go together, to support each other. They both appear in Jesus' teaching. And in the letters of Paul and Peter we see them connected as well:

If when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. (1 Pt 2.20-23)
Peter directly connects Jesus' non-retaliation with his trust in God's judgment. And when Paul speaks of loving enemies, the wrath of God is mentioned in the same breath:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." (Rom 12.19-20)

I believe God's assurances of righteous judgment (and his ability and will to carry it out) are meant to comfort and help us as we try to follow Jesus' example of loving, patient endurance. They are not meant to inflame our hearts, but to quiet them. To be the basis for our peace.


"every boot of the tramping warrior..."

I went to an Advent service yesterday at a Catholic church in downtown Evanston, and was surprised to see Heather's aunt and uncle (from Reba Place Mennonite church) helping to lead worship. Another couple from Reba sang as well. Excellent music. And I really like when Christians can do things like that together, crossing denominational boundaries. They used the familiar "For to us a child is born" passage from Isaiah 9, and I was glad to hear it less edited than usual. We've gotten so used to the sanitized Christmas version, most people would probably feel uncomfortable hearing what Isaiah actually wrote:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Is 9.2-6)
Yesterday I wrote about a connection between patient waiting and trust in God's enduring, overwhelming power. Similarly, I think there is an important connection between peace and God's judgment. The promises of peace and judgment always go together. The destruction of "every boot of the tramping warrior" is part of the rise of the Prince of Peace. Not that we should take this "breaking the rod of the oppressor" on ourselves, of course (unless we want to count ourselves among the tramping warriors). But it is something we can and should expect of God.


to wait as God waits

I've been wondering about that last line from my last entry. To wait as God waits. It made me think of the many passages like this one, which seems to reveal something important about God's ability to wait:

My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.

But you, O LORD, are enthroned for ever;
your name endures to all generations.

Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
but you art the same, and your years have no end.
(Ps 102.11-12,25-27)

This also:
The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the LORD stands for ever,
the thoughts of his heart to all generations.
(Ps 33.10-11)

God is not threatened. His intentions and purpose are not in jeopardy. He does not fear the possibility of things spinning out of control, or falling apart, or someone taking the reins from him. He is God.

So he can wait. He can wait for us because he is not threatened by us, by our denials and rebellion, by our boasts and attempts to escape him. We cannot escape his truth. Or thwart his will. We can only thwart ourselves, and if we continue this to the end then we will simply pass away and be gone.

I need to be more consciously aware of this, and trust it more fully. I know when I lose patience with people and run away, or strike out in anger, I'm feeling threatened. I'm panicking. I'm afraid that my plans are falling apart, or I'm getting trapped, or evil is winning. I can't wait well because I don't trust well.

At those moments I very much feel my own vulnerability. My days are like an evening shadow...

I need also to feel But you, O LORD, are enthroned for ever.


more waiting

Recent happenings here have gotten me thinking about waiting again. Waiting in relationship to others. Waiting as holding back. Last week I wrote about holding back from striking out against someone, or cutting them off (I'm still working on that). But often there's also a need to hold back our urges to do something for someone else.

Right now I find myself in a relationship with someone who has been helped so much that he has fallen into extreme passivity, taking almost no initiative in his life, letting someone else manage almost everything that happens to him. There seems to be almost no sense of self anymore, no sense that his life is his, that he (and only he) is the one who has to choose what to do with it. That he's the one who has to respond to what God has offered to him. And this condition has been encouraged because others have been so eager to do things for him and solve his problems and manage his affairs.

But I also have experience with the reverse: people who seem compulsive in their feelings of responsibility for others, who try to manage everything, and so end up overwhelmed by the work and problems they have taken on. When I've tried to help these people by taking over some of their work, to lessen their load, I've discovered that they just take on more work.

Both of these seem to me to indicate a spiritual problem. And it's not something that can be helped by doing things for them, by "helping" with the work. In both cases, doing more for them only seems to encourage their problem. So I've stepped back. And I see that God may already be addressing their problems, without my "helping." The passivity leads to feelings of helplessness and a life that is controlled by others, which is not a happy place. And taking over responsibility for the lives of others leads to the overwhelming stress and physical burden of carrying more than we were built to carry. The further we go along these paths, the more suffering we bring on ourselves. I think that's God's way of trying to get our attention.

So, sometimes, if we begin to see that this is what's going on, it may be right to hold back from helping. To wait. To let God work on people simply by the way he resists their efforts (to take over or to escape).

To wait as God waits.


hello out there

I was curious about who was taking a look at this site, so I installed StatCounter to let me see who's visiting. And I'm encouraged. In the last two months there have been more than 700 visits. About 20% of these are by people who come back fairly regularly (I know most of you), and the rest usually show up because something I wrote here pops up in their internet search.

For a map showing the location of the most recent visitors, click here.




I just got a letter from a friend, who had read my recent entries here and wanted to offer some advice. He sees me trying to live both the "eschatological/evangelical" life (radical discipleship, poverty, witnessing to the things beyond this life?) and the "incarnational" life (family, fatherhood, witnessing to the gifts of God in this life?), which are both important, but he feels one person can't live both.

My friend is right about me, I think. And he seems to mean well. His categories are pretty traditional religious ones, bringing to mind the two-tiered spirituality popular during the height of the monastic movement, where the stricter (higher) spiritual life was only expected of priests or monks who could devote themselves to that, and a lower standard accepted for those who had families and jobs. Most Christians today would probably say they don't agree with this. Yet I've found myself running into it again and again. Like the many times people have told me that "living by faith" (without stable income or property, trusting God to provide for needs as they come, as Jesus did) is not compatible with marriage and family. Though I know there are Christian examples that prove otherwise...

And this past weekend there was a "new monasticism" gathering here, mostly made up of non-Catholic young people. I wrote about this new movement a year ago. And I mentioned that the danger here is the same as in monastic times, that a higher standard is set up for small "heroic" groups of people, instead of it being a challenge and expectation for all Christians to follow Jesus' extreme example.

Because didn't Jesus live both the "eschatological/evangelical" life and the "incarnational" life? And didn't he call everyone to follow his example, no matter what their life situation?

The good news is that Jesus invited everyone to follow him, to join him in the highest spiritual life, the life of the kingdom of God, which is also the most beautiful, fulfilling, human way to live. No one is relegated to the lower tier. No one is left to be an admirer instead of a follower.


the red one

A few months back I started some geranium cuttings in a pot in my room. To have something blooming through the winter. The white and pink ones did well, and are now big and producing flowers, but the red one struggled. It started to grow and even managed a flower, then stalled. Maybe something wrong with the roots. All but two leaves yellowed and fell off, and the last two got limp and dark and a bit withered. I almost pulled it up. But it was still green, so I left it.

For over a month it didn't grow, just stayed limp and withered. But it didn't completely die either. Then this weekend, just when I was ready to give up on it to make room for the other big ones, it started growing again. A tiny new bright green leaf is emerging.

I'm happy. And it somehow seems to illustrate what I was saying about waiting for people. It reminded me of this parable:

A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, "See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?"

He replied, "Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down." (Lk 13.6-9)

But I'm not sure what the message is, exactly. God is patient, and waits for us, gives us a second chance. And we should wait for others. In the case of my geranium cutting, the waiting ended happily. But it doesn't always. And God doesn't wait forever—if that fig tree didn't bear fruit after the fertilizing, it would be cut down. Now that I think about it, there was another geranium cutting I started; that one dried up completely, and I yanked it.

Maybe the deeper message is that God is the gardener. We need to listen for his guidance and trust it. He knows when to wait for others, and what they need to encourage them to grow—and he knows when it's over. That helps, I think. It makes it easier for me to wait if I know someone knows what's going on...


"you're pretty uptight for a naked chick"

I'm fighting off the flu and feeling a little cranky today. This helped, though. The Simpsons bible stories episode (in which they take a few artistic liberties...). I remember making a copy for my Hebrew scriptures professor when I was in seminary.

Woo hoo!

(If the player doesn't work, click here)


...and waiting

After I wrote yesterday, I remembered that we're in the Advent season now. The season of anticipation, waiting expectantly.

And I also found another old journal entry about waiting, written three years ago while I was on the road. The waiting of Advent is usually seen as a spiritual discipline—with prayer, alms, fasting—to prepare ourselves for Jesus' coming. But, as I wrote three years ago, learning to wait is also crucial in our relationships, in our ability to serve others:

The last few days, I've been thinking that the real point of such patient endurance is to "give others a chance." I think this is also the purpose behind pacifism, nonviolence, non-coercion. Give the other person (perhaps the enemy or aggressor) the chance to repent, or the chance to do the right thing. Don't give up on them and impatiently walk away (or destroy them), but really give them a chance to accept or reject what God is offering.

I thought of those lines at dinner yesterday, when the conversation turned towards Jesus' poverty and all the usual clichés came out ("not poverty but simplicity," "there's a difference between poverty and destitution..." etc). Self-justifications and diversions. Sometimes I feel like blowing up at times like those, because it seems like people are intentionally avoiding truths they do not want to see, and encouraging others to do the same. Blowing up or giving up and walking away.

But I think love in this case means waiting. Giving others a chance to face the truth when they are ready, however long that takes. Pretty much everyone is going to have to face real poverty eventually, as old age gradually strips everything away; maybe then they'll see what Jesus was saying all along. What he demonstrated when he became a human child in a poor family.

Waiting as an an act of respect for the freedom of others. Wanting (maybe desperately wanting) them to come around, or move forward, but not trying to force them. Because it's more important that they accept voluntarily, with their whole heart. Waiting for those we love.


still waiting

A few days ago I closed a message to Heather with this:

waiting impatiently for you,

And yesterday in the library I came across a novel titled Waiting. Today, I'm filling in for Julius on his day off, being on call for Bob's needs throughout the day. It reminded me of a journal entry two years ago, about "waiting on":
Maybe the best phrase that describes true service is "to wait on." As in a restaurant, where servers are commonly called "waiters." But in any situation, the one in the subservient position can be seen because he is the one who waits, waiting for the people he serves to call on him or make up their minds or finish what they are doing. The one who waits, the servant, is not in control. And "waiting on" someone is always a humbling experience.
I also went back and read what I wrote about waiting earlier this year. When I wrote that, I was waiting to go to the retreat place in Virginia (which didn't work out as we had hoped). Now I'm waiting to try again, at Plow Creek Farm. And I've been waiting over six months now for Heather to return from Africa.

Waiting, especially "waiting on God," is an important theme in scripture. And it's often spoken of in a very active sense. Words like "abide" and "endure" emphasize this active sense of waiting. Like I wrote earlier this year, waiting is not just a personal spiritual practice. Now I'm seeing how it's also a very important active part of our relationships (with God or other people). Now that Heather's return is in sight, I'm becoming more aware of how waiting can be active, how my waiting for her has taken a lot of focus and energy and intention. To keep someone present to you, even though they are far away. To keep reaching for them, though you cannot touch.

But these are powerful words to be able to say to someone: "I'm waiting for you."


This was me the night before last...


our father

In my daily prayers I've begun using this Taizé music for the Lord's prayer:

How often, and how automatically, we call God "our Father." But what do we make of that, if anything? Nowadays people argue whether we should identify God as the masculine parent. And much has been made of God being "abba," our daddy, as if the most important thing about fathers is that we like how they cuddle and play with us.

But, really, is fatherhood primarily about masculinity? Or cuddliness?

With Heather due back in about six weeks, and our friends' announcement of their pregnancy, I've been feeling the (potential) weight of fatherhood. And I've heard that some at the farm are expecting me "to have some clear ideas of how you would see supporting both you and Heather and the ministry you are envisioning." The weighty expectations of fatherhood.

Which leaves me, more than anything else, wanting a father right now. Trying to trust that he's there. To provide what we need, to have the answers, to show the way.

When we get to the farm, hopefully we'll all be able to look together to "our Father in heaven," rather than falling into the usual assumption, "It's up to me now; my daddy has gone away..."


had a dad

A couple young friends of mine who got married this summer just found out they're going to be parents soon. My first thought (after "Whoa!") was, "That's a good way to grow up fast." I'm praying for them. As I wrote yesterday, the transition from child to "adult" can be a spiritually perilous one.

And it's not a transition we relish, I think. Though most young people are glad to get out from under parental restraints and authority, we don't like losing the security of having parents to take care of things.

I think this reaches us at a deeper level, too. A spiritual level. Where we always long for a Father, are frustrated when we can't seem to find Him, and may even feel pushed into the role ourselves ("because someone's gotta do it"). Jane's Addiction said it pretty well in the song, "Had a Dad":

Had a dad
big and strong
I turned around
found my daddy gone
He was the one
made me what I am today
It's up to me now
My daddy has gone away...

If you see my dad
tell him my brothers
[have] all gone mad
They're beating on each other
I walked around
even tried to call
Got that funny feeling

He's not there at all...


one more for the season

Christmas thoughts brought this to mind today, from my journal a couple years ago:

I think Christmas really emphasizes the contrast between adults and children. The delight and surprise seen in the eyes of children, and the tension and fatigue seen around the eyes of the adults. It's pretty much a cliche that Christmas is a time of anticipation for children, but usually a time of tension for adults. Often, I even hear adults admitting that most of the joy they do find in Christmas is experienced vicariously, though the children.

This is a generalization, of course. But isn't there something to it? Doesn't it have something to do with the fact that adults feel responsible for making Christmas happen—while children simply receive it?

The scripture that comes to mind is Mk 10.15:
"Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."

I think there's something important in this contrast between adults and children (and not just at Christmas). Spiritual maturity is not about becoming "responsible" or "building the kingdom of God." It's not about becoming an adult, if becoming adult means taking charge, making things happen, managing the world, etc.

It's about receiving the kingdom of God as a child.


"when you give a feast..."

Jesus said also 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..." (Luke 14.12-13)
I linked to this passage in my last entry, and it reminded me of Thanksgiving here at the house. They have a tradition of inviting several people from the church's "Sonshine Group," a group for adults with mental disabilities. A good tradition. And it makes for an interesting and lively feast. You never know what's going to happen next...


saint nick

The inspiration for Christmas gift-giving (and for Santa Claus) is St. Nicolas of Myra. Not a whole lot is known about him, but this story seems to be the reason for his reputation:

A poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of their plight, Nicholas decided to help them but being too modest (or too shy) to help publicly, he went to their house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window. One version of the story has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age." Invariably the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Nicholas say it is not him he should thank but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead.

People soon began to suspect that Nicolas was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.

A pretty inspiring example. But right away I notice that his giving was very different from our Christmas gift exchanges. Take each point I mentioned yesterday: Nicolas gives without expecting anything back; he gives to someone who most likely can't pay him back (as Jesus taught us). Nicolas gives quietly, anonymously, avoiding praise. And he didn't give for the sake of a holiday; he gave because he saw someone in need right then, and he responded to that need. That's real gift-giving. So very different from our Christmas distortion.

Where I'm living right now, in a Christian intentional community, Christmas gift-giving has been moved to Epiphany, or "Three Kings Day." To try to connect the traditional gifts with the wise men's gifts, something more meaningful than Santa. But the distortions of gift-giving are pretty much the same (a public, seasonal exchange, among people who don't really need anything).

And what of the wise men? Again, their gift-giving is very different. They give to someone in need, a poor family from Nazareth, who cannot repay. And it wasn't any holiday. They gave when God moved them to give. We made a holiday of it because their giving was truly beautiful.

But why don't we follow their example?


30 days, 10 hours, 13 minutes until Christmas

Big shopping day today. And of course all the Christmas decorations will be up. I took a walk yesterday and one of the houses on the next block is already candy-striped and wreathed. So maybe I'll get into the Christmas mood early too. Let's see...

I stepped away from of Christmas gift-giving gradually. My first confused questions started when I was a teenager, wandering around a crowded mall trying to complete my gift list. And the questions persisted, growing more and more bold, until I finally stopped giving Christmas gifts altogether about ten years ago.

Ironically, during that same time it was becoming more apparent to me that gift-giving was central to the Christian life. I was coming to believe that everything we do should be a gift to others, just as it was in Jesus' life. When I could finally specify clearly what I disliked most about Christmas gift-giving, it was that what happens at Christmas is almost the opposite of what true gift-giving should be.

As Jesus taught, gifts should be given without expectation of anything in return. That's basically the definition of a gift. Yet at Christmas there is definitely an expectation of something in return—we don't give gifts, we exchange. Jesus also taught that, when we give, we shouldn't make a show of it or expect recognition. "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." But what have we made of our Christmas gift exchange? The biggest show of the year, a show in every home ("OK, this one is from Aunt Lily..."), a parade of charity emblazoned on billboards and full-page newspaper ads.

Perhaps the part that confused me the most when I was younger was how to find the inspiration to give gifts suddenly at a certain time of the year. Now I think I understand love better. Love doesn't appear out of nowhere at Christmas like Santa Claus; it doesn't count the days until it can express itself. Love gives when the need arises. Love appears when we encounter someone that God wants to touch and we let that healing touch work through us. But this doesn't happen according to the calendar. And we don't have to scratch our heads trying to figure out what to give. When God shows us someone in need, and we're paying attention, God also shows us what to give.

This is all lost when we make gift-giving a seasonal event, and gifts become meaningless trinkets destined to clutter someone's closets and garage (and storage locker, etc)—because no one we know really needs anything. Such a show is not a beautiful celebration of gift-giving. It is a twisting, an undermining, of the true meaning of gift.

Tomorrow: But what about St. Nick?



O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!

Out of my distress I called on the LORD;
the LORD answered me and set me free.
With the LORD on my side I do not fear.
What can man do to me?

It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to put confidence in man.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to put confidence in princes.

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever!

(from Psalm 118)



"...is an abomination in the sight of God"

The Greek word translated "abomination" in Luke 16.15 means "a foul thing, a detestable thing." But it also has the connotation "of idols and things pertaining to idolatry." Which is perhaps why the word abomination was chosen.

"You are those who justify yourselves before men, but... what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God." (Lk 16.15)

The connection with idolatry reminded me of my recent thoughts on modern idolatry. And I can see how "what is exalted among men" is what men idolize, which tends to be the things that exalt men themselves—the worship of what we have made, the worship of our own power, the worship of ourselves. As I pointed out in my previous entries on idolatry, our modern idolatry focuses on our powerful institutions, the combined might of our social organizations.

Yesterday I happened to be thinking of this in connection with the social pressure to marry, and marriage has been on my mind, so I'll stick with that example. Marriage is actually a gift from God, a wonderfully good gift. But human societies have worked hard to take it over and use it for their own purposes. It is often even called "the institution of marriage," and is clearly treated as a human institution in practice. It must be licensed by government offices to be considered valid. It is dissolved by judges in courtrooms. It is treated as a legal status in economic dealings (including taxation). Those are the most obvious ways society has tried to make marriage its own.

Which is not surprising. Because society sees marriage and family as the basic building block for the social order (this is true in all cultures, isn't it?). This is how new people are added to the society. And marriage and family are perhaps the most persuasive influences in getting people to sell themselves into the work force (and keeping them there). Thus society needs marriage and so seeks to define and control it.

And while most young couples don't see it in this stark light, marriage is usually understood as a social act. A Christian friend of mine described the marriage ceremony as "primarily for the community." He saw it as an act of declaring the couple's commitment publicly as a promise to the community (as well as to each other), to get the blessing of the community, and so also to receive the community's assurance of support. He saw this as an acknowledgment that they needed the community to survive as a couple. And of course this attitude was highly praised when he got married. It sounds very wise and good—from the perspective of the community.

But is this what marriage is? Is it something granted by the community, by society? Is it meant to affirm our dependence on other people? Is its importance primarily social?

That's one sign on an idol: it points to itself instead of God. Marriage is a gift from God, and its joy and wonder (and creation of new life) should point to God. Like all the gifts of God, it should reaffirm our complete dependence on God. And there's so much about marriage (as we see it as symbol and analogy in scripture) that teaches us about the true meaning of our lives as relationship with God. But society has exalted the "institution" of marriage, turning our attention and dependence towards the social idol, making of it a false, detestable thing.

Thankfully, marriage need not be what we have made of it. It can be something else, something completely beyond human society, "the two become one flesh," a creation and gift of God.


"what is exalted among men..."

There were three weddings here this summer, another couple is getting married next month, and I recently heard another just got engaged. And of course everyone gets so excited and congratulatory with each new announcement and celebration.

But each new announcement has triggered an uncomfortable feeling in me. A feeling that I'm missing the boat, or being passed over and left behind. I've wondered at times if it's envy. But I don't think my feeling has much to do with these particular couples, though I do sometimes wonder about their decision, especially if the marriage seems rushed. There can be a lot of pressure to marry. I'm not thinking so much of social pressure to "legitimate" the relationship, like couples might face in other cultures (such as in Nigeria). I'm thinking of the pressure to "take the next step in life." I clearly remember one day in college thinking (with a twinge of panic) that I had better find a girlfriend soon, because college seemed like the most likely place for me to meet women and if I missed my chance there, I'd have a hard time getting married. Marriage seemed like the next big milestone in life (though Career was a big one too). And I didn't want to fail.

I felt the pressure coming from within me then. But I know I didn't dream it up myself. Society teaches us that getting married and starting a family is part of the normal course of life. It's expected. I remember talking with another unmarried friend recently, and she commented about how unmarried people don't seem valued as much (in her community). To not marry is seen as some sort of failure, an inability to progress as expected. And I wonder how much of that becomes internalized and influences young people's decision to get married. There are so many unfortunate marriages, I have to wonder.

Feeling this pressure again myself (because Heather and I don't know when or if we'll be able to get married), I was strangely comforted when I heard these words of Jesus read at breakfast:

"You are those who justify yourselves before men, but... what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God." (Lk 16.15)

Not that marriage is an abomination, of course. But that the social pressure, the social expectations that define the important milestones of life, that these are really nothing in God's sight. Or worse than nothing. I suppose Jesus' own indifference to marriage and family is worth recalling...

Far from being influenced by these expectations (or congratulations), we should become suspicious when society praises certain choices, or goals, or paths in life. As Jesus said in another place, "Woe to you, when all men speak well of you..."


stay with me

Nice surprise yesterday. A Taizé album arrived for me, a gift from Stephen. I like it very much.

One song I have to share. It's based on Jesus' words to his disciples in the garden at Gethsemane. "Stay with me, remain here with me. Watch and pray." I liked this basic chorus a lot, but the verses not so much, so I found a way to remove them (it's hard to even hear where the song was edited). It's here if you want to listen: "Stay With Me"


in te confido

I did go to the Taizé service Sunday night, at the Presbyterian church in Evanston (I also found out the nearby Methodist church has one the first Sunday of every month). Very good. Lots of candles and singing and silence in between. I especially liked this song; the words mean "Jesus Christ, in you I trust."

Here's another one I like. It's in French, so I need to get Heather to give me a good translation. But it's something like, "A desire fills our soul, to abandon ourselves to you, O Christ (You hear me, Lord)."


don't excuse me

This story was read at breakfast this morning:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them." So he told them this parable:

"What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.'

"Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Lk 15.1-7)

It made me think again of the conference Saturday, where there was a mix of formerly (and some currently) homeless and addicted folks along with a number of well-meaning middle class people who are trying to help. I noticed an interesting difference between them. The middle class "helpers" spoke of homelessness and addiction in terms of victimization, pointing to the negative social factors, the influence of childhood abuse and other family problems, the need for more government spending for treatment and housing. As if they were trying to make excuses for these people, or direct the blame elsewhere. But the former addicts and prostitutes who told their stories did not focus on these issues. They acknowledged family problems (though some did not have significant childhood traumas) but seemed to place most of the blame for their problems on themselves. They admitted their wrong choices, and ways they had injured others. And they described how things had changed for them when they started responding differently to the difficulties in their lives. Most even said they did not regret the hardships in their lives, since they helped bring them to an encounter with God.

This acceptance of guilt (and demonstration of their new freedom from it) comes across as very honest and true, and very inspiring. In comparison, the talk about victimization sounds hollow.

I'm sure the "helpers" felt they were being generous, trying to excuse others for their addictions and failures. But excuses don't help them. And demanding more government money doesn't address the deeper need, the spiritual healing and dependence on God that it required to restore someone's life from the inside. To find the one who is lost.

I suppose we offer what we have to give. And most of the time the best we have to offer is excuses and rationalizations and diversion of blame. That's what we give ourselves when we fail or feel at fault. I've come to realize that the poor are not worse than those with more money (and not better either). They're just as bad. It just that the faults of the poor are more apparent, their addictions more obvious, their wrongdoing more despised by society. The "more fortunate" are also chained by their faults and fears, but they have the means to pursue their obsessions in an acceptable way, the education to excuse their own behavior, and the money to cover a multitude of sins. Convinced they need no repentance, they think they can help the poor the same way. By simply telling the lost sheep he's not so lost.

The suffering poor don't need government money and magnanimous excuses. They need to see the truth about themselves and God. As we all do.


listening to one another

The best part of the conference Saturday was hearing from the people who were formerly homeless and recovering addicts. Their stories are amazing accounts about how God gets through to apparently hopeless people and is able to lift them up, and they offer powerful hope for others in similar situations.

I was reminded that the witness of these people needs to be at the center of any retreat work I (may get the chance to) do. A couple different aspects of this truth can even be directly applied in the retreat I was working on a few months ago.

For example, the central importance of listening to one another (rather than just listening to the retreat "leader"). In one of the sessions I had planned for a retreat on the woman at the well, I wrote:

...the Samaritan woman was surprised that Jesus asks her for help. Often we are reluctant to ask certain people for help, especially if they are very different from us or we do not respect them. But many times God chooses precisely these people to meet our needs, to help build respect for one another and teach us to trust those who seem strange or suspicious (or useless) to us.
I'd like to emphasize that by making discussion and listening to one another the main focus of the retreat.

And that leads into the importance of the stories of someone "who's been there." In another session, I wanted to focus on Jesus' reason for choosing the Samaritan woman to announce him to the town (when she wasn't of the highest moral standing). And I also wanted to ask about Jesus' way of showing her that he knew her faults already. One of the most important parts of a powerful witness is being honest, especially about our faults. People can identify with that. And they trust us more when they see humility and vulnerability.

If the retreatants are familiar with 12 step spirituality (and most probably will be), these points will resonate with them. But really these truths are valuable to anyone who wants to give and receive spiritual help.


"I had a spiritual life, I just didn't know it."

That was one of the lines that stood out for me on Saturday, during the ISP conference about their retreats for the homeless. A woman was telling about her struggles with addiction and homelessness and about how her former life looks different to her now. She was struggling with God all along, but didn't recognize it.

That reminded me of an experience I had at the Catholic Worker about a year ago. I'll quote from some journal entries then (during the difficult month of November):

...a woman showed up on the porch late, very drunk and crying. Her boyfriend had spend her money on drugs, money she had been saving to pay a fine that would keep her out of jail. When she got angry, he called the police and had her removed. Since she had no where else to go, they left her on our front porch.

She cried and talked for a long time. About her losses, her life of pain. And God. She said she believed in God, she believed there was a God, and she believed he hated her. She said she now understood how some women turned to prostitution, how others became criminals. Mostly I listened. And gave her some sliced turkey (she was ravenous for meat, since she had been living on noodles for quite a while). She thanked me for being a friend and eventually was able to sleep.

[For days after that] I remembered one thing that the woman kept repeating in her despairing cries that night. "...And no one cares. No one cares."
What made such a lasting impression on me was that the desire for someone to care is not an immediate physical urge or need. It's ultimately a spiritual desire. The deepest desire— to be noticed, to be cared about, by God.

A couple months later, I wrote:
One thing I have learned here is that it's not true that people can't face spiritual struggles until they have their more immediate needs met. Often it's precisely during the deepest experiences of physical need and suffering that people begin to open up spiritually.
Another man at the conference described a day in his life when his addiction and suffering drove him to the brink of suicide. It was right then, in that moment of greatest desperation, that he heard God speaking to him. "Get up and leave this place. I have something for you to do."

This is part of what makes spiritual work with the poor so attractive to me. I wonder if it's also what caused Jesus to direct his good news to the poor...


fall finery

I picked up these leaves to send to Heather, as a memento of fall. She won't see fall this year (in Nigeria). I think she has five more weeks in Africa, then a month in France for Christmas with her parents, then a very happy reunion.

In the meantime, I'll have to be satisfied with the pictures she sent me, including these of the dress she had made there, and the two kittens someone gave her. (No, they won't be coming home with her—at least that's what she tells me now...)


"like a spring whose waters never fail"

I came across this passage again this morning and thought it would fit well with my retreat concept ("living water"), so I want to remember it:

"If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

"The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail." (Is 58.9-11)

Speaking of retreats, the Jesuits at Loyola invited me to their presentation tomorrow on retreats for the homeless. I'm looking forward to that, both to see what they've come up with and to get to know them better.


beati voi poveri

This was a comfort yesterday. It's a Taizé chant I found while exploring their website. Beautiful. Click here to hear it sung (in Latin).

Taizé music would be good for use in retreats. I found a nearby church that has a taizé service this coming Sunday night; I think I'll go.


for election day

Do you indeed decree what is right, you mighty lords?
Do you judge people fairly?
No, in your hearts you devise wrongs;
your hands deal out violence on earth. (Ps 58.1-2)


"voting is... collective coercion"

As the mudslinging gets ever nastier and people start scratching their heads trying to figure out which evil is lesser so they can vote for it, I'm struggling with my usual election season bad mood. Maybe it will help to bring this out again, from my journal six years ago...

I found several interesting passages about government and voting in G.K. Chesterton's book, What's Wrong with the World. For example:
This is the first essential element in government, coercion; a necessary but not a noble element.
What's especially interesting is that Chesterton believes in government; he believes it's unavoidable. He may call political institutions ugly, or consider them the result of evil, but he takes them to be necessary evils. That makes his evaluation seem more fair and honest to me. And I think many people who understand politics and history would agree with him. Even I agree with him, in his critique of "ugly" government (it's the necessity I don't accept—if we could only get rid of the malicious fallacy of "necessary evil" maybe we would stop forcing that evil on others!).

As Chesterton continues to describe the ugliness of government, he also considers the unique ugliness of democracy (though he is a strong supporter of democracy, as the lesser evil):
All government then is coercive; we happen to have created a government which is not only coercive; but collective. ...in self-governing countries the coercion of criminals is a collective coercion. The abnormal person is theoretically thumped by a million fists and kicked by a million feet. If a man is flogged we all flogged him; if a man is hanged, we all hanged him. That is the only possible meaning of democracy.... In a republic all punishment is as sacred and solemn as lynching.
I've thought about the coercive aspect of democracy before. We usually see democracy as non-coercive, since it is "rule by the people." But "the people" are not all of one mind. The usual result is rule by the majority, with their decisions being forced upon all others. As Chesterton pointed out, the "abnormal person" is subdued or silenced by the mob—by collective coercion. We take that to be a good thing in the case of wrong-doers; but the same treatment is also given to saints and prophets, who are abnormal in the opposite way.

Another great line:
Voting is not only coercion, but collective coercion.
Through the process of voting, people in a democracy take responsibility for their own government. This is considered a "right." But is government something we want to take responsibility for? Are coercion and lynching what we want to take responsibility for? We allow people to govern themselves rather than having to obey the will of a despot, but then all the people gather together to become despotic.

Especially during this election time, I hear and read about "getting involved," "changing the system for the better." We're supposed to improve things by exercising our voting rights and using the power we've been granted. We're told we can make government better by being a part of it. But I don't see that happening. What I do see is people supporting political candidates they don't really believe in because that candidate is the "lesser of two evils" or the only one who has a chance to win. I see people manipulated by the media to support someone that those in power have selected (either of the mainstream candidates). I see people being dragged (or enticed) into a very ugly political institution. And they're told it's a right, a privilege, a sacred duty. Ugh. If people want to subject themselves to the coercion of government, fine. If people decide to take part in the governmental coercion of others, that's bad, but worse for themselves. But to try to convince other people to join the mob is the worst.

Joining government is not the way to make things better. Being better ourselves, and being a good example for others is the best way. And part of that is to stop pushing other people around. Stop trying to MAKE THEM be good. Jesus' life was a continual practice of non-coercion—turning the other cheek, not resisting the evil person, enduring death rather than calling down a legion of angels—so that people's hearts might be converted. That's love, that's goodness—not government.


"we can no longer say..."

I came across this yesterday...

When Thomas Aquinas first visited Rome, and expressed his amazement at all the wealth he saw [as many non-western Christians might be amazed at the wealth of our churches], the Pope said, "We can no longer say, 'Silver and gold have I none."

"No, indeed," was the answer, "nor can we say, 'What I have I give you: In the name of Jesus of Nazareth rise up and walk.'"


the commitment to love

"The commitment to God is the commitment to love." But what is love?

I've written about love before. But I'd like to specifically focus on "If you love me you'll do what I want." Most people recognize something wrong in this crude, manipulative demand, and would never say such a thing. But several times I've been told that love means doing what someone else wants, simply because they want it, no matter what what I think about that desire.

This is a very common understanding of love. The idea is that we are to set aside our own will and take on the will of the loved one, making their desires and intentions our own. This is promoted as loving selflessness. And it may be selfless, in a way.

But is it truly loving? When the desires of the loved one are self-destructive, it soon becomes obvious that it's not loving to help them pursue those desires. Then we become aware that love is not just an interaction between two people.

Real love necessarily involves God. There cannot be any true love without God, because God is love. As we come to experience this, we discover that love is not setting aside our own will to take on the will of another person, but setting aside our will to obey God's will for the loved one, and for ourself. We take on God's desire (which may or may not coincide with the desire of either of the people involved), and God's desire is always good. For everyone involved.

This is the love we commit ourselves to, when we commit ourselves to God. If we try to "love" by taking on another person's will, we will soon find ourselves torn between pleasing that person and pleasing God. But if we commit ourselves only to the God who is love, then we can remain single-mindedly, whole-heartedly God's, and also be most available for, and dedicated to the greatest good of, those we love.

So how do I work this into my wedding vows...


"undivided devotion"

Having multiple commitments necessarily leads to division and conflicts of interest. This is especially problematic in our relationship to God. Paul warns of this in his advice about marriage:

The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.

And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. (1 Cor 7.32-34)
Paul's concern, though, is not just about marriage. A few verses earlier, he recommends that "those who buy [be] as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world [be] as though they had no dealings with it." Paul is warning about divided loyalties, warning us to avoid conflicting commitments, "to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord."

Yet commitments are frequently demanded of us (by friends, institutions, marriage, nation, etc), so what are we to do? If we make these commitments, we end up with divided interests, trying to obey a number of different authorities, each with their own agenda. But if we refuse to these commitments, we seem to be individualists, without a deep concern for or connection to others.

For followers of Jesus there is only one answer, the answer he gave: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." Our single, whole-hearted commitment must be to God. There can be no other loyalty or authority for us.

Yet this undivided, exclusive commitment to God does not cut us off from others. Because the commitment to God is the commitment to love.


conflicting commitments

Many commitments can interfere with our single-minded, whole-hearted following of Jesus. (Two years ago, I titled a journal entry "commitment and compromise.") Yet there is often social pressure to make such commitments, and sometimes they are even promoted as virtues.

One such commitment that I've been pondering lately is the commitment of "stability." The commitment to a specific place or (often more precisely) a specific institution. Current popular writers like Wendell Berry preach the virtue of commitment to a specific locality, to the land especially, but also to the local community, the people there. (This is also a theme emphasized here at Reba Place.) Usually it's presented as an answer to the rootless, lonely drifting so common in our society. And these writers do offer a compelling critique of our times. But I don't think a commitment to stability is the solution—at least that doesn't seem to be what Jesus showed us.

Committed stability is not a new idea, either. St. Benedict introduced a vow of stability in the early days of monasticism (modern writers often refer to his teaching on stability). He had good reasons for wanting his monks to commit to their monastery, many of which are seen as just as important now. From an article on the Rule of St. Benedict:

St. Benedict perceived the necessity for a permanent and uniform rule of government in place of the arbitrary and variable choice of models furnished by the lives and maxims of the Fathers of the Desert. And so we have the characteristic of collectivism, exhibited in his insistence on the common life, as opposed to the individualism of the Egyptian monks.

...To further this aim he introduced the vow of Stability, which becomes the guarantee of success and permanence. It is only another example of the family idea that pervaded the entire Rule, by means of which the members of the community are bound together by a family tie, and each takes upon himself the obligation of persevering in his monastery until death, unless sent elsewhere by his superiors. It secures to the community as a whole, and to every member of it individually, a share in all the fruits that may arise from the labours of each monk, and it gives to each of them that strength and vitality which necessarily result from being one of a united family, all bound in a similar way and all pursuing the same end. Thus, whatever the monk does, he does it not as an independent individual but as part of a larger organization, and the community itself thus becomes one united whole rather than a mere agglomeration of independent members.

The creation of "family ties" seems like a good thing, and does produce more stable, enduring organizations. Which was the reason Benedict invented the vow of stability. But is this what Jesus preached?

Of course family ties already existed in Jesus' time, natural family ties. Yet even these he challenged:
[Jesus'] mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you."

And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother." (Mk 3.31-35)
Did Jesus say this because he wanted new (religious?) families to replace the old? Or is the new family Jesus sees original because it is a single family, not various divided (and competing) clans but one united family under God as Father? With no conflicting commitments or questions of which authority to obey, because there is only one Father, one Master.

Commitments of stability are necessarily commitments to separate, localized "families." They also limit our availability to go wherever, and to whomever, God calls us. Jesus' life (and Paul's, and Abraham's, and most of the prophets') demonstrate the value of this availability and freedom. But I think the bigger problem is the way commitments to place and (limited, localized) community cut us off from the wider community, the one family. And the one Father.


sunday morning


freedom and commitment

"The wind blows where it will" is a pretty good description of the way Jesus lived, but if we try to follow his example we'll soon be confronted with a serious question. The question of commitment. If we try to live a life characterized by the freedom of the Spirit, unbounded and unattached to things or organizations, people begin wondering (often out loud) if we are "free spirits," if we are unable to settle down, or afraid to commit. I remember an experience on the road several years ago:

When I was almost to town, a van pulled up, an older couple who had passed me more than once over the last few days. We talked a little, then it came out that they were Mormons. They went into full proselytizing mode, so I couldn't say much except a general objection against institutional religion and denominationalism. Then [because I wouldn't limit myself to one denomination] he says, "Well, when you decide to get serious..."

I burst out laughing. More serious?!
At the time, I couldn't imagine being more committed and serious about the spiritual life than I was then. But people have different perceptions of commitment. And these become even more important when the possibility of marriage arises, or involvement with groups that expect long-term commitments. These are the situations I'm facing right now.

I can't help but think, though, that there is no actual conflict between commitment and Jesus' freedom of spirit—at least commitment in the best sense. Real love involves the strongest commitment to another person, a commitment that never ends, that "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." And Jesus lived a real love for everyone he encountered. Yet at the same time his life was as unpredictable and un-nail-down-able as the wind.

(And they certainly tried to nail him down.)

I can see that some commitments do necessarily limit our freedom to move with the Spirit, and there are biblical warnings about commitments that can restrict our ability to follow Jesus completely. But these commitments can't be the commitment of love. Because following Jesus with complete abandon is what love really means, and this is the deepest commitment—and fullest freedom—we can ever know.


john 3.8

"The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it,
but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes;
so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Great imagery. And the Greek word used here, pneuma, has multiple meanings, including both wind and spirit...


"a spy, or whatever you prefer to call it"

I recently watched The Bourne Identity and really liked it. I remember starting to read the book and not being very impressed, but the movie was much better. The relationship between the lead characters, a man and woman thrown together trying to survive and escape their pursuers, was especially appealing.

I've always found spy stories strangely attractive. A few years ago, during one of my long walks, I wrote this in my journal:

Reading another John LeCarre novel (The Honorable Schoolboy)—I really like his books: intelligent, realistic spy stories. This passage caught my eye:
Some people are agents from birth, he told them, appointed to the work by the period of history, the place, and their own natural dispositions. In their cases, it was simply a question of who got to them first: “Whether it’s us, whether it’s the opposition, or whether it’s the bloody missionaries.”
Kierkegaard also compared the Christian life to being a spy or God’s agent in the world [in Training in Christianity]:
[The God-relationship] must be for every individual man the absolute, and it is precisely this God-relationship of the individual which must put every established order in suspense, so that God, at any instant He will, by pressure upon the individual has immediately in his God-relationship a witness, a reporter, a spy, or whatever you prefer to call it, one who in unconditional obedience, or by unconditional obedience, by persecution, suffering, and death, puts the established order in suspense.
I think that imagery is accurate. Much more so than the “Upstanding Christian Citizen.”

I’m also feeling again the appeal of being on the road. Things are rapidly put back into perspective. The “God’s agent” feeling is more pronounced. And I’m seeing more and more how this plays into other relationships and service to people (when I’m not walking).

Often people ask if I will “settle down.” I’m having a hard time seeing much value in that. Settle down? Jesus didn’t. Neither did Paul. Maybe part of what I like about the spy stories are people who have higher priorities in life than the security of a home and a fixed income.

Now I ask myself if I've changed, if I'm trying to settle down after all. I think I have been trying to at times during this past year, but have been prevented from doing so.

Maybe that's a mercy. Maybe God won't let me settle down too much, and maybe I should remember that that's a part of following Jesus. And embrace it.


unusual commitments

Erin was here this past weekend and mentioned the unusual membership "commitments" at Plow Creek church (at the farm I've been visiting and hope to move to). They aren't very unusual commitments for Christians—I'd say I'm already committed to these things—but I don't think I've ever seen church membership vows that look like these. And I've been to a lot of churches.

Here are the membership commitments at Plow Creek church (from their website):

  1. Do you commit your life to Jesus as Lord?
  2. Do you commit yourself to speaking the truth in love following Matthew 18:15-17 to address sin and reconcile interpersonal conflicts?
  3. Do you commit yourself to fidelity in marriage and chastity outside of marriage?
  4. Do you commit yourself to forsake war and violence and love enemies?
  5. Do you commit yourself to turn from wealth and seek justice for the poor?
  6. Do you commit yourself to using diverse gifts, abilities and tithes to build up the body of Christ at Plow Creek and beyond?
  7. Do you commit yourself to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ?
  8. Do you commit yourself to entering with trust and openness into church decision-making?
  9. Do you commit yourself to seek counsel and advice in decision-making?
I've written about church membership before; I usually don't like how it's done. But I'm impressed by they way they do it at Plow Creek, because it really seems to be more about being a Christian than about institutional membership, and it even emphasizes some of the most challenging aspects of being a Christian. The only thing I personally might want to have said differently (if I'm going to answer these in church) is "Are you committed to..." To emphasize that I am already a church member, a part of the body of Christ, and that this is just a public declaration and acknowledgment of that among brothers and sisters in this particular place.

An encouraging discovery...


for his people?

In church this morning it was emphasized that the promises of God are given to his people, not to individuals. It might seem like a strange thing to emphasize, but I've heard this before, usually promoting community involvement as the way to experience the kingdom of God. It's also offered as an explanation of why there are so many individual cases when it doesn't seem like God is fulfilling his promises. The idea is that God gives enough to his people, but when some of his people take too much or ignore their brother's needs, then resources aren't spread fairly and needs go unmet and it seems like God failed. So God is always faithful—to his people as a whole—but if his people do not love each other well, then some promises of God will remain unfulfilled for some individuals.

Thank God this isn't true.

If it was, God's promises wouldn't be worth much. Then God's promises would only be as reliable as we are—which isn't very reliable. I'd hate to think my experience of the kingdom of God (here and now, as Jesus offered) was dependent on the good will of others, even my fellow Christians. I wouldn't risk much based on that. And I wouldn't want God's promises being dependent on me, either.

Just think, if God's promises to Jesus had been dependent on the people of God, then he would have ended exactly where the people of God left him. Dead. In a tomb.

I should say here that I do think that many of God's promises are fulfilled through the good will of his people. I've experienced this myself again and again. And I'm very grateful for it. But if this was all, I would have been left out in the cold (literally) more times than I'd like to think about. God often works through his people—and God also often works despite his people. Taking our ill will (or indifferent will, or fearful will) and working his good will anyway, fulfilling his promises anyway.

When Jesus offered the promises of God, he never added the caveat "for his people as a whole (individual results may vary)."

Thank God.


Saw this in the paper this morning...


far from certain

One good thing about spending this fall in the Chicago area is that I've been able to connect with a couple Jesuits at Loyola University who are doing retreat work with the homeless. It used to be a side project of Bill Creed, but now has expanded into the Ignatian Spirituality Project. Last month I was able to have lunch with one of the Jesuits working with Fr. Creed. And I'm hoping to be involved with a few of their activities in the next few months. I think they'll be a great resource for the future, especially if we get to do retreat work with the poor at the farm, inviting people from the Chicago area.

For many reasons I'd really like to get a chance to live and work at Plow Creek farm. But I know it's far from certain. I've even had intuitions recently that maybe we won't get to start there right away when Heather gets back from Africa. We're invited to go and talk with the folks there in early February, but a lot will ride on their response and it's a big unknown. And there's no plan B—not even a place to live.

That gives me twinges of fear when I think of it. But then I think of the usual alternative. The safe suburban life.

And it's only when our lives are really in jeapordy that we can experience what dependence on God means. The sublime dependence on God.


the unnamed feeling

I'm frantic in your soothing arms
I cannot sleep in this down-filled world
I've found safety in this loneliness
But I cannot stand it anymore

Yesterday on my drive to the farm, I noticed these lines in Metallica's "The Unnamed Feeling." They reminded me of my comments about the "suburban" quest for comfort and security, a quest that leads to isolation and a life so insulated against threat and challenge that it becomes meaningless.

In my last entry I wrote: "The worst part is that most people have a pretty good intuition that such a life is all vanity." Which leads back to the lyrics I just quoted. Because sensing, even vaguely, that our life has become empty and meaningless inevitably results in a feeling of deep anxiety (as it should, since such a life is spiritually perilous). We may try to escape this feeling through activity or entertainment or medication, but this just intensifies the frivolity of our lives, and the unnamed feeling remains underneath. Waiting for us.

I've seen the evidence of this in people, especially as they near the end of life, when they have a harder time distracting themselves. The blessing of old age, I think. It takes everything else away so we're forced to face ourselves.

The only solution I see is to offer our lives to God, who can make our lives meaningful. But this means abandoning the quest for comfort and security, a radical change in the way we live. Look at Jesus' life. Not exactly the suburban ideal...


the burbs

A recent visit reminded me of this passage from my journal over five years ago. And my thoughts on this subject have only been confirmed in the time since then (though I might not use terms like "jackals" now...)

I mentioned some 'costs' of holding onto domestic pleasures [mortgage, insurance, taxes, homeowners association], but the more I surveyed the suburban scene, the more I realized that I had only scratched the surface. The biggest costs are not economic or political. The sirens of suburbia—Comfort and Security—present a greater danger to us psychologically and spiritually. Not that these only appear in suburbia; they just have established themselves so strongly here. There's the capitalistic individualism, which is so utterly isolating (even small acts of kindness have to be "paid back"). Almost nothing is shared, so everyone has to crowd their whole world into their tiny, fenced yards (backyards touch each other, but are also not shared). And all perceived threats have been eliminated, "for the sake of the children." Unfortunately, that leaves the parents with no more challenging decisions than which fertilizer to use on the lawn, and who will drive the kids to their extracurricular activities. The worst part is that most people have a pretty good intuition that such a life is all vanity. Real life is something much more. But people press on, bored and lonely, "for the sake of the kids," until the kids get so sick of the oppressive, empty "safety" that they rebel and destroy the tranquillity. That pain is usually a blessing. A slap in the face to wake people from their suburban slumber. God finds some way to send us a wake-up call.

The suburban worship of Comfort and Security doesn't just sap the life from suburbanites, however. It drains the rest of society as well. There's the huge flow of resources required to keep all these bored, lonely people sedated with "interesting" food and "interesting" diversions (this occurs at the international level too; our whole country could be labeled "The United Suburbs of America"). And then there's the social pressure of so many people "playing the game." Each additional 'player' makes it that much harder for individuals (especially children) to live differently. To live with meaning. To live. But, again, God always gives people a chance to wake up, to open their eyes to life. It's usually quite painful, but so worth it.

...the reading this morning seemed appropriate:
"Fear not, little flock, for it is the 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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Lk 12.32-34)

...I remember talking to [my friends] about whether you could live in suburbia without being "suburban." (The question could just as well have been about being part of the military without being militarized, or part of the institution without being institutionalized—or being wealthy without being "the rich," in the biblical sense.) I said I thought you could. I should have added, "But not for long."

And I don't just mean those environments are dangerous. They are, temptations abound, but temptations may be resisted. I mean that if we gain wealth and power, even if we avoid the internal temptations, we will not be able to avoid the jackals. We might be able to enjoy the pleasures of suburbia (or the institution, etc.) for awhile, but if we want to keep those pleasures, we'll have to fight off the jackals. Fight them off or pay them off. Either way, we've become part of "the game"; we're one of them now, we're suburban, militarized, institutionalized, the rich, whatever you want to call it. We've agreed to pay the cost. And that full cost—financial, psychological, spiritual—will be slowly bled from us, as long as we hold on to the pleasures. If we stop paying, on the other hand, the pleasure will be snatched from us and given to someone who will pay. The jackals keep a sharp eye out.

That's why it's good for me to go. I have to remind myself. Because as soon as I hit the road, my body starts urgently asking, "What's wrong with a roof, again? Or a bed, shower, refrigerator..." The answer is: "Nothing, except..." There's nothing wrong with enjoying all those things. But to hold onto those things, to keep those things, to keep anything that other people value means fighting them off or paying them off. And they demand much more than money. The pay-off is obedience (What is a job but obedience for money?). Even fighting is obedience, because fighting is a "way of the world" that identifies its obedient sons. Jesus' followers, on the other hand, turn the other cheek and give to those who would steal from them and obey God alone. They enjoy all that God sets before them, then let it go. They hold onto nothing, so nothing holds onto them. They owe no one anything. Except love.