the blessed life

Jesus called his way of life "blessed." As in "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." And I began to take that seriously once I realized that this didn't just mean our attitude about life would change, but that God would actually change our experience of life. God would make things happen both inside and outside us, providing for both internal and external needs. I experienced this most clearly in the way God provided for my material needs on my walks. It taught me more convincingly that I wasn't just experimenting with a philosophy or way of thinking but was dealing with the God of the universe, who could really change things. Who could really provide a "blessed" life.

My struggles over the past few months left me confused, though. Where was this God who had provided so readily and so well? Why was I stuck in this place where it seems so hard to find meaning or know how to contribute well, where it seems so hard to love?

Some insight into my own faults and weaknesses has helped me see why this rough time might be good for me. But even while passing through this hard period, I'm seeing God providing what I need to make it. Real things, things that I couldn't arrange myself. One thing was the newsletter from the Catholic Worker retreat center that I picked up off the desk and found a possible next step. And talking to them provided a goal and project (studying 12-step spirituality) for these next months. A project that has turned out to be very interesting and helpful. Without those things, I don't think I could have endured the time here.

And last weekend I got a call from Evanston. Julius invited me to come back to my old household in Reba Place Fellowship for a couple weeks to work with Bob (who I used to work with when I lived there), teaching computer skills. That sounds like a break I really need. So I'm going in two weeks.

"Your Father knows your needs," Jesus said. And he is able to meet them. In harder times, it's not as easy to hold onto faith that God is near and helping. But when we do get signs of his care, they mean so much more. Life can seem blessed even when it's dark and threatening all around.




trying not to "enable"

After the last entry, Rose commented: "The challenge is to integrate co-dependency teachings with Jesus' teachings and the spiritual works of mercy, bearing wrongs patiently, suffering for their sakes, etc."

Yes, that is a challenge. I've been put off in the past by a lot of the psychology-based terminology like "co-dependency" (I remember Heather and my first exchange was an argument about "boundaries") but there is something important there. I think the psychological definitions of these problems are a bit lacking, since their model for "healthy" doesn't tend to be Jesus' model. I'm sure many psychologists would find Jesus' behavior quite alarming, even masochistic. But they do identify a real problem in many people. I guess I think if the problem could be defined more clearly (in Jesus' terms?) then there wouldn't be so much friction between "good boundaries" or "taking care of myself" and the selfless love that Jesus taught.

I've been struggling with something close to this myself lately. Personally I've had the most difficulty trying to help people who are clearly not helping themselves, who are often ungrateful, who are working against those who try to help them. What to do? Keep giving handouts? "Tough love" (whatever that means)? The 12-step teaching about letting someone's own behavior and suffering show them that they need help makes sense to me, and seems to be built on a faith in God's providence. Also, Jesus' practice of not storing up the "treasures" that these people go after in their self-destructiveness (money especially) also seems very helpful. Both of these practices would help avoid what the psychologists call "enabling." But I'm having a hard time figuring out how to start applying those here, where the practice is to give without considering the "worthiness" of the person. I'm starting to think that's not so holy as it might sound. Yes, God sends sun and rain to the just and unjust, but sun and rain only produces food for the person willing to plant and tend and harvest.

Not that this experience is turning me into a economic conservative. (At least I hope not.) It's just obvious that economic liberalism isn't right either. It's pretty horrible to see what so many welfare checks end up paying for. There has to be a radical Christian response--and I don't see shelters as the answer. Personal Christian hospitality seems closer. And Jesus' way of life seems the best yet.


"Nothing, absolutely nothing..."

I just found out the Wesley Foundation lounge where I've been studying and praying also has a computer lab. That makes it a lot easier for me, and is quieter than our house or the library.

Today I was reading the AA "Big Book" and came across this line:

Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God's world by mistake.
I've heard people make similar statements in the Al-Anon meetings I've attended. And I like it. It shows a strong belief in God's providence, something I think is very important in the spiritual life (and have written about before) but it's a belief that many people reject these days. To their own spiritual detriment, I think.

Lately, I've also been better able to see how my being unable to leave here when I wanted to is also purposeful, not a mistake. I had felt that I'd identified the problems in this place, and committed myself to find another way and stop trying to find my security here. So why not leave? Staying would only keep me in an uncomfortable and awkward position, trying to continue a work I didn't believe in. But, while a possible step forward seemed to appear at the right time, I wasn't allowed to go for another six months. Why?

Well, as I've said already, the exposure to the 12-step spirituality has been very good. For my possible future work, but also for my own life. I've begun to see that I have been a big part of my own suffering here. Yes, there are definitely things wrong in this place and I'll be glad to move on and do things differently in the next place. But the stresses and difficulties have also helped me see my own damage and faults. I can't blame everything on the place or on others. There have been many situations where I believe I could have responded better. Times when I have been fearful and hard-hearted. The extreme challenges of this place have helped reveal to me that I am actually unable (powerless) to live the kind of life I want to live, to follow Jesus as close as I want to. It truly is impossible for me. For me personally, because of the way I actually am, not just impossible for anyone. When I see the Good I find myself unable to accomplish it. And sometimes I get so confused by my pain and fears that I can't even see the Good at all.

Sensing this, perhaps subconsciously, has caused me great anxiety. I've been gradually getting the idea that I may be the reason I might not be able to live the beautiful life Jesus offers. And that's terrifying because I can't get away from that "I".

Except I can. This should all be recognizable as the experience of bondage to sin in Romans 7. (It's also the alcoholic's usual story.) And the answer is that God can and will release us from the damage and faults of ourselves, actually release me from myself. We can die to self and live in Christ. This is what the first three steps are about and they can be a truly freeing spiritual experience. But of course this can't be done just once, but must continually be done, moment by moment, in each encounter and challenge. We must continually depend on God, not just for external help, but also for guidance and strength and motivation in our own choices and actions.

This is nothing new, of course. I've said it all before. But it takes real pressure and suffering to actually know it and do it. If we aren't pushed beyond our capabilities and limits, then we don't really know what it means to be unable (powerless) to manage our lives, to do the right thing, or even to help ourselves out of the distress we're in.

Thankfully, God provides the pressure. We need to remember that when the suffering mounts. Nothing happens in God's world by mistake.



It's my birthday today. And it started off right, with a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" by the women around the breakfast table this morning. I came out of the kitchen with pink rubber gloves on (from washing dishes) and bowed and then they laughed because I blushed. I'm glad I can still enjoy moments like this here.

I also thought this might be a good time to contemplate maturity. I've been talking so much about the 12-step program and its spirituality in glowing terms, but I should also mention that I have noticed aspects that might become a problem as people pursue greater spiritual maturity. I like that 12-step spirituality is meant to apply to a person's continuing life, not just when they are initially trying to kick their addiction. But there are a few things in the teaching that seem to me to be ultimately limiting to spiritual growth if they are not set aside.

The first is their reluctance to talk much about the nature or character of God. This is understandable. They don't want to get sidetracked by theological arguments, and that makes sense for the initial stages. It also makes sense for the preservation and unity of the organization. But if we're really interested in knowing God and maturing spiritually, then we will need to come to a more accurate picture of God and of his intentions for human beings. The 12-step spirituality does offer the insight that God requires us to surrender completely and trust him absolutely. And also that God is loving and wants to heal us. Those are crucial truths. But Jesus revealed much more than this about God and if we want to follow him closely we will have to learn to know God better as well, and be willing to tell what we know.

The second difference I see is in the 12-step reluctance to be controversial or offensive. Again, I see why they chose this path: to keep the orgainization from fracturing or clashing with other powers in the world that could mean its end. But it's impossible to follow Jesus very far without being offensive or challenging the powers of the world. So if people want to truly follow God's will and abandon themselves to following the Truth (Jesus), then they will have to be willing to be offensive and challenging and come under fire for it. Jesus did, and he promised the same for his followers.

The third thing I noticed was that there is a lot of focus on "the program" in 12-step groups. I can see how that is helpful initially, and I am glad for the practical step-by-step advice that the 12-step program offers. But if we are going to completely depend on God, we can't be depending on "the program" too. And we don't get a program from Jesus. We get an introduction to a person. God. And a demonstration of what a perfect relationship with God looks like. This is what we will need to develop as we mature spiritually, leaving all programs behind.



When I was walking home from the Al-Anon meeting Monday night, I realized I had a lot of respect for the people who gathered there. Not that everything they said was so deep or spiritually mature; many seemed to be beginners in the spiritual life. I think what impressed me was their seriousness about it. They came knowing they desperately needed help and so were very focused on what was real and true and good for them in the spiritual teaching being offered.

Of course that's what any prayer meeting or bible study should be like. But most of the ones I've experienced aren't like that. People come for something interesting to do, like a hobby. Like a book club. Or they come because it's seen as "spiritual" or "virtuous" and respected.

Twelve step groups, on the other hand, are not considered respectable. It's actually pretty humbling to go, because most people don't think highly of those "in recovery." But they need it so much they go anyway. They're not deterred by what others might think of them, they're just desperately trying to find the healing they need. That's the kind of spiritual seeking that I really respect.


an ongoing problem

Sunday a volunteer brought in some brand new coats and sweatshirts that a donor had bought on sale. They were so nice, the volunteer wanted to set them aside to be given to someone who really needed a good coat because if they were just put out on display they would be taken immediately, just because they were new, regardless if that person needed a coat. I know what he means. When things are offered free, in large quantities, people often grab all they can without limiting themselves to what they need or thinking of others who also need these things. As it turned out, some guests noticed the new things anyway and quickly grabbed several of them.

This had been an ongoing problem. At Christmas it was worst, I hear. People just grabbing everything they could get their hands on; and though there were plenty of donations because it was Christmas, it still was disheartening to see. A side effect of this behavior is the problem of hoarding in a limited space. People grab all they can for free but have nowhere to put it. There are arguments over space in the rooms. And piles of bags left in our garage or attic (though we've tried to resist this). It's really sad to see a poor person creating such a huge pile of stuff that it becomes another problem for them. Where to put it all? How to move it? A very heavy security blanket.

I think of this again in contrast with the kind of help Jesus offered. No one could hoard it. No one could steal it or make a temptation of it. If people didn't come to him with a pure, faith-filled heart, they could receive nothing. He did not give as the world gives.

And I notice it's similar in the 12-step programs. They don't give anything that can be grabbed selfishly. There is help there, powerful help, but only if people are willing to humble themselves and look to God in faith. Those who refuse to do this receive nothing.

That's something I'd like to emulate. I get the impression that the retreat ministry is like this in many ways.



good news for the poor

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.

As I wrote yesterday, this is one of the basic understandings in the 12-step programs. So the approach is precisely for those who are most desperate. I like that. And I see how important that is, because it asks people not just to turn to God for help, but to let God change them, to admit their faults and let themselves be reshaped according to God's will for them. Though we all need this, we usually have to be pretty desperate to go along with it.

And so this is an approach for the neediest, for the weakest, for the poorest. Maybe the best presentation of "good news to the poor" that I've seen. And it's presented in practical steps. And also in the context of community. All of which looks really good to me.


freedom and fire

I've been trying to spend less time around the house, so I go to my usual prayer place at the Methodist student center each morning for a few hours. Mostly studying the 12 step material.

And I'm continuing to find interesting connections with things I've written about in the past months. Because so much personal commitment is required to follow the steps, everyone must enter into it voluntarily. So there's a great respect for the freedom of each person. This has been ignored sometimes in practice, however, especially when people are forced into these programs by law enforcement. But it's only supposed to work if people enter in freely.

There's also the understanding that the failures and sufferings of the addict are the primary means of bringing that person to the point where they enter in voluntarily. The recommendation is to offer help, but if the person rejects it don't push them, let the downward spiral of their problems convince them that they need help. This makes me think about what I wrote about love as fire. We hate to see these sufferings, and tend to categorize them as purely negative. But the experience of many in 12 step programs reaffirms that people often only seek help when their sufferings push them to the point of desperation. Only then are we willing to admit our powerlessness and reach out to God.

I can certainly see how my own sufferings over the past months have pushed me hard, to reevaluate my own path and re-adjust it, find the motivation to take a big next step, and also be more open to the guidance of others (even when I'm skeptical).


twelve steps

When the Mahoneys suggested I familiarize myself with the 12 step program (developed by Alcoholics Anonymous) I was a little skeptical. But also desperate enough to try anything they asked. And, surprisingly, it's turned out to be very interesting. Here are the basic 12 steps:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
  7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs

These were inspired by a group focused on spiritual renewal (nothing to do with alcohol), which explains its spiritual emphasis. I really like the way it starts with us embracing powerlessness. And moves directly to faith in God's power.

I've also noticed that 12 step groups work in a way that seems like an answer to several of my recent questions. They offer healing, but not through money or human power. They have no big facilities or people with professional expertise. And it's all free. Yet they offer real healing for some of the most desperate and sick people, often people who doctors have not been able to help. How do they do it? Mostly just through words. The encouragement and counsel and attention of other people who are also being healed of their addictions. It's obvious (and also made explicitly clear from the very beginning) that the healing power comes from God.

And it also requires faith from the person coming for help. I've seen that as an important aspect of Jesus' helping that is not seen in most ministries, including here. Jesus way of physical healing called forth the spiritual in people, which was what was most important to him.

That's my initial impressions; very intriguing.


"With men it is impossible"

During the sermon Sunday, the pastor was talking about the Christian life and mentioned this line from Mark (10.27):

Jesus looked at them and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God."
Which is a really good point, because the Christian life is impossible. It wasn't clear in the sermon, however, what was so impossible about it. But if we take a look at the sermon on the mount it becomes clearer.

This also gives another perspective on the "first step" I quoted in my last entry. "Our lives had become unmanageable." We may be so sick (like the alcoholic) that we can't even manage an average, "normal" life. This may drive us to look to God in faith. But we may also experience the same feeling of helplessness when we try to live the life that Jesus set before us, because the standards are so high that it is impossible for us. This also might drive us to admit our own powerlessness and plead for God's strength to carry us.

In these last few months, I've experienced quite directly how powerless I am to do what I had intended. We manage a life here (usually). But it is far from the kind of life that Jesus taught and demonstrated. I think recognizing that is the first step forward.


"our lives had become unmanageable"

The first step in the AA program is: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable."

I've been identifying with that over the last several days, not the alcohol part but the part about my life feeling unmanageable. I had come to the point where I felt I couldn't stay here any longer and then I had to stay. So I'm changing the way I live and work here. But that also makes everything seem strange, and I'm not sure I can change it enough to make the next six months a good experience. And on top of that I'm getting involved with something totally unknown, to prepare for a future that I really don't know will work out. Which also makes it feel like my future with Heather (and a family) is shaky. That's a lot to try to manage.

But I'm beginning to admit that a big part of why I wanted to leave was to get away from my failures here. I had firmly intended to come in and not take on running this place. I didn't want to become the benefactor or take control over people's lives. I wanted to just add what I could, but not become the authority in this place. But somehow I did it anyway. With very painful results (as I've written over the past month). And I knew coming in that I was called to focus on the spiritual life, to some form of preaching; I had even written last summer that I wanted to come here to learn to share God's good news better with the poor. But somehow the material helping took over. I've been critical of this place (which I think is still valid to some extent) but I knew a lot of that stuff was going on and still let myself become a part of it. That's my fault and no one else's. Caused by my pridefulness and desire to find security before God had given it.

I feel like I'm starting over here. Or at least I need to try to. The first step is a meeting today, where I'm going to see if I can step back from being part of the decision-making here. And now that I'm not watching the house every night, I need to figure out new ways to contribute. Working with the AA material (I also found an Al-Anon group to go to) might provide more learning on how to do spiritual work with the poor. But I'm beginning to see that trying again here, even if it is awkward and uncomfortable, is better than just leaving. Perhaps that's what God wanted me to see.