Made an interesting discovery recently. A new internet radio station, Last.fm. There's no commercials, and you tell it what bands you want to listen to—and if you don't like a song that comes on you can skip it and listen to something else. The station also remembers the songs you do listen to so it can get better at picking music you like. Pretty cool.

And it's free. I'd pretty much stopped listening to music, since I didn't have a player (or any tapes or CDs). But, like many of the luxuries of life, I give something up just to find it given back to me. I'm really enjoying music again.


tough love?

One thing I've appreciated about being back here at Reba Place (though that wasn't my plan for this fall) is the chance to do things differently. There were several frustrations during the years I lived and worked here before, which I didn't always handle well. But now I find the difficult experiences of the year away have helped me. I find myself responding differently now, and better, I think.

Probably the main area of change is in my response to the wrongdoing of others. I remember journaling about that just before I left here. Now I find myself able to change my behavior in relation to the wrongdoer, and even able to talk with them about what seems to be a problem.

I suppose this might be called "tough love." But that term has been used to justify much that is not love at all, but exercise of power, coercion, control over others. Probably a better term for what I've been doing is conscientious objection. Not long ago I wrote about it in a discussion forum, and this pretty well describes how I've been trying to act now:

...I do think there can be a definite "co-dependency," when we're helping not so much for the other person, but to reinforce our own "savior" image, or trying to find our own self-worth in how much another person needs us. I like how the Al-Anon program focuses on healing our own spiritual problems, rather than focusing on the alcoholic's problems. Working on purifying our own motives is something Jesus definitely teaches.

And I definitely think we are always to forgive, or at least pray for God to help us forgive eventually.

But forgiveness doesn't mean we should ignore the self-destructive behavior. I guess I think the loving response in this case would be something like a conscientous objection, refusing to participate in something that will help the person continue on the path of destruction.

Jesus was always giving, but didn't always give what people asked him for. I think we should always strive to give the alcoholic sufferer help in finding their way back to health, but not give them the means to continue feeding their sickness.

...I agree with you about the need to respond to the abuser [or wrongdoer], against the abuse, for their sake (as well as others).

You wrote:
BUT this seems to directly contradict Jesus' supreme act on the cross where he totally alllowed people to abuse Him unto death. And how do you stop someone from being abusive (emotional, intellectual, physical, etc.)? This amounts to attempting to control another human, and must be done with some means of force.
Yet (as I was just talking with a friend about last night): Is the only way to respond or stand up to abuse a forceful/coercive one? Is it even necessary to "stop" the abuse--which, as you point out, Jesus did not do--or are we called to reject and denounce it, while still loving the other and respecting their freedom?

You also rightly recognize that the abused often cooperates with the abuser (often due to abusive relationships they've been raised in). The abuser treats us like dirt, and we act like dirt. Jesus didn't fight back, but he didn't act like dirt either. He stood up and told them what they were doing was wrong. He conscientiously objected when they tried to pressure him to cooperate. And he didn't run away when they threatened. He even intentionally "turned towards Jerusalem," going where they were stongest, yet showing them no fear. For their sake (and for ours). Because he knew they could not hurt him ("why fear those who can only kill the body?") and he loved them.

Can't we stand up to abuse in similar ways? Through refusal to cooperate, refusal to accept the abuser's portrayal of us, refusal to jump when they say jump? A sort of conscientious objection...


I recently came across this painting by Georgia O'Keefe again. It's called Black Cross. I remember having a print of it hanging in my room when I was in seminary.


"so that gradually we may disappear"

Working so much with Bob this past week (basically I'm on call all day and night), I've been reminded of these words from Jean Vanier's The Broken Body:

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

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


becoming like them

I chanted these lines during prayer yesterday:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not, they have eyes, but they see not,
they have ears, but they hear not, nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them. (Ps 135.15-18)
And they stuck with me, since I've been thinking about idolatry lately. So what does this mean in our modern forms of idolatry?

One of the main things I've noticed about the idolatry of our institutions and organizations is that we try to imagine them as new beings, with lives of their own. I've heard someone describe an organization just like that, that it's natural for it to be born and grow and then weaken and die. As if it's a person. And I mentioned how Walter Wink emphasized "redeeming" our institutions, as if, like a human being, it had a soul. Institutions do not have souls. They are human creations (or imaginings) and we do not create living beings with souls; only God does that. Our organizations are not persons, they do not feel, they do not love.

There does exist one (and only one) corporate being that is living, that is a person. That is the body of Christ. Perhaps it's our longing for this that leads us to imagine our humanly constructed corporate structures as living beings. But these have no life, and can only falsely substitute for the real thing.

I think this impersonalism of our organizations, our institutional idols, is then passed on to those who believe in them. "Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them."

I've seen this in effect in many ways, for example: In organizations, the usual way of handling differences or disputes between people is to make rules. The personal way to handle problems between people would be reconciliation, having the two get together and let each other know what behavior is a problem and then making adjustments because of the mutual concern they have for each other. But institutions prefer impersonal rules. If a certain behavior is a problem, then from now on there is a rule, that behavior (in general) is not allowed, or from now on everyone will do it this way, etc. And if someone breaks the rule then it's no longer an interpersonal problem, it is a problem of someone disobeying a rule. It's between that person and the rules (and whoever enforces the rules). The personal aspects—forgiveness and reconciliation, very important parts of our relationships—have been removed.

Another form of this impersonalizing is the creation of institutional roles or "positions." Instead of a community made up of a web of interpersonal relationships, each person committed to the others by their love for that unique person, we substitute organizational "relationships." This is easily seen in organizations with clear hierarchies, but it's a part of all organizations. For example, when we join an organization (even membership in a church) we make commitments, not to the actual persons involved, but to the institution. We promise to support the institution. We accept the institutional leaders. In any organization, the actual persons who make up the organization change over time, leaders change, the roles and positions remain but the people who fill them don't stay the same. Does this change our commitment though? It should, if the community was based on actual personal relationships. But in institutions there's a tendency to see people less as persons and more as the office they hold; our relationship (to leaders or other members) is established by membership, not by any particular personal connection we have with them.

As we give ourselves more and more to this, we become more and more depersonalized. More and more like our institutions. "Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them."

Actually, this morning's Dilbert helped get me on this topic...


there it ain't

Bob was in the hospital for a few days this past week, and Julius is on vacation, so I've been busy with Bob's care. But I came across a couple passages in my reading of Luke that I think relate to the theme I've been writing about here.

They are both Jesus' descriptions of the kingdom of God. And they don't seem to fit our institutional communities...

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you." (Lk 17.20-21)

Yet, despite Jesus' words, Christians have often put forth their organizations as examples of the kingdom of God. "Come see, here it is!" This always ends in bitter disillusionment. We can certainly say "there it is" about our churches and other institutional communities, but with those words we also confess that these are not the kingdom of God.

Yet the kingdom of God is among us. Not easily outlined like our organizations, but it is there, mixed in like leaven, the relationships between its members not outlined in any authority structure or membership requirement, crossing all denominational borders, undefined—yet strong as the most passionate love.

Like the unseen, unorganized web of our friendships. The kingdom of God is an organic community like that, untamed like nature, sprouting life through every crack in the sidewalk.

Jesus called them to him, saying, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." (Lk 18.16-17)

A child does not receive the kingdom sitting in a conference room, making policy decisions. A child does not plan the ministry strategy of the kingdom. (The kingdom is not the child's responsibility.) A child receives the kingdom as a gift, enjoying the community given by the Father, never trying to take charge of it and manage it as we manage our institutions. "For we have one Father" and we are all his children.


organic community

"The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear..." (Mk 4.26-28)

The problem of spiritualizing and idolizing our institutions arises with the power and pride of gathered people. So the temptation is greatest when we come together in groups. But we are meant to come together, we need to. So how do we come together without institutionalizing our communities, how do we cooperate with one another without idolizing our organizations?

I think there are clues in the imagery used to describe community in the bible. Images like a growing plant, a living body. Images of marriage and family. These are natural, God-given, God-created relationships and organisms. Not man-made institutional relationships or humanly designed organizations. The difference is quite stark. Yet what we call "community" (clubs, religious organizations, political groupings) are almost always of the institutional sort. Even among Christian intentional communities, the designation "intentional" speaks of how much these are human creations. Yet most people's more satisfying experience of community is among naturally occuring friendships and family relationships. Natural community. Organic community. The kind that sprouts and grows "we know not how."

This is also how I envision the one, true community we all long for, the body of Christ. A living being, given by God, spreading like leaven and growing like a plant, not designed or governed or ordered by us, with diverse members known by the head and coordinated by the head, the head being Christ.

Can we recognize and let ourselves be drawn into the life of this organic community, instead of continually constructing (and idolizing) our own organizations?


This was the only cartoon I could find to go with this current train of thought...


our idolatry

The most developed presentation of the spiritualizing of our institutions and social structures and systems is in Walter Wink's "Powers That Be" series. It's been very popular in some Christian circles over the past twenty years. He takes up the New Testament concepts of "rulers, authorities, powers," rejecting the usual interpretation that these refer to personal spiritual beings (such as demons), and interprets these "powers" as living spiritual entities within our social institutions, structures and systems. His main thesis is that since these are created entities, they are intrinsically good, though badly fallen, and so are in need of redemption. That's his challenge for us: redeem the powers.

It's hard to argue about "rulers, authorities, powers," since these concepts are rather vague, not clearly explained by the epistle writers, and as far as I know Jesus didn't speak of them. But in some of the clearest passages, Paul presents them as spiritual enemies (of both us and Jesus), and predicts that Jesus will eventually destroy them:

Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6.12)

Then comes the end, when [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1 Cor 15.24-26)

So I don't see much value in trying to "redeem the powers." There may be some connection between social institutions and "the powers" spoken of in the New Testament, but if so it doesn't look good for them.

The more troubling problem of spiritualizing our institutions existed long before Wink promoted the idea (it appeared in the novel I quoted yesterday, for example). It seems to me that if we create social structures or institutions, and then as they grow in power we become dependent on them, then because they seem to take on a life of their own we attribute actual spiritual life to them, then we begin to feel controlled by them and even fear them... haven't we created idols? The work of men's hands that we treat like gods? This is nothing new.

Certainly we do this with our institutions. I've seen it often. But it's false, a lie. Definitely not something we should legitimize with our theology, affirming that there are such spiritual entities among us, in our institutions and social systems. We create our institutions. We invent our social structures and systems. But spiritual entities, we do not create those. Because we cannot. Except in our imagination, because we want gods to care for us and protect us, but gods that are made in our image and that we can control (though when they get big they tend to get out of hand...). Yes, our governments and corporations and organizations are very much like this. But that only makes them idols, not gods.

And idols have no spiritual power—except in the minds of those who believe in them.


"the monster"

I wonder if my recent thoughts have to do with understanding how to remain a pilgrim Christian even when I'm not actually travelling. I've written before about how accumulating money and property tend to chain us down, hindering our ability to move (physically or spiritually), deadening our spiritual life. Another thing that is connected with "settling down" (in the worst sense) is the appearance of idols. When the Hebrews stopped their pilgrimage and settled, idols soon sprang up or they adopted the idols of that place, and God had to send them into exile, making them pilgrims again for their own spiritual good. I see the same pattern among us.

We find it so easy to denounce the idols of primitive religions. What superstition, we say, shaking our heads. Yet we have our own modern spiritualism (or animism, a belief that non-personal things have spirits), with just as firm a belief in idols of our own making.

Here's a good example. It's a passage from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath:

The owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were.... You see, a bank or company... those creatures don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.... The bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can't wait. It'll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing it dies. It can't stay one size.....

We have to do it. We don't like to do it. But the monster's sick. Something's happened to the monster....

Sure, cried the tenant men, but it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours....

We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.

Yes, but the bank is made up of men.

No. you're wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it but they can't control it.

I once wrote a story about this kind of spiritualizing our institutions (though I hadn't read this particular passage; such belief is pretty common now):


She arrived for work a half hour before the bank closed, as usual, but she was nervous. Friday they had told her that she might have to leave. She didn't want to. Cleaning the bank was easy, and it was air-conditioned, and the people there dressed nice and smiled. And after they locked the doors, the tellers relaxed and talked and laughed while they counted the money. She liked that. It was nicer here than where she lived, even. All weekend she had worried about having to leave the bank: Had she done something wrong? If she did better could she stay? Thinking like that made her nervous.

But she knew how to act normal. They'd put her in the nuthouse because she was so nervous—only they called it "psychiatric hospital." Then she'd learned how to act normal: Not-nervous. So they let her out of the nuthouse and gave her a room in a regular house, where some other not-nervous women were living too. They also gave her a job cleaning the bank. There she was glad she could act normal, because it was a nice place.

The bank was called Sovereign Bank. She didn't know what that meant so she'd asked someone, and was told that sovereign meant king. The bank sign had lots of gold on it. One big, gold eye with gold lines coming from it like sun beams, and "Sovereign Bank" in gold too. Gold like a king.

That had made her curious. If this was a king's bank, she wondered who the king was. Probably not a real king—this was America—but it had to be someone very important, to be in charge of a big bank like this. The tellers were the easiest to talk to, but she already knew they weren't in charge. Their boss was Mr. Murphy. He had an office for himself, with a shiny sign that said his name and "Branch Operations." She picked up the trash from his office every day. There were more offices too, upstairs, but she didn't work up there. So she'd decided to ask Mr. Murphy.

"Well, there's the president of this branch—Ms. Kennedy—but then there's lots of branches, with regional administration over them. Overall, the highest position is the CEO, who's also the chairman of the board of directors. The board runs the bank. But of course they routinely have to answer to the Audit Committee, which acts on behalf of the bank shareholders. Ultimately, the board has to make the shareholders happy—and the customers, of course. The bank's here to serve the customers. It's their money, after all. Without customers there wouldn't be much of a bank, now, would there?" Mr. Murphy laughed. "So who's in charge? Good question! With an institution this big, it's hard to say. Sometimes it's like it has a life of its own, and we're all just trying to hold on." He laughed again, grabbing his briefcase on the way out the door.

She had a hard time making sense of all that. The CEO seemed most like a king, but Mr. Murphy had made it sound like the customers were in charge, since it was their money after all. But she had seen the customers and it didn't seem like they were in charge. Sometimes they looked sad or angry and no one seemed to pay much attention to that. And some looked nervous. Usually those were asking where the loan office was. But mostly they were just normal, not-nervous, working people like her—she had even thought of getting a bank account herself. Then she would be a customer. But she didn't think that would mean she was in charge.

Most of the tellers and office workers were gone now. Only a few cleaning people left. And the security guards, who stayed all night. She got out the vacuum cleaner.

What had Mr. Murphy said about "a life of its own"? The bank had a life of its own? What did he mean by that? She wasn't sure. But it made her think of something she'd seen her first day here.

It was a video for new employees. The last part of the video was called "Team Spirit." Everyone in the video was smiling during that part, she'd noticed, but seeing "team spirit" again made her feel a little nervous. She remembered the "team spirit" rallies they used to have in her high school, every Friday afternoon. Those had made her very nervous. She hadn't known what the team spirit was—except that it caused the kids to go crazy on Fridays. She'd wondered if it could be what made some of the athletes and cheerleaders so mean. Now she wondered if "the life of its own" was the team spirit. Here.

This stopped her in the middle of the long carpet, her skin crawling. She glanced nervously around the large, empty lobby. All by herself. Alone. Then she saw a security guard and he smiled and she felt a little better.

She finished the vacuuming, trying not to think about a spirit in the bank, trying to act normal. Now most of all she needed to act normal, if she wanted to keep working here. But did she? Of course she did. She didn't know if there was a spirit at all. Probably there wasn't. Even though it said that in the video and Mr. Murphy said "life of its own." No—this was a nice place. She liked working here. Especially the last part of her job, going around turning off all the lights. It was so cool and quiet and dark then. It always made her think of the church she went to as a child. Yes, nice. She didn't want to have to leave the bank. But what could she do to stay?

She switched off the lobby lights and it felt like church. She gazed at the carved pillars and polished stone floor. And the open, high-ceilinged lobby, where people gathered not just on Sunday but every day, and spoke softly and were polite. Respectful. Then suddenly she understood why.

The spirit. Who protected all their money. Who could give them what they needed. The spirit was the one in charge. The thought made the back of her neck tingle.

Then she turned around and there it was. Huge. The golden eye. Lit so it gleamed at her, with its beams shooting out in every direction. She stared at it from the shadows and couldn't move. Then, bathed in the golden glow, she knelt. And slowly her hands came up, palms pressed together, fingertips almost touching her chin. Her eyes on the eye.

Silence. Cool stillness. Then her whisper. "Sovereign?"

"Are you there?"

She waited, listening, her knees growing cold on the polished stone. Then she heard a small creak. The golden eye seemed to tremble. Her breath stopped, her eyes growing wide.

Suddenly the light behind the eye flickered and went out, the eye itself tilted, and dropped. It hit the floor with a hollow crunch, sending little pieces of broken plastic into her lap.

For a moment she didn't move. Then she stumbled to her feet, glanced nervously towards the security guard to see if he had heard, and went to find a broom and dustpan.


like water

With the thoughts of the last few days, I keep remembering this favorite passage from the Tao Te Ching:

The best of man is like water,
Which benefits all things, and does not contend with them,
Which flows in places that others disdain,
Where it is in harmony with the Way.

Maybe because the way water flows, it also finds the narrow way, the way through.


psalm 105 revisited

It's interesting to see pilgrimage themes coming up again, though I'm not thinking about walking anytime soon (but actually looking for a place to stay long term). For example, a recent entry about being at home in God wherever we are, rather than home being a particular place. And yesterday's thoughts about the Christian life as a narrow road.

Not long ago I came across Psalm 105 again, the one chosen for me back in June. Back then, I focused on the coming into the promised land parts, and was very much disappointed when we were immediately kicked out of what I thought might be the place God had prepared for us. But when I looked at the psalm again recently, I noticed that the majority of it describes the two great Hebrew pilgrimages, Abraham's and the Exodus. I like these lines especially:

When they were few in number,
of little account, and sojourners in it,
wandering from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another people,
he allowed no one to oppress them;
he rebuked kings on their account, saying,
"Touch not my anointed ones,
do my prophets no harm!"

He spread a cloud for a covering,
and fire to give light by night.
They asked, and he brought quails,
and gave them bread from heaven in abundance.
He opened the rock, and water gushed forth;
it flowed through the desert like a river.
For he remembered his holy promise,
and Abraham his servant.
So he led forth his people with joy,
his chosen ones with singing.

It certainly says more about the experience of the narrow road than about the promised land...


the narrow road

Somehow my recent experiences brought to mind these words of Jesus, and they've been running through my head for the past few days:

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Mt 7.14-15)

Usually when this passage is read, the focus is on the gate, finding the gate. But I've been drawn to the imagery of the road. The wide road that leads to destruction and the narrow road that leads to life. Because even if we find the gate, there's still a long road ahead of us.

Through my experiences of the last six years, I've learned how well God provides and how generous life in the kingdom of God can be, just as Jesus described. "My yoke is easy, my burden light." But more and more I'm being made aware of the narrowness of the road following Jesus.

Narrow is not the same as difficult, or burdensome. It doesn't mean we have to hack our own way through the forest. But it does mean that we will have to pay attention and that the path through might be only just wide enough for us to pass. Because of God's power and generosity, I think I've been expecting a highway, with obvious road signs. Instead, it's been like a trail through the woods, where you have to be always watching for the path, for turns, for subtle markers to point the way. But I guess this is closer to what Jesus told us it would be like.

And I think I have to get used to it looking like there might not be a way ahead. Where the opening is small, the path narrow, it's not easy to see the way through from a distance. Only as we get close can we see that we just might make it. All the way up to the narrow pass we have to trust: God promised there would be a way.