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..."