"he has filled the hungry with good things"

The strawberries have arrived. Heather was out in the fields early the last two mornings picking with many other people. I worked in the bakery; I like it there, it smells good. Eating berries is not bad, though. They're very sweet and they're coming quickly and generously.

I hope everyone here can enjoy the richness, even luxury, of these good things, and not get overwhelmed by the increasing demands of the farm work. Or distracted by the desire to turn the harvest into income.

To truly taste warm bread out of the oven, or strawberries plucked from between the leaves, is to understand the meaning of "gift."


"blessed is he who takes no offense at me"

Yesterday was Memorial Day. Which always sets off the flag-waving and pumps the patriotism—and stirs up the anti-military activism as well. Among the people I hang around with, I see more of the latter. Just the other day, while working in the strawberry fields, I was hearing about writing letters to our senators about the war.

But the story I read this morning should raise questions for the activist Christians, I think:

John, calling to him two of his disciples, sent them to the Lord, saying, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" And when the men had come to him, they said, "John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, 'Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?'"

In that hour he cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me." (Lk 7.19-23)

It seems like an odd question from John the Baptist, who seemed to know Jesus well enough earlier in his life. But John was in prison at this time (see Mt 11.2-6). And perhaps he had in mind the very prophecies from Isaiah that Jesus refers to in his reply (Is 35.5, 61.1), promises of what it would be like when the messiah came. Isaiah 61.1, after "good news for the poor," says the savior will "proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound." In John's situation, it's understandable if he was impatient for this "opening of the prison" to happen soon.

But Jesus is not going to storm the prison. Or protest at its gates. He's not even going to write an indignant letter to Herod denouncing the unjust imprisonment of his cousin. This is hard to swallow. For John, with his expectations of a messiah who would lay an axe to the root, and also for many justice-demanding activists. How could Jesus ignore John's plight? How could any Christian?

Obviously Jesus wasn't ignoring John's suffering. But his response to John was not to fulfill his expectations of justice (or ours). His response was, "The kingdom of God has come. Blessed is he who takes no offense at me."

The liberty that Jesus proclaims (then and now) does not come to the suffering who demand it or the righteously indignant who try to make it happen themselves. His liberty and healing and good news are not for those who try to lead the way themselves—with the force of their will or the strength of their numbers—but for those who are willing to humbly follow Jesus in his way. And take no offense at him.


Speaking of healing...


"he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said..."

And Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases...

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven...

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again...

"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High..." (Lk 6.17-35)

After coming across this passage a few days ago, I wrote this e-mail to a friend:
Thanks for being so open about your personal stories. It sounds like you both have had deep and important (and extremely difficult) experiences that could be very useful in helping others who are confused and in need of spiritual healing.

There are several people here on the farm who have had very hard family upbringings (or divorces, etc) and who now use their own struggles and healing to help others going through similar painful hardships. The folks we are currently living with often talk of their long path of emotional healing. And of the people they're currently trying to help, who are in some pretty terrible situations.

The usual focus in these cases is to try to restore the person to basic emotional health and restore their ability to relate well with others. Basically get them back to normal. I wonder at times how the radical call of Jesus fits in with that goal, whether very wounded people are ready for the extreme, revolutionary life that Jesus offers, when most "healthy" people find it so difficult to embrace. Or maybe the most broken people are more ready, I don't know. I'm trying to figure that out. I wouldn't want to present people (on retreats here, for example) with ideals and goals that are so high that it just ends up frustrating and depressing them. But, then again, it seems like Jesus preached to the most down and out, the most needy, the most broken people, and he didn't hold anything back. He presented the highest vision of the kingdom of God and called them too (or them especially) to follow him on the extreme path he was walking.

I'm not sure. Any thoughts?

My friend seemed to think that we shouldn't hold back Jesus' more radical teaching because we think a person is too weak or broken for it, since Jesus himself didn't hold back. At least not with his followers. For outsiders he offered only cryptic sayings and parables, but he hid nothing from his disciples. And this is not just the twelve; that sermon from Luke was to "a great crowd of his disciples," including the poor, hungry, weeping, hated and excluded. To these needy and hurting ones Jesus offered some of his most extreme and challenging words in all the Gospels.

My friend wrote:
Jesus didn't hold a thing back, He never short-changed anyone when it came to His message, no matter how broken they were. [My wife and I] think this is important. We think the radical message of Jesus should never be watered down.

From personal experience I can attest to the fact that at times (as a still-healing person myself) that the radical message is often depressing and disheartening, but at the same time it is the most powerfully healing message I have received.


Got up at 5:15 this morning (without an alarm!) to help pick the first strawberries of the season, so they could make it to farmer's market in time. Then there was a community work project. But now the rest of the day is free!


"I will give you rest"

Talking with a friend the other day, about work and overwork, brought to light another reason for workaholism. And now that I think of it, I have seen it before, mostly among young middle-class Christians.


But not so much the traditional kind doled out by stuffy religious institutions (that's going out of style). Now it appears as a justice-minded concern for the less fortunate. Perhaps mixed with political or economic activism. But the main idea is that the poor and underclasses are bearing the world's burden of hard physical work, the "sweat of the brow" that was the curse after Eden, and the wealthier people of the world are getting off too easy. Shirking their curse by shifting it to those less fortunate, who bear it for them for minimum wage (or less). Hence the guilt.

And the response is sometimes the attempt to take the physical weight of our own life back, to work hard (in soup kitchens or mission projects or communal farms) and sweat and feel the burden that is part of living as a sinful person in this world. So that no one else has to bear it for us, and perhaps to just honestly accept what we deserve.

I don't want to get into a long discussion here about what is true and what isn't true in this way of thinking. Just point out that Jesus made it pretty clear that we couldn't bear our own curse, much less bear it for anyone else. Attempts to assuage our guilt through hard work will not succeed. And it will certainly not lead to the incredible freedom of the kingdom of God that Jesus announced.

That's the other radical message of "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." We don't find rest by taking on more work, trying to carry our own weight, bear our own curse so no one has to do it for us. Someone else does have to bear our curse and our burden for us (and for every person). "Come to me... I will give you rest." We only find rest when we are ready to receive it as a gift—and then work can become the free, unpressured expression of love that God meant it to be.

But perhaps some people have to reach utter exhaustion before they are ready.


a French classic

Heather invited friends over for dinner yesterday and cooked a French classic from a cookbook we received as a wedding gift. I really like her desire to offer hospitality, and her joy and energy in welcoming people. That will be a great gift for those who come for retreats eventually.

She made pot-au-feu, which is basically French pot roast, though boiled instead of roasted (and the broth is served as a soup). The name means "pot on the fire." Somehow, though, I kept mispronouncing it, saying pot-au-fou. Which means, Heather informed me, "pot of the crazy person."


"...but he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed."

I read this yesterday morning:

The report went abroad concerning Jesus; and great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed of their infirmities. But he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed. (Lk 5.15-16)

That last line resonated with me, because I was still tired from clearing brush the day before, hours of hacking with machete and chainsaw. I really don't like the feeling of exhaustion. It makes me feel off-center, confused, unable to focus. And working to exhaustion certainly does not feel like the life of the kingdom of God to me—but is this an unavoidable necessity? Jesus' withdrawing from the demanding crowd gives me hope.

As I wrote not too long ago, there's a heavy emphasis on hard work here. Struggles with the weight of the labor during growing season, but a pride in that struggle, and smiling affirmation for the one who is nodding off at the end of the day because they've worked so hard. Complaints about having so much to do almost seem like boasts about having so much to do. Because there is great social esteem for the hard worker.

It's not only here, of course. I was just reading an article yesterday about a currently popular theologian, and at the end of the article his wife described him as a "workaholic." I think that's supposed to be a negative term (what if she had called him an alcoholic, Heather wondered). But if workaholism is a fault, it's hardly frowned upon in our society. It's much more admired. The hardest workers earn more, get promoted, and are widely admired for their ambition and productivity. They usually end up being the bosses (that's how it's been most places I've worked). People give them more work and more responsibility because they are willing to take it—so we end up with the workaholics setting the work schedule and defining the goals. Which is great for a society that wants to get things done.

But Jesus wasn't like that. And I think we should be especially careful not to follow workaholics as our examples and leaders. The reasons that drive people to work to exhaustion are almost always physical need (and the fear of lack) and personal ambition. Neither of these are good motivations from a spiritual point of view. Jesus taught us not to worry about our physical needs but to trust our Father to provide, and to give up our own ambition, abandoning our own will and embracing the will of God. Jesus preached, not hard work, but total dependence on God. Our lives need not rest in our own calloused hands.

While society endlessly praises the hard workers, Jesus withdraws to the wilderness to pray. Or carelessly leaves behind a wildly popular and productive healing ministry to more clearly preach the "good news," a message that society's top hard workers would kill him for. "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."


are you evangelical?

When it was day Jesus departed and went into a lonely place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them; but he said to them, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose." (Lk 4.42-43)

During a conversation with a friend the other day, he asked me, "So, are you evangelical?"

Meaning, am I trying to convince people, am I trying to get others to do what I'm doing, live the way I live. I said yes, I definitely thought that living this way (we happened to be talking about Jesus' gift economy and dependence on God for our needs) is a great thing, a great good for anyone, that everyone is invited to live that way, and that it speaks more clearly of Jesus and his message to the world. His gospel, his "good news of the kingdom of God."

Then, yesterday in church, we were discussing the gospel as "good news." Being reminded that it is supposed to be good news, so why do we Christians so often seem somber or bored about it? That was followed by people talking about the many good things that are part of their lives, graces from God that they are thankful for.

But I noticed that they were little, everyday things. Not much different from the little joys that are a part of any human life. Which are important, sure; I wouldn't want to do without them, and I am also thankful for them. But not much to get excited about. Are those good enough news to leave home and travel around announcing what God is doing in the world? Are those good enough for people to take notice that something unusual and incredible (even miraculous) is happening?

I think the first part of being evangelical is the relentless desire to see the amazing promises of Jesus fulfilled. The kingdom of God present among us. And the abandonment of our lives, risking all to see this, so that we too have great news to share with others.

An important thing to keep in mind as Heather and I prepare to go out on the road in July...


"Factory Windows Are Always Broken"

Heather read me this poem today, from an anthology I picked up at the local resale shop. It's by Vachel Lindsay.

Factory windows are always broken.
Somebody's always throwing bricks,
Somebody's always heaving cinders,
Playing ugly Yahoo tricks.

Factory windows are always broken.
Other windows are let alone.
No one throws through chapel-window
The bitter, snarling derisive stone.

Factory windows are always broken.
Something or other is going wrong.
Something is rotten—I think, in Denmark.
End of the factory-window song.

Reminds me of something else Heather said to me recently, coming in from the fields: "I don't want to work by the hour. It's demeaning."


marriage changes everything?

I was talking with a friend the other day about my concern that marriage and family pressures can cause us to forget our idealistic goals and convictions. I've seen this in other young couples that have started families quickly (and unexpectedly). The response I usually get from married folks when I express this concern is that marriage changes everything, that our own ideals should submit to the needs of the marriage, that keeping the marriage together is now what's most important.

Perhaps that is true if our ideals are simply our own plans or ambitions. And I can see that it is a good thing to set aside our own personal ambitions for the sake of someone else, to maintain and strengthen the marriage relationship.

But for Christians, our ideals should be those set before us by Jesus, our convictions the teachings we follow in obedience to him. So it doesn't make sense to talk about setting these aside for the sake of the marriage. And how could we ever say that the marriage is now what's most important? Marriage should not change our commitment to the "one thing needful," the devoted and single-minded attention to learning from Jesus and following his example day by day. In Heather's wedding vow she acknowledged this, promising to "gladly follow Jesus" with me as long as she lives.

The path is the same, the narrow path, the little-used path, following Jesus' radical abandonment to the will of his Father. "Not my will (or my wife's will, or anyone else's) but your will be done."


the honeymoon's over

We spent most of yesterday cleaning up our room which was left in wedding disarray, clearing out the wrapping paper and boxes, putting gifts away (after figuring out who they came from), and doing several loads of neglected laundry. Now there's some semblance of order.

And life seems to be returning to normal. Which has been a bit of an emotional let down. The wedding went so well, great weather and no major snags, even the unexpected improvisations (like the congregational dance at the end of the service) turned out much better than the original plan. The cake was incredible. And the mood was relaxed and everyone seemed to be having fun, even the kids. Such a high spirit throughout. And the honeymoon in the seclusion of the cabin was bliss. So it felt strange and a bit empty to return to the routine here, and see everyone going on normally, like nothing major had changed.

But now I'm thinking that "back to normal" may be just what I need. Because I encountered something else after the wedding: From the married couples we talked to, I kept getting the impression that we had "joined the club," that now we were on the path that they were familiar with, the well-trodden path that so many have taken before us. That they knew what we were in for. And that made me a bit nervous. Because I didn't think I was changing paths, getting on the well-travelled one...

Clearing out the wedding decorations and getting back to my normal life reminds me that I haven't changed substantially, and what I am called to has not changed substantially (despite the knowing nods of our married friends). I am called to love. The love exemplified by Jesus, a single man who never "joined the club." The same love that I've been trying to live all along. I tried to emphasize this in my wedding vow, that my marriage commitment was simply part of the commitment that I've been living for years. The commitment to love with God's love, as Jesus loved.

More tomorrow...


"the long-awaited embrace"

Thanks to Kevin for this picture (and for the title...)


we're married

Incredible wedding. A beautiful, beautiful gift.

Now the honeymoon begins, in the cabin with no electricity (or plumbing), so it'll be quiet here for about a week...


"look to him, and be radiant"

Today's the day. Most everyone is still asleep right now. So before things get busy and lots of people start arriving, I thought I'd put in this reading that Heather and I will do together, a combination of verses from Psalms 34 and 84:

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise will continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.

The sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young—
a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.

This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
for those who fear him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.


the blessing

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." (Mk 1.9-11)

The parental blessing. This often becomes an issue in relation to marriage. I've been thinking about it and trying to understand what it means, how important it is. It's still a tradition, but is it just being polite or is there really something to the parental blessing?

It seems to me that the blessing that we really desire, and the blessing that really carries weight, is the blessing of God. The words that Jesus heard as he came up out of the water. God's favor. That means something.

Our desire for our parents' favor, their blessing on our life, seems to come from our deeper desire for the blessing of our Father in heaven. So it does symbolize something real. And of course there are many advantages to being in good favor with your parents (and the parents of your spouse). But ultimately we desire God's favor, and if we have that then the disfavor of your parents isn't a great setback.

I imagine it is also a desire of parents to give their blessing to their children. Both to be able to find favor and to be asked for their blessing from the child they love. To not be able to bless their child would be a great loss, I think. And it's even worse for them if they fail to favor that which God has favored.

What is most important is to see what pleases God. And be able to bless that with him, or experience that blessing. "You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased."


wedding gifts

This morning I began Mark 14 and read about the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive nard, and about his "borrowing" of the upper room to celebrate the passover with his disciples. It reminded me of all the generous gifts that have made our upcoming wedding possible.

The beautiful location was offered when we were invited here to Plow Creek farm, and the "honeymoon cabin" is free for our use as well. Heather's parents offered to pay for the food and the barn dance. And the wedding rings are a gift from my parents, as well as a dinner for both families the night before the wedding. The cake is a gift from Annie, who lives here on the farm. Heather's aunt Alice offered to arrange the flowers. And Helen, another aunt (and music director at Reba Place church) is arranging and performing the music for the wedding, along with Ken, Ann, Erin, and Rick. Helen's husband, Ric (pastor at Reba Place) is leading the vows and communion during the service. And Dan, a new friend we met when we moved here, gave me a Guatemalan shirt that I'll wear for the wedding. Many others here at the farm have volunteered to help set up and decorate, and clean up afterwards, and also offered hospitality to many of our friends and family coming from out of town. Hospitality to us as well; Mark and Louise have been sharing their home with us, and so will continue to do so through the first few months of our marriage.

All gifts. In addition to the many gifts of money from friends and family, which will help us prepare for our walk and give us some starting resources for the retreat ministry here.

Like Jesus—who didn't even have a place to gather with his disciples for the passover—we had nothing. Yet if Jesus asks us (as he asked his disciples), "When I sent you out with nothing, did you lack anything?," we can also answer gladly, "Nothing."