meditation for the party-goer

This morning I randomly flipped to this entry from my journal, written eight years ago, at this time of year...

"Great joy does not gather the rosebuds while it may;
its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose which Dante saw."

As I've thought about these lines [by G.K. Chesterton], I've become more conscious of the true nature of joy. It has the nature of goodness, as a sharing of God's own nature. Thus true joy springs from an eternal source.

I think this important truth is obscured in many of our "joyful" celebrations. A celebration or holiday should be the result of some good in our lives, the expression of a joy that springs (hopefully) from some very deep well. But often the holiday or celebration becomes for us the cause for rejoicing. We anticipate and cling to the celebration, the holiday becomes exceedingly important, because it is a precious moment of happiness in a life that seems otherwise depressing. At least that's how it looks, especially during the holiday season. This season is seen as a crucial morale-booster, and when it's brief festivities are over, people are left in a funk. If there was truly something to be joyful about (besides the party itself), then the celebration would be a bonus, a brief expression of a joy that continues long after the streamers are swept away. Then celebration could be the enjoyable emotional release it's supposed to be. It could be the happy accessory to joy, because it doesn't have to be its source. Like a wedding reception: the newlyweds leave the party early, anticipating the lasting joy of a life together. Or like an ancient harvest festival: the celebration could be light-hearted, because the real joy was in the rich harvest that would sustain the community throughout the winter. Real joy does not need to grasp at brief pleasures "for their own sake," like a parched man straining for a drop of water. Because real joy has a real source, even an eternal source.

Chesterton makes another interesting comment about joy at the end of his book "Orthodoxy." He writes, "Joy... is the gigantic secret of the Christian." And he emphasizes both 'gigantic' and 'secret,' even connecting the two in the life of Jesus:

The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
Jesus himself spoke of his own joy, and commended it to his disciples: "These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full."(Jn 15.11) But it does seem that his joy was somehow restrained or hidden. That's odd.

In movies, Jesus has often been characterized as stoic or solemn, but as Chesterton points out, that's a characterization of our own worldly ideals, not Jesus. Just as the recently popular image of a "laughing Jesus" is a characterization of our own ideal. Obviously, our ideals change. But Jesus did not conform to our ideals; he didn't try to impress us by hiding his grief or his anger, or by showing off his joy. All of these have been selling points for philosophers and religious leaders throughout history, and we continue to see them today. But Jesus demonstrated a grief and an anger that didn't need to be hidden, and a joy that didn't need to be paraded.

That brings me back to the true nature of joy. Real joy doesn't necessarily need a celebration, it doesn't need to draw attention to itself, just as true grief doesn't need to be ashamed of itself and righteous anger doesn't need to suppress itself. But, as Chesterton notes, expressions of joy are noticeably absent in the Gospel descriptions of Jesus' life, making it seem like he was hiding his joy. Why? I like the suggestion that Jesus' joy was something primarily between him and his Father, best expressed in solitary prayer. And I also can believe that his joy was somehow too great to be publicly displayed. I can imagine a divine joy that might not be fitting for expression among sinful people. Or maybe Jesus wanted to avoid a serious misunderstanding; because the way to happiness is also the way of the cross. I have a feeling all these are hints about the truth. But I firmly believe that Jesus knew real joy, eternal joy, and that he is the eternal source of joy for us. Also, I believe the more real our joy is, the more it will look like his.


"how you favor the weak and lowly one"

Here's the song we sang on Christmas. We also used it often for evening prayer when we were on the road. From Marty Haugen's "Holden Evening Prayer."


Christmas night

For Christmas dinner, Heather made "Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic," prepared with chicken stock we made ourselves. Wonderful. (Though there weren't literally forty cloves; twenty, maybe.) It's a French recipe, and I made baguettes to go with it; we spread the roasted garlic on the bread. With ginger glazed carrots. A bottle of Chardonnay, too. And the dessert was also French, Pots de Crème au Chocolat, gloriously rich little chocolate custards.

At the end of the evening Heather read a short story she wrote about Jesus' birth. Here's an excerpt from the middle of it:

“How close together are they? Can you sit up? Here...” The midwife beckons me to slide my hips forward onto the torn blanket, and Joseph supports my shoulders as I try to push myself up on one arm. I inch myself forward, off our mat and onto the packed earth; I can feel it through the thin blanket, rock-hard and unforgiving under the weight of my hips. A wave of power and pain passes from the core of my body down towards my legs. Or not power... power going out of me, not coming in, yet it doesn’t feel like my own at all. I have no power. I am breathing fast. Can I do this? How much worse does it get? Will there be room for him to come out, through that place where I have never been touched? Will I tear?

When the angel came, there was strange light in the room, different from anything I knew. Like a color I’d never seen. It outlined everything so clearly—my needle and thread, the folds of that cloak in my lap, looked twice as real as they had ever been, almost alive... There is no light here. Rachel and the midwife crouch beside me in the dark, whispering.

I know what they think. They can’t help it. The oil lamp lies dead and silent in a corner of the doorway, and I will give birth in the dark. Sometimes I could wonder myself if I really saw that unreal light—that light more real than me...

Another pang grabs me and twists my body on the hard earth. Joseph’s hands on my shoulders grip harder and I can hear his whisper: Breathe... it’s all right Miriam... I’m here... I want to answer him somehow but all my breath is stolen.

I knew. The strange light and the strange voice, saying God was with me, God... I knew then that there was reason to fear. He told me not to, but he didn’t say I had nothing to fear. God’s favor, yes; I know the stories, I know how it is with those on whom God’s favor rests. Hard earth and darkness, David in the caves and Jeremiah in the cistern, yes, and your husband’s family all around you calling you a whore under their breath... God is with me. It’s His son they’ll call a bastard. I know. He knows.

Another pain is coming. I take a long slow breath in the huge dark.

We followed that by singing a song based on Mary's magnificat, and then took turns reading the passages from Luke and Isaiah that I quoted in the last entry. A good way to end the day. Maybe we'll make a tradition of it.


"he will assemble the outcasts of Israel"

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist,
and faithfulness the girdle of his loins.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.

They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.

And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us."

In that day the root of Jesse shall stand
as an ensign to the peoples;
him shall the nations seek,
and his dwellings shall be glorious.
In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time
to recover the remnant which is left of his people,
from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia,
from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath,
and from the coastlands of the sea.

He will raise an ensign for the nations,
and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
from the four corners of the earth.

...there will be a highway from Assyria
for the remnant which is left of his people,
as there was for Israel
when they came up from the land of Egypt.

And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

You will say in that day:
"I will give thanks to thee, O LORD,
for though thou wast angry with me,
thy anger turned away,
and thou didst comfort me.
"Behold, God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation."

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
And you will say in that day:

"Give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name;
make known his deeds among the nations,
proclaim that his name is exalted.

"Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel."
(Lk 2; Is 11, 12)


'tis the (electoral) season


by the lake where the waves were frozen

We found a tree cheap this morning, and are preparing to have our first guest over Christmas, Heather's close friend Roselyn, from Reba Place in Evanston. Heather's Christmas gift to me two years ago was a poem about our time together there:

By the lake where the waves were frozen
Into dunes of sand and snow,
Talking of art and abstract things,
You and I then would go.

In streets where air grew warmer
And slowly pale grass greened,
We spoke of people we knew, and hoped
Things were better than they seemed.

On that corner by the bushes,
Yellow flowers hung thick and wild
And you shuddered my heart into longing
When you spoke of faith like a child.

And the spring storms fell on the city,
and birds sang wild and sweet;
In the rain trees blossomed and flourished
And wet petals dropped at their feet.

And skies broke blue with the glory
God spoke when the world was made,
And earth was warm beneath my feet,
And I was sore afraid.

But I sat by the lake unfrozen
As it flashed the sun back to the sky
And asked God if this was madness
And could not believe the reply.

And my hand was in yours and yours in mine;
Uncertain the road we trod.
Yet we vow in the dark still to throw ourselves
into the arms of God.


This year's Christmas haiku. I usually try to choose a scene from
the nativity story that also somehow reflects my feelings or
experience that Christmas. This year it's Mary and Joseph's arrival
at the stable, and their grateful relief that God had provided a
place to rest, humble as it was.

I didn't manage to come up with a haiku last year, but the previous
one was about the shepherds, here.


"Who wants to own your own business?"

I read an article yesterday that seems like a good illustration of trusting God to bring success to our own plans and efforts. It's about the spread of the prosperity gospel in Latin America:

Doris Cuxun will never forget the words that shook her out of a daze one Sunday morning during a service at Showers of Grace, a Neo-Pentecostal megachurch here. "Who here wants to own your own business? Lift your hand!" the pastor hollered.

"I want to, I want to," she whispered amid the dancing and chanting.

...Early Pentecostals reached out to the poor with the idea that poverty on earth would lead to riches in heaven. They gained a reputation for being concerned only with the "otherwordly." But the movement has unabashedly adopted a new ethos: God doesn't want anyone to be poor.

This message, known as "prosperity theology" or "health and wealth gospel," is most often associated with the newer Neo-Pentecostal branches of the religion where adherents, mostly upper and middle class, fill massive megachurches. But in Guatemala even the more traditional denominations are adopting a message of social mobility, making the words "self-improvement" and "ascent" part of the daily lexicon.

...Edmundo Guillen, the head pastor of Showers of Grace, explains their mission: "Our greatest dream is that they all become entrepreneurs."

The success of such preaching and beliefs comes, I believe, through the optimism it encourages, the so-called "power of positive thinking." At least I don't think God's behind the entrepreneurial push. I don't hear any such preaching from Jesus, who chose to be poor himself.

It just never seemed to be God's way...


more than optimism

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved, but abides for ever. (Ps 125.1)

I've written a lot about dependence on God (including my last entry); I think it's the meaning of faith, and the essence of the spiritual life, the ultimate purpose of our existence. I thought of it again this morning as I read these lines.

But trusting God means more than just expecting God to bring success to our own plans and efforts; it's more than blind optimism based on how contritely we pray, "I trust you, God." We can't just trust God for results, for things to turn out well. We have to trust God for the beginning, not just for the end. We have to depend on God for the inspiration and guidance that will set our path and direct our choices and actions in the manner he would have us act. We have to trust God to give us the patience and faithfulness to avoid compromise and stay with his way and his purpose. And then we continue to trust God, to bring what he started to his completion.

Then we can expect "all these things" to be provided, as Jesus promised. Then we are "like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides for ever."


at Meribah and Massah

Traditionally, monks' daily prayer starts with psalm 95 (and so does the Jewish shabbat service), and I always start my day with that one, too. But it happens to end on a rather dark note:

Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers tested me,
they tried me, though they had seen my work.

For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, "Their hearts are astray,
these people do not know my ways."
Therefore I swore in my anger
that they should not enter my rest.

I looked up the story behind Meribah and Massah; it's in Exodus:
The people thirsted there for water, and the people murmured against Moses, and said, "Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?"

So Moses cried to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." And the Lord said to Moses, "Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink."

And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah [test] and Meribah [contention], because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel, and because they put the Lord to the test by saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?" (Ex 17.3-7)

"Their hearts are astray," which angers God so much—this seems to be their lack of trust that God can provide for them there in the desert. Of course, it's easy to understand why they doubted, with no water anywhere around. But they had seen much coming out of Egypt. God expected them to know his ways.

This is not a minor thing. "Therefore I swore in my anger that they should not enter my rest." And how about us? What have we seen of God? And what great rest are we denying ourselves by our lack of trust, worried and driven like everyone else, acting as if we know nothing of God's ways?


"it is marvelous in our eyes"

I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.

This is the day which the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
(Ps 118.21-25)

This passage from prayer yesterday came back to me this morning. Last night at the church meeting it only took fifteen minutes for the community to decide that the Common Building apartment will be used for retreats. That also means we now have a place to move into and start preparing. It's been a long, uncertain road to get this far.

The line about rejection reminded me of our first attempt at retreat work, a year and a half ago. A crushing disappointment. But soon afterward, Plow Creek came to mind, which has many advantages over the retreat place we originally tried (much more acreage and natural beauty, larger community with kids too, close to Heather's relatives and our friends in Chicago, and more freedom in developing our own retreats). We had to wait quite a while, and at times it seemed very unlikely that it would work. But then we were surprised with an enthusiastic welcome almost a year ago. I even had thoughts then about using the Common Building apartment, but people were living in it, and there were a number of other objections to the idea. Now everyone is supporting and encouraging us to move in and get started.

I also hope that the retreat work here can be a focus of new life in the community. A means of reaching out and giving. And a way of exercising a more radical trust in God. When people come for the gatherings here this summer and next, it will be good to be able to tell of the new ministry for the poor here. And Heather and I hope our home, in the center of the community, will be a place of welcome and prayer for all the people who live here as well.



"good news for..."

One criticism of Malcolm X, and something he also tried to change, was that he was "all talk." That his work focused on preaching and speaking. Words. That's a common criticism that is overused and has much less weight than is supposed. I wrote about it a couple years ago ("only words"?):

And what of Jesus' many words? Looking at the passage quoted yesterday, we see how Jesus saw his own mission: "to preach good news," "to proclaim release." Words. And this is what he did, not physically opening jails or throwing off oppressors, but announcing freedom. Even his healings came, not through physical skill or work, but through the healing word.

One thing I admire in the words of Malcolm X is that they spoke to the people at the bottom. They offered dignity and hope to the most oppressed. He was accepted as one of them (more than any other civil rights leader) and his words spoke to their hearts powerfully.

I hear the folks who put on the conference PAPAfest ("People Against Poverty and Apathy") are inquiring about having it here this year. I'm not sure if it will work because of the large number of people who attend that gathering, and it happens in June, a very busy time for the farm. But it would be fun. And probably good for the community here, letting lots of young people know we're here.

I've started getting a little uncomfortable, though, with such gatherings (and related popular books, and magazines like Geez). Because, while they say good things about giving up affluent lifestyles and helping the poor, the preaching/ministry seems primarily focused on middle-class, white young people. Of course these folks need preaching, too, and it's not a bad message. But it starts to feel more like helping ourselves than helping the poor.

And I wonder what a truly poor or oppressed person would make of such a gathering (if they ever showed up there). Would it make any sense? Would there be anything to offer that person? Would they hear "good news for the poor"?

I'm not sure how well we'll be able to offer a powerful word, proclaim freedom, announce good news, to those who come for retreats here. But I pray we learn to do it like Jesus did.


"as the eyes of a maid"

This morning I thought of these lines from psalm 123:

Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God

That's the kind of waiting on God I was thinking of in the last entry. Waiting for the word or sign of what to do next, as well as waiting for the care and protection that comes from the Master we trust. A waiting not from a distance but close.


waiting on God

The advent season has begun and there was discussion on Sunday about waiting. Not surprisingly, this focused on the idea of waiting for Jesus' return. And natural parallels were made between this (Christian) waiting and the Jewish waiting for the coming of the Messiah. Waiting for God to set things right, waiting for suffering to end, waiting for God's promise to be fulfilled. But this raises an uncomfortable question. Is our waiting the same? Don't we say the Messiah has already come? But we're still waiting for the promise to be fulfilled? The Christian explanation usually says something cryptic about "already and not yet" or "Jesus is already with us, but... It's hard to explain." And for all practical purposes our waiting for Jesus' coming is no different from the waiting of the expectant Jewish believer. Which isn't so bad; it's not a futile waiting. Just far less than Jesus offered to us. When Jesus began preaching, he proclaimed, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand!" (Mk 1.15) The waiting for the Messiah—God With Us— is over; he is with us always, to the end of the age. We are invited into his promised "kingdom of God." For those who follow him, eternal life begins now. Waiting on God thus takes on a whole new meaning. Not waiting for God to reveal himself, not waiting for our exile to end, not waiting for the Good to prevail. All this has been (and can be for us) fulfilled already. We can now live the life Jesus lived and promised for his followers. Our waiting on God now takes on an immediate sense, the experience of God present and our utter reliance him, continually looking to our Father moment by moment for protection, provision, guidance, motivation, answers, justice, peace. Not the waiting of absence, but the waiting of intimate dependence.


a man of action

I found a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X on a bookshelf here and am rereading it. A pretty gripping story. From a life of crime to the most popular leader in the Nation of Islam to his conversion to true Islam. There is much in his character to admire, and it is impressive how influential he became. It's sad that his life ended just as he was beginning to truly see the light.

The intensity of his life and relentlessness in acting on his convictions have made me wonder a bit whether I've taken too quiet a path. He says: "I've never been one for inaction. Everything I've felt strongly about, I've done something about." And his energy and zeal certainly made an impact on many people. But the tragedy is that he eventually realized that he had been relentlessly preaching a religion practically as racist as the people he denounced. Men of action are so admired, yet how often do they end up wishing their action could be undone?

Interestingly, in the epilogue Malcolm X is commenting on the threatening response when he left the Nation of Islam and remarks heatedly, "There's nothing more frightful than ignorance in action."


settling, as they say

We've been busy covering the strawberry rows with straw, the very long strawberry rows, and there's lots of them. Then there was an ice storm yesterday that knocked out our internet access for most of the day.

But we were able to have one meeting this week about a place for us to move and have retreats, and it went well. And hopefully at the church meeting next Monday we'll get a decision. So we may be able to start setting up house in a little over a week.

I find I'm nervous about it. Maybe because it seems like a big step, and a lot to take on with no stable source of income (and no furniture, not even a bed). But I'm beginning to think there's more to it for me. Yesterday in my prayers I came to psalm 105 again. It was the psalm "given" to us last year when we thought we had found a home in Virginia. About the Hebrews' pilgrimage and their arrival in the promised land. It seemed appropriate at the time, but then we were bitterly disappointed. Now it seems more likely that we will be able to live and work and join the community here long term. Settle down, as they say. Maybe that's what makes me nervous.

I've spoken and written so many times about the importance of being "strangers and exiles" (especially here, but also much earlier here). I remember often repeating how Israel's most faithful times were when they were exiles and pilgrims, and how they fell away from God when they became settled and gathered wealth and security around them. This same effect also appears in the history of most every religious congregation or organization. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the thought of moving in here leaves me feeling a bit on edge.

In the way we've envisioned our life here, there are some things that may help prevent us from becoming too settled. We won't own the place we live in, or store up savings or property, and our only income will be donations, which is far from stable or secure. Our home will also be intentionally set aside as a place of regular hospitality. I know that's not enough in itself, but it should help. We'll have to be continually vigilant and dependent on God to preserve us from settling.

I like the point in one of those old entries about Jesus “pitching his tent” among us (Jn 1:14, literally translated). Maybe that image will be helpful for me.