"no one is good but God alone"

As Jesus was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone..." (Mk 10.17-18)
I thought about this strange saying of Jesus after writing that last entry. It seems to me that Jesus is saying that God alone is the source of goodness, that all good comes only from God. Even those good intentions and acts that we have experienced from other people, or have offered to others—if Jesus would not attribute goodness to himself, how could anyone else? Perhaps it's like the analogy I read somewhere: If a servant obediently carries out some charitable action ordered by his master, that servant does not consider himself the benefactor. The master is the source of the good deed. The servant just did what he was told, with the resources he was given.

It's not false modesty to take this attitude. I really think we ourselves are not the source of good, or even love. There is too much confusion and mixed motives and fears to even begin to claim for ourselves purity of heart. But God is pure and God is love. And God will move and work through us and bring good and love where we thought there could be none.

It is no lack of self-esteem to admit our emptiness. Neither need it be a cause for despair. What it should be is a cause to look to God with an even more intense faith and dependence. The more we realize we lack, the more desperately we cling to the one Source.


the evil character

One of the movies up for a lot of Oscars this year is No Country for Old Men. I just read the book; it's by Cormac McCarthy. He's a pretty good author, though I probably wouldn't recommend this book because it's so violent. And depressing. One of the main characters is apparently without conscience, or soulless, with a rigid sort of personal ethics to him but without any mercy or compassion.

The possibility or existence of a purely evil person seems to be fascinating for people. I've seen it in a number of books or articles. I don't believe in it myself. But this story was interesting in that it didn't seem to be trying to distance the bad character from the other, more normal, moral characters in the story. Their faults were brought out by the encounter with the evil person (and sometimes they were even judged by him). The main good guy, a sheriff, ends up confessing a wrong deed in his past that has plagued him for years. And finally he quits his job, feeling that he has been beaten because he is afraid of the evil character, not only afraid of dying at his hand but afraid that a direct encounter with him might destroy the sheriff's own soul. Whether through anger, or by being shown the weakness of his own commitment to truth and goodness, perhaps. He feels he has lost confidence in his ideals and doesn't have what it takes to be sheriff any more.

For some reason this story made an impression on me. Its brutal honesty, perhaps. I mean it's honesty about how afraid and impure and dishonest with ourselves we all are. I don't think the story tells the whole truth; God's intervention seems to be missing, or denied. But it makes me think that it's important to admit how false and empty we are. Often we don't see or admit that, until we are faced with some threat or catastrophe and our response to it shocks us because it shows us what we are.

I think I often get very disappointed or depressed or angry because people don't turn out to be as good as they appear, or because I don't live up to the ideals I profess. But perhaps a big part of my problem is that I don't admit the truth about people (or about myself) at the beginning. "Sinner" is not just a religious category. If true goodness ever comes through us, then it's a miracle, an intervention of God that we should be desperately thankful for.

Maybe people are fascinated with the evil character because it is something they are too afraid to look at in themselves.


"We the people"
Are we the people?

-from Metallica's "Some Kind of Monster"


O say can you see...

There's a lot of talk of "change" in the election rhetoric this year. Perhaps the most comes from the Obama campaign, which portrays him as someone we can look to for a new direction, a source of hope. "Change we can believe in." His political following is described as a "movement." And he does seem to be the most idealistic of the candidates.

But I don't think we'll see real change in politics, even if Obama is elected. Like the other candidates, he has chosen the path of power and wealth (even the campaigning costs in the tens of millions) to achieve his goals. Even if he is a much better leader than others, his leadership and accomplishments will point to the necessity and efficacy of political power—the power of organized people—and the importance of money to get things done. And of course he wouldn't even be applying for the position of president if he wasn't ready to assume the role of commander-in-chief of the country's military power. This is not change. This is still the politics of "We, the People":

And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

As I wrote last fall, the only true alternative, the only hope for significant and real change in our politics, our way of interacting with one another, is to shift our dependence from human power to dependence on God. Faith in God instead of faith in ourselves. There's a "change we can believe in."


a more personal connection

We visited the other Mennonite church in the area Sunday and got to spend some time talking with Cal Zehr, the pastor there. I'm interested in connecting with other churches and Christians here, to see if there might be chances to work together, and I appreciate feeling the body of Christ outside the smaller circle here on the farm. We might be able to visit the local Methodist pastor later this week.

Pastors might also be able to help put us in touch with others who might benefit from retreats here. Cal suggested a couple pastors in the Chicago area that might be helpful in referring people to us. We're starting to explore the idea of working with pastors in urban and economically disadvantaged areas, instead of trying to go through bigger social service organizations. I think I'd like that much better, if it can be arranged.

Part of what prodded us in that direction is that I haven't been able to get much response from the social service organizations I've tried. And the leader of retreats for the homeless in Chicago hasn't been very helpful in that effort; I had assumed he would be, from his encouraging words in the past. It seems he doesn't want to imply any connection between his organization and our retreats here. That's been very disappointing. But I shouldn't be surprised, as the growth and increasing establishment of all organizations seem to lead to an emphasis on self-preservation and a more "businesslike," impersonal way of interacting with people. Even the best groups get stripped of their spirit and vitality in that way.

I pray in our way of interacting with people here and with others in the city we can demonstrate a personal love that is strikingly different.


the nap

Here's the picture that inspired our bedroom colors, Van Gogh's "La sieste."
Heather has a print of it and likes the bright energy of the yellows. It is a
refreshing and invigorating place now (despite the theme of the picture), so
invigorating in fact, that it's really more an experience than a room.


getting out there

One of the concepts that seemed important when I was out on the road was "getting way out there." In order to experience faith in real need, and also demonstrate that for others, I had to get out far away from the security of home. Usually a week's walk got me far enough out. Before then it seemed like a friend could easily come and rescue me. After that I began to feel seriously vulnerable and in need of God's constant protection and care.

I remembered that this morning, because I think I'm starting to feel that way now. We've begun to make actual physical changes to this place, and we've committed our time and limited money we have available to starting this retreat house, and others have committed their time and resources to help us. Choices have been made that can't be unmade without significant loss. Now if it doesn't work out, it will definitely be seen as a failure, our failure, with serious consequences for us. And there are many big parts that I don't see how they're going to work out, and it scares me when I think of them. We're definitely getting out there now. And every step, every day, we get further out.

I have to say, though, that I've had good experience "way out there" with God.


"inviting ivory"! perfect!

We've been working on fixing up the apartment, spackling and sanding walls, and we're going to try to paint the kitchen cupboards too, so those needed a lot of sanding and some wood putty where the edges were damaged. It took a while to settle on colors, since we had to try to match the furniture and carpet we were given. We wanted some bold colors, too, to liven up the place. Heather chose yellow for our bedroom, "Sundance" and "Sunflower," to help us get through the gray winters. And "Red Cent," a rusty earth tone, should look pretty good in the living room. I read somewhere that shades of red are good to stimulate conversation, because it's a warm, energetic color, I guess. "Inviting ivory" is for the kitchen.

It's been a bit hard to envision the good result that will (hopefully) come from the mess we're making. Actual improvements are small and few so far. We've had to focus on one little step at a time, and trust that it will add up to something. But the major rooms should at least get their color this week; that will help a lot.



only persons can love

There has been some discussion about creating a committee for the retreat work here. To provide "oversight and accountability"—which is not something I'm against, though it starts to sound like some kind of board of directors. That image also came to mind when someone suggested that a committee could help clarify our mission. And I'm pretty sure we don't want to establish a board of directors.

Heather and I thought and talked about that during the walk, about not wanting to start down the path of institutionalization. I think setting up a board, with positions and powers and mission statements, is definitely a cornerstone for building an institution. Establishing and defining an organization, rather than letting the persons involved be primary. Persons have unique callings, not easily fit into job descriptions, and their relationships with others cannot be defined by authority structures. To follow their calling and develop their relationships best, they especially need an atmosphere of freedom. Jesus recognized and honored the freedom of persons very highly.

I remember writing in my journal long ago that persons have souls; institutions don't. So only persons can love.

We're going to suggest that a few friends of ours here serve as advisors, giving us their perspectives and also being more closely involved in the retreat work so they can give their informed opinions to the church. And we always said we'll accept the oversight and be accountable to the church. I hope that can help the focus to be more on persons and relationships, our relationships with each other and with God.


"peace! be still!"

I'm leading a Taizé prayer service here tomorrow evening; this is one of the songs we'll be singing. Probably will do it in English, though, at least until people know it well. "Lord God I Trust you."

I think I'll focus on finding peace in the turbulence of our fears and uncertainties. And use this story for the reading:

When evening had come, he said to them, "Let us go across to the other side." And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.

And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, "Teacher, do you not care if we perish?"

And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, "Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?" (Mk 4.35-40)



"I do not want to succumb"

A couple days ago, Tatiana commented, "I do not want to succumb to believing that to be faithful means that I'll mostly just be happy."

I think that most Christians do associate a happy demeanor with being a good Christian. This probably is derived from Paul's exhortations to "rejoice always," and perhaps also the desire to be attractive and uplifting to others (and cheerfulness is seen as attractive and uplifting). But I don't see Jesus acting cheerful all the time.

As G.K. Chesterton pointed out in my "meditation for the party-goer," Jesus often showed anger and frustration and grief, yet there are very few recorded instances of his rejoicing or overt happiness. He of all people had the deepest source of joy, the most intimate and constant connection with God. But he apparently didn't express that joy often with people by being cheerful, or even (as is popular with many religious figures) blissfully serene.

It seems that in this respect most Christians are actually the opposite of Jesus; they lack (as I wrote yesterday) the continual connection with God that is the true source of joy and yet they make a great effort to be always rejoicing and cheerful. Should it surprise us that this is seen as false, or hypocritical?


the sign

Sunday in church we talked about the story of Simeon and Anna. We've been doing a survey of the Old Testament and now are shifting to the New. There was some discussion of Simeon as a prophetic type, "looking for a sign" from God, and other people of that type some of us had met. I mentioned that Simeon had seen his sign in Jesus: "Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word; for my eyes have seen thy salvation..." He even described Jesus as a "sign":

Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against... that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed."(Lk 2.34-35)
And so, I asked, wasn't Jesus' disciples' experience (and also ours) fundamentally different from the prophets, since they weren't looking for periodic signs from God but were living in the presence of the sign, Emmanuel, "God with us"?

There wasn't much response to that question. Perhaps it wasn't understood. I do think Jesus offered us an experience of God that is better than the prophets (see Mt 11.7-11, for example). Our usual experience, though, seems to one of "looking for a sign." Hoping to see some evidence of God's presence in our world, periodic reminders and boosts for our faith, like when the prophets received another word from God. I recognize I have been this way myself at times. We assume it's the most we can hope for.

Yet Jesus promised that he would be with us always. The sign of God, the presence of God, with us always. He even said he wanted to share everything of God, "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you." (Jn 15.15) If this is not our experience, it is not because God is not there or he is withholding himself from us. More likely, we are withholding ourselves from God, more comfortable to see an occasional glimpse than live the kind of life Jesus lived.


"the gigantic secret"

I thought a bit more on the "meditation for the party-goer," specifically the part about Jesus seeming to hide his joy. I imagine that he wasn't hiding it exactly, at least not in the sense of trying to intentionally hold it back. But I can see his joy being subdued or muted among other people. Because when Jesus encountered others, he also encountered their pain and confusion and distance from God, and his compassion for them—his "suffering with" them—would temper his joy, I imagine. How could he be completely full of the joy of God in the presence of his messed up, hurting friends?

I thought of that when I read this passage from A Prayer for Owen Meany (Owen has a screechy, "wrecked" voice, so everything he says is printed in capitals):


"Yes, but let's not say 'dumb-shit disciples' in class, Owen," Mr. Merrill said...

Even when they were happy and enthusiastic, the Jesus' followers were usually (at least partly) confused and misguided, as we are too. So I can see Jesus not being able to be completely joyful, except when alone with his Father. He couldn't ignore the always somewhat sad condition of those around him.

Are we able to let our joy be tempered by compassion in the same way?