not just a quiet time

Yesterday's thoughts were a bit vague, but I still think there's something important there. Talking about it with Heather last night stirred some more ideas, and maybe at least one concrete response. I want to be able to take time to listen to God. Not just a daily "quiet time," which tends to be about reflecting on my own life and praying about personal issues and relationships, but also time that would be considered part of the work day. Time to be inspired with new ideas and be creative. Time that shows that listening to God, pausing to receive the gift he is giving, is more important than working harder and longer.

Heather liked the idea (it sounds a lot like what writers and artists need to do); and it reminded her of this cartoon. That's not exactly what I had in mind. But I do think time is needed to come up with good content for retreats, and also to have something new to inspire and enliven the community here. And to be able to appreciate this place and life, not just seeing nature as products to sell, or weeds to be pulled, or herbivores to keep at bay. I'm hoping that might help others see things differently, too.

Most of all, I want my life to look different because of our choices to trust God more radically. There should be a freedom there, and it should be obvious that survival is not the main priority. Listening to God should clearly be more important than work. I'm going to start giving it a prominent place in the "working hours" of the day.


signs of what's ahead

We raked a heavy cover of leaves off our back yard a few days ago, to let the sun get at the grass. It's beginning to green. The first signs of spring are appearing.

Which also means the farm work is beginning, and also talk about the busy months ahead. There's a little anxiety because one of the farm managers from last year is no longer here. A number of young people are coming to help for the summer, but how they will fit in (and if the farm can provide for them all) is also a concern.

I'm feeling the anxiety, too, and trying to brace myself for the months ahead. We already told people here that we plan to work half-time on the farm (and bakery) and half-time on retreat preparations. But I feel the pressures created by the needs of the farm (the big tractor just died and even used tractors are very expensive) and bakery ("So, when are you taking over?" I was asked this morning), and also the numerous other committees and activities looking for helpers here. I don't think people intend to apply pressure; it's just that they feel pressured themselves and end up passing it along.

It's good that we have the retreat work this summer. But I don't want the months ahead to just be a continual choice between farm and retreat work, which one gets more of my time and mental energy. I remembered something I wrote a year ago when we first arrived here:

I don't find much in Jesus' life and teaching that honors hard work. Jesus honors faith. He emphasizes and demonstrates complete dependence on God's will and God's power. And this clearly directs attention, not to us, but to God. Where our attention should always be directed.

This is what I need to focus on here, as I have been all along. I don't need to try to impress people by my hard work or try to build the retreat ministry quickly through long and intense efforts. God has prepared me already for what he wants me to bring here. And God has offered this place and vision to us as a gift, not as a product of our own minds and hands, but as an act of overwhelming generosity.
I think the real choice is between a work-focused struggle for our own survival and a faith-focused acceptance of the life given us by God, a life we cannot produce for ourselves, a life for which we can never claim credit. A life not lived for its own sake, but for the sake of the Giver.

I'm not sure yet how that choice will play out practically. But I know it involves more than the question of which work (farm or retreat) is more important. We've tried to shape the retreat work to emphasize dependence on God above all, but that it not enough. If it is going to have any true value, it has to come out of a life that is focused on listening to God, the true giver of life, not a life focused on listening to managers, investors, and tax collectors.

For the sake of others here, too. What is needed is definitely not more hands laboring, but new inspiration, a new spirit, new life.


got change?

Heather's brother has been visiting, so I haven't had much time to sit at the computer. Here's something from the Onion:

Black Guy Asks Nation For Change

CHICAGO—According to witnesses, a loud black man approached a crowd of some 4,000 strangers in downtown Chicago Tuesday and made repeated demands for change.

"The time for change is now," said the black guy, yelling at everyone within earshot for 20 straight minutes, practically begging America for change. "The need for change is stronger and more urgent than ever before. And only you—the people standing here today, and indeed all the people of this great nation—only you can deliver this change."

The black guy is oddly comfortable demanding change from people he's never even met.

It is estimated that, to date, the black man has asked every single person in the United States for change.

"I've already seen this guy four times today," Chicago-area ad salesman Blake Gordon said. "Every time, it's the same exact spiel. 'I need change.' 'I want change.' Why's he so eager for all this change? What's he going to do with it, anyway?"

After his initial requests for change, the black man rambled nonstop on a variety of unrelated topics, calling for affordable health care, demanding that the government immediately begin withdrawing troops from Iraq, and proposing a $75 billion economic stimulus plan to create new jobs.

"What a wacko," Schaumburg, IL resident Patrick Morledge said. "And, of course, after telling us all about how he had the ability to magically fix everything, he went right back to asking for change. Typical."


"what have You done?"

Continuing the dramatic reading Heather wrote to use this morning; John now speaks:

I can't, I can't, I can't believe it. No. I still can't. God! What has God done!

I knew. There was no question. I knew him. We broke bread together every day, how could I not know him? I watched him break the bread on the hillside, how his eyes were alight in the doing of it, how the bread never ended, his hands giving and giving. His hands. I saw his hands weary with touching cripple after cripple, I saw them go away dancing. But it was more than that. More. I saw him on the mountain, standing between Moses and Elijah, shining with an everlasting light. I knew.

He was the one.

[To God, low and angry] So what have You done?

You were testing him. I knew, I saw, I know what You do! You test Your people beyond endurance, you rule them with a rod of iron, you put them through the green heart of the fire—and then you snatch them out and they're purest gold. You send them to prison, you drive them into the wilderness, you throw them in cisterns where they sink in mud up to their necks. You made Abraham put a knife to his son's throat before you called out to him to stop. I was willing. I know it's your way, for me, for him, for all of us, I know it's the only way—he was willing and I knew he was. I sat on the ground in the garden and watched him sweating and crying, his face to the earth, a few paces away, and I saw that he was willing. He could have stood up and walked away. Anytime, he could have. But he was willing. He loves You... loved You. And where is he now?

I was with him. I heard him scream. I stood there under his twisted body shaking, waiting every moment for the change. For the veil to be torn away, for him to be revealed in the glory of his Father—oh, if they saw, if he had ever showed all that was in him. And I waited, and waited, and listened to him try to breathe. And he pulled himself up and I saw what it cost him, the pain, the breath, and he gasped to me to care for his mother. To care for his mother. When he was gone.

And the change never came.

I never thought. In my wildest and most terrible dreams, I never thought of this. That You could let your servant pass into the fire, and never snatch him out. That I would hear him scream why have you abandoned me and look up into the darkening sky and hear the silence. Only silence. I never thought You were a God like that. I knew You weren't. I knew. He knew. He trusted You.

Was he wrong then? [angrily] Answer me. Was he wrong?


[then Mary, calling in a loud voice] Peter, John, let me in! You won't believe what I've seen!


"He unmanned me."

Continuing Heather's dramatic reading for Easter morning, with Peter speaking now:

She'll remember. She'll remember, won't she? She promised. Come home a different way, split up, come home five different ways, visit anyone they can think of on the way; she promised. Not to lead them to us.

They won't arrest the women, not them. Women are no threat. It's us they want, it's us they're watching for. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter; he said it. He knew. That's what they want to know: if there are any shepherds left among us. If there are twelve of them maybe, or three. If they need to strike again.

They don't. The others are looking to me now.

And I wasn't even there.

In the garden—then I was there. When they came. I was there ready to draw the sword for him, against the soldiers of the high priest himself—those cowards with their swords and clubs and six times our number in the dead of night, with all of Rome on their side... was that worth nothing? I was willing to lay down my life, to save him.

They grabbed him by the arms and forced his hands behind him, like a common criminal, like a thief. I swung for the closest one, I went for the neck and he ducked and my sword caught his ear—and he—he—the Master told me to stop. He told me to stop!

And they took him.

Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. And who dies by the cross?

No, I wasn't there. I didn't watch. I didn't see him die. Do you think I needed to? I've seen men crucified. They hang there gasping for breath for hours. Before long there's blood and shit mixed together, running down the beam. Do you think I needed to see that? To hear my Master scream?

They'll tell you tales—they always do, they love them—tales of men who stood torture and never cried out, never twitched a muscle, never made a sound. Every word of those tales is a lie. Everyone wants to believe that there is someone they can't break. There isn't. Not even him.

I don't want to be broken.

I am a coward and I am a liar. What can I say? He unmanned me. That sword was the only weapon I had. I don't know his way—I never understood—turn the other cheek and love your torturers, I never understood it, I never could, but I followed him! He had the words of—of life... and I followed him... and I couldn't fight for him, he wouldn't let me fight for him, did he want me to throw down my sword and die with him, was that what he wanted? To let them break me too? How could he—how could I—no. No. Oh God... Oh God I hate myself.

He'll never forgive me.

Because he's gone.



"He's dead."

We're leading worship here on Easter. With the message that we can't just trust God to make things turn out well in the end; we have to listen and trust and follow his lead the whole way. At the beginning, in the dark and confusing middle, all the way until God shows us what the end will be.

Heather had a great idea for a dramatic reading and just finished it, focusing on what the disciples were going through right before Easter. I think I'll share it here, in three parts. The first is Mary Magdalene:

My eye is pressed to the crack in the shutters, looking for light. The doors and the windows are locked and barred. What are they so afraid of?

The sky is growing gray in the east, I think it is, I know it is; soon it will be light enough to go. Shabbat is over now, that terrible Shabbat. Sitting in the dark, not moving, not speaking; the shuffle of someone's foot in the darkness, then silence again. Nothing we could bear to say. I sat with the other women around the spices and the smell of the myrrh made me dizzy, and the shadows would shift and float, and I would come to myself again and again. Almost before I had time to think it's not real—it's a nightmare, I was jolted by the knowledge that it's not. It's true. It happened. I was there.

He's dead.

He's dead and the world is not what I thought it was. He's dead, and it wasn't true. Oh, oh I know nightmares if anybody does, they walked beside me in the living day, in the time of my demons... I saw water turn to blood under my hands, I believed my touch would kill children; I ran from them. There were voices, they were with me when I lay down and when I got up—whispering God hates you... Until he came.

He told me they were lies. He said to trust him. He asked me if I wanted them gone. They were flailing and screaming but I shouted over their voices, I shouted yes with all my strength—and he whipped them. Oh, if those men could have seen him then, those soldiers, those priests, if they could have seen the power in his hand, the light. His eyes were like the sun—terrible as an army with banners... And they really thought they could kill—Him?

And they did. They did.

There is no doubt. I watched him die. I watched his body broken on the tree. His breaths grew shorter; farther apart; desperate, fast, inhuman gasps, with silence in between. One last one, and then—no more. There is no doubt.

He's dead. And the world is empty now. And everything he said—

I'm like them now—I never thought I'd be like them. Like my uncle Matthew and the others, when Judas the Galilean was killed and his army scattered, and they came home exhausted and with bitter eyes. They thought Judas was the Messiah. And they were wrong. You believe in a man, you put all your faith in him, the very life in your body is his—who's to say he didn't shine in their eyes, as my Lord shone when he drove my demons away, who's to say he didn't pull them out of the depths and back into life? You believe in a man, you believe. And then they kill him. And you have to face the truth.

You were wrong.


No! I was wrong then? Then what was he? Tell me that, what was he? Was he a liar? Him? He was truth itself and no one knows it as I do. Was he a fool? Proud, hopeful, overreaching—weak? Is that what demons of hell screamed and ran from? No. He was the one, he was everything, he was the very son of God and they killed him. And now the world is dark and empty but I'll tell you one thing—I don't care if he's dead, I'm his—they can kill me too if they want but I'm his.

And I will always be.

That's the sun. I can go now. I can go to him.



burn the butter

Today Heather is volunteering at the free health clinic in Princeton, and I'm painting and working on the preaching for Friday. And cooking. My homemade French baguettes and lentil and sausage soup. The bread is rising right now and the soup is simmering; it'll be a wonderful aroma for Heather to come home to.

That reminds me, I meant to write about our fine cuisine last week, too. Asparagus with poached eggs and burnt butter, a recipe we discovered while staying with my parent's last fall. Now we get to use fresh farm eggs from a friend who lives just the other side of town. Very good. Especially when served with the crusty French bread.


"today you will be with me"

More painting this week, and hopefully getting our Illinois drivers' licenses, preparing to lead Easter worship, and we also happen to be both preaching at another church on Good Friday. It's an ecumenical service in Princeton, with seven different people speaking on the last words of Jesus. I got this part:

The people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong."

And he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

And Jesus said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Lk 23.35-43)

I think I'm going to focus on the fact that this criminal was the only one speaking up for Jesus; everyone else just standing by. Maybe because he had nothing left to lose. He is very close to Jesus right then, sharing his experience (because Jesus chose to share his experience), closer than the others.

Also, these seem to be the only words of "good news" that Jesus spoke during the crucifixion. Like his other announcements of good news throughout his ministry, these words are for the poor, afflicted one looking for God's mercy. For the others he prays, "Father, forgive them."


already members

Tomorrow Heather and I are going to "become members" of the church here. I've been a bit conflicted about it, but most all of my past complaints about church membership aren't an issue here, with the way they do membership. Over a year ago, I wrote about how I appreciated the commitments they use in their membership process. And for us it hasn't been much of a process; we've been recognized as Christians from the beginning of our time here, so this is mostly a formality. I do think it will help some people feel more comfortable, though, if we publicly agree with their commitments.

To make things as clear as possible, however (and perhaps make myself feel a little better), I'm making a few adjustments. In the commitments, instead of being asked, "Do you commit to...", we'll be asked, "Are you committed to...." To emphasize that we are not becoming members of the church, the body of Christ, tomorrow morning; we have been members of the body for some time.

We also get to say a few words, so I'm going to mention my difficulty with church membership in the past, and emphasize that Christ (not us) determines the nature of his body the church, and he (not us) is the one who decides who is in and who is not. Unlike other organizations that are abstract "bodies" based on common principles and doctrines and structures, the church is a real, living body because it is the body of the real, living Jesus (and all who are his). This is who we are committed to. I don't mind answering the questions because I believe they are simply a part of following Jesus. But we are not joining the church tomorrow, rather we are publicly confessing that we are members of the body of Christ, and we are grateful for the others here who are recognizing us as their brother and sister.


wally's epiphany


more dues

I got some encouraging replies after the last entry. That might have been partially due to my making it sound like our situation is worse than it is. My complaint was more about the pressures in society to "pay your dues" rather than about the specific situation we face right now. Maybe I should say a bit more about that.

It's true (as Stephen pointed out) that we shouldn't have to please authorities and influential people to draw out God's poor, the anawim. But our initial thoughts were that we would work with social service organizations, and perhaps churches with active programs to help the poor. It would be easier that way. That, however, does run you into authorities and the people that have positions of influence in those organizations. Trying to access larger numbers of people, we found ourselves struggling to be heard by the leaders of those big groups. Not very easy.

I imagine that people in authority don't necessarily intend to make it hard for "the little people" to be heard. I suppose they're usually busy and pressured and have to prioritize. But then part of the problem is that the priority goes to the big, the popular, the influential. "Paying your dues" comes to mean learning what sells to the people on top, and making yourself attractive to them. Making yourself like them, really. It's a way of bringing people into conformity with something that's pretty much the opposite of Jesus.

My response to this is simply to try to step back from appealing to the leaders, and look for the connections God is offering closer to the people we want to serve. At the time I thought that, I had been given two suggestions of people to contact. One was a pastor for all the pastors in our denomination in the Chicago area. The other was a couple suggested by a friend; they had a rough past but were now involved with some kind of ministry, and my friend had a feeling we might work well together. My inclination was to contact the pastor-of-pastors, of course. But I decided to call the other guy, though it was hard tracking him down, and I couldn't see it leading to much.

It turns out he's very interested, though. And he's a pastoral counselor for ten church locations, working with many people that have had addiction and abuse problems. I'm not sure yet if it'll be a good fit, but it's the most enthusiastic response we've gotten so far.


paying our dues?

At times during the past month, as we've been unable to get much response in our attempts to arrange for people to come for retreats, I've wondered if it's just a matter of having to "pay our dues." Maybe this is just the difficulties everyone faces when starting something new. We're inexperienced and unproven; isn't this kind of response what we should expect, until we show that we have what it takes?

But the more I've thought about that, the more I wonder if "paying your dues" is really the necessary and natural process that people have to go through to learn how to do their work well. It's feels different than trial-and-error learning. And it feels like it's pushing me in a direction I don't feel good about.

I'm beginning to suspect that the image of paying dues (to some established organization that we want to gain membership in) is quite appropriate to the reality. That it is a product of society, not nature. And that it is not a simple fact of life but a process by which people are changed, by which they are pressured to conform to a certain societal standard, a certain way of "doing business." To be accepted, we have to present ourselves a certain way, to the right influential people. And impress them. Which means performing well according to their value system, the system that rewards the powerful and successful (which is just about the opposite of Jesus' way). The more I think about it, the worse it looks.

More later...


dumb mistakes

This past weekend we watched Babel, the third in an excellent series of films by Alejandro González Iñárritu. This one told four interconnected stories in which poor judgment led to severe consequences, mostly because language and cultural barriers made it hard for people to understand each other and increased suspicion between them. In one scene, a little boy wonders why they are being chased by border police when they haven't done anything wrong. His Mexican nanny assures him, "We aren't bad, we just did a dumb thing." It raises the larger question of whether most of our tragedies and the ways we hurt each other arise from human mistakes that look worse (and then escalate) because we cannot understand the other people involved.

Thinking about how the film ends, though, I realized that most of the characters ended up better off. Their experiences were wrenching, and they seemed helpless amid the confusion, but they somehow gained something far more valuable than what they lost. Perhaps they could not have gained those things any other way.

I had been thinking about dumb mistakes before watching that. I've always been careful about not making mistakes; afraid of failure, perhaps. But I've become even more careful as resources are lessened, and there seems less room for error. I guess I've thought that God would always provide enough, and a way through a difficult problem—but I wasn't so sure what would happen if I didn't use the "enough" wisely or if I made a mistake and missed the way through. Would I be out of luck then? I couldn't blame God, who gave me a chance; it would be my fault that I wasted what was given. That possibility has caused some anxiety, I think, as I've wondered how many mistakes we're making trying to arrange the retreat ministry. What if we're squandering the chance God has given us?

But the way Providence seemed to work in the film reminded me that I do believe in that. Not only is God aware of our ignorance and fallibility, he knows exactly what mistakes we are going to make. And he can work with that, to bring good. Seeing that happen, receiving the good we do not deserve because of our own poor choices, is the experience of grace. And I also think it's an experience of the freedom and personal nature of God. Karma (or any other sort of impersonal cosmic "force") doesn't take "oops" into consideration. It's good to know God does.


speaking of forgiveness...