no guarantee, but

Now it looks like the church is going to get into an extended discussion about leadership, what kind, what we want an elder to be and do, etc. This wasn't because of anything I said; I didn't say a word at the last meeting. It seems other people want to take this temporary opening in leadership to discuss and redefine what it means for us. Interesting. I think I like it.

In the discussion so far, a couple reasons have been offered for choosing someone for an office of leadership. If there is no clear leader, certain people will likely move into leadership or begin playing politics among the group to gain power. And these might not be the people best people to be leading (for example, they might take charge by being pushiest, or neediest, or loudest, or wanting control the most). Then there's "the buck stops here." If someone is in an office of leadership, they feel responsible to handle problems that arise in the community rather than just hope someone else will do something. If no one has been selected to do this, then everyone tends to avoid the most difficult problems and they don't get solved.

Those are pretty good reasons, obviously coming out of extended experience with people and groups. And I can't be sure that if we change the church leadership that those behaviors won't appear here. But I do know that Jesus taught us to act differently from those behaviors, taught us not to seek power and control, taught us to respond to needs and problems as we see them, even if it's not "our job." The part about reconciliation in Matthew 18 is about that, and the parable of the good Samaritan.

So we don't have a guarantee that people in the church won't act like most people do when there is no chosen, empowered leader set over them. But if we are following Jesus, we have guidance and motivation to act differently. And if we do act like Jesus in these ways, we can also act like Jesus taught us and be brothers and sisters to each other and let God be our one Father.

I recognize that we often don't act like Jesus, don't do as he taught us. But when we design our church structures around the assumption of failure, then we are publicly admitting that Christians can't be expected to be better. We are saying we don't believe we can be the body of Christ. We are institutionalizing our un-Christlikeness. Is that really what we want to do?


usually the conversation is more elevated

From the weeders in the strawberry field this morning...

"I saw some scat over there."
"I think so. Did you know that 'scatology' is the study of scat?"
"Ha ha."
"Yeah, I majored in that in college."
"And escatology is the study of the end times... when the scat hits the fan, so to speak."



neither here nor there

Yesterday I came across these words of Jesus, ones I've referred to often, and they seemed to speak to my disappointment on the issue of authority in the church:

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus answered them, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is among you." (Lk 17.20-21)

There's a certain frustration in recognizing that we probably can't find (or gather) a church organization that closely follows Jesus' example with his disciples. Not enough people will put up with it, feel secure in it, or live up to it. It's a shame that we keep calling our churches the body of Christ, when they're not much like he was. But I don't think we should abandon these gatherings.

What's important, I think, is to see what they really are: simply gathering places where Christians may be found, which is good, even though they're not all they claim to be. And it's even more important to see the church as it really is, and not get confused or distracted by the churches. The one church, Christ's body, with no head but Christ, whose members are spread throughout denominations and cultures and ages.

So even though we can't get our church leaders (and the people who vote them into office) to act like Jesus regarding human authority and power, that's really of little concern. Jesus told us we weren't going to be able to point to the kingdom of God "here" or "there" like we can with our church organizations. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It just means that it exists among us in a way that is not clearly identified like our nations and corporations and religious institutions are identified. There are people who follow Jesus' example and have no use for human power. Who won't become king even when others want to make them king, who won't be called "father" or "master" because they know we are all brothers and sisters. Those who so completely trust in God's parenting of our world that they aren't tempted to try to take charge themselves. And these show the true nature of the body of Christ.

We need to be these people, and rejoice when we encounter them, and not worry so much about the institutions that call themselves "church." Those are not the Body; those are what we build and we do not build the Body. But we are invited to live as part of it, wherever we are.


eat food

Early this week I took the farm newsletters to the post office, all 2565 of them. We wanted to get it out before the strawberries started appearing. Heather wrote one of the articles (entitled "Eat Food") and I did the layout. I think it came out pretty good.

It's available as a pdf file here.


usually, though...

I'm not overly optimistic about the chances of having a different type of leadership here. Most likely, I'll just end up abstaining from the elder selection process. But maybe there will be a chance to offer an alternative, or inspire a change towards the example Jesus set for us. Sometimes people surprise us.

Usually, though...


empowered by God

Some practical implications from the thoughts on Jesus' authority in the last entry...

It seems to me that voting someone into office directly reflects the understanding that the power and authority of a leader derives from the strength of the people. In our church meeting, someone even said that: "The elders have authority because we have chosen them." This is the basis of every human authority and power (it's a little different if the leader is appointed by someone in a higher office, but even then the whole authority structure depends on the people accepting it, participating in it, submitting to it—if they don't, there's no power there). Jesus was not chosen, not "empowered," in this way. Neither was Paul. And the earliest church didn't have an official authority structure by which leaders were chosen and their leadership enforced. Paul had to keep writing and preaching and offering his strong example to keep the Christians in the various churches following his teaching; and it's clear from some of his letters that not everyone saw his word as authoritative. But, like Jesus, he didn't have an office to appeal to, he just had to keep speaking the truth to them. With both of them, it was always clear that God (not some group of people) had chosen and empowered them.

Because of the reality of God empowering those he chooses to lead his people, there doesn't seem to be the need for granting them any human authority or backing up their decisions with human force. As I said before, Jesus led without these. And he taught his disciples not to rule over each other, that they had one Father and they were all brothers and sisters. When someone has been given special abilities or wisdom from God, we naturally follow them as "authorities" because we see they have what is good, what is from God. There is no need of human force to make us obey. If we choose not to obey, then our efforts flounder or fail and we suffer the consequences of our foolishness. God backs up the authority of those who he has chosen.

So, in the church at least, it seems to me that we should set aside human authority, offices of power, and the enforcement of leadership decisions through force or threats of force (social ostracism being also a form of force, by cutting people off from the support they need to survive). Set aside the human power that causes resentments and dissension, and tempts leaders to abuses. From situation to situation, let each one lead according to their gifts and abilities from God. Seek out those gifts in ourselves in others, because we need them as a church.

One of the main areas that leaders are often called into, and sometimes feel the need to exercise the authority to resolve, is the settling of disputes between arguing members. This is not easy. But Jesus gave specific practical advice about how to handle such situations (in Mt 18), and no "elder" or other human authority appears in his instructions. Our church here is already committed to following those instructions in resolving conflicts. I'd like to see us do this better.

Of course this kind of decentralized leadership requires a lot more of each member of the church. But aren't we called to live this way, to be strikingly different from the world, to stand out like lights? I believe we would also experience greater unity and sense of being all brothers and sisters, each of us empowered by the Father of us all.

I probably should add a disclaimer, though. I'm not at all sure that the authority and leadership style of Jesus can be applied well when we start involving property. With many groups (including churches and Christian communal organizations), decisions about the use of property are the most problematic and divisive, and human authority is often appealed to. I'm not sure Jesus gives us good advice about this problem. Because he did not face it. He counseled his followers to give away all and not gather up treasures and not resist those who would beg or steal from them. But if we don't follow Jesus' counsel in regarding the gathering and holding of property, I think we probably won't be able to follow Jesus' counsel very well in our attempts to manage our property and resolve conflicts over it. All of Jesus' teaching holds together. We cannot just follow part of it.


authority not from people

Continuing the thoughts from yesterday, I find two important aspects of Jesus' authority that differ from the positions of authority we create in human organizations. It differs primarily in that Jesus' authority is from God and not from groups of people.

First, Jesus is not granted authority by the vote of people in an organization or by officials of that group. He operated outside the social authority structures of his time. So people are surprised when he demonstrates authority in teaching and in acts of power (like healing) and in forgiveness of sins, because he had not been granted that authority by his society. Hence the elders' question, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Yet Jesus certainly spoke and acted with authority, and people recognized that. They just didn't know where it came from.

Second, Jesus' authority was not enforced by human power, by threats of punishment, for example. There was no question of being thrown in jail if people didn't obey his word. No one was in danger of being kicked out of the organization or ostracized socially if they rejected his teaching. Anyone was free at any time to obey his commands and follow his example or turn away and dismiss him. No social pressure threatened those who rejected his authority. (Actually, the social pressure soon turned harshly against those who accepted his authority.) When people followed or obeyed Jesus, it was because they believed he spoke the truth. They recognized that he was simply telling them what was truly real, and that to reject him was to reject reality, to reject God. God backed up Jesus' words—no human enforcement was required.

One way I've seen authority like this exist in everyday life, is when we follow the example or advice of someone because we recognize that person is especially gifted or skilled. We follow not because that person holds some office, but because the person is good, because they know what they are talking about. No election is needed and no enforcement of their commands is necessary. We obey because we see that they know the best way to act in their area of expertise.

But of course this means we follow different leadership according to the task at hand. Such leadership shifts from one situation to the next, depending on who is gifted to respond to the challenge we face at the moment. But isn't that how Jesus taught us to be, all of us brothers and sisters under one Teacher, one Father?

I shared most of this with someone who has been an elder here for many years, and also talked about the practical possibilities (and challenges) of shifting to a form of leadership closer to the one Jesus described and practiced. I'll try to write more about that later...


by what authority?

We've started a process in our church to select a new elder; there's only one now and it is preferred to have two or three. There is no pastor in the church (I like that). That means the elders are considered the leaders, and have more authority than perhaps most churches. Most decisions are made by consensus in the church meetings, but the elders set the agenda for meetings and make some sensitive and crisis decisions. Because of the history here, and strong Christian beliefs, most people are not very comfortable granting or assuming authority. But they seem to feel it is necessary. So the selection of an elder is a rather tense and unwelcome task.

As we began, we looked at a number of biblical passages that refer to elders in the early church, mostly coming from Paul's letters. Thinking of that later, I realized that none of the passages came from the Gospels or contained any guidance from Jesus himself. And when I started looking through the stories of Jesus' life, I found many references to elders, but the elders were always religious authorities that were trying to stand in Jesus' way.

The passage that I think is most helpful in our current situation (in our church, and perhaps in our country right now, too) begins when Jesus is confronted by the elders on the question of authority:

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"

Jesus answered them, "I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?"

And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know."

And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." (Mt 21.23-27)
Jesus' question reveals their understanding of authority, that the authority they wield (and the authority they think Jesus lacks) derives from the support of the people. They cannot answer his question because they are afraid of losing face on one hand, or angering the people on the other. This is the thinking of politicians. Which makes sense because, as officials in social organizations, both elected politicians and religious officials exercise the same power, the power granted by the people that selected them (or that support the legitimacy of their office). Their power, their authority, derives from the power of the group, "We, the People." The chief priests and elders do not want to lose the support of the group, so they do not answer Jesus' question.

So Jesus doesn't answer their question about authority. Because the authority for his words and actions does not come from the people, it is not political authority, it is not the authority that they understand. So he has no answer for them.

More tomorrow...



"thank offerings to you"

The first retreat went amazingly well. The emphasis was on how God chooses the faithful poor and weak and lowly (like Mary—and Jesus) to be his messengers in the world, honoring them and providing all they need for that work:

He casts the mighty from their thrones
and raises the lowly.
He fills the starving with good things,
sends the rich away empty.
It was a pretty intense few days for us, and we were very tired by the end, but also thrilled and thankful and feeling satisfied and affirmed in this work. The schedule went smoothly. Deep sharing and good discussions in the sessions, and lots more in between and during meals. Everyone loved the food and said they felt like honored guests. And they seemed excited about sending other people out for retreats here.

During the closing prayer time, I talked about how dark it had looked for us a year and a half ago. I mentioned the poem I had quoted in my journal: "The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss." And the dark, windy morning when we first proposed the retreat idea here. This morning my prayers used the pilgrim imagery again, with the closing words from Psalm 56:
I will render thank offerings to you.
For you have delivered my soul from death,
yea, my feet from falling,
that I may walk before God
in the light of life.

We were also given several good suggestions for improvements in the retreats. One was that we say more at the beginning to help the guests identify with us and know the experience out of which we speak. So I thought of using a story from one of the walks, probably on the first night when people show up. Maybe this story might be good (from my journal seven years ago):
There was good cause for my fast on Sunday [I had run out of food the night before, and slept outside the large church I came to]. For one, that church was a mess. I got my first indication before I even got through the door. About 30 minutes before Sunday School, some people entered, so I started to go in. But a man (the head usher?) stepped out just as I got to the door and blocked my way. I asked about Sunday School. "Later" was all he said. When he didn't move, I added, "I would like to come, if I could." He just stared at me and held his ground. So I went a few steps away, sat down, and watched a family walk right in. The rest of the morning wasn't much better. It just made me think of Jesus saying "Why do you say 'Lord, Lord' and do not do what I tell you?"

[I didn't eat all that day.] I could have been fasting with Christ, sharing his suffering in sorrow and hope for churches like the one I just left. I guess I did do that to some extent, because I didn't despair and beg for help or lash out at anyone in anger. But neither did I appreciate how close I was to Christ at that moment. In his humiliation. In his pain. In his isolation. So the fasting was for me, too, to bring me back to that appreciation that Christ is in me (most, perhaps) in suffering when it is for his sake, because that's his suffering.

That night, I avoided the next big Baptist church to go to a very little Baptist church. Only six people showed up. But as I was leaving, the pastor asked where I was staying, then offered to let me sleep in the church. A few minutes later, he changed his mind. "That would be unchristian of me to leave you in there," he said. And so he wrote a check for a motel room and gave me $30. "God bless you," he added. I smiled, "He just did." A former drug addict gave me a ride to the next town, where the motel was, and told me about his recent rehab and conversion. The next morning I had eggs and sausage, hash browns, biscuits and gravy...

I remember some more details to that story, like sitting in a park that afternoon, stomach growling, while I watched a group picnicking nearby with more food than they could possibly eat. I like the detail about the recovering addict driving me to the motel; I had forgotten that part. And several parts of the story seem to illustrate how the small and weak become God's messengers.


I will thank you for ever,
because you have done it.
I will proclaim your name, for it is good,
in the presence of the godly.
(Ps 52.9)


a place of welcome and prayer

As the sun set yesterday, thirteen people gathered in our living room for Taizé prayer. With all those voices the simple music sounded wonderful. I read Mary's magnificat, the passage we're using for the retreat that starts tonight, and we prayed for those who will be our guests this weekend.

This morning I remembered what I had written several months ago:

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.

Last night seemed like an answer to that prayer.


howdy partner

That's the cartoon I used for an anniversary card for Heather. We spent last night in the cabin to celebrate our first year of marriage. Good memories of our honeymoon in that little cabin in the woods, and hanging on a tree branch behind it, we found the circle of wire left from Heather's wedding crown.


"being changed into your likeness"

This morning I read the familiar words of Paul that were part of the inspiration for this meditation:

Then at the wedding they read the part from Matthew. I liked these passages because they encourage us to keep our attention on Jesus ("You"), rather than on ourselves, our own weaknesses or inabilities or faults. That's a crucial part of becoming more like him. Maybe I should print this up to put in the retreat guest rooms.


"passing through the midst of them"

Yesterday I was feeling pushed. By the preparations needed for the upcoming retreat, by the demands of farm work, by the community activities (there's a wedding here tomorrow). I opted out of the activities last night, needing the space.

Then this morning I recalled Jesus' response when he was being pushed by the crowds. I was just reading the story of his appearance in the synagogue when he read Isaiah 61 (we'll use that during the retreat). The story ends with these lines:

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them he went away. (Lk 4.28-30)
Then there was the time when the crowd had other ideas for Jesus:
When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!" Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (Jn 6.14-15)

In both cases, Jesus would not be pushed by their expectations or demands. He withdrew. Went away to clear his head, pray, listen to his Father.