"the sheep follow him, for they know his voice"

I want to use this favorite Taizé song (Greek for "Lord, have mercy") in worship Sunday, with these lines from Psalm 81:

In distress you called, and I delivered you;
I answered you in the secret place of thunder...

Hear, O my people, while I admonish you!
O Israel, if you would but listen to me!

I am the Lord your God,
who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.

But my people did not listen to my voice;
Israel would have none of me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
to follow their own counsels.

O that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!
I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,
and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.

I want to focus on listening to God's voice, as both a source of guidance and our basis for unity (as opposed to the usual organizational structures and decision-making). I'll also use Jesus' image of the sheep recognizing and following the shepherd's voice:
The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice...

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd. (Jn 10.3-4,14-16)


peaches for free

There's a white peach tree in the yard near us that's been so loaded with peaches we thought its branches might break. I wondered if the growing season here is long enough to ripen them, but now they're getting sweet enough to eat and people are starting to gather them. Heather added some to the grape juice she made. If there's still enough ripe ones out there I think I'll cobble some for the teen gathering tonight.

It reminds me of a funny song I heard a couple days ago: "Movin' to the country, gonna eat a lotta peaches... Millions of peaches, peaches for me, millions of peaches, peaches for free..." (Listen here)


impersonal hospitality?

Thoughts about hospitality have been hounding me lately. I've strongly encouraged hospitality in the past, and there is definite biblical support for the practice. But I've struggled with the situations that arise in intentional communities concerning hospitality, situations we now find ourselves in the middle of.

Hospitality in the usual sense has to do with people that either are friends that want to come and visit you, or people in need of help, the poor or strangers that have no place to stay. In both of these cases I see the spiritual value of hospitality and the emotional motivation behind it. But in intentional communities there tends to be people that request to visit, not because they want to visit any of us personally, and not because they are in need of a place to stay, but because they want to "experience community" or are on a tour seeing different forms of such communal organizations. Because of the regularity of such requests a hospitality coordinator is usually assigned, who then tries to find housing and meal hosting for guests among different households in the community (unless there is some form of guest house or communal meals). So you end up with the rather strange situation of having guests that you did not invite and who are not coming to see you particularly. I'm finding it hard to muster much enthusiasm for this kind of hospitality.

I think part of the problem is the institutionalization of hospitality. Because the community has been made into a communal organization, both the approach of guests and the response of the hosts becomes less personal. Guests come not to see any particular persons but to see the organization. And (at least here) the individual hosts do not personally invite the guests that they want to welcome, but instead fill a more generalized hospitality function. Of course there are possibilities for personal connections in the actual hosting, but I think the institutional way it is arranged make these connections much less likely. As I've said before, institutions are not persons and so cannot love. And the more we depend on and conform to them the more we become like them.

So it's very important, I think, to preserve the personal nature of hospitality. We have prepared a place here for hospitality, so I'm sure we'll be doing a lot of it, but it seems important to resist being drawn into (or pressured into) the more institutional version of hospitality that appears in intentional communities.

This is just another example of the difference between the body of Christ and the organizational "bodies" that we create. In Christ's body there is no external form or structure for people to try to interact with impersonally, no hierarchy or standardization that separates us from one another as persons. The Spirit that connects us and gives the body its nature works only from within individuals. Through the love that only individual persons can give.



the dance

Something unusual happened at the barn dance the other night, though I guess it's not unusual for me. I just didn't expect it there. Somehow the situation seems symbolic or worth remembering.

The dance was going well, and even though it's not my favorite activity I was enjoying myself and was glad to be there with Heather. The the caller for the dance announced that someone else wanted to lead a dance. One of the more senior dancers there, I think. But after a few minutes it became clear that he was trying to teach a pretty complicated dance (where couples wove over and under the other couples from square to square across the whole room) and that he wasn't a very good teacher. Most people were confused and had to be shown what to do. Other dancers who had done it before began trying to tell the new dancers what to do (since the leader was not explaining it well). I joked, "When the music starts, it's going to be chaos."

It wasn't exactly chaos. But there were many mistakes, and our group repeatedly didn't know what to do next. I kept looking to the more experienced dancers and they just shrugged, not knowing either. The caller made a few comments about us not paying attention, which didn't help. And the more mistakes people made, the more it messed up others and everyone was getting frustrated.

I tried to hang in there though I could tell Heather was getting irritated by the caller. And people kept just shrugging and trying to muddle through. Then the caller gave another direction and we didn't know what to do and were looking for help, and then another dancer hits me in the back.

I guess he was just impatient and wanting me to move, maybe frustrated with the whole thing. It was a pretty rude thing to do in any case. And that was the last straw for me. I just walked off the dance floor.

Heather followed, not too disappointed to be out of that dance. But then the caller ran after me, urging us to come back. "I'm through!" was all I said. I guess by the tone of my voice he could tell I was angry and really wasn't coming back. Then I could hear him frantically trying to find someone to take our place (in the middle of the dance!). I didn't think this through before I walked off, but that must have thrown a big monkey wrench in the works because with a complex, interconnected dance like that one every couple needs to be in their place for it to work right. I can see why he ran after us.

Then there was a break, and after that we went back and danced the rest of the dances (with the original caller, who was quite good). We enjoyed ourselves, and so did a number of other people from the farm here. We sang songs in the van on the way home.

But I thought about that experience, about how I've done it in many other situations in my life. With the Navy, for example. Most recently with the church decision-making thing. I'm not sure if it's always the best response, but it does make quite an impression sometimes. And I do think it's better than everyone shrugging and continuing to muddle along because it would be too disruptive to just stop.

I know it's important not to leave completely. But refusal to participate in certain things does make a sharp statement, without attempting to force others to do what I want. Our participation is a choice, and an expression of who we are, so we should be careful and intentional with it.


country life

We're getting a lot of the unique experiences of country living lately. Tonight there's a barn dance that a number of us here are all going to. Heather has been to a number of them near here, but this is the first one she's convinced me to attend. The only one we've danced together at was the one we had at our wedding reception (and I kinda had to be there for that one).

Heather has also been putting away fruit for the winter. I helped her freeze peaches (and whipped up a fresh peach cobbler). And she made grape juice from the concord grapes that are ripe just now. Canning pears is the next project, if we don't run out of canning jars first.

This morning I helped with that quintessential country activity, moving and stacking hay bales. The folks that brought the hay also bought a horse from a family here, and took it away this morning. The horse didn't seem to happy about that, stamping and whinnying and banging the door all the way down the road.


the politicians stand together

Saw this hilarious Saturday Night Live sketch yesterday:

I've been reminded that my current response to church decision-making is about the same as my response to the secular political process. Years ago I decided there were better ways to work for the good of all, ways that don't involve the use of political power or other forms of coercion. Jesus' ways of personal example and speaking the truth and suffering force rather than inflicting it on others.


church management?

I guess I feel pretty much the same way about the church, the body of Christ. The Spirit directed it pretty well in the early years before people decided they needed to get organized and make the church an institution, and then when the Reformation hit and there was no longer one (human) leader or unified organizational structure for the church, the Spirit managed to keep the body functioning and united.

Right? I mean, we still believe there is just one body of Christ, don't we? One body, working together as one? Yet there's not a single leader or hierarchy or organization that unites it all. Someone else is still holding it all together and directing its work towards the same end. Right?

Yet we can't seem to recognize this unity or direction unless we set up a leader or devise a system of organization that we can see. I've heard people here concerned about becoming "leaderless" or "systemless"—but how can we be? Isn't Jesus always our head, our leader? Doesn't the Holy Spirit always provide the connection and the "system" by which we are organized and directed in the work of God?

Based on the history of the church (and its continual attempts to organize and manage itself, despite endless disappointments) I suppose I shouldn't expect the majority in any group to trust the Spirit to manage us without the usual organizational workings that we see in every other human group. But I don't think that changes the reality of how the Spirit works for the body of Christ. We think we are organized into congregations and denominations, fractured and struggling between (and within) these factions, but the Spirit sees the one body, spread through all of these and working as one. As we are able, I think we should trust this and work with it as consciously as possible.

Our awareness of (and faith in) the work of the Spirit can then relieve us of the burdens and contentions and temptations of organizational power struggles and experience the freedom and joy of living in God's kingdom here and now. Even if others do not agree, do not see it, and continue with their struggles to manage the church. We can, right now, experience the Spirit uniting and guiding us, giving us the miraculous common life of the body as a gift.


"none of us are the parents"

After some conversations with friends and lots of thought and prayer, I decided to write a letter to the other folks in the church here. When Heather and I became official members back in March I had hesitations, but decided I was satisfied with the membership commitments. I still am, mostly. But the one about church decision-making has caused problems for me since then, bringing back all my objections to institutional membership. Finally I've decided I have to ask to be let off that one (though I should say that I don't think decision-making is worse here than in other churches; it's probably better).

My biggest disappointment is that I may have overlooked this before because church membership seemed necessary for us to be able to do the retreat work here. I might have overlooked the problem because I didn't want to see it, or was afraid of the consequences.

Here's the letter I think I'll give to people today or tomorrow:

“Truly, I say to you,
whoever does not receive
the kingdom of God like a child
shall not enter it.” (Lk 18.17)

I want to apologize for the complete discouragement I expressed at the recent church meeting. That was not helpful to anyone. Since then I've had some time to think and pray about it, and I want to try to explain what's behind my strong feelings, and make a request.

For a number of years I've been troubled by how churches appear to operate so much like other human organizations, when the church, the body of Christ, is supposed to be so unique. Jesus seemed to offer so much to his followers when he gave the Holy Spirit. He promised we could always be connected to him like branches to the vine, and that he would unite us all as one and guide us all by the one Spirit. This seems very different from any human organization, since it offers what no amount of human effort or ingenuity could ever produce.

In my experience, churches seem most like other human organizations when they are gathered for church councils or members meetings. This is when I have seen most clearly the dependence on authority structures and the struggles to influence and make use of the power of the group. (Decision-making by vote is perhaps the clearest exercise of this power.) Fears of group power often appear then also. And these times of group decision-making seem to be when the temptation is greatest to follow and trust the will of the people, rather than the will of God.

When Jesus invited us into the kingdom of God, I believe he was offering us an experience of common life incredibly better than any human organization can accomplish. God himself would be our father and master, leading us not by any hierarchy but directly, through his Spirit within each of us, and not by group pressure but by our free acceptance of the Spirit's prompting. We could be parts of Jesus' own body, with him as head. This means we could experience a unity beyond our ability to achieve, and a power working through us much greater than “the power of the people,” the power of our organized groups. I believe this also means that we are not responsible to manage this common life that Jesus offered. We do not set the policy for this group or determine its membership or make the decisions that guide its course. We are not in charge of it. The weight of oversight and decision-making does not rest on us. In this family of God none of us are the parents, we are all the children. All that is asked of us is to obey our Father, trust in his care and oversight, and enjoy the miraculous common life that he gives us as a gift.

This is what I see in Jesus' description of the kingdom of God, and what I see him asking of us. So it seems to me that what we generally call church decision-making is not something that Jesus requires of his followers, not a necessary part of being a Christian or loving one another. I believe we can experience true unity and accomplish the work of God together without authority structures and “the power of the people,” and without all the temptations that come with that power.

I don't expect that everyone here will agree with all of this. But I do wish to change my own behavior based on these beliefs, so I am asking to be excused from the church membership commitment regarding church decision-making. I'm sorry for making that commitment without fully understanding what it entails. I think we could offer a better witness and discover a fuller experience of the kingdom of God without it.

If anyone has questions or objections, I am open to discussion. I imagine some people may think this affects my membership status in the church here. I don't think so; I still feel one with you all and plan to continue working together as the body of Christ in this place. But I understand the concerns some may have and I will accept your decision on this matter.


"like St. Augustine of Hippo"

Yesterday I found this footage of Homer Simpson's baptism...

(if the video player doesn't work, try here.)


"the kingdom is not the child's responsibility"

The attempts in our church to select people for leadership (or develop a new leadership structure) have left me frustrated and disillusioned. I'm feeling that I shouldn't have gotten involved in church decision-making at all, and wondering if it even has anything to do with the real church, the body of Christ.

These thoughts reminded me of this journal entry from two years ago, especially the second part of it:

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, "The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There it is!' For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you." (Lk 17.20-21)

Yet, despite Jesus' words, Christians have often put forth their organizations as examples of the kingdom of God. "Come see, here it is!" This always ends in bitter disillusionment. We can certainly say "there it is" about our churches and other institutional communities, but with those words we also confess that these are not the kingdom of God.

Yet the kingdom of God is among us. Not easily outlined like our organizations, but it is there, mixed in like leaven, the relationships between its members not outlined in any authority structure or membership requirement, crossing all denominational borders, undefined—yet strong as the most passionate love.

Like the unseen, unorganized web of our friendships. The kingdom of God is an organic community like that, untamed like nature, sprouting life through every crack in the sidewalk.

Jesus called them to him, saying, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." (Lk 18.16-17)

A child does not receive the kingdom sitting in a conference room, making policy decisions. A child does not plan the ministry strategy of the kingdom. (The kingdom is not the child's responsibility.) A child receives the kingdom as a gift, enjoying the community given by the Father, never trying to take charge of it and manage it as we manage our institutions. "For we have one Father" and we are all his children.


"be patient"

Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. You also be patient. (Ja 5.7-8)

We got our first good rain in a while the day before yesterday. I remember walking with the umbrella past the grape arbor and smelling the fruit's dark ripeness, so sweet. Then under the trees down the trail into the ravine and how the falling rain sounded louder under the canopy of leaves, how the green was so intense and the wetness reflected the light. This is the first year we have stayed here all through the seasons, watching the plants and trees sprout and bud then grow to their thick fullness. Now the cooler temperatures are reminding us that the growing will be over soon.

I think I'm also becoming more aware of the patience needed to nurture growth in people. How often the same things need to be said and modeled, again and again, to give it a chance to gradually sink in. It seems we let ourselves be changed so slowly. And when a number of people are involved, the change within the group will probably be even slower, as it requires the growth of every individual, each with their own resistances and illusions and fears.

Fruit comes with patience. "La paciencia todo lo alcanza," Teresa of Avila said. Patience attains all.

But, as I was saying to someone the other day, patience with others is a lot easier when our experience of God (or the kingdom of God) is not limited by their slowness. Our knowing and feeling and living the reality of God's kingdom now is limited only by our willingness to follow Jesus. And he urged us (and empowers us) to draw as close and deep into God as he was when he lived on the earth. We should not blame others for the distance of our lives from what we hope we could be living. I think it is actually our insistence on pushing ahead and drawing radically close to Jesus' life, and finding peace there, that helps us be more patient with others.


A family is moving from the farm and has offered one of their cats for adoption. Heather is considering it. On a more positive note... they also offered us two beds (with mattresses), a nightstand, and several sets of sheets. That's all we needed to complete our third guest room.