"do not put your trust in princes"

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.

We're leading worship this Sunday, which happens to be just a couple days before the election, so I thought we'd use Psalm 146. I think I'll say a few words about it in church, too, which I usually don't do. It offers a good opportunity to contrast the national community that believes in "the power of the people" (the power that the candidates want to use) and the community of God that trusts in his power, not their own. This Sunday also happens to fall right after All Saints day, so we want to be celebrating the community of God.

I suppose most Christians would say they trust God and not "princes," but in practice it looks different to me. Apparently the power of the people seems a lot closer, more frightening at times, and more useful for our purposes if we can get it working on our side. So people organize themselves into influential groups, and vote for the candidate they would rather have in power.

Maybe it's enough to simply remind people that God is trustworthy, and that God's reign will continue no matter what happens in the election. I don't imagine anyone will admit their trust in princes, especially not in church. But if you don't trust them, why put them in power?


a memento

This past week was the last trip of the season delivering vegetables to the city. Heather rode along, too, to visit friends in Evanston. And I had dinner as usual with the large household that I lived with for almost four years; some good old friends and some new friends there now too. I'm hoping I'll continue to be able to visit them while bringing the vegetables in the future.

Since it was my last visit this year, they offered me the tin can napkin holder I had decorated while I lived there. This touching cartoon is on it.


"for you are ever with me"

I've been decorating the prayer room upstairs, a place for the community here and also for our retreat guests. I gathered the leaves that are now falling and arranged them on the wall to give the impression of wind blowing through the room, scattering leaves up and around the corner and even onto the ceiling.

And today I recut some old matting to frame this prayer by Thomas Merton. I found it during our walk last summer and thought it might be a good guide for some who find themselves in our prayer room.


the struggle against nothingness

A conversation with Heather the other day reminded me of these lines from my journal eight years ago. They seem appropriate for this time now, entering the quiet winter months, not knowing what retreat work we will have (though an advent retreat is looking possible at the moment):

We dread the emptiness of time. Because with no distraction, we become conscious of ourselves as is, not in relation to other things but isolated, alone. Or rather in relation to God, from whom we are never isolated. This results in a consciousness of sin, guilt, negation. But that could all be collected under the heading of nothingness. And our fear of nothingness is fundamental—the fear of death.

I see the struggle against nothingness becoming obvious in several ways. First is the basic struggle for physical survival. But this struggle doesn't stop at "daily bread"—it continues into the quest for security and material wealth and power. The clutching of physical reality to convince ourselves that we are something and will continue to exist as something. Second, the struggle for fame and political power. We attempt to become something real in the minds of other people—the more, the better. With this is all identities based on role, profession, hierarchy, etc. And third, the struggle to fill time with activity. If we can just keep moving, building, theorizing, then we're convinced that we're something. We try to carve out a place for ourselves in the material world, in people's minds, and in time. If we're taking up 'space' then we must be something.

We struggle against nothingness feverishly because nothingness is death. To be hungry, poor, ignored, forgotten, lonely, bored is to be threatened at the core of our being. Such experiences question our very existence. It's not just the physical discomfort; it's the threat of death. So we try to establish ourselves in things, in people, and in time—yet these all disappear just as we do. It's a futile struggle, really, but I suppose it does keep us occupied and distracts us from facing our fear directly. And that's generally enough. Because we cannot face our fear directly; we simply cannot face death.

By ourselves, that is. We cannot, by our own power, face death and live. We can, however, be resurrected through faith, by the power of God's love. Faith is the death of self in which we face our own nothingness, only to be raised by God's free and loving affirmation of our somethingness. This is a somethingness not carved out of crumbling stone or fading time, but an absolute value granted by God. Only God creates, and this is God's re-creation of us. Our second birth.


"in the shadow of your wings"

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of men take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of thy house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light. (Ps 36.7-9)

The spiritual disciplines were discussed after church Sunday. I'm not a big believer in the power of spiritual disciplines; I've written about them before. But I have been interested in meditation in the past, and I'm still drawn to contemplative spirituality, the prayer of quiet listening and directing our attention and love towards God. The lines above are favorites in contemplative writing.

I've been reminded of my contemplative side recently, mostly because of the stresses and uncertainties we're facing right now. Going into the winter with no solid retreat plans (though I've been trying hard—so much depends on the response of other people, very busy people). Our money from Heather's grandparents running out soon, and our expected income unclear for the months ahead. And the retreat work probably has to get going (which will take a while) before we can expect outside financial support. Plus the challenges of community life around here now. It has made me want to find a safe place to hide.

I really like the image used in the psalm: "The children of men take refuge in the shadow of your wings." The phrase "in the shadow of your wings" is used a number of times in the Psalms; I quoted another instance a couple days ago. A favorite image for David, I guess. I like how it describes a place of safety that is not a physical location but a refuge "in God." A safe place that is always available to us, wherever we are, a place to hide "till the storms of destruction pass by."

This describes a place of spiritual quiet, a movement of the soul, stepping back from the distractions and demands and threats that bombard our senses, seeking a place of inner quiet to hear what is really happening and what God offers in this moment. A place "in the shadow of your wings." Where we find what we need, and also find some light to offer to others.


from psalm 57

Be merciful to me, O God,
be merciful to me,

for in you
my soul
takes refuge;

in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.



I think Heather finally convinced the cat to make our back yard her home. Claire (the cat) used to live in the valley, but her owners are moving to the city and can't take her along. So we've been trying to lure her up to our place. But even with our feeding her only up here, Heather had to bring the cat up at least ten times. She's a skittish cat and kept wandering back down to her old home, where she felt secure, even though there was no food there.

With patience, though, and a lot of coaxing and stroking, I think we convinced her that we'll take good care of her up here. She even caught two mice the other day, which probably makes this place more attractive as well. I think it will be a much better life for her here, with more attention and care and more territory to explore (without trucks and tractors roaring through). I was beginning to think we'd have to give up, and was frustrated that she seemed to prefer to starve rather than move to a new territory. But she's spent the last two nights here now.

It made me think, too, that we're usually a lot like that cat. We're being offered a life that is much better for us but we cling to our comfortable habits and places that make us feel secure just because they are known. We are so slow to trust. Especially when we are so used to just scraping by, and the offer seems too good to be true.

But God is patient and persistent with his offer.



round about us

Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
which cannot be moved, but abides for ever.
As the mountains are round about Jerusalem,
so the Lord is round about his people,
from this time forth and for evermore.

That was part of my prayer this morning, from Psalm 125. Good words when you're feeling a bit shaky. The prospects for a retreat in December are not looking good right now, and we're uncertain again about how to proceed. It's easy to get people interested but much harder to get them involved in a real way, especially ministry workers who are very busy already. So we're left entering the slow winter season with not much on the retreat work horizon.

But I think I'm realizing that I've relied too much on the success of the retreats; my hopes and identity have been too much connected to that work. The opportunities that have opened up here have been a very helpful and hopeful sign for us of God's leading. But it's God's care and leading that we need to trust in, not the success of some particular work, even if it's a good work that God has provided for us. Writing this now, it seems rather obvious, but it's felt like a revelation to me. It's so easy to slowly, imperceptibly shift our trust from (the invisible) God to some visible group or work that seems concrete and reliable and able to sustain us.


"...and all nations have been ashamed of them"

Some friends are visiting from Evanston to help weed the strawberry fields today. In the field, women's struggle for voting rights came up, and I was reminded of G.K. Chesterton's commentary on that subject (in What's Wrong With the World). He argued that government, and therefore voting, was an ugly business. I'm not sure it's as good an argument against women's voting as an argument against anyone voting:

Seemingly from the dawn of man all nations have had governments; and all nations have been ashamed of them. Nothing is more openly fallacious than to fancy that in ruder or simpler ages ruling, judging and punishing appeared perfectly innocent and dignified. These things were always regarded as the penalties of the Fall; as part of the humiliation of mankind, as bad in themselves.

...This is the first essential element in government, coercion; a necessary but not a noble element. I may remark in passing that when people say that government rests on force they give an admirable instance of the foggy and muddled cynicism of modernity. Government does not rest on force. Government is force...

All government then is coercive; we happen to have created a government [democracy] which is not only coercive; but collective.

...In self-governing countries [the] coercion of criminals is a collective coercion. The abnormal person is theoretically thumped by a million fists and kicked by a million feet. If a man is flogged we all flogged him; if a man is hanged, we all hanged him. That is the only possible meaning of democracy, which can give any meaning to the first two syllables and also to the last two. In this sense each citizen has the high responsibility of a rioter. Every statute is a declaration of war, to be backed by arms. Every tribunal is a revolutionary tribunal. In a republic all punishment is as sacred and solemn as lynching.

Our next discussion with the teen group is going to be on voting and the political process. Should be interesting.


another friend?

A couple months ago I sent a description of our first retreat to a mailing list for street churches across the country. Soon after, a guy from Connecticut wrote me. He said he had volunteered at a soup kitchen in Chicago years ago, a Franciscan place, and they might be interested in our retreats. It seemed like a long shot and not exactly the kind of place we had in mind, so I forgot about it. But then last week something made me remember that suggestion and I tried contacting them.

A reply came right away. The Franciscan priest who directs the soup kitchen, the Marquard Center, said he was "quite interested" and would be "honored" to come for a visit sometime. Folks there call him Father Manny. (There's an article about him available here.)

So we're hoping to get to meet him in person soon, maybe if we can get another "come and see" retreat organized for December. For church and ministry staff people who might refer folks to us in the future. We'd like to do an advent retreat, focusing on Mary's magnificat again, which seems perfect for that season.


one man's trash

Last week we spotted two box springs in front of someone's house with a "FREE" sign on them. We were waiting on a box spring that someone had promised us (a volunteer here is still using it) and another one we had was ancient, so we're glad to replace it.

And when I was in Evanston delivering vegetables last Wednesday, Brandon shared some of the many gallons of (excellent quality) juice he had saved from the dumpster. He also told of being confronted by the police at another dumpster that he and some friends were exploring. The cop asked them what they were doing. But one of the guys (a visitor from South Africa) thought he had asked how they were doing, so he answered, "Good... good."


friends are community too

We're having a discussion night this weekend with the teens here. During the last discussion there was interest in the topic of "community" (something we're also discussing in Sunday school), so I thought we'd follow up on that. But I'd like to talk about the different forms of community, like friends, or family, not just the "intentional community" form that is usually discussed. I think the teens might be more interested in these forms, and they are also more able to affect these communities, make them stronger.

I was reminded of something I wrote in my journal two years ago ("organic community"):

"The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear..." (Mk 4.26-28)

The problem of idolizing our institutions arises with the power and pride of gathered people. So the temptation is greatest when we come together in groups. But we are meant to come together, we need to. So how do we come together without institutionalizing our communities, how do we cooperate with one another without idolizing our organizations?

I think there are clues in the imagery used to describe community in the bible. Images like a growing plant, a living body. Images of marriage and family. These are natural, God-given, God-created relationships and organisms. Not man-made institutional relationships or humanly designed organizations. The difference is quite stark. Yet what we call "community" (clubs, religious organizations, political groupings) are almost always of the institutional sort. Even among Christian intentional communities, the designation "intentional" speaks of how much these are human creations. Yet most people's more satisfying experience of community is among naturally occurring friendships and family relationships. Natural community. Organic community. The kind that sprouts and grows "we know not how."

This is also how I envision the one, true community we all long for, the body of Christ. A living being, given by God, spreading like leaven and growing like a plant, not designed or governed or ordered by us, with diverse members known by the head and coordinated by the head, the head being Christ.

Can we recognize and let ourselves be drawn into the life of this organic community, instead of continually constructing (and idolizing) our own organizations?