in the desert of our choosing

I came across these lines in Psalm 81 this morning:

"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!"

And I thought of the experience of Israel when they were too afraid to enter the promised land when God offered it to them. Those people never got to enter it after that. They wandered in the desert for the rest of their lives. But, still, God did not abandon them.

God was with Israel throughout their wanderings, and protected and provided and guided them. God continued to work with the people and correct them and struggle with them. They were still with God, walking with him. It's just that they never got to experience all the good that God had offered to them; their lives were much different than if they had entered Caanan.

I imagine it is much the same with us, more often than we'd like to admit. But there is comfort in knowing that we can still live with God and continue to grow in our relationship with him, even after we reject much of the perfect Christlike life he offers us.

Obviously, though, it's much better to accept.



papa panov

For worship this morning Heather read to the kids (and the parents) a Christmas story based on Tolstoy's "Where Love Is, God Is." The adaptation is by Reuben Saillens, called "Papa Panov's Special Day":

It was Christmas Eve and although it was still afternoon, lights had begun to appear in the shops and houses of the little Russian village, for the short winter day was nearly over. Excited children scurried indoors and now only muffled sounds of chatter and laughter escaped from closed shutters.

Old Papa Panov, the village shoemaker, stepped outside his shop to take one last look around. The sounds of happiness, the bright lights and the faint but delicious smells of Christmas cooking reminded him of past Christmas times when his wife had still been alive and his own children little. Now they had gone.

His usually cheerful face, with the little laughter wrinkles behind the round steel spectacles, looked sad now. But he went back indoors with a firm step, put up the shutters and set a pot of coffee to heat on the charcoal stove. Then, with a sigh, he settled in his big armchair.

Papa Panov did not often read, but tonight he pulled down the big old family Bible and, slowly tracing the lines with one forefinger, he read again the Christmas story. He read how Mary and Joseph, tired by their journey to Bethlehem, found no room for them at the inn, so that Mary's little baby was born in the cowshed.

"Oh, dear, oh, dear!" exclaimed Papa Panov, "if only they had come here! I would have given them my bed and I could have covered the baby with my patchwork quilt to keep him warm."

He read on about the wise men who had come to see the baby Jesus, bringing him splendid gifts.

Papa Panov's face fell. "I have no gift that I could give him," he thought sadly.

Then his face brightened. He put down the Bible, got up and stretched his long arms to the shelf high up in his little room. He took down a small, dusty box and opened it. Inside was a perfect pair of tiny leather shoes.

Papa Panov smiled with satisfaction. Yes, they were as good as he had remembered— the best shoes he had ever made. "I should give him those," he decided, as he gently put them away and sat down again.

He was feeling tired now, and the further he read the sleeper he became. The print began to dance before his eyes so that he closed them, just for a minute. In no time at all Papa Panov was fast asleep.

And as he slept he dreamed. He dreamed that someone was in his room and he know at once, as one does in dreams, who the person was. It was Jesus.

"You have been wishing that you could see me, Papa Panov." he said kindly, "then look for me tomorrow. It will be Christmas Day and I will visit you. But look carefully, for I shall not tell you who I am."

When at last Papa Panov awoke, the bells were ringing out and a thin light was filtering through the shutters. "Bless my soul!" said Papa Panov. "It's Christmas Day!"

He stood up and stretched himself for he was rather stiff. Then his face filled with happiness as he remembered his dream. This would be a very special Christmas after all, for Jesus was coming to visit him. How would he look? Would he be a little baby, as at that first Christmas? Would he be a grown man, a carpenter—or the great King that he is, God's Son? He must watch carefully the whole day through so that he recognized him however he came.

Papa Panov put on a special pot of coffee for his Christmas breakfast, took down the shutters and looked out of the window. The street was deserted, no one was stirring yet. No one except the road sweeper. He looked as miserable and dirty as ever, and well he might! Whoever wanted to work on Christmas Day—and in the raw cold and bitter freezing mist of such a morning?

Papa Panov opened the shop door, letting in a thin stream of cold air. "Come in!" he shouted across the street cheerily. "Come in and have some hot coffee to keep out the cold!"

The sweeper looked up, scarcely able to believe his ears. He was only too glad to put down his broom and come into the warm room. His old clothes steamed gently in the heat of the stove and he clasped both red hands round the comforting warm mug as he drank.

Papa Panov watched him with satisfaction, but every now and them his eyes strayed to the window. It would never do to miss his special visitor.

"Expecting someone?" the sweeper asked at last. So Papa Panov told him about his dream.

"Well, I hope he comes," the sweeper said, "you've given me a bit of Christmas cheer I never expected to have. I'd say you deserve to have your dream come true." And he actually smiled.

When he had gone, Papa Panov put on cabbage soup for his dinner, then went to the door again, scanning the street. He saw no one. But he was mistaken. Someone was coming.

The girl walked so slowly and quietly, hugging the walls of shops and houses, that it was a while before he noticed her. She looked very tired and she was carrying something. As she drew nearer he could see that it was a baby, wrapped in a thin shawl. There was such sadness in her face and in the pinched little face of the baby, that Papa Panov's heart went out to them.

"Won't you come in," he called, stepping outside to meet them. "You both need a warm by the fire and a rest."

The young mother let him shepherd her indoors and to the comfort of the armchair. She gave a big sigh of relief.

"I'll warm some milk for the baby," Papa Panov said, "I've had children of my own—I can feed her for you." He took the milk from the stove and carefully fed the baby from a spoon, warming her tiny feet by the stove at the same time.

"She needs shoes," the cobbler said.

But the girl replied, "I can't afford shoes, I've got no husband to bring home money. I'm on my way to the next village to get work."

Sudden thought flashed through Papa Panov's mind. He remembered the little shoes he had looked at last night. But he had been keeping those for Jesus. He looked again at the cold little feet and made up his mind.


to the royal son

Heather and I are leading worship Sunday, still in the Christmas season. After opening with Cantate Dominum (based on the angels' song to the shepherds) I'd like to read Psalm 73, with this Taizé song as a refrain:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor!

May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations!
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth!
In his days may righteousness flourish,
and peace abound, till the moon be no more!

May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth!
May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust!
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!

For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

Long may he live,
may gold of Sheba be given to him!
May prayer be made for him continually,
and blessings invoked for him all the day!
May there be abundance of grain in the land;
on the tops of the mountains may it wave;
may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may men blossom forth from the cities
like the grass of the field!
May his name endure for ever,
his fame continue as long as the sun!
May men bless themselves by him,
all nations call him blessed!

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name for ever;
may his glory fill the whole earth!
Amen and Amen!


da pacem

This is a Taizé song I really like, a good Christmas meditation. The words are Latin for "Give peace, Lord"; and it starts very softly, slowly building to a climax.
(Download it here)

I was also thinking of posting a song that Heather's writing with a friend, but that will have to wait until they're done working on it...


a shepherd glances

I've been pondering a Christmas haiku for this year, and I think I'm satisfied. I found this good picture to go with it, too (slightly altered). The lines are:
A shepherd glances
at the Lord's gathered subjects,
looks down, and shivers.

I was thinking of our current difficulties here, and how weak and few (and often disappointing) the followers of Jesus are. The shepherds gathered in that barn might have looked at themselves and asked, "Are we all there is?" And I think that's the constantly reoccurring feeling for Jesus' followers ever since then.

The answer, though, is no, we aren't all there is. There's much, much more.


a revelation I want to remember

One thing that has been a revelation to me recently, a surprise in the current difficult circumstances, is the opportunity to act in real, practical ways for the good of the community, while at the same time clearly (prophetically?) rejecting the path the community is choosing. This is something important, central to the Christian life, in my opinion. But very hard to actually do.

I see Jesus as the model for us. He so vigorously denounced the ways of his people at the time, the oppression of religious and state powers, the people's slavery to money and politics, their "little faith." And he avoided these ways himself, working completely outside the normal structures of his day. Needing neither money nor a political following to accomplish his purposes. Yet he did real good for the people of his community, and by this they could see that he really cared for them.

Often in the past I've gotten so frustrated by the parts of community life that I'm opposing (because I think they are not God's ways and are harmful for the community) that I can only withdraw. Hoping that it will be some kind of sign for others. But this approach does not communicate love very well, and people are more likely to feel simply rejected. It's just so hard, though, to continue to care amidst the pain, to continue to try to find ways to contribute while at the same time feeling so strongly that the current structures and practices must be rejected as un-Christlike. How could Jesus do it? How avoid getting overwhelmed by frustration and anger? How contribute practically and lovingly without becoming a cog in the machine that's grinding all of us? Do you have to be able to do miracles?

One recent insight, discovered in a moment of deep and barren emptiness, was that it's okay if our love seems to dry up in the frustration and anger. This will pass. The truth is that love—real selfless, Godly love—does not come from me anyway. God is the source. So I can count on that love, God's love, being there when I need it later. My heart might be wrung dry at the moment, but God holds a great and fathomless love always ready to provide the energy and warmth needed to do good to my neighbor when it is needed.

Another help has been the deepening of my faith in the reality of the body of Christ. No matter what the structure of the society or church around me, no matter what the ingrained faults or weight of oppression, the body of Christ exists whole and perfect even there. So I can always act in accordance with the nature of the body (which is the nature of Jesus) and expect the strength and coordination of the body to be there, supporting me. Sometimes this support can even come from the very same people who are also most central to the community's problems. God can and does use anyone.

A specific way I've seen this work out here so far: The maintenance meeting I helped coordinate went very well. And little coordinating was actually needed, the people we have (and the help they freely offered) fit quite easily with the specific practical needs we currently have. A critical need was quickly answered, and many were relieved and grateful. And this all happened completely outside the complex and long-running community reorganizing meetings (which I'm avoiding and have spoken out against). Contrasting these two meetings seemed to me to show the difference between the complex and compromising maneuverings of human politics and the simplicity of submission to the body of Christ.

I've also been encouraged to expand this asking/giving model beyond maintenance to the other various gifts in the body. (This came out of the love I was having trouble finding in myself.) I've decided to step down from leading teaching times here, to avoid imposing my criticisms (hopefully prophetic criticisms) on others who disagree. But I'm planning to use my last Sunday teaching time, on Epiphany, to have us offer our gifts to each other, our abilities and interests that might be of service to one another. Things like counseling or reconciling skills, willingness to teach or offer hospitality, etc. It will probably just serve to inform us of what everyone is willing to offer, and also help us think about what we want to offer. And it may help meet specific communal or individual needs. But the biggest gift might be opening our eyes a little more to the reality and goodness of the body of Christ all around us. A structure we don't need to build. With a mission and purpose we don't need to invent. And a Head that is not any of us.



"much goodness awaits"

"How can you say, 'We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us'?
But, behold, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie.
The wise men shall be put to shame,
they shall be dismayed and taken;
lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord,
and what wisdom is in them?

"From prophet to priest
every one deals falsely.
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, 'Peace, peace,'
when there is no peace."
Jer 8.8-11


from psalm 149

The Lord takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the anawim with victory.
Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their couches.

Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to wreak vengeance on the nations
and chastisement on the peoples,
to bind their kings with chains
and their nobles with fetters of iron,
to execute on them the judgment written!

This is glory for all his faithful ones.


God can wait

I was thinking about writing something about waiting ('tis the season) and I came across this entry from three years ago. It's perfect for what I've been thinking recently:

My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.

But you, O LORD, are enthroned for ever;
your name endures to all generations.

Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
but you art the same, and your years have no end.
(Ps 102.11-12,25-27)

The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the LORD stands for ever,
the thoughts of his heart to all generations.
(Ps 33.10-11)

God is not threatened. His intentions and purpose are not in jeopardy. He does not fear the possibility of things spinning out of control, or falling apart, or someone taking the reins from him. He is God.

So he can wait. He can wait for us because he is not threatened by us, by our denials and rebellion, by our boasts and attempts to escape him. We cannot escape his truth. Or thwart his will. We can only thwart ourselves, and if we continue this to the end then we will simply pass away and be gone.

I need to be more consciously aware of this, and trust it more fully. I know when I lose patience with people and run away, or strike out in anger, I'm feeling threatened. I'm panicking. I'm afraid that my plans are falling apart, or I'm getting trapped, or evil is winning. I can't wait well when I don't trust well.

At those moments I very much feel my own vulnerability. My days are like an evening shadow...

I need also to feel But you, O LORD, are enthroned for ever.

I think I may be doing a little better at this now, three years later. Even in a more difficult situation. But the basic call to "wait as God waits" is still a good one that I need to be reminded of.

Maybe I'd just add that often God's waiting is an act of mercy for those involved, giving them more time to understand, and change. And then sometimes I think the waiting may already be part of God's response (we just don't see it yet), letting the wrongdoing get deeper and clearer and the consequences build and build. Until the truth is inescapable, and justice inevitable.


my so-called life

Heather has been away for almost two weeks now, visiting a friend from high school, who now lives in Canada (Saskatoooon!). I've been coping by comforting myself with episodes of "My So-Called Life." It was a really good show about 15 years ago, about life in high school, that got canceled after its first season. But at least there's nineteen great episodes, and they're all available on Yahoo.

Here's a good one I watched yesterday, about parenting and "other people's kids," and being a friend to someone struggling with addiction. (Sorry about the commercials!)


"behold my servant"

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him,
he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not fail or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth... (Is 42.1-4)

I'm supposed to lead the discussion Sunday on the first two "servant songs" in Isaiah. I didn't choose them, but they seem like a good way for me to respond to the reorganization going on the in the community here (which I've decided not to participate in). The idea is that Jesus came as a savior very different from the usual political leaders, very different from what the people expected. And I think we are called to be different in the same way.

The first servant song above provides a good contrast, I think, between political leaders ("saviors") and the more prophetic leadership that Jesus offered. He didn't need to "lift up his voice" to gain the people's support, or demonstrate his strength and authority by breaking a few bruised reeds along the way. And he didn't need to cut deals or compromise his goals in order to keep sufficient public support to get things done. His establishing of justice needs no popular support and is never in danger of failing.

Because, unlike political leaders, the servant (note that he is called God's servant, not the servant of the people) doesn't accomplish his purposes through the power of people. His purposes are accomplished by the power of God. This is more clear in the second servant song (Is 49.1-6). "My God has become my strength." Jesus led prophetically, by speaking God's truth and living the reality of the kingdom that God had established. He didn't need the political power to enforce his own words; God enforced them. So Jesus could be humanly weak, gentle, and even seem to be a complete failure (at the cross), and still "bring forth justice" surely and without compromise. Because God made it happen.

I think we're still caught up here in trying to find political solutions to save ourselves. Trying to reassure people by exerting authority, even to the extent of pushing some past their breaking point, hoping to find support for various different (and conflicting) proposals, which I'm sure will end with the necessary political compromises and no one getting all they hoped for.

The prophetic vision sees that we already have a beautiful structure, given by God, called the body of Christ. And we already have a leader, our perfect Head, Jesus. To whom we are already all committed, I believe, as much as we can be committed to anything—so why do we think some communal membership or mission statement could unite us any better?

Prophetic leadership, in our case, I think, means being able to see and reassure each other about that God-given unity and common purpose, stop struggling over politics and serve God as we are called to, humbly tending to the needs of one another.



bookkeeper and maintenance man?

Thanksgiving will mark two years since we moved to the farm for good (we were in this apartment by Christmastime). Much has changed since then. I think I might take a day retreat in the cabin this week to reflect on those changes.

One change that I've been aware of recently is that I'm getting increasingly involved with the practical aspects of the overall community life. Like organizing a maintenance meeting to handle repairs and maintenance projects for the buildings here, and probably helping with many of those repairs myself. And taking over the bookkeeping for the church, and for the farm next season. I remember my concerns shortly after moving here, about not wanting to be pressured into community work (and get distracted from retreat work), about not wanting anxieties about survival to drive my work. I was thinking mostly about financial and business pressures, which often drive our work. But now I find myself about to be a bookkeeper and maintenance man—how did that happen? It makes me a bit uneasy.

When I think of it, though, I wasn't pressured into either of those things. I just volunteered. Maybe it's that I came to see the real need in those areas, and I seemed to be the one most able to take on those things, to help meet those needs. And they seem to be a service to others, things I don't so much need for myself but that others would struggle and suffer without. So I don't feel pressured to do it except by love.

And maybe I have been able to better distinguish what are real needs (given by God as ways to love each other) and what are self-imposed "needs," driving us by our anxieties and ambitions. For example, I'm not interested in promoting the businesses or making more money, but it does seem a real need that bills and workers get paid and records be accurate. And it seems a real need that we work together so our houses stay in good shape. On the other hand, I'm staying completely out of the current efforts to set up a new form of governance in the community, something that I don't see Jesus calling us to do. Like when the Hebrews demanded a king, when they already had God's governance (only I think the body of Christ is even better than what they had).

It's probably valuable also to show in action that I really do care about the needs of the people here and am committed and intimately involved, though I reject some of their current plans and efforts. And I like being involved on the service level, rather than the manager/leader level.

Or maybe it could be a way of leading from below rather than from above.


Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not keep with you.

from Psalm 32


an other-than-honorable veteran

Sam was just here asking questions so he can tell my Navy AWOL story as a speech in his English class. It was interesting to try to boil it down to a 5-minute presentation, and make it understandable for high school students. The message, I think, is that the courage of taking a stand has to include the courage to take the consequences.

I also thought of this story this week because of Veterans' Day. I guess I'm a veteran, though I don't deserve any honor (or medical benefits) for it. Here's the story I wrote about my leaving the Navy, "A conscientious objection":

I was walking alone along the road outside a monastery in England, thinking about where I was. AWOL in a foreign country. I'd gone on a two-week leave several months ago, but instead of driving back and reporting for duty on the aircraft carrier I had boarded a plane. It felt like the only thing I could do. And I didn't think I deserved to be punished for it, so I'd fled.

These weeks of walking the Scottish moors and visiting monasteries to rest and pray had soothed some of the turmoil inside me. But still I didn't know where I was going. The initial gut-wrenching fear had eventually settled into the thrill of a new adventure, but it was now threatening to sink into dread. What would happen if I stopped running? Was my life ruined? Turned inward, I didn't notice the trees around me or the ancient stonework of the monastery. Was this all a terrible mistake?

That was when I first felt it. Deep inside, down in a dark part of myself where I never looked, it felt like something was moving. Like the stirring of a hibernating animal, something large. The slow uncoiling of a hidden predator. I couldn't see anything clearly, but it felt real enough to inspire awe at the power of the thing. It was enough to frighten me, yet the deep sensation was not fear. I remember thinking: Not yet. But it was coming. And it excited me.



technology and the collective

Nate and Angela just visited and stayed with us last night, on their way home to St. Louis. The last time we saw them was over two years ago when we stayed with them in DC, on our walk from Boston to Florida. Now they have a son, John Paul (who was in a cute little monkey suit the whole time). Good to see them again.

We talked about a lot of things, but I wanted to remember a thought from one conversation, about the negative effects of technology. I agreed that our mechanized and technologically-driven society tends to dehumanize us and detach us from the natural way of life God created us for. And much of our technological equipment even seems to push us further from each other and from God. But I've heard many people blame this on technology itself, as if it is somehow inherently evil, and I don't agree with that. I think the problem is deeper.

I've written much about the idolatry of the social collective, how we organize and institutionalize gathered human beings to form "We, the People," a power much greater than any one person, a terrible substitute for the Body of Christ. I think our technology, as it has developed, has become a clear reflection of the evils of the social collective. No advanced technology can develop apart from this organization of people, and it necessarily reflects the values of the group. Technological developments have to be funded and so are driven by money and the purposes of the group, because what serves them well is what sells. Technology doesn't drive itself, though it seems to (yes, I've read Ellul's book). And it doesn't drive people. People are driven by the power of the collective, driven to develop technology in a certain direction and driven to use it and serve it—or be cut off from the group, the source of life.



the mercy of crumbling bodies?

I've been looking at 1 Cor 12, in preparation for a discussion I'm supposed to lead Sunday. It's about the body of Christ. I really like the imagery of the Spirit giving gifts to each of us and inspiring and coordinating us to provide for each other. "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." And I think focusing on this has also helped me make some sense of the recent experiences here that have troubled me so much.

It's not too hard to see from Paul's descriptions of the body of Christ (or Jesus' descriptions of the kingdom of God) that our organizations and churches and communities are not it. And when our disillusionment with our organizations and leaders is worst, when they may even be collapsing around us, it becomes that much more apparent that this is not the one Body that is Christ in the world, that never dies. But is that as bad as it seems? It is so easy for us to substitute our little "bodies" (families, institutions, churches, communities) for the one community, the one Body, that we long for. We do it all the time (I've often thought it is our persisting idolatry). So it may be for our good that God brings down our organizations, disillusions us about the structures we build and the leaders we elect. To clearly show us the limitations and falseness of the "bodies" that we create for ourselves. I think it can help turn us away from dependence on these and stir a longing in us for the experience of the one Body of Christ. Helping us become better and truer members of it.

At least I hope that is the effect here. In any case it gives me the sense that there may be some important purpose and meaning in the events that have just seemed destructive and discouraging up to this point.


at table in the kingdom of God

Here's the readings I chose for tomorrow, All Saints Day (and a communion Sunday). I'm using the image of the gathering of the remnant to sit at table in the kingdom of God. And calling for repentance here as well.

In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time
to recover the remnant which is left of his people,
from Assyria, from Egypt,
from Pathros, from Ethiopia,
from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath,
and from the coastlands of the sea.

He will raise an ensign for the nations,
and will assemble the outcasts of Israel,
and gather the dispersed of Judah
from the four corners of the earth.

There will be a highway from Assyria
for the remnant which is left of his people,
as there was for Israel
when they came up from the land of Egypt.

Jesus went on his way through towns and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. And some one said to him, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?"

And he said to them, "Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able."

"When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us.' He will answer you, 'I do not know where you come from.'

"Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.'

"But he will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!' There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out.

"And men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."

(Is 11.11-12,16; Lk 13.22-30)


Here's highlights from the Peanuts Halloween special. I watched it tonight for old times sake.

Heather might like to see him sneaking across the French countryside. He's quite the music lover, too.


an ineffective ritual

I've been struggling emotionally for several days now. Last week we heard that another family has decided to leave here (though I imagine it will be quite a while before they can actually move). I mentioned scapegoating a month ago; that's what I felt I was seeing here. But I wasn't sure whether it would end with them actually leaving the community.

And I don't think this will rid us of the community's transgressions or reconcile us. Maybe a good theme for worship next Sunday would be repentance.

I tried to do what I could to prevent this from happening, especially now, when we're struggling to find some common ground among all of us and come together to meet the urgent practical needs here. And I've been trying to get us all together to see what we can do to meet those needs. It's been a little frustrating because several families have been away recently (taking vacations, which is understandable after the long, busy farm season). But now I'm glad that it has been delayed. Because it's important to let the heavy discouragement of another departure fade a bit, before we try to move forward as a community again. I'm hoping to stir a spirit of unity and generosity; it would do us good to see people stepping up to help each other in a hard time. But I think the current spirit here needs some time to dissipate first.



questions raised by mother teresa

From a conversation over at Jesus Manifesto (referring to a book of Mother Teresa's letters that reveal her long spiritual dryness). Jason says:
The most fascinating thing to me (one that gives me courage) is that she was willing to give whatever He would take (assuming that, in fact, He did take away His felt presence for so many years). She eventually came to understand that she was experiencing the same spiritual state as the dying and destitute in the slums and could better empathize spiritually with their experience because of it, which I think she clearly did. Mother Teresa's experience of spiritual absence was obviously problematic and even disturbing, something she obviously deeply felt, especially after years of close felt union with Him. But why didn't God answer her prayers to take it away or to bring His felt presence back? And why did she appear to have such tremendous faith (her response in the pain) while admitting to a wasteland of spiritual feelings?
I replied:
Those are interesting insights, Jason (and also a bit confusing, I agree). It certainly isn't easy to interpret. And I should say that I don't mean to critique Mother Teresa's spiritual life at all, not knowing her personally, and having no access to her real experience and situation.

I only mean to address certain interpretations that might be drawn from her situation and letters. Like the implication that God wanted her (and perhaps us?) to experience the spiritual state of the people she served (an experience of spiritual abandonment by God?) so she could better empathize with them. That seems to make sense. But do we ever see this in Jesus' ministry? What I see is Jesus demonstrating a continual intimacy with his Father that he then freely offered to those he served, inviting them (and us) into his spiritual experience. Not the other way around.

Then there's the apparent presentation of God as asking continued service from her (us?) but withholding the joys of his presence. This seems to result in a much more selfless and heroic servant, who continues to give to God without getting much of anything back. But, again, is this the way Jesus ever presented his Father? What I see from Jesus is a God that gives us everything, with overwhelming generosity, demanding no payment from us. I don't see God trying to build servants that need little from him, but servants that are completely dependent on him, with little strength or heroism of their own ("so that no one might boast in the presence of God") who's great deeds point not to human capability but to the God to does great things through feeble human beings. Jesus' poverty and weakness exemplify this for me (and Paul also presents himself this way often).

These interpretations are easy to draw from Teresa's experience, and people might want to emulate them since Teresa is so highly respected. But I really think they point in the opposite direction from what Jesus showed us. They glorify human beings rather God.

I don't blame Teresa for this, since she didn't intend to reveal her confusing struggles. But I can see why people in the church institution might value servants that continue tirelessly in dedicated service no matter what their spiritual state...


someone watching over me

I got restless in church this morning, so slipped out before it was over and went for a walk. Beautiful fall weather. And the road just south of the farm is perfect for walking, fields and woods mingled, with no houses, only a couple barns along the mile and a half stretch. The road twists and rise and falls, with deer trails crossing it often. Huge old trees shade it in places.

And a couple big red-tailed hawks live along there; I see them often, circling far overhead. Last week one of the guys we met through our retreats for Emmaus Ministries was with us for a week-long personal retreat. I took a couple long walks with him and once we saw one of the hawks, perched high up in a tree close to the road. When we got near he launched and disappeared over the woods.

Today I didn't see them, but as I got back to the farm I heard them calling to each other again and again. An eerie sound. (Go here to hear it, and find more info about red-tailed hawks.)


the least of these my brethren

I wrote this story several years ago, but just shared it over at Jesus Manifesto [Now combined with Jesus Radicals]. It's not bad, though more appropriate for a certain audience, the more dedicated, charitable types.

the least of these my brethren

They were chopping onions when the fight broke out. A coffee mug hit the floor in the dining room and shattered, and there were shouts. She heard Steve sigh "not again" as he rushed from the kitchen. Then she looked out through the serving window and saw Jack take a swing and miss. Steve was there before he had a chance to swing again.

There was a struggle, then Jack growled OK, OK. But Steve started him towards the door. "You've been drinking again, haven't you?" Jack didn't say anything, but he tried to get out of Steve's grip. "You know the rules, Jack. You can't be in here if you're drunk." "I'm not drunk." "And if you get in a fight, you're out too. You know that. C'mon, let's go." Jack resisted, but Steve was firm and calm and kept him moving towards the door. Then a brief wrestle and Jack was out. But from the sidewalk she heard "You wouldn't treat Jesus like this, you sonuva..."

The door slammed shut. "I would if he was drunk," Steve muttered angrily, and went to get the mop.

Situations like that always made her uneasy. But she wasn't sure what else to do, and someone like Steve, more experienced—and bigger—usually stepped in right away. And there was the rules, which were pretty clear cut. How could they run a place like this without them? But she still didn't feel quite right—especially when it was up to her to enforce them.

And once again she asked herself the question, How do we see Jesus in people like Jack? I know we're supposed to be able to see Jesus in everyone, especially in the "least of these," but it's not easy. Especially in the "least," the poorest, the most down and out, like Jack...

She wasn't sure what she heard first, the crash or the words. It was almost as if the front window exploded from the force of words alone. "...damn hypocrites—screw you!"

Large pieces of glass, and the garbage can he had thrown, crashed to the dining room floor. Steve stumbled back against a chair and fell. But none of the tables were near the window, and no one seemed to be hurt. Steve jumped up and looked, but apparently Jack had fled. She started into the dining room to help, but Steve told everyone to stay back, he didn't want anyone getting cut while he was in charge. She brought gloves and a bucket from the kitchen, and some coffee to refill the mugs of the men still there. They didn't look like they wanted to leave, even with stuff like this happening. Actually, they didn't even look surprised.

As she started on the potatoes, she heard one of the men ask, "Do you want to know why you couldn't see Jesus in that guy just now?" She looked up. The man wasn't a regular, she didn't recognize him; but his army field jacket was familiar, lots of the guys who showed up here wore them. He was looking at Steve when he said, "Because Jesus didn't act like that--and he still doesn't."

Steve glanced at the man. Then going back to work, he replied, "Jesus said he was even in 'the least of these'... hey, is there some plastic sheeting back there? Something to cover this window?" She took him the plastic and some duct tape.

The man asked, "Did he call them 'my brethren' just because they were 'the least,' the poorest?" The man leaned forward. "Or did those 'least' get that way, poor, powerless, outcast, oppressed, because they were his brothers and sisters, because they did what he taught and followed his example—and so ended up just like he did..."

She didn't hear Steve say anything, but when she was back in the kitchen she heard the man say, "Instead of looking for him, trying to serve Jesus, you should be him. His body—his hands, his mouth, his heart. Be Jesus to others..."

Steve came into the kitchen to wash his hands. "We need to replace that with plexiglas. Should've done that a long time ago." She asked softly, "Who is that man?" "I don't know, I don't think he's from around here." He turned off the water. "Someone with too much time on his hands..." Steve smiled and went back into the dining room.

Yeah, she thought. And what's he talking about? We feed over 100 people a day here, take in 30 off the street every night, and are constantly giving out clothes to whoever needs them. How can we "be Jesus" any more than that?

Then she heard the man ask, "How many stories do we have of Jesus feeding people, compared with all the times he was fed at other people's tables? Who did he clothe? And how many did he take in off the street—Jesus, who himself 'had no place to lay his head'?" She looked up. Huh. I never thought... wait—how did he know what I...

The man continued, his eyes on Steve, her eyes on him. "You don't have to serve blindly, like those who helped Jesus without recognizing him. You too are called to be one of 'these my brethren.' To be 'one of the least,' in his kingdom where the least are the greatest. To become 'the least of these' yourself. The poor, the powerless, the outcast—who are like that because of him. Who Jesus identifies with because their life is just like his. But then you won't be in charge anymore, you won't be the benefactor..."

"Shut up!"

It was Slim, one of the older regulars. "You shut up about Jesus. He wasn't no bum like you! An' these people here, they're doin' sumthin'. They're makin' this a better place. We need more people like them... so just shut up. Or get out." The old man stopped and it was very quiet. Then the stranger looked at him and said, "The one who has ears will hear." "What? What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Slim was on his feet.

Now Steve looked up. "All right guys, we don't need another fight today. I think it's time you took a walk, buddy." She saw the stranger get up, zip his jacket, and move quietly to the door. But before he went out, he bent and said something to Steve that she couldn't hear. Then the door closed behind him.

Steve brought the bucket of glass through the kitchen. But just as he was going out the back, she turned and asked, "What did he say to you?" He stopped, but didn't look at her.

"He said, 'Would you treat Jesus like this?'"

She watched the back door close. And slowly put down the knife. Then she quickly took off her apron and rushed through the dining room, grabbing her coat—then paused at the door. "Tell Steve I won't be here for lunch." And she was out on the sidewalk, looking up the street.

"Hey! Hey mister, wait up!" She jogged to catch up with him.


it's a boy

Erin just had her baby! A boy, arriving just as the gardening season ends (which is good for Erin). We're happy for her and Carlos.

We're also happy her discomforts of pregnancy are over. Here's a clip from a recent episode of "The Office" to celebrate that. [Warning: Not for the faint of stomach!]


hold the rat

We had our first frost last night, and there's supposed to be a real freeze tonight, so that'll mark the end of the growing season. Heather grabbed the last few eggplant and zucchini, though, so I'm making one more batch of ratatouille. A classic French peasant's stew, it's become a summer favorite of ours.

We like the recipe from The Joy of Cooking, that has you cook the eggplant and zucchini over high heat first, then set them aside so they don't get mushy while the rest of it cooks (the recipe is here). I'm planning to take it to share with Matthew and Christiana, a young couple who just moved here this spring. We hope they hang around for quite a while. Christiana has a blog about their move to the farm, called "And on this farm there was a..."


rising to the occasion

In the past year I've become more aware of the reality of the body of Christ, the community of poor, lowly people of God, a "remnant" within the institution we call the church, who live by the leading of the one Spirit more than the human organizational structures that attempt to manage "the church." That awareness came as a reassurance, that no matter what the church organization looks like or the majority decides, the body still exists and lives like Jesus lived. And we are just called to do this as well. Recognize and cooperate with what Christ is doing in his body on earth, and not worry too much about trying to sway the politics of the religious organization to make it what it ought to be. Its scandal only proves that all human institutions are reflections of their sinful human creators. The body of Christ is God's creation, defined by Jesus alone, full of the same life he lived on earth, and that's something we can't change. We can only enter in, or not.

But lately the reality of this has been an encouragement to action. Not that I have to act, to fix the church (or our little community here), but that I can act and expect something good. The body of Christ exists. It's mixed in there, and in moments of grace it might shine through in inspiring ways.

Like in times of crisis, when the human structures are trembling and falling (like here right now) and people don't know what to do. That's when I think God's lowly people rise to the occasion, holding firm and helping when others are breaking down. When people need mercy and inspiration, and Jesus offers it, through his body on earth.

Eventually, I imagine, things stabilize and order and security and power structures are reestablished and they command the majority and overshadow God's lowly people again. And they let themselves be overshadowed, though they are not any less important or real, just forgotten again amidst the rising din of prosperity and power. But they've been seen, they've shined again.

And they're still there.



trying something new

I usually stay out of community governance and management, but the current urgent needs here have prompted me to try to offer something... organizational? I don't want to try to offer a new authority structure. Or even work through the leaders that exist, who are overwhelmed with demands of all different kinds. I want to keep it simple. So I'm going to help arrange a meeting so those who know the needs to present those needs (starting with the most critical practical ones) to all the families here on the farm, and simply give them the chance to volunteer to help with specific things. Keeping it on the personal level and trusting in the generosity of people wanting to help each other here. "Ask and you will receive." "Give to those who ask of you."

I think people may accept this approach because it allows for immediate action and a clear way to move ahead and get needs met. And I'm hoping that it will stir up good feelings in the community, with many people pitching in to help. Maybe, if it goes well, we can continue to less "practical" needs. Like needs for people to help in reconciling disputes, providing counsel, prayer, teaching, hospitality, etc. I'd like to see the gifts we have rise up to meet the needs, as God provides through all the people who he has brought together here.

I'm not sure how it will go, if people will be satisfied, or if they will want to add more well-defined structures or authority positions on top of the personal volunteering that happens. I don't really mean this approach as something temporary, to get us through the current crisis (though that may be how others see it). As I wrote before, I think true leadership in the body of Christ derives from the gifts God has given, and happens when we are moved by love to use those gifts to help others in need. We don't need to layer any man-made structures over it (which always end up binding and burying the body). Just trust the Spirit who has given the gifts and who moves and coordinates us to act for the good of the body.


stepping out of the boat

I read this favorite passage this morning and think I may use it for worship this Sunday:

Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them.

And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out for fear.

But immediately he spoke to them, saying, "Take heart, it is I; have no fear."

And Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water."

Jesus said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, "Lord, save me."

Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "O man of little faith, why did you doubt?" (Mt 14.22-31)

Maybe we'll use Taizé music for worship, like this one:

The words mean:

"Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you, whoever holds onto God lacks nothing. Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you, God alone is enough."


watching this happen

"The [scapegoat] ritual consisted of driving into the wilderness a goat on which all the sins of Israel had been laid. The high priest placed his hands on the head of the goat, and this act was supposed to transfer onto the animal everything likely to poison relations between members of the community. The effectiveness of the ritual was the idea that the sins were expelled with the goat and then the community was rid of them.

"...In a distant period when the ritual was effective as ritual, the transfer of the community's transgressions onto the goat must have been facilitated by the bad reputation of this [type of] animal, by its nauseating odor and its aggressive sexual drive.

"...When human groups divide and become fragmented, during a period of malaise and conflicts, they may come to a point where they are reconciled again at the expense of a victim. Observers nowadays realize without difficulty, unless they belong to the persecuting group, that this victim is not really responsible for [all that] he or she is accused of doing. The accusing group, however, views the victim as [utterly] guilty, by virtue of a contagion similar to what we find in scapegoat rituals. The members of this group accuse their "scapegoat" with great fervor and sincerity. More often than not some incident, whether fantastic or trivial, has triggered a wave of opinion against this victim...."

René Girard, from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning


Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

W.H. Auden


"the garden"

We're offering this movie to the teens tonight. It's an Academy award nominated documentary called "The Garden." About the largest urban garden in the country, and the legal battle to keep it from being sold and destroyed. Lots of surprising twists, and inside looks at the hidden maneuvering of both politicians and community activists.

If you want to see it for yourself, don't read further...

It's obvious that the filmmaker supports the farmers, who are lower income and mostly Latino. Their gardening is very impressive. And their legal and political fight against the secret deals that sold the land are impressive also. They almost stop the sale in the courts, and then when that fails they are able to use the press and new influential friends to raise over 16 million to pay the asking price for the land.

But, as in any war, there are costs. Serious disagreements within the group of farmers cause them to turn against some of their own, in order to have a better chance of winning against the developer. And then, when against all odds they somehow managed to get the money to buy the land, the developer won't sell. He has been so angered by the battle in the courts and the press that he won't even take their money (even though he would profit over $10 million). The garden is bulldozed and nothing is built on the site.

I see it as an example of the forceful approach, of how even those who are right (and who are the "empowered" under-dogs) can destroy their own cause by making a power struggle of it. So that animosity and conflict is only increased, and no one wins.

In contrast, we see Jesus never using human power to force people, not even to make them do the right thing or prevent them from doing wrong. Power and force hardens hearts, like it hardened the heart of the developer in the movie. Vulnerability and love softens hearts and encourages a true, voluntary change of heart. Which is what Jesus wanted.


another retreat

It looks like the unusual connection last year with folks from the Marquard Center, a Franciscan soup kitchen, might bear some fruit after all. Chris called from there today and wants to bring some staff and interns for a come-and-see retreat next weekend.

That doesn't give us a lot of time, but we're very glad they're coming. We'll use Mary's magnificat as the retreat focus again. I hear some of the interns may not be Christians, so that may add a new challenge, but I'm intrigued by the chance to try it.


"as a Gentile or tax collector"

From some recent conversations about how to respond to wrongdoing in a community, and whether authoritative punishment is appropriate when others are being hurt...

We seem to agree that the truly Christlike response to wrongdoing is what Jesus taught in Mt 18, which you have tried, yet the wrongdoing continues. In that case, I think Jesus' teaching and example is that we should suffer the wrongdoing (though we can certainly let the person know how their behavior is hurting us). And forgive again and again, hoping that our willingness to suffer wrong rather than retaliate will gradually soften the heart of the person.

In Mt 18, the response Jesus taught for an unrepentant brother or sister was to treat them "as a Gentile or tax collector," which is not to punish them but simply recognize that they have put themselves outside the way of life of the community (to whatever extent they are living in sin). We should recall that Jesus welcomed Gentiles and tax collectors, ate with them, treated them with compassion.

In his own community, I think Jesus acted toward Judas in this way. Though he knew Judas was conspiring against him (perhaps also stealing from the cash box), he did not try to stop him or turn the other disciples against him. Jesus suffered because of that choice. But he did not drive Judas out of his community.

In Jesus' story of the prodigal son, the father lets the son take advantage of him (suffering loss of property before he is supposed to give it to his son). Then he welcomes him back gladly when the son finally realizes the wrong he has done to his father and family.

And then there are these well-known words from the sermon on the mount:
"You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.

"You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?"
Wouldn't these teachings directly apply to a situation where we are being hurt unfairly or unrepentantly? If anything, we are to expect persecution (unfair attacks, bad treatment) from others, not be the persecutors ourselves, which is how it often looks when punishment is applied in community. How could we end up looking anything like persecutors when we're supposed to be the ones turning the other cheek?



"a wise man who built his house upon the rock"

Something I want to share during worship here this Sunday, based on Matthew 7.24-27:

"A wise man who built his house upon the rock."

Isn't that who we want to be? And aren't we now trying to "build our house," or maybe rebuild our house here? That requires a foundation, a common ground that we all share. A solid basis for life together, for a life that will last.

Now there are many things that people try to "build their house" on, things they hope will unite them and be a reliable basis for their life together. For example:

The land. It seems that the land we live on together is a good foundation to "build our house" on. We all need the food and shelter that comes from the land, and this shared need motivates people to work together. To bring in the harvest, chop wood for the winter, re-roof a house. But we also see that the land is limited. There's only so much. This often leads to conflict and division about how the land will be used, who will get the limited resources we have. And then the land can be taken away from us, can't it? The land is not a firm enough foundation for a shared life that endures. It is sand.

In the sermon on the mount, however, Jesus offered an alternative to relying on our land and our common work. He said, "Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" And "seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well." Is Jesus' promise a more reliable foundation for us than the land?
Then there's family. It seems that family is the natural foundation to "build our house" on. We have a God-given connection with the people in our family, a connection that is physical and emotional. And a natural love that motivates parent to care for child, and then child to care for parent. But we also see that family is not enough. We need others outside our family. And a shared life based on family will not connect us with these others, and often sets up fierce conflicts between families that tear both families down. Family is not a broad enough foundation for a shared life that endures. It is sand.

But Jesus offered an alternative to the limited, natural love of family. He offered a love that extends beyond our family, to anyone who asks for help, even to our enemies. "For if you love those who love you," he said, "what reward have you? ...And if you welcome only your brethren, what more are you doing than others?" Is this love Jesus offers a better basis for a shared life than the love of our family?

Then there's a group's common way of life, a basic part of what we call "community." It seems that commitment to a common way of life is a good foundation to "build our house" on. Commitment to a certain group of people and commitment to a common way of living together, values and practices that we all share, has been the basis for most all human societies. But we also see many different ideas about what this "way of life" should be. Conflicting ideas. And the bigger and stronger our community becomes, the more often we see the weaker members being crushed. We also see that a common way of life, after a long time, can become a rut that we have a hard time getting out of. A common way of living is not a stable enough foundation for a shared life that endures. It is sand.

Jesus offered an alternative, though. He was living in the Jewish community that had a well-developed common way of life, with values and practices based on commands from God himself. But in his sermon, Jesus offered something more. He said over and over, "You have heard that it was said to the men of old... But I say to you...." The alternative Jesus offered was himself. His listeners already had clear directions based on their common way of life, but Jesus called them to trust him instead. Instead of their community laws—a living, loving person. Instead of many teachers debating their values and practices—one teacher. Jesus.

He ended his sermon by saying, "Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock." I believe all of us here can find a common ground in this one man. In our commitment to Jesus. I believe if we "build our house" on him, if we trust his promises together, if we show each other the love he gives us, we will find a life together that endures.


with africa guy

I've been putting together a slideshow of the teen trip to Chicago, to share at the harvest festival here today. Here's a sample.

(There was a carving of an African man in the apartment we stayed in. I thought it would be interesting if he came along with us on our excursions. Can you spot him?)

For all the pictures, click here.



It's been a whirlwind of activity this past week. The retreat last weekend went well, with five guys here from Emmaus Ministries and two staff people, our biggest group yet. We used the story of the demoniac, the same one we did last summer ("Welcome!"). A little rowdier group this time; it took more attention to keep us together in the discussions, but everyone participated eagerly. The campfire was fun. One of the guys likes to sing, so he got Pete to play a bluesy riff on the guitar and roped Heather into improvising some poetry, and he picked up a line or two from that and sang a refrain under her spoken words. I was impressed. He also sang a solo on Sunday morning, and got rousing applause (quite an unusual occurrence during church here).

Then we barely got the beds stripped before Heather and I left with the vegetables for Chicago, then continued on to Michigan to pick up over a hundred bushels of peaches, apples, and pears. Which required us to haul a big horse trailer behind the truck (not an easy feat through city streets). Sprung a coolant leak, too. But a Reba Place friend got us to see their mechanic (free), and he said we could make the trip as long as we kept adding water. So we did. And we got to visit Chico and Tatiana in Ford Heights, too, and brought them bounty from the farm.

The guy at the orchard in Michigan gave us several samples of his fruit to try, including white peaches and yellow plums. Pluots, too, which is a cross between a plum and apricot. Very good.



I wanted to show "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" to the teen group tonight, as a back-to-school treat, but we couldn't borrow a copy in time.

Here's a clip from the movie anyway (I'm also celebrating our new unlimited internet access, which allows us to watch video now—thanks to Steve's expertise and leadership in laying over a half mile of fiber optic cable!).


apologies to Blake

It was Heather's birthday Wednesday so she went with me to Evanston to visit friends and family there. I used this cartoon to make her a card. Inside it said:

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

And what shoulder and what art
Could massage the sinews of thy heart?

This afternoon we have retreat guests arriving!


"by what authority?"

I've been thinking about leadership and authority again lately. Because of some recent discussions on the topic, and the current need for more leadership here on the farm (and the difficulties involving authority; for some there's too much, for others not enough). I looked back at some journal entries on authority early last year, and then put them together into an article for Jesus Manifesto: "By what authority?"

Last fall I stepped back from the leadership discussions here, mostly because it seemed they could end only in the usual form of leadership, elected and empowered by the people. But that collapsed. And the need for leadership is even greater now (and it's hard to see where it might come from). I wonder if folks might be more open to leadership without authority, at least without humanly-granted authority. Perhaps a decentralized leadership by volunteers. If so, I'd be willing to help.



When I was out feeding the cat this morning, a hummingbird swooped down to investigate us. I think it was a female ruby-throated. She hovered a few feet away, dodging slightly from side to side, inquisitive. Then she went back to the red flowers on the vine climbing up our clothesline pole.

I've seen them perch for a moment on the clothesline sometimes. I guess even hummingbirds need a break once in a while.


put down

I just sent this in to Jesus Manifesto; it's a story I wrote years ago when I was upset and needed an outlet. I don't think I ever put it in my journal before. It's called "Put down":

She ran her fingers through his thick hair and scratched the back of his head. He smiled at her. He liked that.

"Good boy," she cooed, "you're a good old dog."

"But unfortunately you have good old dog breath, too." She wrinkled her nose. "Too many meat by-products." Then she moved around behind the big dog and her hands began to work the strong muscles of his shoulders and back. There was still a lot of raw animal power there. And when his large head swung around with its long, jagged rows of teeth, it still inspired a healthy respect. But his fearsome days were over. He slept most of the time now, and when he did get up, it was always a struggle. "But you always get up for me, boy, don't you?" He flashed a wolfish grin at her.

Tomorrow he was supposed to die. Be killed. Though her father always chose to say they were having the dog "put down." She didn't see how that changed anything. She scratched behind his ears and tears came to her eyes. He had been part of their family since she was four―how could they kill him? He was in pain, they said. But he never whined, even when he fell; he always got up and wagged when she came home; he danced around like a puppy when they filled his dish; and he still loved taking a walk, even though he couldn't go far. He still strained at the leash when a squirrel appeared. Strained for life. How could they destroy that?

He was sprawled out now, relaxed by her massage. Then with a twist he was on his back, presenting his fuzzy belly for a rub. She smiled. Her father said she was selfish for wanting to keep him alive any longer. But she didn't feel selfish. And she wasn't asking them to "keep him alive"―just not kill him. She didn't want any special operations or expensive drugs. But why not let him strain at life's leash as long as he wanted to? Why send him away, when he wanted to stay with them?

Her father came into the living room and she turned away, not wanting him to see her crying. "Oh, hi honey," he said. She got up and left the room.

She had to get out. Grabbing her keys, she fled the house and jumped into her beat-up car. Squealed away from the curb. But then she didn't know where to go. She needed to talk to someone, but her thoughts felt too heavy, too adult, to lay before her teenage friends. And she was sure they couldn't answer her questions. Then she noticed she was on her way to the facility where her grandmother lived.

Gramma invited her in without any questions and put on some water for tea. She plopped down on the ugly sofa. "Why do they have to kill him?" she cried. "I mean, I know he's gonna die, everything dies, but he's not dead yet, he's old but he's still alive, you should have seen him just now, he still wants to live, I mean, just look at how he eats, he gulps it down... God! Why do they have to kill him?" She looked at her grandmother, her eyes pleading.

"Because they can't bear to watch him die," said the old woman.

She frowned at that. "What?"

"It's easier to kill him than watch him die," Gramma said softly. "Dead is not so bad. It's the dying we're so afraid of." The old woman went into the kitchen, leaving her to puzzle over that.

When her grandmother returned with the teapot and two flowered cups, she asked softly, "What do you mean, Gramma?"

Her grandmother's lips tightened. "People don't want to see dying. Just look around. They hide it away in places like this place; get the dying out of our homes and our hospitals and hide it in nursing homes and hospices. It's dreadful, really. I have a private apartment here, for now, so it's not so bad. But I've seen where they'll move me if I can't take care of myself anymore. It's not very nice, even if they decorate it pretty and everyone smiles all the time. How could it be? It's a death house." Her grandmother's hand trembled pouring the tea, and her voice softened. "But it gets the dying out of sight. For everyone except us."

She was speechless. Then Gramma noticed her eyes. "Oh, dear, it's not your fault. I got carried away―I'm sorry... Tell me about your dog."

She told how her father explained it, how he said it was compassion, to spare the dog's suffering. "But the dog never complains! If he's suffering, he's taking it better than anyone I've seen. You know, maybe you're right. Maybe it's our suffering he really wants to spare. Dad even said it was his duty. I hate that word!" She fell into an angry silence as Gramma watched and sipped her tea.

Then the old woman put down the cup. "Why don't you bring him here?"

She looked up at her grandmother, who seemed to be completely serious, and she didn't know how to respond. "We're not supposed to keep pets," her grandmother continued, "but no one comes in here. And there's always dogs around, for pet therapy or when relatives bring them for a visit. We could just take him out when you're here. Do you think you could come before and after school to walk him a little? I think I could handle the rest." Gramma was serious. All she could think to say was "He's gonna get worse...."

The old woman smiled. "Yes, I know, he's dying. Like the rest of us here. It's not pleasant, but it's not all bad, you know. I've even come to see that dying is an important part of living, do you believe that? If we're not willing to die, we can't really live. Did you know it even says that in the bible? But there I go again. So what do you think? Are you willing to be with him even though he's dying?"

No one was home when she got back. And with some peanut butter on her fingers it was easy to coax her old friend onto the back seat of her car. Then she tossed in his leash and dish and bag of Healthy Chunks dog food and they made their escape.

The last thing Gramma had said was that when her father started demanding answers she should tell him to call his mother.

There are more stories like this one here: (very) short stories


that time of the year again


the Body is Christ's

A response to a good article on homosexual issues in the church, on Jesus Manifesto:

I think this article brings out the more fundamental problem underlying the "accepting homosexual people in church" issue (and also the "women's leadership in church" issue, among many others): The Institution. This issue is only a problem in the institution we call "church." All the seemingly impossible complexities and power struggles involved do not exist in the Body of Christ itself.

Note these lines, where the institutional church issues are clearly apparent:
"Complicating matters for the church, the leadership and the conference was the matter that my [recently "outed" lesbian] colleague was the first woman to be licensed by the our regional conference...."

"I have also experienced betrayal at another level.... The pastoral team leader was a person who also advocated tolerance for gays and lesbians in the church.  He was also a seminary professor and knew the cost of disclosing his personal position. When he was asked by the church board to lead the process, he turned to me and asked me if I would lead the process...."

"The process for the church came to an end with a decision to agree to disagree and that we would consider the issues of membership on a case by case basis..."
Challenges of membership, leadership (and "licensing"), and church politics do not exist in the Body of Christ, but only in our institutions. Struggles about who sets church policy or who defines sin do not exist in the Body. None of us are in power in the Body, none of us decide what is sin, none of us decide who is in and who is out.

The "homosexuality" question being discussed here is not primarily about sexuality. It is about authority and power. An institutional authority and power that Jesus avoided altogether. We have created these impossible situations by institutionalizing ourselves, and no "new way of talking about it" will get us free.

But the Body of Christ is already free. If we were living as Jesus did (as members of his Body now), then homosexual people would have no basis for complaining about exclusion or oppression. And we would not be struggling to find a way to "let them in." The Body is Christ's.


not quite a leper colony

Yesterday, on our last day with the teens in Chicago, we visited Jesus People USA. A 400-member Christian community that lives in a huge old hotel building, runs several homeless shelters, and is a refuge for many folks who don't fit in elsewhere, including a number of artists and musicians.

The guy who gave us a tour is in a band called Leper (the name fits their style of music pretty well). Here's some pictures of them performing.


It's supposed to be in the nineties today so we're headed to this park, with a beach on Lake Michigan.


We're leaving this morning for a weekend trip to Chicago with the teenagers. Tomorrow we're going for a "ice cream brunch" and birthday celebration for a couple of them. I used this (slightly edited) comic to make a card for one of the girls:


"the kingdom of God is among you" (part 4)

Continuing an essay on four common misconceptions about the kingdom Jesus announced...

4. The kingdom of God appears now as distinct, organized communities. That saying of Jesus in Luke 17 that I've quoted twice now was spoken when the Pharisees asked him when the kingdom of God was coming. Jesus answered:
"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 in your midst." (Lk 17.20-21)
That last phrase has also been translated "the kingdom of God is among you." Which suggested that the kingdom of God was already present, already among them, appearing in the lives of Jesus and his followers. But Jesus' words about it not coming "with signs to be observed" are curious. And he said that we couldn't point to it and say "there it is!" What kind of kingdom could this be?

Those who insist that the kingdom of God must exist as distinct, organized communities of people usually want to emphasize that the kingdom is not merely "internal" or "individual," but exists enfleshed in people and their real, visible love for one another. And they are right about that. The kingdom of God exists as real people, wherever the followers of Jesus stand, and these people are not alone or isolated but are connected by real relationships, demonstrated by real acts of love, and truly united in the one kingdom that Jesus has established and invited us into.

But the fact that it is one kingdom challenges the idea that it appears as the distinct Christian communities and organizations that we see, which are not all united. And the fact that the kingdom of God has one King (and is God's kingdom) also challenges the "kingdom" claims of the many communities that we see organized under many different leaders and leadership structures, with membership and group identities determined by the human beings who have organized those communities. The actual all-too-human history of our organizations also makes it clear that these are not themselves the kingdom that Jesus announced. (Even the community of Jesus' twelve disciples included a traitor.) We can certainly point to a Christian organization or intentional community and say "there it is!" But what we cannot say is that any of them are the kingdom of God, or that the kingdom must appear in such distinct, organized communities.

Jesus once said, "The kingdom of God is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened." (Mt 13.33) I think this describes well the nature of the kingdom of God, mixed in among the people of the world, effecting its influence in small, often unnoticed ways, like leaven. We are not able to point to a distinct, clearly organized group and say "there is the kingdom of God," but it does exist among us. Mixed in with our organizations and communities, but not defined or ruled by them or limited by their borders. Coordinated not by any human board of directors or organizational structure, but by God's one, all-permeating Spirit. And made up of those who truly follow Jesus in his kingdom life, bound together by love in the real relationships that connect and unite all the children of God.

"The kingdom of God is among you." Its boundaries are not distinct, nor its organization obvious, but it is real and the life of those in it is miraculous, just as Jesus' life was. And that life of the kingdom of God can be ours now. Not by our own long and difficult work, but as a free, undeserved gift from God.

(The whole essay can be downloaded as a RTF file here.)


"the kingdom of God is among you" (part 3)

Continuing an essay on four common misconceptions about the kingdom Jesus announced...

The next two common misconceptions about the kingdom of God focus more on its appearance (or lack of appearance) in the world. But these also seem to describe something much less than the kingdom Jesus announced.

3. The kingdom of God is present now only "in our hearts." This idea may have been drawn from Luke 17.21, which some have translated: "The kingdom of God is within you." And an "internal" kingdom does seem to explain why we don't see more evidence of the kingdom that Jesus announced.

But people did see and experience ample evidence of the kingdom of God in their midst at Jesus' time. People were healed, uneducated men spoke the deepest truths of God, and Jesus and his disciples lived amazing, miraculous lives. When Jesus sent out his disciples, he told them:
"Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you; heal the sick in it and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.' But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 'Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off against you; nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.'" (Lk 10.8-11)
Wherever they were, there the kingdom of God appeared in actual physical reality and spiritual power. They healed and taught and were fed and protected by the incredible power of God. And because of that power, the usual human limitations and social demands no longer controlled them; the upside-down kingdom existed where they stood, inside and all around them.

If that is not our experience, perhaps the reason is not that the kingdom can only exist now "in our hearts," but that we are not following Jesus like his disciples did, receiving God's kingdom with utter trust and faith, "as a child."



"the kingdom of God is among you" (part 2)

Continuing an essay about four common misconceptions about the kingdom Jesus announced...

2. We are partners with God in the hard work of "building the kingdom of God." Again, I'm not exactly sure where this concept came from. Harkness even points out that the language of "building the kingdom" is unbiblical, but she still seems to emphasize our "efforts" and "working" and "struggle to create a new and divine order." And these ideas also seem very apparent in the Christian social justice movement. But I hear Jesus proclaiming the good news that the kingdom is God's gift to us. In the startling announcement of Jesus that "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand," and also in its final complete revelation, God's kingdom is clearly God's work, given to us. The writer of Revelation even uses the image of the kingdom of God as a city coming down from heaven (Rev 21). Whether we accept this prophecy as literal or figurative, the message seems clear: The future, full realization of God's kingdom will also be a gift from God. Not human work at all, but God's work, given to us:
[As the city was coming down] He who sat upon the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new."

...And he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment." (Rev 21.5-6, my italics)
Relentless human effort, political struggle, and the burden of responsibility (for "building the kingdom") is very obvious in Christian activism. Overwhelming workloads and burn-out are common. Is this what Jesus called us to? Is this the good news of the kingdom of God, that we must work and struggle for years (centuries?) to build it? Compared to this, Jesus' actual words sound like incredibly good news:
"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Mt 11.28-30)
God's kingdom isn't built by our efforts or through our struggling. It's offered to us now if we will receive it as God's work, God's gift, for God's glory. As Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." (Mk 10.15)