be one of them

Since the short retreat last weekend I've begun thinking that I've been focusing too much on the success (or lack thereof) of the retreat ministry. Even the desire to draw the anawim here, I think, has been too important to me. As if I needed to see God's faithful poor gathered here to prove to myself that they are the ones he favors, that I needed to lay eyes on them to know they exist, or that I needed to be actively serving them to reassure myself of my place and my worth in the world.

I remember, from the days years ago when I first began to understand and be drawn to serve the anawim, that I felt it was even more important to join them (as Jesus did) than to just serve them. To be God's faithful poor ourselves, looking to him in complete dependence. I need to bring that back as my main focus. Not so much trying to see the anawim (though I do want to), or serve them (though I intend to, as much as I can), as to be one of them.

It makes me think of my conversations about church leadership last year. There was a desire to see the church organization better reflect the reality of the body of Christ. That, however, requires gaining power in that organization to make the changes, and the struggle with people who don't agree or who aren't ready for those changes. But I eventually realized that, whether or not the organization is much like the actual body of Christ, we ourselves can live as the actual body of Christ (the body he alone offers to us). And so experience all that Jesus promised for his followers. That is much more important than trying to get everyone else to live up to that ideal, especially when they don't seem to want to.

In a similar way, being part of God's faithful poor myself is much more important than successfully getting them here and serving them. I hope we can draw out the anawim. But my experience of God, my witness to others, and my place and worth in the world depend far more on living as the anawim myself.


"in the quiet season"

Heather recited this poem at the retreat last weekend, and we'll probably use it every time:

In the quiet season
When the roots reach deep for water
When the roots reach down in thirst

In the silent season
When the brown branches are not stirred
By any wind
It is then
That the whisper can be heard


too idealistic?

I got free from my oppressive cold yesterday long enough to write to Chico. Then, right after I dropped the letter in the mailbox today, I discovered another letter from him. I'm wanting to support him and Tatiana in their move to a very poor suburb of Chicago, where they have no friends (yet) and few people like them culturally, so it may be harder to find good friends. So I'll probably write again soon.

I'm thinking of commenting on the Christmas newsletter they sent before moving. He wrote about the shepherds receiving the angels' announcement, and how shepherds were the outcasts of their society. I did an advent teaching here on the same topic. Then he told of a camp of homeless people that disappeared one day, near Christmastime. And he imagined that an angel had appeared to them, honoring them like the shepherds, and led them on a journey to see the newborn king. It's a pretty moving story, actually.

I wondered, though, if it was overly idealistic. I agree about the shepherds, but I don't think it's likely that the people from that homeless camp were rejoicing at Christmas. And I wonder if he may have a too idealized image of the poor. When we moved to the Catholic Worker I think we idealized the poor too much, and we were painfully corrected. Maybe I can write something to help him avoid the confusion and disillusionment we experienced.

But this also makes me think of the retreat this past weekend. I think Tom, who has much experience doing retreats with the homeless, probably thought our vision of the poor was too idealized. I presented our understanding of the anawim, as distinct from the poor in general (I wrote about it during our time at the Catholic Worker). But the idea is still that God has chosen these poor, lowly, faithful ones to reveal himself most fully in the world. "My power is made perfect in weakness." And, "God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world..." But I'm sure that's not what Tom has seen mostly. Probably just poor, broken people trying to get a glimpse of God's love for them. And it's a bit inflammatory to say that God specifically choose the poor, the anawim, to reveal himself. Not a message that goes over well with the donors, I imagine. But is it true?

It made me wonder, are we being too idealistic? Will we just be disillusioned again, never actually encountering these anawim? And will the message just confuse our guests and alienate the ministry staff that we hope will work with us?

I hope not. Jesus seemed to dedicate himself to these, and I hope we can too. I don't know how to find them, how to invite them. But I think God wants us to keep trying.


"necessity is laid upon me"

Another frustration today as we just found out that Fr. Manuel can't make it this weekend for the retreat. Another priest got sick so he has to serve at his church. Tom, from the Ignatian Spirituality Project, is still willing to come so we're preparing a more personalized retreat for him (and we're very glad to have the time with him). But it is still a little disappointing, after so many months of planning. Hopefully Manuel will be able to come another time.

I was thinking a bit more about "...necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" That's not something you need to say if things are going well and the work is popular and successful. Paul faced more disappointments and struggles and setbacks than we ever will, I'm sure. But he felt he had no choice but continue on the path God had put him on.

Perhaps we're being reminded again that our plans are of little importance. All that matters is the work God is doing, and we need to just be open to what is given to us and listen for the next steps we are to take. It is not our work and we are not responsible for its success.

Thank God.


a narrower path

I sat and read a letter from a friend yesterday, a real paper letter. My friend Chico has given up the internet (and has tried to get me to give it up also, to no avail); he is going back to writing real letters. Unfortunately, he got my zip code wrong on this letter so it took a month to get to me. Talk about snail mail.

Yesterday also happened to be my fortieth birthday, so as I read his letter I was reflecting a bit on the effect of these years on me. And I noticed one thing that seemed significant. As he described several dilemmas that he struggled with, and paths in life that seemed to pull him in different directions, I recalled similar struggled and feelings. But I noticed that I don't feel the same way any more. I suppose that we make choices along the way that then limit the options available to us as we get older. There can be something else, though, that might ease our anxiety about life choices (without depressing us about our lost opportunities).

Our years of trying to listen to God may put us on a narrower path. Trying certain things and being shown (sometimes quite painfully) that that is not what God created us for. Discovering other things that capture our imagination and passion and won't let us go. Finding doors opened to us that, when we step through them, make it impossible to return to our old lives.

And when we have risked so much, following God's call to us, and been carried beyond what we can manage or maintain for ourselves, then it begins to feel like our future is no longer in our hands, like the big choices are no longer ours. Like our lives are no longer ours. I'm reminded of Paul's words, "If I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor 9.16) We are no longer shaping our own lives with our choices, but accepting and embracing (or desperately hanging on to) the particular life given to us.

Only let this be because we have abandoned our lives completely to our Father. It's the one way back to childhood.


A fond memory before he goes...


"in God alone"

I prepared a Taizé communion service yesterday, but we didn't end up doing it because some people were sick and it was so cold here (it got down to -20F last night).

I was going to use this song as a refrain for the psalm, with these verses from Psalm 62:

For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be greatly moved.

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.

On God rests my deliverance and my honor;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us.

After hearing some discouragements expressed this past week in our small group, I was thinking that the strong interconnectedness and interdependence of our lives here probably makes it harder to resolve interpersonal problems. Every aspect of our lives seems to depend on the participation and support of others here. So it can feel very threatening when there are conflicts, or when someone doesn't seem to be contributing well. And those emotions usually just make the conflict worse.

What difference does it make if we truly believe (and experience) that our lives depend on God alone? That he alone is our support and safety and future? I expect that would help ease our anxiety and demands of others, and allow us to serve others in the community more freely.


tax time

I spent quite a bit of time yesterday and today slogging through tax information. Trying to figure out where we fit and what our income would be and how much, if any, we need to pay. Very confusing. It made me appreciate the past ten years (or so) that I've had no income except gifts from people. Gifts are not taxed; I found that in one of the tax guidelines. I also found out that any money that is received as a bribe must be reported as income. Seriously. Income from selling illegal drugs must be reported, too. I wonder how much compliance they get with those?

I'm sure the money given by the farm and bakery here will be considered wages by the IRS, even though we leave them free to give or not, and don't have an agreement that we will be paid a certain amount. So we should probably have it reported to the government. But we're still well below taxable income, and won't have to pay any federal or state tax. Which I'm glad about. I don't support tax resistance, "give to Caesar" as Jesus said. But I'm not impressed by what they do with the money so I'm glad not to be giving them any.

The thing I didn't think about before was social security. It looks like we'll have to pay that, on both the farm income and the value of the retreat/living space that the church provides. It's a significant amount, but I don't feel too bad about that. Again, I think we should pay the taxes that are required. I also think we can trust God to make up the difference when we're doing what he told us to do ("pay taxes to whom taxes are due"). And social security (and Medicare) seems to be one of the better uses of governmental money, going to the elderly, with many low income elderly depending on it. I'm not sure how I feel about drawing it myself. I seriously wonder whether I want to encourage the belief that the government will take care of us when we are in need. I'd actually rather decrease our government dependence and increase our dependence on God instead. But I still feel okay about giving this money for the care of the elderly, even if I never get any of it back.

One nice surprise was finding out about the "earned income credit," which helps people with low incomes. We qualify for that. So, even though we won't owe income tax, we'll get the credit, which can be applied to the social security that we need to pay. So, actually, we'll be taking some money out of the general tax coffers and transferring it to social security. Heh.



my own little part

There's been some talk lately about reorganizing the farm, since we have less workers now and are unable to provide all the care that it needed for the larger crops here. And, as usual when facing group challenges, the tendency is to try to come up with the "big idea" that will solve everything. Often the problems are very complex, though. And we know so little of all that is needed, especially when trying something new.

At our small group prayer time this week, someone suggested that in such difficult situations it has helped her to just focus on what little part she can do to help, even though that obviously won't solve everything. It's easier for us to understand how we ourselves can contribute, rather than trying to understand how all the pieces need to fit together. It's also easier to hear what God wants of us personally in this situation, rather than trying to hear what God wants every one of us to learn or do (it's probably impossible for us to know that about others).

In communal settings, though, there is a resistance to, a wariness about, a more individual approach like this. It is sometimes seen as too self-focused. Too much an individual decision I'm making for myself, rather than thinking about the needs of all and finding wisdom in the decision of the group, a decision made by all, for all. Sometimes communally-minded folks won't shift from this way of thinking until group failures push them to their breaking point.

But I don't think it should be a question of whether the group or the individual is making the decision. The question is whether the decision is obedience to God. (And obedience to a group of people should never be equated with obedience to God.) I guess I think there is more an attitude of obedience if we are just asking for guidance to do our own little part, not assuming that we are in charge of the whole show, not expecting to save ourselves by coming up with the "big idea," just asking to be shown the piece God has for us to do. And trusting that he can see how all the pieces need to fit together, and that he can move them into place in the right time. No Christian group or communal theology should ever try to stand in the way of such an attitude. Careful and humble listening to God is the best thing we can offer to those we live and work with.


our christmas tree is still up

After all my talk about failure lately, I feel the need to say that I am grateful for how well things seem to be going at the moment. After a wait of many months, we have retreats coming up at the end of this month and next, to introduce some more pastors and other ministry workers to what we do, so they can refer folks to us in the future. That feels good. And from the correspondence I've had with these people, I like them and look forward to working with them.

Also, with some considerable donations at the end of the year, we seem to have enough now to make it through this next year. We don't need a lot, but with no sure source of income even little needs can seem daunting. We have been living on a gift from Heather's grandparents, who were missionaries and received the money as a bequest from a supporter of theirs, but that is running out soon. It was a great surprise for us, right when we needed it, and enabled us to get started when we had almost nothing. Now the retreat house is prepared. But it's taking longer than we expected to get enough guests coming so that we might hope for much help from others (through donations). We had started a small retreat fund with wedding gifts and a couple donations from our walk. And now with recent gifts from the bakery and farm and a few other generous people we know, it looks like we'll be able to make it through this year at least, and have enough to host a number of retreats.

Somehow last year ended with lots of dark thoughts and uncertainty, and this year begins with light and the feeling of God's good care.



failure revisited

I read these words of Paul this morning and was reminded of my entry on failure a few days ago:

We do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead... (2 Cor 1.8-9)

That seems to me to be the main value of the experience of failure, "to make us rely not on ourselves but on God." Which is, I believe, the meaning of faith, the central goal of the spiritual life. And not just relying on a God that can at-the-last-minute save us from failure or suffering or death, but relying on God "who raises the dead," whose purposes for us cannot be frustrated even when our failure is total, when we have reached our utter end.

Realizing both the value of failure and how God is not limited by our failures (no matter how bad, deserved or undeserved), I think I may be more able to face the threats of failure in my own life. Not an easy thing for me.


"you change them like clothing"

For New Year's day, I suggested these lines to Heather for evening prayer tonight:

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 are the same, and your years have no end.
(Ps 102.25-27)