"the dark places of the land"

Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild beasts;
do not forget the life of your poor for ever.
Have regard for your covenant;
for the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence.
Let not the downtrodden be put to shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name. (Ps 74.19-21)

I noticed these lines while praying this psalm last week. Probably because of the references to the anawim, God's poor, who look to God as their only hope. But in the past several days I've been drawn back to that line, "the dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence."

That may have been a reference to the many threats that exist for the vulnerable poor. But I imagine that many of the poor (including those who come to us for retreats) might live among these dark places and find it oppressive spiritually as well. Making it very difficult to hope, to love those around them, to imagine any good existing in such a place, among people who seem so crushed and unable to rise. That seems to me to be a serious difficulty.

Maybe I'm more aware of this because of my own difficulties finding hope and motivation for good when the people I live among seem to be unable to forgive and trust and be generous to one another right now. When real, inspiring goodness seems like an impossible dream. I've struggled to find a way to cope with this, and I've been reminded of two things that seem to help me.

First, "no one is good but God alone." I wrote about this earlier this year, but now I'm drawn to the way it gives us a more accurate, honest view of people, while still offering hope. We ourselves are not the source of good, and the lack of goodness among us should not surprise (or disillusion) us. Yet God can and does inspire and work though people, so goodness can appear anywhere, even where we least expect it. It is always a surprising miracle, but that is exactly what we hope for.

Second, "all things work for good for those who love God." This is perhaps Paul's way of describing what I have called God's providence, and experienced in many ways. I remember it here because even if the people around us cannot bring themselves to do good at this moment, God can and does provide his good for us anyway, often through the actions of these very people (no matter what their intentions). And he provides this good not only for us, but also for anyone that trusts in his care. God does not leave the lives of his poor in anyone else's hands. Especially in the dark places of the land.


I was going through some old comics and came across this old favorite...


greater than great feats

The seventy returned with joy, saying, "Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!" And he said to them, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you.

"Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven." (Lk 10.17-20)

Another saying of Jesus that came to mind while thinking on the "great feats" question. Somehow this has been very important for me. I don't know if it's my version of the midlife crisis, or what, but it's been a tremendous relief lately to be reminded that spiritual growth and progress don't necessarily mean continual feats of spiritual heroism. Or experiencing miracle after miracle in our lives.

I'm not exactly sure what got me into those inflated expectations. Maybe my overwhelming dissatisfaction with the mediocrity and un-inspiring-ness of churches and Christians. And then my experiences coming out of the Navy, and then the years walking. Even our arrival and acceptance here at the farm seemed to be an exciting act of God. But it's been hard to keep up that level of exciting, inspiring happenings. And I think that's caused a growing uncertainty and anxiety in me.

Not that I dismiss those exciting, "great feats" moments. There are many in Jesus' life, he promises them to his disciples (like in the lines above), and they are thrilling and faith-building for us and others. But Jesus also says do not rejoice in those amazing acts but "that your names are written in heaven." Which is not just to say rejoice that we are going to heaven but that we are included among God's people. And, as I've written before, I equate this with "the remnant," the anawim, God's faithful poor who look to him as the helper of the helpless. Becoming and being one of them, saved and protected and provided for by God, trusting our lives to him alone, is more important than great feats, even if they are great feats done for God.

Faithfully living as one of God's lowly ones is a greater accomplishment, and the truer source of blessedness, than any "mighty work" that we might do or experience. I think I'm actually starting to understand and believe that.


"did we not do mighty works in your name?"

This morning I remembered this passage, which seems to support some of what I wrote yesterday, at least that great feats (even those of spiritual heroism) aren't necessarily the sign of faithfulness:

"Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?'

And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'" (Mt 7.21-23)


"no one greater"

At our last retreat, one of the pastors said Barack Obama's election was an example of God's good news to the poor and oppressed (especially black people and other minorities). It offered the hope that they, too, against all odds, could rise to positions of greatness.

I wondered about that, though. Because political leadership of the world's most powerful country didn't seem to me like the kind of greatness Jesus demonstrated or promised for us. And I couldn't see offering Obama as an example of possibility and hope to the people who might come here for retreats, because, really, what is the possibility of them (or any of us, for that matter) becoming president? I believe the good news Jesus spoke offered a truer greatness and one that everyone he spoke to could actually experience.

But lately I've been discovering that I've had my own sense of greatness that may also be misguided and not a real possibility for most. I'm not quite sure how to describe it. Leon Bloy's famous quote comes to mind: "Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig." I'm not exactly sure what he meant by "hero," but it brings to mind people who perform great feats, reformers, prophets, recognized "saints." Admirable, inspiring people. I've felt like one of those people at times in my life, but I find I'm feeling less and less like that now. And I wonder if that makes me a pig. Then I think of talking with the poor people who might come on retreats here and wonder if I really expect them to become heroes of the faith. I still do believe that Jesus announced good news to the poor (the anawim, who look to God in their need) that they are favored by God, chosen by God, his people, through whom God reveals himself to the world. That sounds to me like they are great in Jesus' eyes. But is this greatness the heroism I've been describing? Martyrs? Reformers? Prophets?

These words of Jesus come to mind:

"Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." (Mt 11.11)
John is perhaps the epitome of the "spiritual hero": prophet, ascetic, martyr, all in one. Yet Jesus says the "least in the kingdom" is greater than John...

I can't help but think that this "least" must include the "nobodies" of the kingdom of God. And the "least of these" described later in Matthew (25.31-46). The faithful poor, sick, strangers, not known for any great feats. Greater than John the Baptist.

It takes me back to my belief that the main concern of Jesus, and the most important thing in life, is faith, our complete dependence on God in all things. I think living by faith has indeed resulted in great feats that we admire. But it is not always so, and there is much in the life of faith that is not recognized as great feats. Even in the life of Jesus, where we see so many miracles and amazing words and actions, that was only the last few years of his life. The other thirty years—though they were still a perfect life, God on earth—they were not considered great or noticeable enough to even record.

A different understanding of greatness. Almost the opposite of being president. But also a greatness that doesn't necessarily include the things we honor as spiritual heroism. The greatness of the nobodies who have God's eye and special care. The greatness of the least in the kingdom of heaven, who depend on God for everything, and are not admired or praised for it.


"that your faith may not fail"

I came across these words of Jesus yesterday morning:

"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you,
that he might sift you like wheat,
but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail;
and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren." (Lk 22.31-32)
They seem appropriate for the season (of Lent) and for the tumultuous times in the community here. I think sometimes it may be enough to just weather the storm, to make it through without our faith failing, even if we have done very little to help the situation. Having come through it, then perhaps we may find ourselves able to offer strength to those around us, though we felt so weak in the crisis.


the "life cycle" of the group?

During the visitation this past weekend there were some good, inspiring moments. And it probably did many people good to be heard by fresh ears. Several people showed signs of wanting to start anew.

But there was also talk of management models and the "life cycle" of groups, which reinforces thinking about ourselves as part of businesses (the farm) or communities (Plow Creek) and wondering if they will survive. The message was meant to be encouraging and hopeful. But as soon as we start identifying ourselves as part of such groups, rather than as part of the kingdom of God (or body of Christ), then we lose our primary source of security and hope. Because there are no promises from God that this or that business will succeed. There are no promises that this particular community will survive (and many examples where they did not). There are, however, strong promises from God to the people of his kingdom, that they will be protected and provided for and that they will be kept in unity under their one Head. We lose so much when we consider ourselves as members of any body besides the one Body that never dies. There is no "life cycle" for the kingdom of God.

Also, when we shift our focus to the life of this or that community, trying to "redefine" it or "redevelop" it (terms used in the visitation), then we give ourselves the task of determining what it is, its nature, what it stands for. In the kingdom of God these are already given. We don't have to worry about defining it, we just need more and more to submit to it. Then we can trust that the promises will apply to us as well.

How different things could be here if we simply did what Jesus has told us to do as his followers. I don't know, maybe I can help shift the focus back to that. In any case I need to focus on that myself, and trust that, no matter what happens to the businesses and organizational structures around me, God will preserve and make a way for his people.


For Chico and his wife Tatiana, who recently applied for jobs as school janitor and lunch lady, respectively. A tribute from the Simpsons:

Groundskeeper Willy (with heavy Scottish accent): "Lunch lady Doris, do you have any grease?"

Doris: "Yes. Yes we do."

Willy (ripping open his shirt): "Then grease me up woman!"

(Willy was trying to slide through the school's ventilation ducts, to get a stray animal out. He said, "There's nary an animal alive that can outrun a greased Scotsman!")


"who are my mother and my brothers?"

I wrote a few days ago about concerns that getting more involved here might be causing me to forget or compromise the convictions I've held in the past. It focused a lot on money. Now I think that was just a surface issue. The deeper effect of getting more involved is that it tends to connect our identity more to that of the group. I think that is closer to the source of what I have been experiencing.

I became aware of it as I was thinking about the "visitation" this coming weekend. A few experienced friends are coming from outside the community for a routine visit to assess the health of the community and offer suggestions. A good practice, I think. But this time it's a bit worrisome, since there are some significant problems here, interpersonal ones and also larger group issues, mostly involving decisions about leadership. And as I thought about it, I realized I felt anxious, even embarrassed.

That seems to come from identifying with the problems of the group. Worry or shame about "our" problems, about who "we" are. Somehow I've taken them on as my problems, even though I'm not specifically involved, and the outcome of the disputes won't even affect me terribly. Part of it is that I've tried to help a bit, tried to give advice or challenges (not very successfully). So I got involved in that way and I care about how it all turns out, and care about the people. And I guess this has caused me to feel as if the problems are my own, something to worry about or feel embarrassed about when others see the mess.

I can see how I've been drawn in, by caring, and by trying to get involved and encourage a healing response. But, really, is this the "we" that I identify with? "Who are my mother and my brothers? ...Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother."

This probably is much like what people experience with their families. Having not chosen that group and feeling connected to the problems (perhaps even actively trying to help) and yet not being able to set things right. Feeling shackled to a "we" that is not the identity we desire for ourselves, and not truly who "we" are. Jesus spoke to that.

Not that I want to cut myself off, but just set aside the unnecessary anxieties and shame and miseries that are not really mine. As I wrote several months ago, I think grief is the appropriate feeling, the feeling of love in this situation. A free connection to others, not an unchosen shackling. And a feeling that need not drag us down, because it unites us with God's grief, with God himself, who bears the weight of it.



I began hearing the tree frogs again late last week. We were up on the hill pruning the blueberry bushes, and I noticed it. There's a swampy area in the woods not far from there, where the frogs (commonly known as "spring peepers") live. They need the water for their young, and I think they hibernate in the mud over the winter, but then crawl up in the trees and begin looking for mates when it gets warm enough. Their chorus sounds a lot like a field of crickets, like millions of sleigh bells.

It was good to hear them again, their constant, familiar song that seems to have no end. It was as if they had never stopped. Then I headed home and as I got near the ridge overlooking the farm buildings, I heard the creek far below. Gurgling its own endless song. I was caught for a moment between the two.

They reminded me of the land, of the continuity of nature, and how small and temporary we are sitting on it. A different perspective, a longer view. Our worries and squabbles seem much less from that perspective. I hope I can keep it.



For some reason that last entry has been making me nervous. Maybe I just need to remind myself that following the person of Jesus (rather than just convictions/rules drawn from his teaching) can never be a justification for compromise or a less radical life. The opposite is true. Jesus himself made that clear:

"Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Mt 5.19-20)

Whenever he bent a moral rule, it was only to be more moral, not less. Not excusing himself from any ethical demand, but exercising a freedom to be more loving, more good.


not as simple or clear

A couple recent experiences have got me thinking. I received a package from George Walter, a full-time pilgrim who I met years ago and walked with for a few days. It was his journal from this past summer's walk. And, not surprisingly, it brought back memories from my days on the road. Then I noticed an online discussion about working for a living vs. "gift economy," and it was being argued whether Jesus promoted the latter, and if it is possible in our day and age. I used to argue for that a lot, years ago.

I haven't been as obviously committed to these things as I used to be. Things have gotten more complicated and messy. It makes me begin to worry that I've forgotten the convictions that were so important to me, that I may be getting compromised and losing my focus in the many concerns of daily living.

We intentionally did not become official members here in order to remain poor, to not have ownership of the land and house we live in. But that is not nearly as clear and obvious as being homeless on the road. We have lived on gifts and donations, and even arranged it with the farm and bakery so we volunteer there, and they are free to give what they wish at the end of the season. But then that begins to get murky (as far as the IRS is concerned those are wages), and we can't have all the donations go into the church fund because if the church then gave us money directly (rather than paying retreat expenses) we would be considered church employees which becomes a big headache for everyone tax-wise. I think I am happy about how we eventually worked it out, except that it's not nearly as clear and obvious as having no income and no bank account. It's not a very big income (just a little over half the poverty level), but still.

And now I'm about to become church treasurer. How did I get mixed up in that? I guess because the guy who was doing it has wanted to be relieved of the job, and I thought I could do it well, and part of the bookkeeping is our finances. I know keeping the books is not the same as having the money myself. But it seemed to send a much clearer message when I wasn't involved with any of that.

It's just that the people here need help, and can I really stay completely away from these things just because I'd like to be very clear that my hope is not in money? But it makes it so messy. And I wonder if I'm getting sucked in, gradually, without realizing what's happening to me.

On the other hand, I recognize that these experiences and struggles are what most everyone has to deal with all the time in their complicated lives. They have to make decisions in complicated, messy situations. And I would like to think they can make radical decisions and follow Jesus closely even in complicated situations. It just won't be as simple and clear, perhaps, as it was in Jesus' life, or as in my life on the road.

I hope I'm not fooling myself. It seems that what it needed is to let loose a bit from strict rules on myself and let myself be guided through dangerous, messy situations. Following the person of Jesus, rather than the conviction or the rule. Hopefully the convictions have gotten deeply enough ingrained that I automatically notice the warning signs, and can stray a bit outside the rules to help others without going too far and losing my way in the process. Perhaps I can lean more on the person of Jesus to help me navigate these situations, when the rules or convictions are not flexible enough to be much help.

And, I pray, if I'm wrong, that I will be able to leave it all behind and step away again with nothing in my hands, a pilgrim on the road.



When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs."

A second time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep."

He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep." (Jn 21.15-17)

For Lent this year we chose the theme of forgiveness for our worship planning. I think we need a lot of it around here. I was thinking on it this morning, as I'm supposed to lead prayer at our small group tonight, and this passage came to mind.

I think it's Jesus' way of saying to Peter that he forgives him. Saying it three times for Peter's three denials. It reminds me of what I wrote a couple years ago, about forgiveness and believing that good can come from that person again. Believing in the possibility of a "new creation." Believing that God can work through this person again, even if we've been disappointed so many times.

Jesus tells Peter to care for his sheep, his followers who would need help and guidance. He trusts that God can work through Peter, even after his denials. That's forgiveness.


something for the kids

There's an older guy here who I help get around in his wheelchair. He just had a birthday. I thought of making a card with this cartoon, since he used to be a painter, and it seems to fit his personality. But I couldn't figure out a caption that would make it into a birthday card.

Maybe I'll just give him the cartoon.