a better prayer

Yesterday I was praying a psalm that spoke of Moses asking God to have mercy on the people. It gave me pause. I'm not sure my own thoughts and prayers have leaned towards mercy these past few months.

Now I'm pretty sure Moses was often frustrated and angry at things the people did, and probably complained to God often enough. But his inclination towards mercy on several occasions stands out as more inspiring. Much more like Jesus, too. Like in his famous "they know not what they do" line.

I still feel like I want the hard consequences of some decisions here to make it very clear that those choices weren't the best or most loving for everyone involved. That the path that has been chosen is not the path of freedom and peace that Jesus showed us in his life. But I can also see that hoping and praying for mercy is right. Maybe praying that not all the hard consequences have to be borne, that our relationships and our connection here be preserved, and a way forward offered. That it be clear that God is not pleased, but also that God is merciful and still holds us in his love. And that we have a chance to choose differently in the future.


I sent this to a friend by good old-fashioned mail today. A pithy statement on community living...


"it will not hurt them"

"And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." (Mk 16.17-18)

I've been following the current health care reform debate since last year, wondering how it might effect us. It seemed like it might end up pushing us into Medicaid, something I've avoided so far, since I didn't want to be going to the government for help with any of my needs. Now it looks like insurance coverage might not be mandatory after all. But before I knew about that I had an interesting (and contentious) discussion with some friends on the topic, which led me to rethink some of my previous conclusions.

My friends, who live and work with the poor, were upset by the possibility of mandatory insurance (even if the government provided it for them through Medicaid). They felt it would cause them to trust God less, that the government was trying to force them to look to the government to meet their needs. They sounded like they intended to conscientiously object. And I understood their point of view, having also resisted taking any government handouts so as not to start depending on the government for my help or security. I insisted, though, that God is in control over governments, too, and could possibly use their resources for good even if the intentions of politicians and lobbyists are not good. That didn't settle the question, of course, but it opened it a little wider in my mind.

And the discussion reminded me of some troubling implications of the "don't take any government handouts" stance. For example, our kids. We can choose to reject Medicaid because of convictions about dependence on God vs. government, and accept the consequences of that choice, but should we also impose those consequences on our children by not accepting what the state offers to them? That didn't seem quite right. And then if we look at other poor people... Would we tell them that they should reject Medicaid, or welfare, or food stamps, because God can provide better, through real loving charity rather than institutional welfare systems? My friends know many in their neighborhood who live on welfare and food stamps, and I don't think they would ever tell them to stop, or that accepting those things is wrong or hinders their faith in God. What about the many suffering in Haiti right now? Would any of us tell them not to accept the government handouts there?

I said to my friends that I think a strong belief in God's providence and power over all things (including "things that are Caesar's") is closely connected to a strong and radical dependence on God. We can depend on God always because God is always and in every situation dependable. Even when governments are involved. It made me think of that passage I quoted above, some of Jesus' last words to his followers.

Not because of the healing part, but because of the picking up serpents and drinking any deadly thing part. "It will not hurt them." I think this could apply to some interactions with governments (and business, too, for that matter). Not that all interactions with "deadly things" are necessary or good, and God might often provide ways around these or better alternatives that spare us the proximity with the serpents. But if there are true goods that it seems God is offering through governments, or needs God might meet using government resources, I think we can receive these trusting that God can preserve us from harm. I would still advise caution and restraint, knowing how governments do claim godlike positions of Protector and Provider (and demand our religious allegiance). We must never trust them or depend on them. But I think it's right to be able to say to a needy person that they could accept some government handouts without spiritual harm, that God could meet some of their need that way, among the many different ways he can meet our every need.

And I think I feel more ready to make decisions about things like Medicaid or Social Security without being so stressed and conflicted. Being able to accept what Almighty God might offer through whatever channel, even one as idolatrous as the state.


something to pray about

A family in our church has relatives in Haiti, where the devastating earthquake just hit. They have also been hosting a woman immigrating from Haiti, who has been working to bring her children from there to live with her here in the U.S. Once the children's paper were in order, we helped her get the money to fly them here; the plan was for her to fly down and meet them and bring them back. But just about an hour after she arrived in Haiti, the earthquake hit.

Thankfully, it seems she and her kids are unhurt. Their house also is still standing, we hear (which means the immigration papers are probably okay, too). But they are stuck there now, with the one airport overloaded with aid shipments and fleeing people. And communication is very difficult. So we're praying that she will be able to rejoin us with her kids eventually. I imagine, though, that in a time like this she is glad to be with her children rather than so far away with us.

We're praying also for the many others in Haiti who have lost homes and loved ones and have such hard days ahead.


we three kings

Here's an excerpt from the skit Heather wrote for her Sunday school kids to do on three king's day. It came from their idea, when someone pointed out that the youngest of them looked a lot like Barak Obama. (She picked all the "kings" to fit how the kids looked, a nice touch. And the troop reference is to the recent U.S. surge in Afghanistan.)

Mary: Come in!

"Kings" (Barak Obama, Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of Great Britain, and Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany) crowd into tiny "barn" space.

Cow: (annoyed) Moo!

Brown: We saw the star above your, uh, house...

Mary: It's a barn.

Brown: I mean, above your barn.

Mary: It's not even ours, actually—

Brown: The point is, we saw the star! Above here!

Merkel: And that means your baby is the King of us!

Mary: The King of who?

Merkel: The King of Kings!

Brown: So we want to give him some presents. We're giving him everything a new king needs!

Obama: I'm giving him thirty thousand troops!

Mary: Really? (Bends down to listen to baby as if he said something) What? (listens to baby again) He says no thanks.

Obama: Oh.... OK. Then would he like some myrrh?

Mary: (listens to baby) He says it sounds nice, but what is it?

Obama: It's perfume! (He sprays perfume on baby.)

Brown: They use it at funerals. If he doesn't have thirty thousand troops, he's going to need it.

Mary: He says he knows. (To Obama) He says thank you!

Merkel: I was going to give him thirty million euros. He wants those, right? The euro is stronger than the dollar, you know.

Brown: And I'm giving him three thousand acres of excellent farmland!

Mary: He wants to know whose picture is on the euro.

Brown: And let me guess. He wants me to give the farmland to the poor... I've thought of a different present for the baby. He'll like this one!

Merkel: Hey, I was gonna give mine first!

Brown: Well hurry up then.

Merkel: If you don't want euros, I brought gold! (Gives baby gold.)

Mary: He says thank you, it's so nice and shiny.

Brown: And how about this! (Brings out a stick of incense.) Frankincense! (He lights it.)

Mary: He says thank you (bends down to listen to baby again). He says Yay, it smells a lot better in here now!

Cow: (offended) Hey!



the secret place of thunder

Today I helped Heather put together a website to share the stories she has written imaginatively re-telling various well-known bible stories. Some of these were written to be read during worship sevices, some have been used in our retreats, and some she did as a personal study, interpreting the stories through imagining them in detail. Only a few of them are on the site so far.

She's calling it "The Secret Place of Thunder," a reference to Psalm 81. It's here: secretplaceofthunder.blogspot.com (and it looks great, if I do say so myself)


it's not over yet!

It seems we're stretching the holidays a bit today. I can smell my pumpkin bread baking, made from farm pumpkins stored this fall, mixed with walnuts and raisins and all the spices, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and even some ginger. Our $5 Christmas tree is still up, too, smelling terrifically piney.

There's six inches of snow outside and Heather just put on some Christmas music, to complete the picture. The twelve days of Christmas are getting an extension this year, I guess.


far be it from me that I should cease praying for you

This morning I took another look at the story of Israel demanding a king for themselves (1 Sam 8). I was wondering about the way God responded to them, greatly displeased about their choice, predicting the oppressions they would experience under their king, and yet he gives them a king anyway. God even chooses the king for Israel. I don't quite understand God's cooperation. Maybe it's something similar to the way Jesus explained God's giving of laws for divorce: "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment." (Mk 10.5)

Samuel's speech at Saul's anointing reflects this apparent tension (and he uses a sign of God's displeasure that farmers understand clearly: a storm on harvest day, when the grain needs to be dry):
"Behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked; behold, the LORD has set a king over you. If you will fear the LORD and serve him and hearken to his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the LORD your God, it will be well; but if you will not hearken to the voice of the LORD, but rebel against the commandment of the LORD, then the hand of the LORD will be against you and your king.

"Now therefore stand still and see this great thing, which the LORD will do before your eyes. Is it not wheat harvest today? I will call upon the LORD, that he may send thunder and rain; and you shall know and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in the sight of the LORD, in asking for yourselves a king."

So Samuel called upon the LORD, and the LORD sent thunder and rain that day; and all the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel. And all the people said to Samuel, "Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die; for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king."

And Samuel said to the people, "Fear not; you have done all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after vain things which cannot profit or save, for they are vain.

"For the LORD will not cast away his people, for his great name's sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. Moreover as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; and I will instruct you in the good and the right way.

"Only fear the LORD, and serve him faithfully with all your heart; for consider what great things he has done for you. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king." (1 Sam 12.13-25)

God is angry, and has warned that their choice will cause them suffering (and the loss of their good life under God's direct kingship). Yet he doesn't abandon them but continues to work with them. And Samuel, also greatly upset with the people, continues to pray for them and instruct them.


happy new year?

I just sent out this short note to the many friends and family who have encouraged and supported us in the retreat work here:

We've learned not to expect anything new on New Year's day. Besides a couple different numbers at the end of the date, not much is going to change. And after all the expectation of the Advent season, Christmas usually doesn't produce anything significantly new, either.

But we should remember it wasn't that way the first Christmas.

Jesus' birth was the beginning of something never before seen. Something long awaited and desperately hoped for. Not just a new idea, either, or a new religion. What appeared was a new life. A person who could be seen and touched, who lived a life of amazing freedom, filled with the wisdom and power of God, a life that revealed what the promised "kingdom of God" looked like. And he offered this new life to all those willing to follow him.

This life was also new in that it seemed to favor the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the outcasts. And they seemed to embrace it more readily than the wealthy, powerful, and respected people in society.

In the retreats we offer, we hope to share and nurture this new life with the poor and marginalized people in our society. And it's been a joy this past year to see our hopes beginning to be realized. We offered two retreats this past summer for groups of guys from Emmaus Ministries (which helps men getting out of prostitution) and also invited one of the men for a week-long personal retreat. That's something we want to continue to offer in the future. A group of volunteers from the Franciscan Outreach Association also came for a weekend to meet us and see the farm. We hope to soon invite retreatants from their ministry to the poor in Chicago. And we're also hoping this year to invite folks from Good News Partners, who help people transitioning out of homelessness.

Thank you for your interest, encouragement, prayers, and support in this work. We're also really grateful to God for the new beginning we have glimpsed this year. And for the amazing life of his Son, a life offered to the poor and lowly, a life that is always new wherever it appears among us.