a painful isolation

Last month I wrote several times about the experience of the followers of Jesus as "strangers and exiles" in the societies of the world. That thought came back to me again in my current reflections and feelings of being humbled. (Pretty appropriate themes for this time in the church year....)

The experience of social rejection for following Jesus is an important part of our spiritual formation. I touched on some aspects of this in my writing about becoming "nobodies," in Jesus' kingdom of nobodies. Being rejected or pushed to the margins of the human societies we find ourselves in helps us focus on our true source of personal value and help, our Father.

Being rejected by most people also tends to help us stay humble. It's belittling to be thought of as a nobody, of little worth to the group, a cast off. It helps us avoid the natural pride of those honored and praised by the crowd. But there can be a spiritual pride that can try to replace that, a feeling that we are better than others, set apart from the crowd because we are so spiritually superior.

If this continues, it has an increasingly isolating effect. Not just isolating from the people around us, who we come to judge and despise, but also isolating from God. Because the illusion of superiority is not truth. (Being able to follow Jesus more closely is always a gift, never something we earn or deserve.) We have to isolate ourselves from reality to keep up the superiority illusion in our own head, and shut out God's attempts to show us the truth. An increasingly painful isolation.

As the images of strangers and exiles suggest, we can face some lonely times in following Jesus. Just as he did. But when God is with us in those times, we need not feel the painful isolation. God will provide all the inner reassurance and also the human support that we need to get through those times (remember the man who carried Jesus' cross, for instance). But if we start to cut ourselves off from God in those times, by spiritual pride, for example, then we can find ourselves truly alone. The pain of this, though, can be God's way of getting our attention and calling us back. And a life of depending closely on God's support (because we find little support from the society that rejects us) does help us recognize quickly when we are choking off God's support through our own sin. Because then we have nothing, and feel it intensely.

I pray I'm more sensitive and responsive to these pains in the future (and don't have to be slammed flat on my back).


"I am not kind"

I got quite sick last week, with a fever up to almost 103°F. Thankfully it came down (with some prayer) right when we were worriedly trying to decide whether to start looking for a doctor who wouldn't charge much.

When I'm really sick I tend to get very reflective and introspective. All that pain and laying around, I guess. And I got into a couple good books last week. Near the beginning of Cry, The Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, I found this:
"You are kind," Kumalo replied.

Something in the humble voice must have touched Msimangu, for he said, "I am not kind. I am a selfish and sinful man, but God put his hands on me, that is all."

There's not any new insight in this, it's just that somehow it sounds like he really means it. And it came to me at a time when I really needed to hear it and was brought low enough to hear it well. I need to get to this kind of humility. Or, rather, this kind of honesty.



"he did not speak to them without a parable"

I've been noticing again Jesus' unique way of communicating. We're used to direct discussions, and preaching or lectures on a specific topic, but it seems that Jesus often didn't directly explain his thoughts or engage in theological debates about them. In his preaching he often used parables, for instance. And in Mark, there's this line:
With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to [the people], as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything. (Mk 4.33-34)

I've wondered about that before. Why not just explain simply and clearly? I've heard many say that parables were just Jesus' way of illustrating his ideas, making them more accessible. But Matthew, Mark, and Luke all suggest otherwise: "Jesus said, 'To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables.'" (Lk 8.10; also Mk 4.12, Mt 13.13) The parables were a bit obscure, and could be interpreted in various ways. I imagine Jesus' simple stories often left people scratching their heads.

But privately to his disciples Jesus explained everything. Why this difference? Maybe it had to do with the disciples openness to what Jesus was saying, and their faith (though they still often did not truly understand). Maybe Jesus knew that the vast majority of people would immediately reject his message if he spoke it plainly and clearly. It would be better to simply leave them with a strange image, or even leave them confused. Better that than an unfruitful argument or outright rejection. So Jesus only spoke plainly and discussed openly with those who he saw were open to hearing the good news he had to offer.

Not that he didn't communicate with the others; it was just different. He communicated with parables and with the example of his life. Anyone could see how he lived differently than most everyone else, radically different. In Jesus' choices and example people saw what the kingdom of God looked like, not as an ideological argument but as a living presence. (Now that I think of it, the parables also described the life choices and actions of people that communicated God's message in a similar way.) And if people became intrigued by this and opened themselves more to what he had to say, Jesus would teach and discuss with them openly, as he did with the rest of his disciples.

I think I've probably been been too quick to discuss and argue with people, often with rather unhelpful results. Now I find myself withdrawing from such discussions, at least the public ones, because of how disappointed and frustrated I've become (with myself as much as anyone else). But Jesus' example shows that there may be other ways to keep communicating. Through choices and the way we live, which are perhaps not as clear or easily interpreted, but might still be better than a discussion that just divides people. And what people see might draw them into discussion eventually, when the time is better for real understanding.



the community of the sick

Heather and I are leading worship this Sunday, and I think we'll use this story:
Jesus went out, and saw a tax collector, named Levi, sitting at the tax office; and Jesus said to him, "Follow me." And he left everything, and rose and followed him.

And Levi made him a great feast in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others sitting at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?"

And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Lk 5.27-32)

I came across this again a few mornings ago and it made me think. The usual goal is to find a healthy, life-giving community and root yourself there. It seems like a tragedy to get stuck surrounded by people who are wounded or "dysfunctional" or just plain hard to live with. (Often communities try to cleanse themselves of such people.) But Jesus seems to suggest that the second option is closer to his example. "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick."

Not that we can always be the physician, of course. And it can be a hindrance when the sick do not know they are sick (which is perhaps the case for all who think they are well?). But those who are most broken down are usually closer to recognizing their sickness and more willing to change.

Among those seeking Christian community it seems to be the norm to expect some sort of better society, or attempt to create such a society, some sort of shelter from the world. But my experience is that we're always living intimately surrounded by the world (though maybe in varying intensities). And perhaps that's as it should be. As we try to hear and follow God's leading, we shouldn't expect to be led to the "promised land" community, but rather to the community of the sick. And we should interact with them as we see Jesus interacting with the sick of the world that were always all around him (including both the tax collectors and Pharisees in this story).


for Heather

When I look at thy heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars which you have established;
what are mortals that you are mindful of them,
and the children of mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them little less than God,
and crown them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea.

O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

from Psalm 8


the shift from crisis to control

I've been thinking a little more about serving in temporary crisis situations (like I've been doing in some ways lately), and how that service changes as the situation becomes more stable (changes I've been experiencing in other areas of life here). It's hard to define exactly when the change occurs, but there seems to be a clear difference. And the change seems very common, happening over and over in most all areas of social life.

When there is a crisis or urgent need that isn't being met, people feel vulnerable and needy, and they are quite open to help. Any help, from wherever it might come. There is great freedom in serving in such a situation, and the urgency of the need provides lots of motivation to help. Love prompts us to act, and there is the freedom of love in that work. The help is a gift given and people are glad to receive it that way. This is the kind of work I've enjoyed most. It's the way work was meant to be, in my opinion.

But situations usually never remain this way. As the crisis eases (perhaps because of all the help given), the community gets its footing again and begins to feel less vulnerable, less needy. And it begins to take more control of meeting the needs of its members. It begins to organize a more stable and secure structure for the meeting of those needs. The people were glad to receive any help before, but now want to shift from being needy recipients of charity to begin choosing representatives for themselves, who will serve according to the wishes of the community. Those who serve now become more like employees (usually literally) rather than givers of gifts. In this there is notably less freedom in the service, and the motivation for working becomes more the expectations or ambitions of the people, rather than the love that spontaneously responds to need.

It's been enlightening to me to see this happen. I knew about different ways of working and serving (gifts vs. employment, for example), but I'm just now seeing how these can shift over time. And I'm trying to figure out how to keep working the first way, and avoid the second, as situations keep changing.

Recognizing this shift also seems important if we're trying to follow Jesus' example of being "strangers and exiles" in society. Because we can certainly help and love others in need while being outsiders, but I have a hard time seeing how we can become representatives of the will of the people and still be strangers the way Jesus was. It's the difference between an ambassador and an exile. I think it's also helpful to notice the kind of service Jesus offered. His main kind of work seemed to be helping the helpless, those in crisis, and when the people wanted to make him their representative (their king) he refused.

It might seem that it can be different in the church, where we're all supposed to be strangers together. But it seems to me that the members of the body of Christ are never meant to be representatives (or employees) of the other members. We're all supposed to be the servants and representatives of Jesus. Thus the service and work of the body should always be of the first kind, gifts given to each other, prompted by love responding to needs, while we always remain needy and grateful for whatever is given. The life of the anawim. Where the institutional church has (again and again) gotten its footing and become less vulnerable and more secure, it has certainly demonstrated the usual shift to representatives of the will of the people; but in this it just shows that it is straying from the reality of Christ's body.



"and they rose up and put him out of the city"

My thoughts in my last entry were not very well-developed, but yesterday I came across a familiar story that stirred those ideas a little more. When Jesus stood and read in the synagogue (Lk 4.16-30). It has Jesus quoting Isaiah 61, "good news to the poor," words that have inspired me too, through him. But there's also something else.

That story gives the one scene I can recall where Jesus plays an "official" role in his community's religious practice. Later we see him often teaching and healing and casting out demons, but in an almost renegade way, in various places, hillsides, seaside, out on the sea, and sometimes in the temple but not apparently in an official capacity. So that eventually he is challenged, "by what authority do you do these things?" And in the story in Luke, where he reads as part of the service in the synagogue, he ends up angering the people so much they drive him out and try to throw him off a cliff.

It reminded me of how alternative Jesus' way of life was. How differently he did things. In a way that makes it apparent how the kingdom of God is different from our human societies and accustomed ways of working and interacting with people. That alternative is what I'm intrigued by and want to live.

The challenge seems to be how to be so different and still be able to engage people in society and be helpful to them. Jesus seemed to operate so much on the margins, and so mostly touched the people on the margins. He also responded to needs that others could not help, like leprosy and demon possession. So people were more open to his very different ways in those desperate cases. Maybe that's something like I was saying before about looking for critical, urgent needs to offer help, and the freedom and love that can be experienced in serving in those areas. Those crisis situations are usually temporary, but what is important is the message communicated by our help, not finding a permanent and secure job for ourselves. Maybe another way to show how the kingdom of God appears again and again in this world, but is not "of the world."


freedom and love

My new bookkeeping tasks have multiplied recently. The person who was running the office for the whole community has suffered some health problems that have kept him out of work. So I've been trying to fill in, though I'm not very well qualified for the job yet. The bills are getting paid, so that's good, I guess. And it's just temporary, until it's decided who will step in next. Then I'll just be keeping the books for the farm.

I like the feeling of the temporariness, specifically in this case where it's rising to the need that appears. In both the maintenance and bookkeeping tasks I've taken on, it's been simply a response to a pressing need, not any ambition of mine or desire to find a role in the community. This urgent need has also allowed me considerable flexibility in how I will do the work (I'm not pressured to conform to the "job description"). If eventually a more permanent and more structured solution is preferred, I think I'll very easily pass those tasks to others.

Several months ago I wrote about some concerns when I took up these tasks, that they might be distractions. But I think they might be showing me practical ways that the Spirit uses us, not so much in this or that particular job, but in the ways the tasks are taken up and done. Responding to urgent needs that arise, we have more freedom to work in ways we feel good about, and also can more clearly show our concern and care for those in need around us. And then when the need eases, or more permanent institutional solutions take over, there is the freedom to step away.

It has the feel of the spirit that "blows where it will." And clearly demonstrates both the freedom and the love that are central to the work of God.