We slept in this morning, after an intense and fun and satisfying retreat weekend...



We had peach juice running down our arms yesterday as we got our bushel and a half ready for freezing (and didn't muzzle the ox, of course).

Not quite as exciting as these guys' peach experience, though. No ninjas.


a question mark in church

I haven't been attending church here in the community for a while now. That's bothered me. I've thought of it as temporary, thinking that changes had to come soon, that the community situation was not sustainable. But it has dragged on. And, more importantly, some conversations with people lead me to believe that the changes that will come will almost certainly not be what I've hoped for. The people involved will change, but the establishment of human authority and the use of (or at least threat of) coercion will continue. And that power will continue to wound some people and corrupt others. And the church will continue to grant spiritual legitimacy and assurance to the community in this rather than challenging it.

As hard as that was to actually accept, I find myself now strangely reassured by that realization. Because it's not just this place, this church, at this moment. They're not fundamentally different from others in these things. It's this way everywhere, and has been forever; Jesus saw the same thing. And he told his followers to expect it (especially in the religious communities), sending them out as sheep amidst wolves, and he didn't tell them they were going to change it. "The world," Jesus called it, because it's universal.

So I don't need to be waiting impatiently to see what will happen. Or hover in indecision because the others have not made their decision. I just need to take my place in relation to the world like Jesus demonstrated, a place on the margins, a place with the poor and weak, a place in tension with those in power, a question mark placed within the world.

I think I've been moving in the right direction here for a while, towards the margins, towards simple service and away from governance and positions of control. But I've felt conflicted about not attending the church lately. And when I think of the other options, other churches around here, I don't see them as much better in the areas that troubled me so much in this church. What to do? I don't want to reject them all, but neither do I want to affirm them wholeheartedly. Did Jesus show the way to respond to this situation, to the various religious establishments that certainly include many of God's people, but are also human organizations rebellious against God?

My most satisfying church experiences may have been when I was on the road, visiting different churches regularly. A perpetual visitor. And now that I think of it, that seems like what Jesus was, a perpetual visitor in the synagogues of his time. He didn't reject them, though he did challenge their ways (and got thrown out of at least one for telling of God's displeasure with them), but Jesus insisted that the most important thing was not where we worship but that we worship in spirit and truth. (Jn 4.19-24) He also compared that Spirit of truth to the wind that blows where it wills—not where people want it to. I'm thinking that I'd like to try to be a perpetual visitor, in several churches near here. Ready to worship with all of them, standing with God's people in all of them, but also a question mark, holding back from fully identifying with that institutional group. Because the organization is not the Spirit, and that's obvious in so many ways.

I find myself feeling much more satisfied with that as a long term response, even if I do eventually join worship here in the community again (every once in a while). It brings back thoughts on church membership from years ago: "I am a brother to all who are also part of Christ. I will recognize them, not by their official affiliation, but by their Christlike lives."


"a question put within the world"

I got to visit Chico and Tatiana this past week, on my trip to Michigan to pick up peaches, apples, and pears (two tons of them!) for people around here. Good conversations with them. At one point I tried to remember this passage from Jacques Ellul's The Politics of God and the Politics of Man and did my best to paraphrase it. I'll have to send them the original (the italics are mine):

The action we attempt will always be regarded by the world as a failure, and the more so the more it is authentically faithful. We cannot be successful or show the church to be effective in the world unless we adopt the world's criterion of efficacy, which means adopting its means as well.

As the world sees it, action which is faithful to God will always fail, just as Jesus Christ necessarily went to the cross. Such action always leads to a dead end. It is always a fiasco from the standpoint of worldly power. But this should not worry us. It does not mean that our action is in truth ineffectual. Efficacy measured in terms of faithfulness cannot be compared at any point with efficacy measured in terms of success.

...These successes, this efficacy as it would be called from man's standpoint, and especially in our own society, will never amount to anything more than the approval given by the world, by society, to certain acts and means. It is the stamp of a group of men, a social body. But if we do not believe that society is good and right, this approval proves nothing except that the action is in conformity with the world. It does not mean that the world has changed; quite the contrary. Each time the people of God becomes effective according to the world's criteria, this only implies that society has absorbed our action and is using it for its own ends and for its own profit. ...The efficacy we think we have is simply a power in the world's service, for the perfecting of its own being, for its better organization....

There can be no question of securing the approval of the world or its conformity to us. ...We have simply to be, and we can only be a question put within the world, a question invincibly confronting it. This is our efficacy. It is the efficacy of the question, a question which society and sociological movements cannot assimilate. Israel and the church have never been efficacious except to the degree that the world has been unable to assimilate them. This is the vocation of the people of God incomparably more authentic than "service" or "works."

It is not at the level of works and their results that this efficacy may be seen; it is at the level of inassimilability.



empowered by God

Some practical implications from the thoughts on Jesus' authority in the last entry (in a series from two years ago)...

It seems to me that voting someone into office directly reflects the understanding that the power and authority of a leader derives from the strength of the people. In our church meeting, someone even said that: "The elders have authority because we have chosen them." This is the basis of every human authority and power (it's a little different if the leader is appointed by someone in a higher office, but even then the whole authority structure depends on the people accepting it, participating in it, submitting to it—if they don't, there's no power there). Jesus was not chosen, not "empowered," in this way. Neither was Paul. And the earliest church didn't have an official authority structure by which leaders were chosen and their leadership enforced. Paul had to keep writing and preaching and offering his strong example to keep the Christians in the various churches following his teaching; and it's clear from some of his letters that not everyone saw his word as authoritative. But, like Jesus, he didn't have an office to appeal to, he just had to keep speaking the truth to them. With both of them, it was always clear that God (not some group of people) had chosen and empowered them.

Because of the reality of God empowering those he chooses to lead his people, there doesn't seem to be the need for granting them any human authority or backing up their decisions with human force. As I said before, Jesus led without these. And he taught his disciples not to rule over each other, that they had one Father and they were all brothers and sisters. When someone has been given special abilities or wisdom from God, we naturally follow them as "authorities" because we see they have what is good, what is from God. There is no need of human force to make us obey. If we choose not to obey, then our efforts flounder or fail and we suffer the consequences of our foolishness. God backs up the authority of those who he has chosen.

So, in the church at least, it seems to me that we should set aside human authority, offices of power, and the enforcement of leadership decisions through force or threats of force (social ostracism being also a form of force, by cutting people off from the support they need to survive). Set aside the human power that causes resentments and dissension, and tempts leaders to abuses. From situation to situation, let each one lead according to their gifts and abilities from God. Seek out those gifts in ourselves in others, because we need them as a church.

One of the main areas that leaders are often called into, and sometimes feel the need to exercise the authority to resolve, is the settling of disputes between arguing members. This is not easy. But Jesus gave specific practical advice about how to handle such situations (in Mt 18), and no "elder" or other human authority appears in his instructions. Our church here is already committed to following those instructions in resolving conflicts. I'd like to see us do this better.

Of course this kind of decentralized leadership requires a lot more of each member of the church. But aren't we called to live this way, to be strikingly different from the world, to stand out like lights? I believe we would also experience greater unity and sense of being all brothers and sisters, each of us empowered by the Father of us all.

I probably should add a disclaimer, though. I'm not at all sure that the authority and leadership style of Jesus can be applied well when we start involving property. With many groups (including churches and Christian communal organizations), decisions about the use of property are the most problematic and divisive, and human authority is often appealed to. I'm not sure Jesus gives us good advice about this problem. Because he did not face it. He counseled his followers to give away all and not gather up treasures and not resist those who would beg or steal from them. But if we don't follow Jesus' counsel in regarding the gathering and holding of property, I think we probably won't be able to follow Jesus' counsel very well in our attempts to manage our property and resolve conflicts over it. All of Jesus' teaching holds together. We cannot just follow part of it.


authority not from people

Continuing the thoughts from yesterday, in a series of entries from two years ago...

I find two important aspects of Jesus' authority that differ from the positions of authority we create in human organizations. It differs primarily in that Jesus' authority is from God and not from groups of people.

First, Jesus is not granted authority by the vote of people in an organization or by officials of that group. He operated outside the social authority structures of his time. So people are surprised when he demonstrates authority in teaching and in acts of power (like healing) and in forgiveness of sins, because he had not been granted that authority by his society. Hence the elders' question, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Yet Jesus certainly spoke and acted with authority, and people recognized that. They just didn't know where it came from.

Second, Jesus' authority was not enforced by human power, by threats of punishment, for example. There was no question of being thrown in jail if people didn't obey his word. No one was in danger of being kicked out of the organization or ostracized socially if they rejected his teaching. Anyone was free at any time to obey his commands and follow his example or turn away and dismiss him. No social pressure threatened those who rejected his authority. (Actually, the social pressure soon turned harshly against those who accepted his authority.) When people followed or obeyed Jesus, it was because they believed he spoke the truth. They recognized that he was simply telling them what was truly real, and that to reject him was to reject reality, to reject God. God backed up Jesus' words—no human enforcement was required.

One way I've seen authority like this exist in everyday life, is when we follow the example or advice of someone because we recognize that person is especially gifted or skilled. We follow not because that person holds some office, but because the person is good, because they know what they are talking about. No election is needed and no enforcement of their commands is necessary. We obey because we see that they know the best way to act in their area of expertise.

But of course this means we follow different leadership according to the task at hand. Such leadership shifts from one situation to the next, depending on who is gifted to respond to the challenge we face at the moment. But isn't that how Jesus taught us to be, all of us brothers and sisters under one Teacher, one Father?

More later...


by what authority?

The church here has restarted the process of selecting elders. That prompted me to look back and I found some good journal entries from more than two years ago, when the church was in about the same place in the process as it is now. It was helpful for me to reread these. I don't think I can say this any better now, so I'll just post that series of entries again...

We've started a process in our church to select a new elder; there's only one now and it is preferred to have two or three. There is no pastor in the church (I like that). That means the elders are considered the leaders, and have more authority than perhaps most churches. Most decisions are made by consensus in the church meetings, but the elders set the agenda for meetings and make some sensitive and crisis decisions. Because of the history here, and strong Christian beliefs, most people are not very comfortable granting or assuming authority. But they seem to feel it is necessary. So the selection of an elder is a rather tense and unwelcome task.

As we began, we looked at a number of biblical passages that refer to elders in the early church, mostly coming from Paul's letters. Thinking of that later, I realized that none of the passages came from the Gospels or contained any guidance from Jesus himself. And when I started looking through the stories of Jesus' life, I found many references to elders, but the elders were always religious authorities that were trying to stand in Jesus' way.

The passage that I think is most helpful in our current situation begins when Jesus is confronted by the elders on the question of authority:

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?"

Jesus answered them, "I also will ask you a question; and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from men?"

And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'From men,' we are afraid of the multitude; for all hold that John was a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know."

And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." (Mt 21.23-27)
Jesus' question reveals their understanding of authority, that the authority they wield (and the authority they think Jesus lacks) derives from the support of the people. They cannot answer his question because they are afraid of losing face on one hand, or angering the people on the other. This is the thinking of politicians. Which makes sense because, as officials in social organizations, both elected politicians and religious officials exercise the same power, the power granted by the people that selected them (or that support the legitimacy of their office). Their power, their authority, derives from the power of the group, "We, the People." The chief priests and elders do not want to lose the support of the group, so they do not answer Jesus' question.

So Jesus doesn't answer their question about authority. Because the authority for his words and actions does not come from the people, it is not political authority, it is not the authority that they understand. So he has no answer for them.

More tomorrow...


another one for chico

I just found a letter from Chico in the mailbox...


"your hand was heavy upon me"

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

That's from Psalm 32. The imagery really works for me, with the weather that's oppressing us here at the moment. And that phrase about God's hand "heavy upon me" has been on my mind recently.

It's hard, I think, to know how to relate to someone who is experiencing God's hand heavy upon them. Job's friends made a famous hash of it, I recall. It's hard to watch, definitely. And there's the inclination to try to help the person in their distress and struggle—but if we see that God is pressing them, it seems futile to struggle against what God is doing. There is no real help for that situation except real repentance, a broken spirit. And often the person fights against God's hand, denying, hiding, or lashing out, and watching that has often made me frustrated or angry. Which further complicates my attempts to relate well.

I wonder if some of my anger comes from a worry that the person(s) might be able to "declare not their sin" indefinitely, that the denials or hypocrisy might convince others and so pass for the truth. There's the temptation to put my own heavy hand into the situation. Either for the sake of what I see as justice, or maybe to try to bring the struggle to a climax, to get the suffering over with, so I don't have to watch it any more.

Which seems mostly to be a lack of faith on my part. It is by faith that we see the hand of God at work, including when that hand rests heavy on those around us. And it requires faith to trust that God's hand is not there to destroy but to save. Faith, also, to know that God's hand will not be thrown off by evasions or the optimistic words that so easily sway the crowd. Faith to wait on God.

This might even make it possible to be truly compassionate with that person, while still consenting to the righteous weight of God's hand on them. Because who among us has not felt that weight?


not a fan of smoking

This little guy (not so little, actually) came right up to our front door yesterday. Just nosing around. He knocked over the butt can we put out for smokers during retreats; that's how we noticed him.

It was also a chance to try out the camera we bought with some gift money. I'll be able to show more retreat pictures now, and the occasional groundhog.


"in holiness and justice"

He swore to Abraham our father to grant us,
that free from fear, and saved from the hands of our foes,
we might serve him in holiness and justice
all the days of our life in his presence.

Those lines are from Zechariah's prophecy (Lk 1.67-79), traditionally sung during morning prayer. I pray it on Sunday mornings. I went to mass yesterday evening at the Catholic church in town (that shares a priest and so doesn't have a Sunday service), and was a little disappointed by how much he focused on just getting to heaven. Though I suppose he's more in unity with most American churches with that message. "That, free from fear, we might serve [God] in holiness and justice, all the days of our life in his presence" sounds much better to me.

That line also speaks to some of my current frustrations and down-ness. I think I've been discouraged trying to offer alternatives here, alternatives to coercion, alternatives to the cycle of suffering, and being repeatedly refused. What good is "holiness and justice" if it is constantly rejected? (Not just here, but everywhere.)

But I think that the goodness of God's offer is just that, that it is offered. The offer stands; the alternative is real. "Free from fear, and saved from the hands of our foes, we might serve him in holiness and justice, all the days of our life in his presence." Not just in heaven, either. Here. All the days of our life. And Jesus' human life demonstrated that it's real and possible, here and now. Even if no one else accepted that offer, that invitation from God, it is still a beautiful and glorious thing that such an offer exists, offered to every one of us.

Offered to every one of us, whether or not others around us accept it too. We can live every day of our lives in God's presence, free from fear and every other bondage that keeps people hurting themselves and each other, free also from the hands that would bind us, free to serve God in holiness and justice, free always to do good, absolute and uncompromising good. That is the prophecy that Jesus fulfilled, and continues to fulfill in those who follow him.

And I have to say, so far I haven't encountered any reason to doubt it.


I remembered this meditation I put together years ago, because I think I've been getting myself down by fixating too much on people (including myself) and their problems. Too many disappointments. Too much chronic pain without the change and healing that the pain is meant to spur in us. I need to focus my attention more on Jesus again, rather than the waves. More on the one whom I want to be more like, rather than the ones I'm trying so hard not to be like. Finding peace in the one who never compromised, and is always trustworthy.

(Mt 14.26-31, 2 Cor 3.17-18)


don't fight it

To offset the playing of the national anthem now at Goshen college sporting events, I propose they adopt a thoroughly nonviolent fight song. How about Papa Roach's "Kick in the Teeth"?

We live in a cold dark world with venom in its fangs.
You can spit it in my face but I know I'll be okay
It's on the attack. It's a war. It's a game.
A ball and chain, chew my arm off to get away
Don't fight it, or deny it—invite it

'Cause when it feels like a kick in the teeth, I can take it.
Throw your stones and you won't see me breakin'.
Say what you want, take your shots.
You're setting me free with one more kick in the teeth!

I gotta say thanks cause you kick me when I'm down.
I'm bleeding out the mouth.
I hope you know I'm stronger now.
I'm taking the hate, I'm turning it all around.
I won't go down 'til I'm six feet underground.
Don't fight it, or deny it—invite it

'Cause when it feels like a kick in the teeth, I can take it.
Throw your stones and you won't see me breakin'.

Say what you want, take your shots.
You're setting me free with one more kick in the teeth!

Just imagine a crowd of Mennonite fans dancing and shouting out that chorus (and it would even work better if they're losing...).


this morning's prayer

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
fret not yourself over him who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.

For wickedness shall be cut off;
but those who wait for the Lord shall possess the land.

Yet a little while, and the wrongdoers will be no more;
though you look well at his place, he will not be there.
But the anawim shall possess the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
(from Ps 37)