christ on the hillside

A conversation on the (new!) Jesus Radicals site has me thinking about my experiences at the Catholic Worker. Some hard days there. I referenced a journal entry from that time, trying to caution people about the challenges, and it reminded me of my hopes then "that there is a 'blessed' life that we are called to that is blessed in reality and not just in imagination." The vision of "Christ in the Breadlines" wasn't working for me any more.

Jesus described the life of the kingdom of God as "blessed." And when we look at the life he and his disciples lived, we can see that blessedness. It's not a life mired in the dirt and degradation and violence of the "Christ in the Breadlines" ideal, as far as I can tell. During my Catholic Worker days, I felt myself being drawn more and more to the vision of Jesus on some hillside, like when he preached the sermon on the mount, with people coming out to see and be healed by him. Jesus' kingdom life drawing people out of the mire of their lives. His invitation inspiring them to long for and eventually receive the good life that Jesus himself lived. My "Christ on the Hillside" vision. Still a poor, vulnerable Jesus, but living the blessed life of the kingdom.

And, since then, Heather and I have been shown something of how that might be experienced now. We've been led to a hillside of sorts, from which to invite the poor out of the pressures and violence of the city. And we're still able to live a life of voluntary poverty, but a beautiful poverty. A life of the kingdom that is "blessed" not only in a spiritual sense but also materially and relationally, because "your Father knows your needs." I hope that can be a witness and encouragement to others who see it.

In any case, it's been a great encouragement to me. I'm very thankful.


out in it

This is from a stretch of road I often walk. The setting sun made the grass glow.


first day of autumn


stop trying to to make our organizations better

I think I was interested again in the value of "weak ties" because of my current stepping outside the circle of the community here. Visiting other churches, which I think will be my continual practice now. And also involvement with other communities because of the retreats we offer, and increased interactions through web communities like Jesus Manifesto and Jesus Radicals. Trying to think of the value of these "weak ties" for community life.

And moves like these might be helpful, in bringing in new ideas and resources to communities that have gotten a little ingrown. But the more I've thought about it, the more I appreciate the way communities that build strong ties also tend to get ingrown, inwardly focused, often to the point of collapsing in on themselves. Maybe this is how it should be, how God wants it. To help us see that these communities are human constructions and not the one Community we long for, that they eventually collapse like anything we build, that they are not worthy of our trust or allegiance. Only the Body of Christ doesn't have the obvious weaknesses of both strong and weak tie communities.

I've got to get out of the mode of thinking how to make our human organizations better and devote more energy to simply living the life of the Body. It's not an organization that we design or maintain or improve. It's the living community that we can only join or reject (in all the various aspects of its life); it's already here and it can never collapse. And we can't improve it, only because it's already the one true community that we all long for.


after the rain

Someone gave us peace roses for our wedding, and they're doing great this year.


"who are my brothers?"

Continuing a series from several years ago, on "weak" and "strong" ties in community...

I came across this passage in my reading this morning:
While Jesus was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But to the man who told him he replied, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?"

And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother." (Mt 12.46-50)
I linked to Mark's version of these words a couple days ago, writing about relationships beyond our close circles of "strong ties," and how that made me think of the way Jesus talked about the kingdom of God community. How it went beyond (and superseded) even the strongest family ties.

I've been thinking more about that. There are the weaknesses of "strong tie" communities that I wrote about yesterday; the kingdom of God community doesn't share these weaknesses. But there are also obvious strengths in strong ties. In the paper I referred to yesterday, Mark Granovetter wrote:
Weak ties provide people with access to information and resources beyond those available in their own social circle; but strong ties [provide] greater motivation to be of assistance and are typically more easily available.
I would expect the kingdom of God community to have the strengths of both strong and weak ties, without the weaknesses of either.

Again and again over the past few years, I've argued that our usual model of the close, well-defined, institutional community (whether political, familial, or religious) does not fit Jesus' description of the kingdom of God. Especially in the way these groups find their unity in something that necessarily separates them from others, thus inevitably forming many distinct "bodies" instead of the one Body of Christ, the one kingdom of God.

My best experiences of the kingdom of God have led to an understanding of a single, God-given, God-directed community (very different from, though not physically set apart from the many divided, humanly-instituted, humanly-ruled groups)—a complex interweaving of relationships that is not limited by physical boundaries or institutional membership. This offers the strengths of "weak ties," and is available to us anywhere (not just in one family or neighborhood).

But what about the greatest strength of strong ties, "greater motivation to be of assistance"? Jesus' community offers this also, but it is somewhat different from the motivation seen in most strong tie relationships. It is still the motivation of love, but it is not based on shared blood or shared location or shared history. It is based on a connection that we may not recognize until we encounter one another, the connection in the deepest part of our being—to the one God. "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother."

I've had the opportunity to experience this in very real ways, on my walks all over the country. People who I never met before embracing me and caring for me as an intimate friend (as is also seen in Jesus' life and ministry, and Paul's). So I know it's not just wishful thinking. It's the truth.


weaknesses of strong ties

Continuing a series from several years ago, on "weak" and "strong" ties in community...

I've been doing a little more thinking and research on the value of "weak ties." And found another paper by Mark Granovetter (written about ten years after "The Strength of Weak Ties"). In it, he brings in the work of a couple other sociologists, who expanded on his ideas.

Rose Coser observed that being deeply enmeshed in close-knit communities (made up mostly of strong ties) can limit our ability to understand and communicate to others outside our group. "In a Gemeinschaft [close-knit community] everyone knows fairly well why people behave in a certain way. Little effort has to be made to gauge the intention of the other person." Therefore these more complex interpersonal skills are not developed. Further, when our interaction with people quite different from us is limited, it also limits our understanding of ourselves. Being drawn out into "weak tie" relationships helps us see ourselves in relationship with the wider outside world, and forces us to explain ourselves (and our beliefs) to people who do not share our background or assumptions about the world. It also helps us understand that what happens to us is influenced by forces far beyond our local community. Coser saw this as especially important to people of lower socio-economic backgrounds, who tend to live in close (and very disadvantaged) communities and have great difficulty moving beyond them.

Carol Stack studied a black, urban American, midwestern ghetto, and Larissa Lomnitz a shantytown on the fringes of Mexico City. They found very close, strong ties within these communities, driven especially by the economic necessity of sharing and the feeling of security provided by a close group. But the strength of the ties in these areas also tended to fragment the people into small groups, making any collective action very difficult. It also made it more difficult for individuals to adapt to the world beyond their groups, or understand the social and economic forces that were contributing to their condition, thus (in another way) perpetuating the poverty that helped form these close groups.

In this paper, Granovetter made a point of saying that strong ties are not to be dismissed, that they very important in our lives. But it is also important to see their limitations. This is a good reminder at a time when "community building" is becoming more and more emphasized (and especially within communal settings like the one I live in).


the strength of "weak" ties

Thinking recently about mingling with other church communities, I remembered some journal entries from years ago about "strong and weak ties." So I took a look back. Maybe they're worth seeing again now; there's a series of three of them:

Yesterday I overheard a radio show that mentioned a very influential work by sociologist Mark Granovetter, "The Strength of Weak Ties" (available here, in pdf). The title intrigued me, so I looked it up.

And discovered something very interesting. Granovetter found that "weak ties" (acquaintances, as opposed to the "strong ties" of family and close friends) play a crucial part in both the lives of individuals and in the health of social groups. Our weak ties tend to be with people who are somewhat different from us, and who usually circulate with people we don't know. So they are better able to expose us to new ideas and new opportunities. Groups formed mostly of strong ties tend to think alike and pass the same information around and draw on the same resources. They are usually trustworthy and familiar, but are limited in their ability to produce innovations or prepare us to move beyond the ideas or resources of that particular group. Our weak ties with people are much better at helping us branch out.

Granovetter also observed that "strong ties, breeding local cohesion, lead to overall fragmentation." Meaning that groups that pull closely together usually do so in a way that cuts them off from others outside the group. (I've observed this myself, in my experience with intentional communities.) It's our weak ties, with those outside our close-knit groups, that serve as bridges connecting us with the wider community. And these outside connections can also help keep our groups from becoming isolated and ingrown.

I'm not sure what the implications of this are, but it seems important. Jesus strongly emphasized connections beyond our limited families and social cliques, presenting the "kingdom of God" as the one, true community. These connections are usually dismissed as weak or theoretical (or "mystical") by most people, including Christians. Even so, they may be much more important than we think.

And, from the way Jesus talked about our "kingdom of God" ties, they probably can be a lot stronger than we think, too...



"the fool's going to get himself killed"

Heather wrote a story for the retreat this weekend, to go with the passage about the criminals executed with Jesus. She imagines them as freedom fighters (or terrorists, depending on your perspective). Here's one of them, the good one, with his initial impression of Jesus:

There's another man who's going to be crucified today. Name of Jesus, from some village called Nazareth up north. He came into Jerusalem the same time we did—for the same thing, I thought. All the children were running up and down the road waving palm branches and singing, and the men were throwing their coats down in the dust for his mule to walk on. I looked at him and thought, he got a procession but he couldn't even get a horse. The fool's going to get himself killed. All those people shouting and singing about him, shouting that he was the Son of David, the Messiah—the one we pray for every day, the one who'll free us all—but I looked at his followers, and they were nothing. Oh, there were lots of them right enough, but only a handful of men who'd be any good in a fight. They were just like my village people back home—those skinny children, those men worn out with work. Those patient faces—I can hardly bear to look at them sometimes. They're like sheep being led into the slaughterhouse. Just looking at you. And with these people he thought he could take Jerusalem?

Yeah, I thought. The Romans are going to nail that guy. Too bad. And I turned away and followed Jacob.


yielding rather than struggling

Yesterday I was practicing some Tai Chi again. I haven't done it in a long while. The routine I learned is demonstrated in this video (much, much better than I can do it).

Tai Chi is influenced by Taoism, which emphasizes calmness, balance, yielding (rather than struggling), humility. Years ago I read the Tao Te Ching and memorized this passage:

The best of man is like water,
Which benefits all things, and does not contend with them,
Which flows in places that others disdain,
Where it is in harmony with the Way.


"save yourself!"

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with Jesus. And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." And they cast lots to divide his garments.

And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him vinegar, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!"

...And one of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" (Lk 23.32-39)

I think we'll use this passage for our retreat next weekend (including the part where Jesus tells the other criminal, "Today you will be with me in paradise"). Looking it over yesterday I noticed the repeated taunt, "Save yourself!" That seems important.

Isn't that the temptation for Jesus on the cross? And isn't that the human measure of a worthy king, or a great man? "Save yourself and us!"

Much of my criticism of Christian community has also been that we prefer to save ourselves, and attempt to use the gathered power and wealth of a group to do that. Or use the techniques that seemed to save other communities in the past. Even when hard circumstances demonstrate how truly helpless we are, as soon as things settle down a bit we quickly move to establish control again. To maintain the illusion that through our structures and cooperation we can save ourselves from future calamities. We feel secure in that illusion.

"Father forgive them; for they know not what they do." The rulers actually thought that they were saving themselves (and their community) by getting rid of Jesus. This drive for self-salvation, this pride, works directly against God's purposes.

Jesus offended the rulers, the crowd, the soldiers, and even one of the criminals, by not saving himself. Instead, he trusted God to save him. And God did.

In their attempts to save themselves, however, the rulers and crowds and soldiers were not so successful.


"there's a lifting"

I should write something thoughtful about the retreat, but we had a belated birthday celebration for Heather Monday and canned pears (poached in red wine) yesterday and now I'm off to deliver vegetables to the city.

One thing the group really liked was music from the Reba Praise album, recorded by the Reba Place music group (led by Heather's aunt). We always begin retreats with one song from that album, sung by Ken Stewart. He grew up here on the farm and also sang at our wedding. It's called "There's a lifting"