"the Lord has rejected you as king"

I've been thinking about the story of King Saul again. I've written about it before, trying to understand how to relate to people who have chosen to do what God opposes (in that case asking for a king). Then there's the part about Saul being rejected by God. It seems to have happened not long after he became king (1 Sam 15), but then there were many years of Saul's kingship before he died. So he's been rejected as king by God, and Samuel and David (and perhaps others) know this. But the country continues under his leadership for quite a long time.

What we see, then, is how Samuel and David related to a leader who they knew God was no longer supporting. Samuel apparently grieved, but did not go to see Saul again after telling him of God's rejection. David sees Saul quite a lot and is always respectful. Even when Saul is pursuing him and trying to kill him, David respects him as king and spares his life.

Neither Samuel or David try to bring Saul down. They know he is finished. God is no longer supporting his kingship, so it is certainly ending. But God does not remove Saul immediately, not for a long time. I don't understand why. Maybe to let the people experience the consequences that God warned them about. But it must have been hard for Samuel and David to continue to live under Saul's rule when they knew God had rejected him. Hard to accept Saul's decisions and know the people could be so much better off without Saul leading them. But they waited on God. Trusting that God's word would come to pass eventually. And eventually it did.

I need practice in faith like that.

Perhaps Jesus saw all rulers as Samuel and David saw Saul. He seemed to relate to them much the same way, not trying to bring them down but knowing they they were rejected and finished. Because God said so.


where two or three are gathered

I just sent this in to Jesus Radicals...

"'When two or three are gathered together in my name.'
Not just one. But not a hundred either. Two or three." —Simone Weil

Among community-minded Christians, one of the most cherished and repeated sayings of Jesus is his promise, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” These few simple words emphasize Jesus’ presence among his followers when they come together. This promise comes right after Jesus’ specific instructions about handling conflict and wrongdoing among his followers, another teaching close to the hearts of many Christians living in community:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does no listen, take one or two others with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Mt 18.15-17)
But do we follow these practical and important instructions? And could Jesus’ words here (along with the example of his life) be offering us a model for addressing other challenges in community as well, in other areas besides sin and reconciliation?

When it comes to interpersonal conflict and wrongdoing, I’ve found that Christians in community often respond very much like people in any other organization. The first step is often an appeal to authority. Either a complaint to someone in a leadership position or an appeal to an established community rule, or maybe an attempt to establish a new rule for the group to prevent such conflicts in the future. I’ve heard leaders often express frustration about how many people come to them with their problems, especially problems between community members. And I’ve sat through countless meetings where rules and structures are proposed to provide a way for challenges (such as interpersonal conflict in the community) to be addressed fairly and decisively.

But what did Jesus tell us about this? He said that when we feel we have been wronged, we are supposed to act personally first, person to person. And only bring in one or two others if our personal attempt fails, and as a last resort bring it before the whole community. It seems that, in Jesus’ opinion, the authority of community leaders is not required, even in a difficult situation like unresolved conflict between members. And Jesus’ approach always focuses on restoring the personal relationships, and restoring the wrongdoer to unity with God and God’s people, something that can not be accomplished by community rules or laws. What I find most appealing, though, in Jesus’ approach to a challenge like this is that it starts so small and allows us to act right away. We don’t need an authority or a community meeting to begin. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”

Recently I’ve been thinking about this in areas of community life beyond personal reconciliation. There are many other challenges for Christian communities, whether churches or shared households or intentional communities, that often are handled much the same way as in any other human organization. Like when there is a financial crisis, or the need for maintenance or repairs, the desire to improve the property or start a new ministry, or personal problems within a family. Again, the approach is often to appeal to the leaders first or make a proposal at a community meeting. Which can tie up a perfectly good idea in long discussions or second guessing by leaders who feel responsible for the actions of the group. Because it’s hard to convince a large number of people of anything, even a good idea, without the idea being whittled away by multiple compromises. And a leader can feel burdened by the responsibility of their office so that they become very hesitant about taking risks. Coming up against this in community can leave us feeling frustrated and hesitant to act when we are inspired by ways to improve our life together.

But how did Jesus approach such challenges? I see his response to be very similar to his teaching about handling sin and reconciliation among his followers. As he taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan, when we see a need, we should respond immediately and personally. That’s how we love our neighbor. And if we are unable to meet the need or make the improvement ourselves, we should ask a few others to help. We see this when Jesus was inspired to begin his ministry. He didn’t appeal to the leaders of the synagogue or try to convince his community that it should happen. He just gathered a few other people that were inspired with him. Jesus didn’t have to convince his whole community that it was a good idea before he could begin, he just had to find a few others to step forward beside him. Later many others supported what Jesus and his disciples were doing. But to begin he just needed a few.

My wife and I have been using a similar approach in starting a retreat ministry for the poor. We now have the support of our families and others on the communal farm we live on, but to get to that point we had to begin with God’s leading that only we and a few others heard. Only when we got to the point of needing the support of a whole community did we bring the issue before the gathered assembly. Some close friends of ours took a similar step when they felt pulled towards a life shared closely with the very poor. They couldn’t convince their whole community to move in that direction, but they found each other and that was enough to begin. Now they live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, still members and with the support of their original community, but also expanding their community as God provides new friends and family. My most recent experiments in starting small have to do with the pressing maintenance needs on the property of the aging community here. By responding personally I began to see how much help I could offer, what a good way this was to show love for my neighbors, and I quickly learned new skills and discovered a few teachers and supporters to come alongside. And needs are being met, by God’s grace. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Often the interpersonal and organizational needs of a community can seem overwhelming and hopelessly tangled because of the complexity of human lives and the history of many overlapping relationships. There’s the tendency to try to find an overarching solution, a structure or plan that will reorder the community and point the way forward. But the complexity of community life, the push and pull of many unique individuals, resists such overarching solutions, and attempts to impose them can leave us endlessly frustrated. Jesus tells us instead to stay small and personal. Don’t try to handle fifty relationships or organize fifty people, when there are important practical ways we can improve two or three relationships in our community, or when the need could be met with the love of two or three people, or even one. Jesus’ teaching focuses almost completely on how to love our neighbor, how to interact with the person in front of us. And that’s where his teachings are most easily and effectively applied.

When we act as Jesus’ taught us, with faith in his presence among us “where two or three are gathered in my name,” then it doesn’t matter that our efforts are small. It doesn’t matter that our strength is too small to meet the whole need or our knowledge too small to untangle the persistent and complex challenge. Because Jesus is with us. And, with God, nothing is impossible.

(This essay can be downloaded as a RTF file here.)



from where does my help come?

We had Matt and Angela over Sunday night and shared our night prayer with them. We're trying to get back into it regularly. We started with a song by the Psalters, "Trisagion." It's from a Greek liturgy, and means "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us."

Here's the Psalms we use, chanting the second one:

Psalm 121
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved,
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not smite you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and for evermore.

Psalm 131
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother's breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and for evermore.

Then a time of quiet prayer, closing with this by Charles de Foucauld:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands;
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you—
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me
And in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my spirit.

I offer it to you
With all the love of my heart.
For I love you Lord,
And so need to give myself—
To surrender myself into your hands
Without reserve,
And with boundless confidence
For you are my Father.

And a Taize song at the end:


if the Lord does not build the house

These lines were sung here in church this morning:

If the Lord does not build the house
then in vain do the builders labor...

Quite so.


the usual message

From a discussion about what's happening in Egypt right now:

We should recall the ecstatic celebrations after Obama was elected. People were amazed at what their coordinated efforts had accomplished, something that seemed unimaginable. But now I would guess that few are really excited about what has been achieved by Obama, many are pretty disillusioned and upset. That's not to overly criticize Obama, who seems better than most politicians. It's just that politics is always very limited in the true good it can accomplish. The one unvarying law seems to be: compromise. And that never gets us very close to anyone's ideal.

Your example of Jericho is a great one. I can't think of a much better illustration of God's power at work, as opposed to the power of the people, except perhaps the story of Gideon. God tells the people of Israel to march around the city a certain number of times and blow trumpets. And the impenetrable walls fall down. How obvious is that, that the power of God is at work and not the power of armies or human engineering? Do you think anyone in Israel thought that their collective might brought down those walls?

In Egypt, on the other hand, the message is quite different. They didn't just shout. They turned out in mass protests, by the tens of thousands. They interrupted the operation of the capital, they organized strikes at the highly important Suez canal, they used the media to turn public opinion in Egypt and around the world to their cause. Foreign leaders began calling for the president's resignation, including the US which supports the Egyptian government with huge amounts of money. And Mubarak stepped down. What is the message? I think a quote from a recent article I read sums it up well: "The Egyptian people pulled it off. And I think now Arabs know that if they bring people out onto the streets, if they have the numbers, they can accomplish amazing things.”

The usual message of the political struggle: "Together we are strong." Quite a different message than the one God sent at Jericho. And quite different from what Jesus preached. Faith in the power of the people is nothing like faith in God.


from the Onion...



fad: a temporary fashion, notion, manner of conduct, etc.,
especially one followed enthusiastically by a group.

"We must no longer be immature, tossed to and fro
and blown about by every wind of teaching..." (Eph 4.14)

One thing I've noticed about getting older is that I'm more aware of fads. It must be what they call "gaining perspective." Some of the people who seem so important and some new ideas that seem so powerful because they have such strong popular support are becoming more easily recognized as passing fancies. Maybe it's that they obviously don't have the substance to last. Or that I've seen enough other important people and world-changing ideas come and go that I'm starting to recognize the type.

I've found myself getting upset about them, though. Upset that the people I know are getting caught up in them, influenced by them, when they seem to be such irrelevant distractions. But then getting upset also gets me caught up in it, too, doesn't it?

I'm thinking most about fads in the church, and in the "radical Christian" circles especially. "Emergent" was a big fad that seems to be over now. "New Monasticism" seems like it's on the way out now too, though the people who started it are still popular, I don't hear that phrase thrown around like I used to. It's surprising how quickly the tide recedes when it turns. "Community," or communalism, seems to be back in fashion these days, after losing ground since the hippie era (with the membership of organized communities clearly marking this decline). And the current fad irking me at the moment is "anarcho-primitivism," which has become the popular topic among Christian anarchist types. Who knows, maybe this one might be influential long term, but it sure looks like another fad to me.

I suppose Jesus might have looked like a fad at the time too, with his quick rise to popularity.

But the thing is, he wasn't. One important sign that he was more than a fad, I think, is that he didn't use his popularity, he rejected the power of the crowds. There's the fact that Jesus is God, i.e. eternal. Not new at all. Taking the long view. Not really interested in capitalizing on what's currently popular in social culture. With the substance to last.

For those reasons I don't think Jesus, the real Jesus, is ever a fad. There's been plenty of fads that use his name, but it's not him that they focus on primarily, but the unique trendy characteristics of the movement. I notice the same with all those popular Christian movements I listed above. Knowing Jesus and being like him is not the central focus in any of them.

What I need to learn is to let the fads be. Recognize them for what they are and let them crash on the beach like waves, just taking a few steps back until they quickly slide into the sea. It's hard to see people I care about getting tossed around by them, but the way to help is not to fight it. Just keep insisting on what's really important, and eternal. Who Jesus is and becoming more like him. The eternal Word: "Follow me."


what I was seeking

Another piece of the conversation about Ric's article:

Going with your example of me (on which I'm a noted expert), here's how I see it differently. I wasn't seeking wildness when I took to the road. I was inspired by the example of Jesus and his disciples and wondered if I could follow it almost literally today. Perhaps it did serve the need you describe, of clearing and purging. My point is that I wasn't trying to clear or purge. Just follow Jesus.

And the spiritual retreats for the homeless didn't come out of my imagination. I was at a place of longing and growing confusion, looking for a way to follow Jesus more closely than I felt I could at the Catholic Worker, and this newsletter about a CW retreat place for the homeless landed on our desk. Maybe Jesus didn't have a retreat place, but he did invite the poor to come out to him (sometimes on a hillside or by the sea), he lived as a peer among the poor, and he "preached good news to the poor," which is why we're doing what we're doing. It isn't new or my personal dream. I didn't want to do it until I was shown it at the right time.

Again, the point is that those things happened not because I was seeking them or even wanted them. What I was seeking was Jesus. That provided the focus and the clear, concrete goal: a person who is real and who assured me that he would provide a way for me to follow close to him if that was what I truly wanted.

Perhaps you're right that following Jesus closely will also satisfy any longing for wildness, break us out of suffocating domesticity, provide a life beyond our imagining. But seeking those things doesn't get us close to Jesus (or even get us what we're seeking). Seeking Jesus is what gets us Jesus.

"...and all these things will be added unto you."


"a differently ordered space"

Uncle Ric wrote an interesting article for Jesus Radicals. I replied to part of it:

I liked this: "A wild space is not a disorderly space, but a differently ordered space. It is an order that may look like disorder to those who are overly domesticated and tamed. Wild spaces encourage, allow, and empower us to imagine alternative ways of living. Without wild spaces we are doomed to a deeper domestication, perpetually constrained by the circles that misshaped us in the first place."

I wonder about your next sentence, though: "Wild spaces are where we are free to be different, to experiment, to imagine, to risk, to dare, to dream, to play." I agree that wild, undomesticated places demonstrate an alternative, a rightly ordered alternative. But that's not that same as freeing us for any alternative, is it?

Those who have encountered nature in the raw and tried to survive there don't see it as a place where they're "free to be different," as far as I know. It's a place where they have to discover the order there, and submit themselves to it, learn it, obey it. Or they die. I think it's a good order to live by, offering some important advantages over the (dis)order of modern living, but it's not a place to just try anything.

I think it's the same with the church community. We are offered a real alternative community by Jesus, with an order to it that we may not understand, that we have to discover. That alternative, if we submit to it by closely following Jesus, frees us to be who God created us to be. But that's not the same as simply seeking "alternatives."
Maybe I'm a bit influenced by the blizzard that just dropped a foot of snow on us, knocking out our power for several hours yesterday, with more snow and -10F expected tonight...