"the concealed war of nature"

From a discussion about the widespread suffering of animals in nature, and what this might say about God:

I may be misunderstanding Darwin, but he seems to suggest that some good has come as a result of the "death, famine, rapine, and the concealed war of nature." And isn't that one of the tenets of evolutionary theory, that attacks and stresses on a species causes it to either become stronger or die out, with the result being "survival of the fittest," or a more highly evolved collection of species?

Your line about the "flourishing of the individual" makes me wonder. We humans think in terms of the individual and try to understand suffering in terms of the potential good of the individual sufferer. But doesn't this come from our beliefs about human beings, the eternal soul perhaps, the enduring identity and value of each individual? It seems to me that the rest of the natural world seems to operate more in terms of the value and preservation of the species, more like the flourishing of the whole rather than the flourishing of the individual. Isn't that what we have seen in our study of the natural world?

From that perspective, "bad things" happening in nature provide stresses on species that cause them to strengthen, evolve, or be displaced from ecosystems. Isn't this a good, for the whole?

As a parallel, I see it somewhat similarly to suffering in humans that is potentially a refining process. The stress or attack offers the opportunity for our strengthening or growth or purification, and of course we know of many people who claim that their endurance of great suffering contributed to their exemplary character and virtues. This isn't always the outcome of suffering, but doesn't it at least admit the possibility that suffering provides the occasion (perhaps even the necessary occasion) for our evolving into "higher animals"?



The strawberry season is just about over, but we managed to gather these the other day. I made a strawberry rhubarb pie with some of them yesterday, just like Mom used to make (since it was her recipe). Really good.

A delicious homemade pie, made from fresh (and free) fruit, can do wonders for your outlook on life...


for example

From one of the conversations I mentioned yesterday:

There's a big difference between being crucified and crucifying ourselves through endless work and burnout.

What about this?
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
I don't quite see why you'd blame burnout on Jesus. I don't see him telling us "work, work, there's always more to do." That's the activist message, the message of "work as if it all depends on you." That's not Jesus' message. I think if we're actually (in humility) following what Jesus is asking of us, and not our own sense of what has to happen now, then we'll soon find his promise of rest and light burdens true. Persecutions, yes, but not the self-persecution of the endless "there's always more I can do."

That's not a criticism but hopefully an alternative to "pure exhaustion." Hopefully good news for many of us here.

...I do think offering a good example to others is often better than anything we can give to them or do for them. The primary "thing" Jesus offered was found in the words "follow me." But if the example we are setting is a life of endless work and exhaustion, I don't think that's the life of the kingdom of God that Jesus was inviting the poor into (who already have a life of endless work and exhaustion).

In Jesus' life, God did the heavy lifting. Jesus mostly just spoke a word.


opening the door a little wider?

A couple recent conversations has we wondering if we should offer retreats to tired staff who work with the poor. As I heard some of their frustrations, and some bitterness, I did feel real compassion for what they're dealing with. And I can identify with some of the struggles, from our difficult days at the Catholic Worker. Maybe that's where the compassion comes from.

We actually have had staff come a number of times, and those retreats went well. But the idea was always to provide a one-time introduction so that they could send groups from their ministries in the future. I'd still want to focus on the retreats directly for the poor, but right now we could offer staff retreats and still have plenty of time for the few groups that have been coming so far. I suppose, indirectly, retreats for tired staff workers could also be a help for the people they serve.

I guess my main concern is that we might be straying from the vision that we started with. I reread the essay we wrote about what we were hoping to do here. Maybe one of the feelings I had that wasn't written there was that I was tired of challenging and critiquing people. I wanted to "proclaim good news to the poor." I wanted to focus on the anawim, and encourage them and reaffirm their importance to God. I still do. And I've been happy with the retreats we've had, and the opportunity to focus on Jesus' good news.

I'm sure, especially among workers in ministries to the poor, tired workers, I'll encounter the spirit of the anawim as well. That kind of work can really teach humility. But I know there's also a certain heroism among ministry workers that can get in the way, and the hardships of the work isn't always enough to break that down. I've heard people working with the poor that end up blaming God (even talking about "putting God on trial") because of the terrible things they've seen happen. Their well-developed sense of justice just rebels. It's strange, that this response seems to come much more from the helpers than the ones suffering, in my experience. So there's some lashing out at God, and at anyone who holds to more "traditional" religious views like omnipotence, or providence, or "Lo, I am with you always."

I don't know how I'll respond to that. I hope I can see it for what it is, an expression of frustration and pain. Maybe, though, a few words of challenge could be helpful (even hopeful) in that situation, when the person is really trying to live what they believe.

I'd still want to give priority to retreats directly with the poor, but maybe it wouldn't hurt to at least try some staff retreats if people are interested. And if they have a good experience, they might be more willing to bring groups from their ministries.

If we're screwing up, or wandering off, I expect God will let us know.



the social network

We watched "The Social Network" last night, about the beginnings of Facebook. Very well done. What struck me is how the developers of Facebook were able to capitalize on human social dynamics and the desire to be included, to feel like "one of us."

One of the main ideas in the beginning was that it would be for Harvard University only. That exclusivity was a selling point. Anyone can join now. But you have to join; if you haven't joined there's very little you can access on anyone's page. And there's also the dynamic of "friending," which gives you more access when people accept you as friends. It plays on the desire to be included and accepted, drawing you into more engagement with the site. And this has made the owners of Facebook billionaires.

I think this is ultimately appealing to our deepest desire to be a part of the one Body. We make endless attempts to be included, to belong, to be "part of something greater than myself." And organizations (including communal organizations) and businesses and nations all capitalize on that desire, promising to fulfill it. Of course they never can. They always disappoint, and eventually collapse or leave us disillusioned. There's only one corporate entity that satisfies our deepest desire for connection and acceptance.

And it's not at all exclusive.


on the big rock

We had a picnic lunch down by the creek today. The fluttering damselflies were pretty (and a little frisky).


in remembrance

I've started putting together a short communion liturgy for our little worship group. We might try to have it as the closing each week. I'd like to start by singing the Shema in Hebrew, followed by a time of silence to consider how we've loved God and one another lately. Then close that by singing this Taize Kyrie (Lord, have mercy):

After reading about Jesus' call for us to "do this in remembrance of me," we could bless the bread and wine with the traditional Hebrew blessings (in English this time):

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe,
who brings forth bread from the earth

Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine
And as a closing prayer, as we finish serving one another, play the psalters' "Agnus Dei"
Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, grant us peace


the test

"But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." (James 1.22)

Seeing these words this morning reminded me of something a friend said to me this week. Someone had told him that a popular theology they were interested in was "primarily a thought experiment." That didn't impress him much. "If it's not practical, I have no interest," he told me.

I agree that theology or beliefs that cannot be put into practice aren't worth much. Except perhaps to distract us, or give us something to do when we're bored. Actually it's the practical living of our beliefs that tests them. To see if they have any validity, any reality, outside our heads. I read a line once about a philosophy that "didn't survive the test of a man's life." That's the test that matters.

For Christians, though, I think the test may be a little different than we expect. It's not just the test of whether our theory or belief "works." Whether or not we can survive living by it, or whether we can get many others to believe the same thing with us. The test should be whether this belief and action is a work of man, or a work of God. That's what a follower of Jesus should care about. And I think it can only be discerned in practice, in doing.

The work of God makes itself known in that it glorifies God's power, not our own. "My power is made perfect in weakness." This may appear in a life that seems miraculous, like Jesus' life was. This also means that it does not depend on our own strength, which actually takes the pressure and weight off us (unlike so many human-driven ministries that drive their workers into the ground). And the work of God is often not immediately successful; Jesus showed us on the cross that God's work usually takes us by the path of darkest failure. But God's work is always vindicated and successful in the end. The same cannot be said for the work of man.

But we don't find any of this out until we put aside our thought experiments and become doers.



"despising the shame"

One thing I'd add to yesterday's thoughts (from two years ago), about the importance of being able to be a "nobody," unnoticed, unappreciated. It's that I think we need to learn that in order to be able to wait for God's answer, God's saving act. Because if we're not able to be that low, that humbled, then we won't be able to wait without taking things into our own hands. Or despairing. Or compromising.

I read in Hebrews this morning about Jesus enduring the cross, "despising the shame." He needed to be able to do this to experience God's powerful saving act. But it's the shame that drives me crazy. Not only as a terrifying blow to my ego; it also feels like I'm failing God somehow. I'm trying to be this example of faith, showing what happens when you really trust God—and look what's happening! Like I'm letting God down by failing.

If we're going to be able to get through this, we have to learn to be failures in the eyes of others, unimpressive, nobodies. And then the salvation, the vindication, can be all God.


being reminded again

I found this in a journal entry from two years ago; it's almost exactly what I've been thinking again this past week (I even recalled the Bloy quote):

Lately I've been discovering that I've had my own sense of greatness that may also be misguided and not a real possibility for most. I'm not quite sure how to describe it. Leon Bloy's famous quote comes to mind: "Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig." I'm not exactly sure what he meant by "hero," but it brings to mind people who perform great feats, reformers, prophets, recognized "saints." Admirable, inspiring people. I've felt like one of those people at times in my life, but I find I'm feeling less and less like that now. And I wonder if that makes me a pig. Then I think of talking with the poor people who might come on retreats here and wonder if I really expect them to become heroes of the faith. I still do believe that Jesus announced good news to the poor (the anawim, who look to God in their need) that they are favored by God, chosen by God, his people, through whom God reveals himself to the world. That sounds to me like they are great in Jesus' eyes. But is this greatness the heroism I've been describing? Martyrs? Reformers? Prophets?

These words of Jesus come to mind:

"Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." (Mt 11.11)
John is perhaps the epitome of the "spiritual hero": prophet, ascetic, martyr, all in one. Yet Jesus says the "least in the kingdom" is greater than John...

I can't help but think that this "least" must include the "nobodies" of the kingdom of God. And the "least of these" described later in Matthew (25.31-46). The faithful poor, sick, strangers, not known for any great feats. Greater than John the Baptist.

It takes me back to my belief that the main concern of Jesus, and the most important thing in life, is faith, our complete dependence on God in all things. I think living by faith has indeed resulted in great feats that we admire. But it is not always so, and there is much in the life of faith that is not recognized as great feats. Even in the life of Jesus, where we see so many miracles and amazing words and actions, that was only the last few years of his life. The other thirty years—though they were still a perfect life, God on earth—they were not considered great or noticeable enough to even record.

A different understanding of greatness. A greatness that doesn't necessarily include the things we honor as spiritual heroism. The greatness of the nobodies who have God's eye and special care. The greatness of the least in the kingdom of heaven, who depend on God for everything, and are not admired or praised for it.