jesus seems to like it

I laughed at this one on Christmas but didn't get around to posting it until now. We had friends over for our traditional "chicken with forty cloves of garlic," fresh baguettes, and a French chocolate custard.

And a gift for us this year was hearing that that interns from Emmaus Ministries want to come for a retreat next month. That'll be our first winter retreat and our first specifically for staff, something we've been wanting to try for a few months now.


"to bring out the prisoners"

From a discussion today:

This strikes me as a good example of a common assumption these days: that we are complicit in the evil (or violence) of our social system simply because of where we were born or the color of our skin or our gender. So that the only way we can be "nonviolent" (or not evil?) is by bringing down the system. As you suggest, the idea is that it is not possible to be nonviolent in our current context. Thus I see it argued more and more often that it is meaningless to try to stick with more "innocent" methods, because innocence is meaningless while we are part of this horrible system, and what's most important is the destruction of the system, sometimes even "by any means necessary." Only then might it be possible to be nonviolent.

The moral bondage implied by this theory of unavoidable complicity seems to me the obvious point where it diverges from the message of Jesus. Jesus offered freedom from bondage, and not a freedom only when the system had been brought down. He demonstrated that freedom (including the freedom to be nonviolent) in the midst of imperial domination. This strikes at the claim that our complicity is unavoidable, or that innocence is impossible in the midst of this system. For true freedom, what must be brought down is not the system but the lies, including the lie of unavoidable complicity. And Jesus offers us freedom from those lies.

That doesn't mean we won't continue to also challenge the lies that sustain oppression, sexism, racism, etc. Only that we can challenge them as Jesus did, from the position of the freedom of the kingdom of God, not as co-prisoners beating on the walls of the gulag we created. From the position of an alternative life, where we are not dominated by society or complicit in its evil, and don't have to resort to its methods. A position to offer hope to others that a different life exists. That's what Jesus showed us and offers us now.
Makes me think of Isaiah 42 from the other day, "to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness..."



from Isaiah 42

I think I'll use this as a meditation this Christmas:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him,
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not fail or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread forth the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
"I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to graven images.
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth I tell you of them."

Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice,
the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy,
let them shout from the top of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in the coastlands.

Cantate Domino "Sing to the Lord"

The Lord goes forth like a mighty man,
like a man of war he stirs up his fury;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
he shows himself mighty against his foes.

For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in travail,
I will gasp and pant.
I will lay waste mountains and hills,
and dry up all their herbage;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
and dry up the pools.

And I will lead the blind
in a way that they know not,
in paths that they have not known
I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
and I will not forsake them.

Da Pacem Domine "Give peace, Lord"


more waiting

Did you ever think about the fact that after the angels' momentous announcement to the shepherds—that a savior had arrived—they had to wait thirty years before anything actually happened?


My traditional Christmas haiku is noticeably more hopeful this year (here's last year's, with links to earlier ones). The star as the symbol of God breaking through what we know, through the accepted limitations that our failures have taught us. The new wonder that we could neither imagine nor create.

That we can only be grateful for, and rejoice in.


"all are yours"

the world
or life
or death
or the present
or the future, all are yours;

and you are Christ's;
and Christ is God's. (1 Cor 3.22-23)

In this season of waiting, this year I find myself feeling a bit impatient. I think I'm impatient because I'm seeing hints of good things coming and now I want them here right away. Maybe that's the best kind of impatience. But it still makes waiting hard.

I mentioned to Heather the other day that God didn't have to struggle with impatience. Because God isn't bound by time, past and future are all present to God (Heather looked a bit skeptical about that). But if that's true then those words of Paul to the Corinthians take on a deeper meaning. The future is not an unknown to God, God is not waiting for it like we are. Impatiently, like we are. My feeling was that I'd rather have God's experience. But maybe that experience is not so far off, just as God is not so far off.

"You are Christ's and Christ is God's," Paul wrote. And in that union with God we live in the eternal present like God does, in the eternal life that Jesus gave us. The future may not be known to us, but it is also not unknown. It is known. It is assured and it is a present reality to the God who is present with us. In that presence we need not be impatiently waiting, but can be grateful for future gifts and promises certainly fulfilled. "The world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours."



st. nick

Continuing Christmas commentary, from five years ago (and I still think it is important):

The inspiration for Christmas gift-giving (and for Santa Claus) is St. Nicolas of Myra. Not a whole lot is known about him, but this story seems to be the reason for his reputation:

A poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of their plight, Nicholas decided to help them but being too modest (or too shy) to help publicly, he went to their house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window. One version of the story has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age." Invariably the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Nicholas say it is not him he should thank but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead.

People soon began to suspect that Nicolas was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.

A pretty inspiring example. But right away I notice that his giving was very different from our Christmas gift exchanges. Take each point I mentioned yesterday: Nicolas gives without expecting anything back; he gives to someone who most likely can't pay him back (as Jesus taught us). Nicolas gives quietly, anonymously, avoiding praise. And he didn't give for the sake of a holiday; he gave because he saw someone in need right then, and he responded to that need. That's real gift-giving. So very different from our Christmas distortion.

Where I'm living right now, in a Christian intentional community, Christmas gift-giving has been moved to Epiphany, or "Three Kings Day." To try to connect the traditional gifts with the wise men's gifts, something more meaningful than Santa. But the distortions of gift-giving are pretty much the same (a public, seasonal exchange, among people who don't really need anything).

And what of the wise men? Again, their gift-giving is very different. They give to someone in need, a poor family from Nazareth, who cannot repay. And it wasn't any holiday. They gave when God moved them to give. We made a holiday of it because their giving was truly beautiful.

But why don't we follow their example?


18 days, 6 hours, and 1 minute until Christmas

I recently sent this entry (from five years ago) to a friend. He'd mentioned that he's enjoying Christmas less and less each year, "with the drive to shop, shop, shop and the stress of figuring out what presents to get people."

I stepped away from of Christmas gift-giving gradually. My first confused questions started when I was a teenager, wandering around a crowded mall trying to complete my gift list. And the questions persisted, growing more and more bold, until I finally stopped giving Christmas gifts altogether about ten years ago.

Ironically, during that same time it was becoming more apparent to me that gift-giving was central to the Christian life. I was coming to believe that everything we do should be a gift to others, just as it was in Jesus' life. When I could finally specify clearly what I disliked most about Christmas gift-giving, it was that what happens at Christmas is almost the opposite of what true gift-giving should be.

As Jesus taught, gifts should be given without expectation of anything in return. That's basically the definition of a gift. Yet at Christmas there is definitely an expectation of something in return—we don't give gifts, we exchange. Jesus also taught that, when we give, we shouldn't make a show of it or expect recognition. "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." But what have we made of our Christmas gift exchange? The biggest show of the year, a show in every home ("OK, this one is from Aunt Lily..."), a parade of charity emblazoned on billboards and full-page newspaper ads.

Perhaps the part that confused me the most when I was younger was how to find the inspiration to give gifts suddenly at a certain time of the year. Now I think I understand love better. Love doesn't appear out of nowhere at Christmas like Santa Claus; it doesn't count the days until it can express itself. Love gives when the need arises. Love appears when we encounter someone that God wants to touch and we let that healing touch work through us. But this doesn't happen according to the calendar. And we don't have to scratch our heads trying to figure out what to give. When God shows us someone in need, and we're paying attention, God also shows us what to give.

This is all lost when we make gift-giving a seasonal event, and gifts become meaningless trinkets destined to clutter someone's closets and garage (and storage locker, etc)—because no one we know really needs anything. Such a show is not a beautiful celebration of gift-giving. It is a twisting, an undermining, of the true meaning of gift.

Tomorrow: But what about St. Nick?


hints of a path

I haven't written anything personal in a while. I've been wondering about that. I thought about it out in the cabin this morning as I prayed and ate pancakes. At times I haven't written because things are going badly and I don't know what to say. But now I actually feel very encouraged and have been surprised by a clear sense of hope.

Maybe it's that I don't quite know how to explain that feeling. Many aspects of community life here seem to be hitting new low points. Maybe it seems to me that we're close to "hitting bottom" (as they say in AA). I do think I can start to see hints of a path rising on the far side of this deep valley. It does feel like the tide is turning.

I know one thing that's encouraging is that I'm feeling some resolution to my most heart-wrenching prayers and yearnings of the past couple years. I remember writing this almost two years ago:

I still feel like I want the hard consequences of some decisions here to make it very clear that those choices weren't the best or most loving for everyone involved. That the path that has been chosen is not the path of freedom and peace that Jesus showed us in his life. But I can also see that hoping and praying for mercy is right. Maybe praying that not all the hard consequences have to be borne, that our relationships and our connection here be preserved, and a way forward offered. That it be clear that God is not pleased, but also that God is merciful and still holds us in his love. And that we have a chance to choose differently in the future.
It seems to me that God has made this crystal clear through the many tumultuous experiences here since I wrote that. And now I'm finding it much easier to keep praying for mercy. That feels good.

I also see God bringing various surprising pieces together that could potentially provide what we need for a good community life, and real church, here in the future. Like real friendships. Organic community. Generosity instead of subsistence. And these pieces are coming together in ways that none of use could have managed (or even known what we really needed). So I'm encouraged that God is doing something, and has been all along. I think there is still much difficulty and pain to be faced yet, by many people here, but no matter what we choose or do, I believe and am beginning to actually see that God is doing something good.

God is merciful, and still holds all of us in his love.