chicken à la candle

I forgot to enter this little memory, Heather frying chicken during our first power outage of the winter. We were also decorating our $5 Christmas tree then, in the fading daylight, hoping that the power would come back on and bring it to life just as we hung the last ornament.

No such luck.  But we got to fire it up the next morning.


I'm getting my haiku in just under the wire this year. But maybe that's okay since it's supposed to be from the babe's point of view and he didn't arrive until Christmas day too. It's been a pretty confusing year for us. But I can say I feel God's presence now, like in the poem. That's reassuring.

(Here are some previous years' haikus.)


just keep trying

I want to add this quote by Simone Weil to the ones from last week:

That action is good which we are able to accomplish while keeping our attention and intention totally directed towards pure and impossible goodness, without veiling from ourselves by any falsehood either the attraction or the impossibility of pure goodness.

I've been struggling more with those thoughts about not focusing on results or effectiveness or "success" (or not being discouraged by the lack of these). And also the previous thoughts about my life, who I am, not being defined by "the collection of accomplishments (or failures) and experiences and possessions and relationships we have gathered." And it seems to have brought me back to a focus on intention, which Weil mentions.

In human society, it's results that are important (often no matter how you get them). But it seems clear from Jesus' teaching that God cares about intention, not results. It's what happens in the human heart, the will, that matters to God. That is where we submit and accept, or turn ourselves against God's way. That is the only thing we have to offer to God.

And this fits with the acknowledgment that what happens, i.e. results, are in God's hands, not ours. So much stands between what we intend and what we are actually able to accomplish. So many factors, resources, people, are out of our control, yet they greatly impact the results or success of what we attempt. Maybe reaching middle age makes me more aware of the vast difference between what people intend and what actually happens, the severe limitations of human endeavors. Only God is greater than human failings.

I find this also bringing me back to Jesus' focus on intention, and trusting God to ensure a just and sufficient (even abundant) outcome. Weil echos Jesus in urging us to even turn our intention toward the impossible, attempt "pure and impossible goodness." The sermon on the mount shows Jesus teaching this very thing. But if we know it's impossible, how can we possibly try? If we know we will not succeed, experiencing failure after failure, not just in ourselves but in everyone, how can we not give up on the attempt?

Because it's not success or accomplishment that God wants from us. God can produce all the results, all the justice or abundance or peace that is needed at any time. What God asks of us is to will goodness, love, to will in harmony with God's will. God asks us to keep our attention and intention directed toward true and impossible goodness, not because we think we can accomplish it, but because we long to see God accomplish it and have faith that he will accomplish it.

In other words, God wants us to try. Just keep trying. Even though it is impossible, and we are failing, and everyone we know is failing. We will not accomplish the goodness we intend, but God will accomplish it. And if we are to stay with him we must keep trying and believe. That's all God asks of us. To stay with him.



through the dry season

I just sent out this retreat update letter...


Like much of the country, we experienced a severe drought this summer. The cornfields around us seemed to suffer the worst, but our crops also required continual watering, fruits and vegetables were fewer and smaller (though sometimes noticeably sweeter), and even the trees struggled. We also saw fewer retreat guests this year. Staffing and personal difficulties caused some of our usual visitors to stay home this summer, so they were spared the sight of our browning grass and drooping leaves.

But God cared for us during this dry season. Last winter Heather felt inspired to move away from the heavy commercial gardening she had been doing for the farm and develop a smaller community garden instead. Everything she grew was then given away to neighbors and friends here (and also some to friends in Chicago). A smaller garden patch turned out to be much, much better when the rain stopped coming. And some out-of-town friends ended up spending much of the summer here, giving Heather lots of help. The harvest was good. And then, at the end of the season, the gratitude of our community was expressed by generous donations for a rototiller that Heather had been dreaming about. So her work will be a little easier next summer (and hopefully graced with a little more water from on high).

One of our elderly neighbors faced some new struggles this year as well. After a couple falls, he found himself in need of regular assistance. I happened to be more available than usual, so I offered to start helping with much of his daily care. With the support of many others in the community also, he's able to continue to live here at home.

This month we were glad to have a group from Su Casa Catholic Worker come for a retreat, to support their work with immigrant families in need in Chicago. And we expect to host an Emmaus Ministries retreat again this winter. We keep praying for all who have come to share with us, and for those who will come.

That God will stay close and sustain us all through the dry seasons.


"not a relationship of cause and effect"

I was reminded this morning of some quotes that have meant a lot to me in the past, and now they speak well to my current thoughts and concerns. The first is from a letter by Thomas Merton (written in 1966, three years before his death):

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.
The second is from John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus:
The key to the obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience. The triumph of the right is assured not by the might that comes to the aid of the right, which is of course the justification of the use of violence and the other kinds of power in every human conflict; the triumph of the right, although it is assured, is sure because of the power of the resurrection and not because of any calculation of causes and effects, nor because of the inherently greater strength of the good guys.

The relationship between the obedience of God’s people and the triumph of God’s cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection.

As Yoder points out, the clearest example of this is Jesus' choice of turning toward Jerusalem and the cross. Toward the impossible, toward a challenge he had no chance of conquering. And yet.

I think this only makes sense in light of God's true purpose. Which is to draw us to himself. Ministries that "succeed" or produce admirable results through the hard work and organization and gathered resources of human beings may indeed offer many worthy benefits, but instead of drawing us into deeper relationship and dependence on God they stir our admiration and dependence on human capabilities. When, however, like Jesus on the cross, our human weakness and failure is made clear, and yet.... When it is made clear that, in our helplessness, deliverance comes from God, then we are drawn to cling to him (to be held by him) more closely.

It has been harder for me to remember that when I have more resources and possibilities available to me. Apparently I start to think that somehow the situation has changed. That I should be able to be effective now, or make good things happen now, since I have more that can work for me. But nothing has changed. To think that such meager resources should make any significant difference is ridiculous. It is only God's power that makes any difference, and next to that any power that we might gather adds nothing.

God's triumph, and the enduring presence of his kingdom, is assured. But not because of my obedience or my resources. I must be obedient not because the outcome stands in the balance, but because obedience is just another aspect of clinging to God.


take five

I heard Dave Brubeck just died. So I took another listen to "Take Five." Pretty great. I remember my dad playing that song on the record player when I was a kid. It's the only jazz song I can play on the recorder, too.


Some folks from the Su Casa Catholic Worker house in Chicago are with us for a retreat this weekend, taking a break from the city...


"if we were"

A song to go with my last entry...

by Alanis Morissette

dear dar(lin') your mom (my friend)
left a message on my machine
she was frantic
saying you were talking crazy
that you wanted to do away with yourself
I guess she thought i'd be a perfect resort
because we've had this inexplicable connection since our youth
and yes they're in shock
they are panicked
you and your chronic
them and their drama
you this embarrassment
us in the middle of this delusion

if we were our bodies
if we were our futures
if we were our defenses i'd be joining you
if we were our culture
if we were our leaders
if we were our denials i'd be joining you

I remember vividly a day years ago
we were camping, you knew more than you thought you should know
you said "I don't want ever to be brainwashed"
and you were mindboggling
you were intense
you were uncomfortable in your own skin
you were thirsty
but mostly you were beautiful

if we were our nametags
if we were our rejections
if we were our outcomes i'd be joining you
if we were our indignities
if we were our successes
if we were our emotions i'd be joining you

you and I we're like four year olds
we want to know why and how come about everything
we want to reveal ourselves at will and speak our minds
and never talk small and be intuitive
and question mightily and find god
my tortured beacon
we need to find like-minded companions

if we were their condemnations
if we were their projections
if we were our paranoias i'd be joining you
if we were our incomes
if we were our obsessions
if we were our afflictions i'd be joining you

we need reflection
we need a really good memory
feel free to call me
a little more often



It may be mid-life, or reviewing my life with friends over the holiday, but I've been contemplating these words of Jesus recently:

For what benefit is it, to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? (Mk 8.36)
I usually think of these words as a challenge for those who are doing well, who "have the world." But the context is Jesus' telling his disciples of his imminent death, and telling them to "take up your cross" and follow. He's not talking to people who are doing well. Jesus is talking to people who are about to experience great loss and go from being celebrities to being outcasts.

We're accustomed to speaking of our "life" as the collection of accomplishments (or failures) and experiences and possessions and relationships that we have gathered so far. But these seem to me to be what Jesus says we may "gain." Maybe not the whole world, but our little piece of it, all we've managed to gain so far. And Jesus seems to be saying that our "life" is something different, something distinct from all we might gain along the way.

Like I said, this is usually seen as a challenge to those who might think they are great because they have gathered great accomplishments or great possessions. But I think it is a more powerful word to those who have not managed to gather much (or who have lost it all). Because just as our life is not made greater by all we might gain, it is also not diminished if our accomplishments and possessions and supporters are few.

This is different from the usual question about what we should devote our life to. Such as career vs. family (with family being the recommended choice). Or profit vs. a good reputation in the community (with reputation the recommended choice). One may certainly be a better choice than the other. But they seem to me to all be the "gain" Jesus speaks of as distinct from our "life." They are different choices of what we may wrap around ourselves. They may affect how others see us, but they do not truly identify us, they are not our life. And eventually they all fall away from us.

I think people get closer when they talk of our life as defined by our relationships. But it's not relationships with friends and family that truly define us, or make us who we are. I think Jesus made it clear that our life depends on one relationship, that the nature of that one relationship is our life.

Thus this on-going, existential relationship should be the focus of our attention. This is our life. Then we could perhaps speak like Paul when he wrote to the Philippians:
Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
It's not so easy for those who have gained much to come to see it all as rubbish. But how do those words look if our pathetic gains already look like rubbish?



for veterans day

Every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government will be upon his shoulder,
and his name will be called
"Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
Isaiah 9.5-6


pitiful salesmen

I've been contemplating that Jacques Ellul quote in the last entry, and I want to add to my thoughts on insignificant ministry from last month. In "ministry," there's a tendency to think that organizational success (people served, money raised, etc) benefits God, or makes God look good, and is therefore the best witness. People admire successful ministries, and give more money to ministries that can demonstrate effectiveness. Which then enables more service to the needy. And doesn't this all serve God's purposes better?

It would seem so. But is God really taking the same approach as all other human organizations and businesses? Success sells? Impress people and they will support and join you? Is God really trying to gather our support?

Maybe that interpretation could be applied to Jesus' early ministry. The gathering the crowds and calling disciples part. But not the later part, the lamb to the slaughter, degrading execution as a criminal part.

Jesus left behind what could be called a successful ministry and went, not to the head of a crowd storming Jerusalem, but to the lonely confusion of Gethsemane and the apparent final failure of Golgatha. We may make it look climactic and heroic with our theology, but the reaction of the disciples show how it looked to them: Like a fiasco. A horrible catastrophe. The end.

The relevance to me right now is that what is considered success in ministry, people served, donations gathered, plans accomplished, supporters impressed, impact made, none of these things look like what Jesus was after. Jesus was certainly trying to be a witness for God, but not by impressing people in the usual ways. If anything, Jesus' witness is that he didn't try to impress people in the usual ways. He wasn't trying to gather their support. It's Jesus' glaring disinterest in this that is impressive. It says that God doesn't need our support. God is offering us something, but does not need us to take it. God doesn't need to impress us. God doesn't need to sell us on it. What God is offering is what we desperately need and what we can get nowhere else.

As I wrote in "insignificant ministry," successful ministries always end up endlessly fundraising and giving media interviews. Maybe that kind of publicity does make God more attractive to some people. But it also makes God look very much like a politician.

I think it's very important not to try to succeed like every other human organization tries to succeed. Focus only on faithfulness, on following Jesus, even when it looks like a fiasco, like certain failure (and it will). Learn to live with confusion and failed plans and frequent rejections. And don't be dismayed by the lack of success, or that your failure is making God look bad. It is not by your plans and hard work that God's cause will be victorious. It is when your plans collapse and your work falls pitifully short and failure is certain, it is then that God will save you. You will not make God look good. God will glorify himself by rescuing you in your utter helplessness. Just like he did with Jesus.

What other human organization wants salesmen like that?


"always a fiasco"

I was reminded today of this passage from Jacques Ellul's The Politics of God and the Politics of Man (my italics):

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.



an answer to a hard question

My friend Jason recently reminded me of a series of entries from eight years ago, and as I was rereading them I found this passage. It seems to me to be the answer to the "hard question" I wrote about a couple weeks ago:

One unique aspect of human life is our complete helplessness for a long time after birth. Other animals quickly become mobile and independent, but human beings need constant care for several years. Our first, most formative experience is one of complete vulnerability and dependence on others. And we usually end life much the way we began it. As we age, we become more and more dependent and vulnerable. I think there is a powerful meaning in this.

If it is true that the purpose of our lives is to impose our own will, then our human dependency and vulnerability can only be seen as an impediment to be overcome. Childhood would then be seen as something to be quickly grown out of, and old age something to be dreaded. And this does seem to be the view of many people.

On the other hand, if it is true that the real purpose of our lives is union with God, and that this comes not through imposing our own will but by surrendering to God’s will in faith, then the natural human experience looks much different. If our aim is complete dependence on God in faith, then childhood is a very good model for human life. As the child is dependent on the parents for care and protection and, though vulnerable and helpless, lives free and happy under the parents’ care, so we are to live under God’s care. Of course childhood is not voluntary. But as we mature and take control of our free will, we then have the choice whether to continue to follow the way of life we were born into, or leave childlike ways of dependence and pursue independence and power to take control of our environment. The choice is ours. And what we choose will shape our experience of life and also how we face the vulnerability of old age (if we don’t face it sooner through disease, injury, loss, etc). But it seems to me that childhood dependence reveals something of the meaning and ideal for our lives, and the similar vulnerability that slowly intensifies as we age calls us back to this and tests what we have learned.

Then our natural human vulnerability and dependence becomes, not a curse or impediment, but a gift. It is not meant to be conquered, but embraced. We are not meant to “outgrow” our childhood, but rather mature and see that our true dependence is meant to be directed towards God rather than other human beings. As children we completely trusted our parents, though this trust was sometimes misplaced. But it symbolized the true desire and goal of human life: To be completely dependent and trusting on God for care and protection and live in the joy and freedom of God’s love. And to help others do so as well.



When I started caring for our elderly neighbor, I soon realized that one of my personal articles of faith was going to be tested. I remember writing about it earlier this year:

I believe what Jesus demonstrated is that we can trust God to always provide all that we need to be free to love and do good. So even in times where we must go through pain or loss, or afflictions and oppressions from other people, God will bring whatever is needed to give us freedom in those situations. It may be financial resources or the help of a friend or a spiritual experience. But we can trust God for real help, real things, real intervention to free us. Not simply to spare our suffering but to allow us to be our good self, a unique loving presence, the presence of God in the world. In all situations, at all times, throughout our whole life. That's what living in the kingdom of God means.
Situations of care-giving, like perhaps for an infant or a very elderly relative, frequently test this belief. Because the needs in these situations can often escalate beyond our capabilities. And we don't usually feel like we have much choice in the matter, the person is helpless, and they're our responsibility, and their needs come first. It's easy to conclude that the demands on us could very well keep increasing, regardless of the toll it takes on us. That's scary.

The belief, though, which I think is intrinsic in Jesus' announcement of freedom and good news, is that God does have regard for our needs. And that God won't lay a limitless burden on us that will crush us. We will not be destroyed by doing good.

Our experience can be very confused, however, because it is often not easy to discern the actual good we personally are called to do. There are plenty of demands from others and guilt trips and pride and social standards that have little to do with good or God. Demands that are not limited or merciful or considerate of our needs. So the difficulty comes in sorting out what is really good, and what good God wants us to do, and what good God has given for others to do. It's not about being the hero. It's about submitting to God's choice for us, and accepting the help we need as we also serve the needs of others. In this we are all servants and all dependent on God's care. Only God is the hero.

There were a few times these past few weeks when I wasn't sure if the demands were going to push me too far. But I tried to focus on what was the good service God was asking of me, and I asked for and accepted help from others as well. It's important that care-giving not be one-way. We all need to care for each other.

Now things seem to have settled into a routine, and it's not overwhelming. I'm actually surprised how well it fits my life right now. And the situation ended up offering an unexpected answer to needs that we had as well. All while providing just what was needed for our friend next door, in this vulnerable time in his life.

"Your Father knows your needs. Seek his kingdom, and I promise, those things will be yours as well."



The changing of the seasons reminded me of this Onion article...

God Diagnosed With Bipolar Disorder

NEW HAVEN, CT–In a diagnosis that helps explain the confusing and contradictory aspects of the cosmos that have baffled philosophers, theologians, and other students of the human condition for millennia, God, creator of the universe and longtime deity to billions of followers, was found Monday to suffer from bipolar disorder.

Rev. Dr. J. Henry Jurgens, a practicing psychiatrist and doctor of divinity at Yale University Divinity School, announced the historic diagnosis at a press conference.

"I always knew there had to be some explanation," Jurgens said. "And, after several years of patient research and long sessions with God Almighty through the intercessionary medium of prayer, I was able to pinpoint the specific nature of His problem."

Bipolar, or manic-depressive, disorder is a condition that afflicts millions. Characterized by cycles of elation followed by bouts of profound depression and despair, the disorder can wreak havoc on both the sufferer and his or her loved ones, particularly if it goes undetected and untreated for an extended period. Though the condition is estimated to affect, in one form or another, 5 percent of the world's population, Monday marks the first time it has been diagnosed in a major deity.

Evidence of God's manic-depression can be found throughout the Universe, from the white-hot explosiveness of quasars to the cold, lifeless vacuum of space. However, theologians note, humanity's exposure to God's affliction comes primarily through His confusing propensity to alternately reward and punish His creations with little rhyme or reason.

"Last week, I lost my dear husband Walter to the flood," said housewife and devout churchgoer Elaine Froman of Davenport, IA. "I asked myself, 'Why? Why would God do something like this, especially when He had just helped Walter overcome a long battle with colon cancer, and we were so happy that we finally had a chance to start our lives anew?'"

New York attorney Ruth Kanner also gained firsthand knowledge of God's wild mood swings.

"Last Saturday, on a gorgeous spring afternoon, I was jogging in Central Park with my daughter. We were marveling at the beauty and majesty of nature, and I remember thinking what a wonderful world we live in. Then, out of nowhere, I heard the gunfire," said Kanner, speaking from her hospital bed at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. "All they took was a measly $17, and for that, the doctors say my daughter will never walk again. If only Our Holy Father didn't have those mental problems, my precious Katie might not be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life."

Jurgens said he believes God's essential condition is seasonal, as evidenced by the bursts of energy and elation associated with springtime and summer, followed by the decay and bleak despair of fall and winter. Sometimes, however, the condition cycles even faster.

"The average person with bipolar disorder may go through as many as 10 or 12 cycles of mania and subsequent depression in a lifetime. In severe cases, a sufferer may experience four or more per year, which is known as 'rapid cycling,'" Jurgens said. "We believe God suffers from the even rarer 'ultra-rapid cycling,' which would account for the many documented cases in which He alternates between benevolence and rage toward humanity within a matter of seconds. For example, last week, He brought desperately needed, life-giving rain to southern Mali while simultaneously leveling Turkey with a devastating earthquake."

The Book of Job, Jurgens noted, marks the best example of His condition. The book begins with the bleak lamentations of Job and ends with a full-blown manic episode by God, complete with such classic bipolar symptoms as the illusion of omnipotence and delusions of grandeur.

"One of the major 'heresies' of Christian history is the Gnostic belief that the Creator, or 'demiurge,' of this troubled world is a blind, idiot god who is insane," Jurgens said. "This idea surfaces in many religious traditions around the globe. As it turns out, they were only half right: God has His problems like anyone else, but He is essentially trying His best. He just has a condition that makes His emotions fly out of control at times."

"So it's up to us to make the best of God's emotional problems," Jurgens continued. "Thus, mankind is born to trouble, as surely as sparks fly upward."



Some encouraging news lately. This spring Heather shifted to working on a community garden, growing vegetables to give to the families here, and also to friends nearby and in Evanston. I thought that was a great idea. And many people appreciated the produce this summer. One drawback, though, was that Heather no longer grew vegetables for the farm business, so we wouldn't receive much of a farm donation. That meant over a third of our income would go away. But we felt like she was making the right choice, and that God would find another way to provide.

One encouragement was a unexpected donation from a friend. And now we just found out that we've been offered a large rent reduction, in gratitude for the care-giving I volunteered for our elderly neighbor. A very generous surprise. One that more than makes up for the shortfall in our income. We couldn't have imagined such an arrangement a month ago, but now it meets our current needs very well. With a little extra, too, in case we do manage to add a child to our family in the not too distant future.

We also recently heard from a Catholic Worker house that I contacted over a year ago. I didn't get any reply then, but now they're coming for a retreat in a month. Emmaus is coming about a month after that. So our winter looks a little more interesting than usual.


a hard question

Spending more time with our elderly neighbor has raised at least one important question for me already:

Whatever it is you live for, whatever gives you hope and inspiration, guidance in your choices, meaning for your actions... would it still be there for you, giving hope and guidance and meaning, if you were 90 years old, confined to a recliner or a bed, your spouse and the friends of your youth all deceased, your children moved away living their own lives, too frail to work and dependent on someone else to help you with even the most basic physical needs?

That situation is not uncommon, and for many people, their purpose for living can't endure that hard question. But shouldn't it be important to make sure ours can? And shouldn't that impact how we live now?



Our neighbor, who's over ninety, got out of the hospital Monday (after a bad fall) and I've been very involved with his care this past week. It looks like I will be from now on. Which feels good to me, but it's thrown my life into a bit of disarray for the moment.

I did take some time today, though, to get a few pictures of the leaves. Really beautiful colors this year.




coming to "one mind"

The recent discussion on voting, along with the upcoming election constantly in the news, got me thinking about voting in the context of communities. The intentional Christian communities we've lived with have attempted to make decisions by consensus rather than majority vote. That does seems more in keeping with the desire to come to "one mind" in Christ. And it also avoids perhaps the most obvious drawback to "majority rules," which is that the minority gets decisions forced on them against their will. This is the impetus for political power struggles, trying to gather a majority on your side of the issue. Because the majority clearly has power over the minority. Consensus decision-making seeks to avoid this.

Of course there are drawbacks to consensus decision-making as well. One big one is the pressure that is felt when only one or two people disagree and hold back the group from proceeding. Often people can feel forced to give in in those situations. But the main drawback, which has caused most communities (including the ones we've lived among) to give up on consensus decision-making, is that it's too hard to get everyone to agree. Decisions are made too slowly or not at all. Too much gridlock, and not enough gets done. So, for example, the community here has moved to a 75% majority vote for decision-making. Which gets us back to the power dynamics mentioned above.

What I've noticed, though, is that consensus is not as hard to achieve in smaller groups. It's easier to understand each other when you can talk freely among a few people, and often people in these smaller gatherings are initially closer to "one mind" when they come together for a project, a common interest having drawn them to it. "Majority rule" is unnecessary in small groups, and usually even feels inappropriate in these more intimate settings.

So it seems to me that many of the problems of group decision-making could be avoided if the groups in which decisions were made were smaller. That's not to suggest oligarchy instead of democracy, but that decisions be made on a lower level, by the few people involved in the work. That fits with my other recent thoughts on work and getting things done with minimal low-level organization. When we gather the power of bigger groups of people, we also get ourselves into the power struggles or gridlock of big group decision-making.

Of course our communities are not going to reorganize themselves into smaller groups. But in whatever situation we find ourselves, we can look for and cooperate with the smaller gatherings of people that are coming to "one mind" around something God is doing.

"Where two or three are gathered in my name," Jesus said. And very often that's all that's needed to get the job done.


"in the shadow of your wings"

We've been meaning to try Celtic evening prayer with some friends, and may actually manage it this weekend. They use a liturgy put together by the Northumbria community in England.

Here's a nice piece of it, using Psalm 27:

In the shadow of Your wings
I will sing Your praises, O Lord.

The Lord is my light, my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the refuge of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

In the shadow of Your wings
I will sing Your praises, O Lord.

One thing I ask of the Lord,
one thing I seek;
to dwell in the presence of my God,
to gaze on Your holy place.

In the shadow of Your wings
I will sing Your praises, O Lord.

I believe I shall see the goodness
of the Lord in the land of the living.
O wait for the Lord!
Have courage and wait,
wait for the Lord.

In the shadow of Your wings
I will sing Your praises, O Lord.

(The whole evening prayer is here)


George W. Bush Returns To America After Spending Four Years In The Himalayas

JACKSONVILLE, FL—Garbed in unwashed robes and wearing a long, gray, whispy beard, former president George W. Bush returned to the United States this morning after four years on a spiritual journey in the Himalayas.

Sources said Bush, who hasn’t been seen in America since abandoning his Crawford, TX ranch and Secret Service detail at the end of his presidency, appeared on the shore in Jacksonville, FL, emerging from what appeared to be a crude self-built wooden boat and exhibiting a gentle, placid countenance as he addressed surprised onlookers.

“I am but a gently falling leaf, buoyed by mountain winds,” the 66-year-old former Texas governor said. “To see the way forward is to be connected to your own reality and be one with your consciousness—complete and pure, unburdened and without want."

Throughout the makeshift press conference, the former president refused to respond to the name George Bush, repeatedly reminding onlookers that he now preferred to be called “Gomtesh.” Sources reported the famed Republican is missing three toes from frostbite he suffered during his travels before mastering the ability to raise and lower his body temperature at will.

(from The Onion)


on voting

Some pieces from a recent discussion...

You're right, "not voting" doesn't do anything. The critique is that voting does do something, which is help empower someone who will use that power lethally (perhaps more, perhaps less) as every president has done, and every presidential candidate assures us he (or she) will do.

But, yes, "not voting" is no great accomplishment. The question should be, how to address the problems around us in a better way than voting, without helping empower politicians who will do so much damage in their attempts to solve problems with the power of the gun and the tax man. For example, instead of supporting a politician we hope will only engage this nation's armies in a few wars, maybe we could support individuals and groups that work directly to reduce the causes of conflict (like ministries to gang members, or groups that offer aid in areas where great need leads to political unrest). Or instead of empowering a politician who will take money by force from taxpayers to fund poverty relief programs (which then make the poor jump through some pretty humiliating hoops to get help), maybe we could support direct voluntary aid to help the poor. Or, better yet, get involved with such work ourselves. Those are the kind of things we could do, instead of voting.

Jesus certainly threatened the basis of the empire's power, but not the way activists do. Jesus pointed people to a power that was not the power of empire (or "the power of the people"), which could free them from dependence on empire. He showed that they could find real food and freedom without bowing to or begging empire for it. That does threaten the power of empire, but more importantly for the people involved, it offers real help now. Not when governments get around to granting any help (which, to paraphrase you, is always help mixed with hurt).

The activist approach, and voting with it, just reinforces the message that "the U.S. [or 'empire'] is the only one who has the power to influence anything." Which is the same message that empire is always preaching.

No one's saying we should "avoid any choice that might put my virtue at risk." We're saying that real love never puts our virtue at risk, but is the embodiment of true virtue. "Being perfect" is loving our enemies, as Jesus said. The president you vote for (either one) is not campaigning on anything like that message. We're saying that encouraging anyone to look to him for the solution is not the loving thing to do.

The political bodies that give you a vote in this matter are not guided by "demands for justice" but by the demands of the majority. And it is those very demands that make it impossible for a president (like Obama) to stop sending weapons to the Israelis. The same system that gives you "a voice" is the one that prevents any elected official from offering a truly good response. It's not just that Obama isn't Jesus. It's that the only way he can get into that position of power (or keep it) is if he sets aside the enemy-loving way of Jesus.

That's why I think love calls us to point people to a different power, a power that is not in conflict with goodness but is one with it. Jesus was offered political power (on more than one occasion, as I recall) and he rejected it. He chose to demonstrate a very different power, encouraging people to trust in God's power instead. A power that can deliver now, and without compromise.

I'm not trying to contrast personal and political. I'm trying to focus on Jesus' response as opposed to what we see all around us, in politicians and activists alike: the constant struggle to control and use the power of empire. Voting is part of that struggle.


insignificant ministry

It seems to always be when I'm feeling a bit insecure and ineffective that I hear about another guy with an amazing, successful ministry to the poor. Someone I can respect, because of the people he's dedicated himself to. But also someone who makes me feel incredibly insignificant and even more unsure of myself.

Usually, though, if I read a little more about him, a familiar pattern emerges. He's promoting a book he wrote. He's speaking at colleges and conferences. He's giving interviews. And, underlying all of this, he's fundraising. His ministry has been successful and grown big and now millions are needed every year to support it, so he's always fundraising.

Why is it always like that? Even those who focus on "being with" and "being like" the poor seem to end up doing these same things that the poor will never be found doing.

And those are things I don't want to be doing either. I don't know if successful ministry, like any successful organization, necessarily pushes us in the direction of publicity and money. It does look like that. Even Jesus seemed to have to fight against it, a fight that put a quick end to his successful ministry.

I'm grateful for all God does to help needy and broken people through the successful ministries in the world. And I'm grateful to be insignificant enough to be spared the temptation.



the work and the workers

I've been rolling some thoughts around in my head the past few days, trying to come up with a good way to write about them, but it's not coming together neatly. Maybe because it's more a practical issue than a neat theoretical one. I was spurred by recent attempts to get jobs done around here, less-than-successful attempts. A story about the dissolution of the Occupy movement also caught my eye. They never could get organized enough to get anything significant done. And my resistance to joining the new committees being formed here, and the likelihood that they will not be very effective. I mean, ideology aside, things need to get done. So what organization is needed, and how can we work together in ways that are effective but that don't institutionalize us?

My limited experience working on projects around here, and my five years of observation, lead me to believe that the focus needs to be on the work rather than the leader, and on the workers rather than the organizational structure. I've seen the best work when people gather together around an important task, a problem that we all see needs to be fixed. It's practical, and unity and motivation seem to come easier. I've also noticed that decisions made in committee are often left by the wayside when the practical work starts and the real problems can be seen. So I think the best way to get things done is to focus on the work at hand, not looking to some community ideals or to the leader of the group, but to what the work asks of us. The leader shouldn't pick the work, the work should pick the leader. What skills are required for this task? Who is most knowledgeable and most motivated to see it done well? This means the leader probably will keep changing based on the work at hand, which is good, because one person can't always be best qualified to lead, and it's better for each of us to step up when we're the one with the needed knowledge and ability.

And then the worker should always be treated as a person, not a job description. In other words, if we want another person's help, we need to ask for help. Workers are not just cogs in an organizational machine, but free persons who can choose what work they want to give themselves to. So again, the work is the initial focus, then it is presented to people to see if workers will step up to solve the problem. Their response helps gauge the importance of the work, and decides if it will get worked on. Perhaps the only organizational assistance needed is for someone to pass the information around; here's what problems have arisen, and here's the people who have offered to help. Then the workers who have volunteered gather around the work and organize themselves, much easier with a small group and a concrete practical task.

This approach seems natural, and meets most practical needs. I think it could completely replace committees and leadership structures in most small communities. I know that probably won't happen, but it's an approach that can be used wherever things need to get done, or whenever the more complex organizational structures start to break down. Which is a process we've been seeing here for some time. But that may just be making an opening for something much better.


"you renew the face of the ground"

The drought seems to be over. Tropical storm Isaac brought heavy rains, and now everything is green again. I prayed these lines from Psalm 104 this morning:

From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.

The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the badgers.

You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens.
People go out to their work
and to their labor until the evening.

These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.

When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.


Or maybe turn around and head the other way...



I recently found out a little more about Maria Montessori, and am starting to read her famous book The Absorbent Mind. Turns out her first school was a day care for kids from low-income families. For several years now, I've been drawn to ideas like hers about cooperating with a child's natural drive to learn. And Heather has become more and more focused on the learning process of children, as we contemplate having our own.

These thoughts also made me think again about questions I've had about how to help others learn and grow in the spiritual life. I've noticed that I tend to focus on the goal, the result, where we want to end up, but I'm usually at a loss to know how to help someone get there. Is it a matter of technique? Do we need to try to cooperate with some natural desire or innate drive? Do I need to have some special gift in this area in order to be of much help? Because I feel clueless.

I suspect there are people with better gifts than me in this area. But I'm also seeing that the process of conversion (many conversions throughout life) and growth is much more complicated than a child's normal development process. It's not just teaching knowledge and skills. It's the guiding of a human will, one usually not inclined to be guided along such a path, not at all inclined to surrender itself completely. I can attest that my own path has been a twisted and tortuous one, with countless necessary experiences and influences. How gifted would you have to be to manage that kind of guidance?

Not long ago I was dreading a meeting with a friend, who seemed to be set on pushing an issue to the point of conflict. I was just hoping to minimize the relational damage. But then we started talking and the initial issue was dropped almost immediately. The underlying motivations were completely different than I expected, and my friend seemed to actually be in the midst of a significant personal change of direction. I ended up not defending myself at all but just listening and encouraging what was happening in his life. How did we get there? I had no idea, though I liked what I was seeing. Obviously, there had been circumstances and various influences working on his life that I didn't understand. And who could understand such complexity, much less orchestrate it? Who could know all that another person needs in order to get their spirit one more step closer to God?

Only God, of course. And only God can bring together the circumstances and people and experiences (material and spiritual) that can guide us effectively and reliably. It is not my place to be the shepherd for another. There is only one Shepherd.

But I can perhaps play a role in what the Shepherd is doing, and I myself will be guided when I am used in the guidance of another. But it is never my doing, my ability, my technique. Only in submission to the Shepherd will I do any good, and much of that good I may not even understand. But I can trust that, with or without me, the Shepherd is guiding his flock.


"what if she had called him an alcoholic?"

For labor day, I thought it would be worth rereading this entry from five years ago:

The report went abroad concerning Jesus; and great multitudes gathered to hear and to be healed of their infirmities. But he withdrew to the wilderness and prayed. (Lk 5.15-16)
That last line resonated with me, because I was still tired from clearing brush the day before, hours of hacking with machete and chainsaw. I really don't like the feeling of exhaustion. It makes me feel off-center, confused, unable to focus. And working to exhaustion certainly does not feel like the life of the kingdom of God to me—but is this an unavoidable necessity? Jesus' withdrawing from the demanding crowd gives me hope.

As I wrote not too long ago, there's a heavy emphasis on hard work here. Struggles with the weight of the labor during growing season, but a pride in that struggle, and smiling affirmation for the one who is nodding off at the end of the day because they've worked so hard. Complaints about having so much to do almost seem like boasts about having so much to do. Because there is great social esteem for the hard worker. [It's interesting to note that, since writing this, the hard work culture has largely collapsed here, with several of the hardest workers suffering burnout and leaving.]

It's not only here, of course. I was just reading an article yesterday about a currently popular theologian, and at the end of the article his wife described him as a "workaholic." I think that's supposed to be a negative term (what if she had called him an alcoholic, Heather wondered). But if workaholism is a fault, it's hardly frowned upon in our society. It's much more admired. The hardest workers earn more, get promoted, and are widely admired for their ambition and productivity. They usually end up being the bosses (that's how it's been most places I've worked). People give them more work and more responsibility because they are willing to take it—so we end up with the workaholics setting the work schedule and defining the goals. Which is great for a society that wants to get things done.

But Jesus wasn't like that. And I think we should be especially careful not to follow workaholics as our examples and leaders. The reasons that drive people to work to exhaustion are almost always physical need (and the fear of lack) and personal ambition. Neither of these are good motivations from a spiritual point of view. Jesus taught us not to worry about our physical needs but to trust our Father to provide, and to give up our own ambition, abandoning our own will and embracing the will of God. Jesus preached not hard work, but total dependence on God. Our lives need not rest in our own calloused hands.

While society endlessly praises the hard workers, Jesus withdraws to the wilderness to pray. Or carelessly leaves behind a wildly popular and productive healing ministry to more clearly preach the "good news," a message that society's top hard workers would kill him for: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."


proverbs 31 husband

This Sunday, highlighting a lesser known passage of scripture, from LarkNews.com:

‘Proverbs 31 husband’ justifies beer habit

MINOT, N.D. — Jack Crocker, a beer-loving machinist and “part-time Christian,” finally agreed to read Proverbs with wife Reanna. He’s glad he did.

“I’m a Proverbs 31 husband all right,” says Jack, then quotes Proverbs 31:6-7: “Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.”

“That’s my permission to crack open a cold one,” Jack says, having a Coors after dinner.

But Reanna, a new church member, is pushing Jack hard to stop drinking. She insists he is neither “perishing” nor “in anguish.” But Jack researched the Bible on the Internet and found 2 Corinthians 4:16 and 5:2 which say, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day,” and “Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.”

“Everyone is perishing and in anguish,” Jack says. “Until we’re delivered from these bodies, the Bible says to drink up.”

As part of the escalating family tension he created a “Proverbs 31″ category on their weekly budget and listed “beer” under it. He also wants to start a Proverbs 31 Men’s Group with his buddies.

“We’re trying to find where the Bible talks about buffalo wings,” he says.


a delicious discovery

Enjoyed a nice treat yesterday. To celebrate Heather's book being honored (and her birthday as well) some friends paid for dinner for us at the Chestnut Street Inn, a bed and breakfast not far from here. Monica, the chef there, made a four course meal just for us. A spicy crab bisque, with parmesan scones; a salad with dried cranberries, pistachios, and smokey bleu cheese; shrimp with an Aztec-inspired sauce made with chocolate and cayenne pepper, and baby potatoes with herbs and sun-dried tomatoes; and a chocolate creme brulee for dessert. Wonderful.

After dinner we got to talking with our hosts, Monica and Jeff, and it turns out they're looking for someone to help with their little garden. So Heather might take that up. They said they'd be glad to offer some more of their amazing meals as thanks for the help. Wow! This might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship...



Just finished rereading All The King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren. And decided it's my favorite novel. Warren was an accomplished poet, so the writing is terrific, plus it's got lots of dirty politics, a love story that's messy and complicated enough to seem real, a towering central character that makes it hard to decide whether he's the hero or the villain, and even a voluntarily poor saintly figure floating in the background. Inspired by a true story, too. Here's a taste:

He called me in and said: "I told you to dig on Irwin. What did you get?"

"I got something," I said.


"Boss," I said, "I'm going to give Irwin a break. If he can prove to me it isn't true, I won't spill it."

"God damn it," he began, "I told you—"

"I'm giving Irwin a break," I said. "I promised two people I would do it."


"Well, I promised myself, for one. The other one doesn't matter."

"You promised yourself, huh?" He looked hard at me.

"Yeah, I did."

"O.K.," he said. "Do it your way. If it'll stick, you know what I want." He surveyed me glumly, then added: "And it better stick."

"Boss," I said, "I'm afraid it will."

"Afraid?" he said.


"Who you working for? Him or me?"

"Well, I'm not framing Judge Irwin."

He kept on studying me. "Boy," he said then, "I'm not asking you to frame him. I never asked you to frame anybody. Did I?"


"I never did ask you to frame anybody. And you know why?"


"Because it ain't ever necessary. You don't ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always sufficient."

"You sure take a high view of human nature," I said.

"Boy," he said," I went to a Presbyterian Sunday School back in the days when they still had some theology, and that much of it stuck. And—" he grinned suddenly, "—I have found it very valuable."



From a recent discussion...

Great examples [Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Martin Luther]. So what do you see them doing? Were they preaching their revolutionary ideas to others before they tried them and experienced real liberation? Other people followed their example, because they saw actual human lives that embodied the message, and people admired that example, saw that it was good and possible, and wanted the same for themselves (and their communities). They saw Francis abandon his wealth and influence, saw Ignatius renounce the power of violence for the sake of a greater power, saw Luther risk his life standing up to the oppressive religious power structure. And they saw all these things in Jesus' life, too. They saw evidence of real liberation.

Putting an idea into practice is a test of its truth: does it lead to liberation, or more disillusionment? The prophets and leaders you mention (and many others) didn't ask others to believe them if they didn't believe it themselves enough to put it into practice and test it, sometimes at the risk of their lives. They didn't tell people "this is the way forward" until they had some solid evidence, evidence they got through living it. Then they had something to preach that was worth listening to.

I keep hearing bold (and loudly critical) ideas from primitivist and anti-civ folks, but when it comes to putting it into practice and evidence gained from experience, I just hear excuses about why this isn't possible. Why not try this stuff first and see how it turns out in real life, then tell us what's true and possible, and what's not? I have a feeling the message would look quite different after actually attempting to live by it.


back to school

Against School: How public education cripples our kids, and why
by John Taylor Gatto

We have been taught in this country to think of "success" as synonymous with, or at least dependent upon, "schooling," but historically that isn't true in either an intellectual or a financial sense. And plenty of people throughout the world today find a way to educate themselves without resorting to a system of compulsory secondary schools that all too often resemble prisons. Why, then, do Americans confuse education with just such a system? What exactly is the purpose of our public schools?


we three?

Continuing "Are We the People?"...

In recent years, a number of theologians have recognized the apparent spiritual nature of our institutions and organizations, Walter Wink being the most widely recognized (with his extremely popular Powers That Be series). But they do not seem to notice that, despite the powerful effect produced by many people believing in a god, an immaterial “power” that they depend on and serve, such a god is not actually real. People create institutions and organizations, corporations and nations. But people do not create spiritual entities. Their gods are not real (and so cannot be redeemed, as Wink claims). They are idols, the work of men's hands (and minds), with no breath in their nostrils or sight in their eyes.

Yet there are real spiritual “principalities and powers,” entities not created by us, existing long before we gathered ourselves into collectives and institutionalized ourselves. And these have always found our idols useful.

The question for us is who do we believe in? Who do we depend on for our daily bread, and our security for the future? Who do we serve?

Do we identify ourselves as members of the corporate bodies of idols, have we made ourselves their hands, their mouths? Do we wield their authority among those others who also believe in them? What is our answer?

Jesus' answer was clear:
And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.”

And Jesus answered him, “It is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”

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


we, too?

Continuing "Are We the People?"...

What is this great beast? What is the monster that Steinbeck describes? An institution, a social structure created by human beings. With no actual reality, except in the minds of the people who believe in it. Yet, as more and more people gather, believing in and submitting themselves to its order and purposes, it gains power in men's minds, great power, seeming to become something much greater than ourselves. Those who believe and serve it become dependent on it, dependent for their very lives. And it grows in complexity and influence until it eventually reaches the point where no human leadership seems to be in control of it; it seems to have taken on a life of its own.

“Men made it but they can't control it …it can make men do what it wants.”

Isn't this what an idol is? The work of men's hands, yet with the apparent power of a god, that people depend on, and fear, and serve. With no reality in itself, yet very real in the minds of those who believe in it. Wielding great power through those people.

And wasn't that always the nature of idols? They represented local gods, wielding power over the inhabitants of a city or region. Where they were believed in they truly seemed to have power, and their power was precisely the power of their united, organized believers. When the people were defeated by another people, their god either disappeared or took its place with the defeated people, submitting to the victorious people's god. The power of the idol was and always is the power of the people.

But that power can seem very great. We, the People—the monster, the Great Beast—even appears to have the power to define good and evil. Weil borrowed the image of a great beast from this passage of Plato's Republic (where Plato critiques those who are “wise” through their study of collective society):

I might compare them to a man who should study the tempers and desires of a mighty strong beast who is fed by him—he would learn how to approach and handle him, also at what times and from what causes he is dangerous or the reverse, and what is the meaning of his several cries, and by what sounds, when another utters them, he is soothed or infuriated; and you may suppose further, that when, by continually attending upon him, he has become perfect in all this, he calls his knowledge wisdom, and makes of it a system or art, which he proceeds to teach, although he has no real notion of what he means by the principles or passions of which he is speaking, but calls this honorable and that dishonorable, or good or evil, or just or unjust, all in accordance with the tastes and tempers of the great brute. Good he pronounces to be that in which the beast delights and evil to be that which he dislikes…
To Plato's observation, Weil adds this insight: “The power of the social element. Agreement between several men brings with it a feeling of reality. It brings with it also a sense of duty. Divergence, where this agreement is concerned, appears as a sin. Hence all returns to the fold are possible. The state of conformity is an imitation of grace.”

We, the People is a demanding god, but also a forgiving god. If you conform you are accepted, and a use is found for you.

We desire so much to be forgiven and accepted. To become a part of something greater than ourselves, to be united as one with our fellow human beings. And with good reason; we were created for this. But there is only one real, living, corporate Body, and it is not created by us. All other corporate "bodies" are lies, false substitutions for the living One. They are idols.

Now it may seem that the belief and participation in collective "bodies," our creation and service of human institutions, is too widespread to be considered idolatry. It pervades our whole society, both now and throughout history. But we should recall that Jesus' term for those who do not serve God was "the world."

Continued tomorrow...


well, are we?

Struggling with some stressful issues these past few days got me thinking of a essay from a while back, "Are we the people?" So I found it and reread it. It's still very important to me; experiences these past three years make me believe it all the more. I think I'll post it again:

The owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were…. “You see, a bank or company… those creatures don't breathe air, don't eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so…. The bank—the monster has to have profits all the time. It can't wait. It'll die. When the monster stops growing it dies. It can't stay one size….”

And at last the owner men came to the point. “The tenant system won't work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don't like to do it. But the monster's sick. Something's happened to the monster….”

“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it's our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it's no good, it's still ours….”

“We're sorry. It's not us. It's the monster. The bank isn't like a man.”

“Yes, but the bank is made up of men.”

“No. You're wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it but they can't control it.

“…The monster isn't men, but it can make men do what it wants.”

That passage, from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, is perhaps the best description of human idolatry that I have ever seen. We commonly think of idols as ancient, exotic things. Little carved statues that superstitious and simple-minded people bowed to in their homes and in their pagan temples. But I have become convinced that idols are, and always have been, us.

Not little carved images, not things at all. The idol is us. People, gathered into a collective, man-made “us.” We, the People.

In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil wrote:
The Great Beast is the only object of idolatry, the only ersatz of God, the only imitation of something which is infinitely far from me and which is I myself.

It is impossible for me to take myself as an end or, in consequence, my fellow man as an end, since he is my fellow. Nor can I take a material thing, because matter is still less capable of having finality conferred upon it than [individual] human beings are.

Only one thing can be taken as an end, for in relation to the human person it possesses a kind of transcendence: this is the collective.

Continued tomorrow...


by chico


"soul encounters"

I've been in Chicago most of this week, visiting some of the ministries that send retreatants to us. I notice I'm not as comfortable in the city as I used to be. Seems noisier, puts me on edge.

The experience reminded me of a conversation about wilderness trips and the importance of nature in spiritual awakenings. I can certainly see how it's often easier to focus and listen to the "still, small voice" when we're in a wilderness (or more natural) setting. That's part of what we offer to the retreat guests who come out to the farm.

But I don't think that natural setting is crucial. God can get through to us anywhere, if we're at all willing. Which is good, because lots of us can't afford or manage to get out to the wilderness very often. I noticed a pretty good observation from one of the organizations that offer guided wilderness "quests": "People experience genuine and profound soul encounter only under the most extraordinary of circumstances. And it turns out there are only a few categories of such circumstances." Such as:

  • Significantly traumatic personal crises, including
    • major physical trauma (injury or illness), often resulting in a near-death experience
    • loss of a primary relationship (through death or otherwise)
    • an extreme psychosocial life crisis that forces us to re-examine everything in our life
    • spiritual crisis
    • a "dark-night-of-the soul" experience
  • World-shattering or mind-blowing experiences: an occurrence that is not only extraordinary, but that significantly and irrevocably changes our understanding of what the world is and how it works
  • Genuine and extended "wanderings" in which we journey far from "home" in both the physical and psychological senses, all the while without contact with "home" (e.g., a year in the desert or in a truly foreign culture)
  • Rites of initiation or rites of passage: ceremonial processes specifically designed to temporarily displace the ego-bound state of consciousness to allow for the encounter with soul.
That particular organization offers the last option on the list (for quite a fee). But I found it interesting that that last one is the only one that we can try to make happen. All the rest usually happen to us. And of course those are the far more common settings for our spiritual awakenings.

We don't set those up for ourselves, though. (And we don't have to pay cash for them, unless our "life crisis" happens to be something like a crash of the stock market.) We can't create the most common, most powerful conditions for our "soul encounters." They have to be set up by someone who can manage much more than our little lives, someone who can take the whole world apart if necessary. And put it together again.

And all those other soul-jarring experiences don't have to happen in the wilderness. They can, and very regularly do, happen right where we are. Not when we choose them or can afford to buy them, but usually when we least expect them.



Jason asked about the new community garden, if I had any pictures. So here's one I took as the sun was setting behind the trees. We're in the middle of a serious drought, but Heather has managed to keep things growing pretty well.

Our friends Dan and Camille are here for the summer, and they've been helping a lot too. They did all the watering and picking and weeding while Heather was gone this past week, and had enough produce for everyone with lots left over to take to other friends in Chicago.

Pretty big sunflowers, eh? Here's another shot of them.


"a nuclear explosion is awesome"


on vacation

Heather got invited to go wilderness camping on Isle Royale this week, so I'm taking a bit of a vacation as well. Not going anywhere. Just relaxing a bit, cooking a little special, watching some movies that Heather's probably not interested in, and enjoying having the place all to myself.

I've generally been dissatisfied with vacationing. It seemed to me that if we really enjoyed and got deep satisfaction from our daily work and normal life, then vacations shouldn't be necessary. What I usually saw was people taking a much-needed break so that they didn't break—but then they had to go right back to the grind. Heather likes the idea of taking "sabbaths" of various kinds regularly. I guess I can't argue with that. But (here I go anyway) I see Jesus taking the God-given sabbath a step further. When he was caught "breaking" the sabbath Jesus, echoing passages like Isaiah 58, said that the kind of "work" he was doing was exactly what we are supposed to be doing on the sabbath. "It is lawful to do good on the sabbath." And that's what he did every day, sabbath or no. It seems to me that every day was sabbath-holy to Jesus, both in the rest from relentlessly "pursuing your own interests" and in the good, freely giving, deeply fulfilling work he did with all his time, every day. So that's what I've wanted to do too.

But I have to admit, it is nice to have a change of pace once in a while.

This morning I prayed down by the creek. I surprised some young deer on my way through the woods, sending them bounding in three different directions. A couple months ago, laying almost asleep on the big rock by the creek, I saw a doe wander right by me, not twenty feet away as it waded through the shallow water. It stopped a little further on and drank and cleaned itself for several minutes before climbing into the woods.

Today there were just the damselflies, careening after each other over the water. The creek is very shallow due to the months-long drought here. Where I was it's a little deeper, the flowing water digging down as it hits the huge rock and changes direction. A big school of minnows is apparently trapped there because the rest of the creek is so low, but from their size they seem to be thriving. When I moved above them they would scatter instinctively. It seemed like I could control the fish with a magical wave of my hand. I prayed:
And you, creatures of the sea, O bless the Lord.
And you, every bird in the sky, O bless the Lord.
And you, wild beasts and tame, O bless the Lord.
To him be highest glory and praise for ever.

And in the gospel I came to a favorite passage, Luke 18.18-30.


"if you give them time"

I remembered this quote yesterday, by William James:

I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man’s pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top.

I like how it emphasizes the patience required to see the effects of the molecular moral forces, the "soft rootlets" of God. Made me think of what I wrote recently about endurance and faith. We can't bring ourselves into harmony with these slow-working forces if we insist on seeing immediate results. But this is God's way, the way we see demonstrated so clearly in all of the natural world, and the way of love: slow, patient, but insistent and ultimately irresistible.

Also, it seems to me that the the poor and weak and old can understand this way better and embrace it more readily. The strong see no reason to wait.



"without a cause"

"It is to fulfill the word that is written in their law, 'They hated me without a cause.'" (Jn 15.25)

I don't hear Christians talk too often about being hated in society. They're so much in the majority in our society that it's usually pretty confortable for Christians; actually, I more often hear of people complaining about being hated by Christians.

But Jesus often warned his small band of followers that they would be hated by the wider society. He even blessed them in it:

"Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets." (Lk 6.22-23)
This is not mentioned often, but there are times when Christians do turn to these words of Jesus. Like when Christian colonizers were hated and attacked by native peoples. Situations like that, though, raise the question: Were those Christians hated (as Jesus was) "without a cause"? Were they hated simply for their beliefs, as some claim? And now, do many in the Middle East hate Christians "without a cause"? Or do they hate Christians for stealing their land and resources and killing their family members, some very reasonable causes for hating?

I've heard a little more from left-leaning Christians about Jesus being hated and about how we should expect the same. But they often seem to give clear reasons for that hatred and even practical ways to provoke it now. It's explained that Jesus was hated and killed because he challenged those in political power and threatened the economic structures of his time. It's simple. If we also threaten the political and economic powers, we'll be hated and crucified as well. Many have shown this to be true (and many others have tried hard and been mostly ignored), but I think this Christian activism raises the same question as the Christian colonization did. Do they really hate you "without a cause" like Jesus? Or do they hate you for threatening their income or destroying their property or attempting to grasp political power, just like they hate all their other political opponents? Pretty reasonable and common causes for hating.

I know of one place where Jesus stated simply why society hated him. He was speaking to family members who seemed to be goading him to appear publicly in Jerusalem. Jesus said, "The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify of it that its works are evil." (Jn 7.7)

That's all. Not because he was taking their land or their political or economic power. But because he was simply telling them the truth, telling them that their works were evil. Jesus wasn't threatening them in any way. Speaking from a position of vulnerability, his words were more dangerous to him than to them. They had no good reason to hate or attack him. Truly they hated him without a cause.

That's not an easy thing to emulate. We usually give people pretty good reasons for hating us, and then it does no good to claim to be following Jesus' example. But if we care for others in a way that poses no threat to them, if we are not like their political opponents or economic competitors, but humble servants in the world, and if then our speaking against evil, not from a position of power but from weakness, brings anger and opposition against us, then maybe we're starting to get closer to Jesus' being "hated without a cause." And that's worth something. Because it means we're getting closer to Jesus.



We're going to Florida Monday. Heather's novel, How Huge the Night, was selected as a finalist for a Christy Award in the young adult category. So her publisher is flying us down to Orlando to attend the awards banquet. Should be fun, and a very nice honor for Heather.


a greater mastermind

I was reminded today of this piece of my journal from almost twelve years ago:

A mysterious figure floats though the movie The Usual Suspects. He is almost too powerful and vicious to be believable, even the characters take him to be largely myth, yet all seem to fear him at some level. He can find out anything about anybody. People serve him everywhere, yet they usually don't know that they are serving him or how they are serving him. He seems to be involved in everything, yet no one knows his overall plan or purpose. All his activity is shrouded in lies and unwitting accomplices. Yet he seems to be able to do whatever he wants to whomever he chooses. Not surprisingly, he is identified as the devil himself. (Best line: "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist.")

But all conspiracy theories seem to fall short of the reality. No matter how wide-ranging and threatening they appear, the real conspiracy is worse: "...the whole world is in the power of the evil one." (1 Jn 5.19) In any actual conspiracy we identify, the most powerful mastermind is really just an unwitting pawn in the hands of a greater mastermind that we don't see. And even the unorganized 'free agents' in the rest of society are also promoting his cause. In most cases, people really don't know what they are doing; they're just following the path that seems in their best interest. But they are being used. Again and again, we are being used. To discourage, disillusion, distract, disassociate others. To tear people apart. To press them towards despair. To confuse and frighten and destroy. If we can't see how we're doing this to others, just look at what we are experiencing from others. It's what they give and what we angrily return. And it's all working together too well to just be a coincidence―or the work of any human being.

I'd been thinking that when we respond to the wrongdoing of others and get angry and stop loving them because of it, then we've been duped too. Made into another unwitting pawn.


the "i"


"he thwarts the purposes of the peoples"

The Lord foils the plans of the nations;
he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.
But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever,
the purposes of his heart through all generations.
Ps 33.10-11
I'm believing more and more that most of our human plans and expectations are not God's plans and expectations, and that explains why things so rarely turn out as we want them to. What we're trying to do simply isn't what God is actually doing, with and around us.

My latest disappointment is that it looks like our little worship group isn't going to work any more. Mostly because people are too busy with work and family schedules, but also because we couldn't find enough commonality, I think. Anyway, it seems that God was doing something different than I thought. Maybe it's a preparation for other people and better opportunities down the road. We'll see, I guess. But in any case I think it's important to recognize and accept that God's purposes are better than whatever I had in mind and just keep trying to understand what God is up to.

A similar dynamic has been going on in the community here, it seems to me. God seems to be doing something, but it looks to me like it's something quite different from what the leaders of the community are currently trying to do. So I'm hopeful, but not about what "the peoples" are attempting. We'll see. I've tried to be open about that as well, sharing with some people about what I think God's up to, but also admitting I could be wrong. What's important is not whether I'm right or wrong but that we all be willing to see and accept what God is doing, and cooperate with it as much as we can. Because what God is doing is what's going to happen.