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.


are you making a difference?

Recently I've heard concerns from a few people about whether or not they're "really making a difference." It's a common question, often coming after years of working for change, in a social service job, for example, or as a soup kitchen volunteer. I can respect that concern when it comes from people like that who are honestly trying to help. I've begun to notice, though, how the drive to "make a difference" can gradually turn us from the way of Jesus.

Among the people I hear from, making a difference usually means something like reducing the suffering due to poverty or oppression, resisting those in power, trying to alter unfair political and economic structures, etc. Which are all things I might support. They might also involve actions very much like some of the actions of Jesus. But working to "really make a difference" in those areas almost always leads us towards embracing more effective means of pressure to get things done. I've frequently mentioned the political and economic pressure often used by nonviolent activists (tactics not seen in Jesus' life). And it's not unusual to see the question raised whether we ought to give up the scruples of nonviolence if we really want to oppose the powerful or bring down unjust social structures.

It's not too hard, however, to see that Jesus' life wasn't about making a difference like this. He did have an active ministry, but seems to have waited thirty years to begin it, so it was actually only a small part of his life. He did feed some people and heal many others. But he left many unfed and unhealed, when he could have done much more. He denounced many oppressive social practices and structures, but he did not gather the power of wealth or the crowds to bring those structures down. And while Jesus spoke boldly against the wrongdoing of those in power, he did not make a significant difference through this resistance. They all remained in power when he was gone.

There's been much debate about Jesus' real purpose in life. But I think the more important question for us is whether or not our purpose in life is following him.

Because if it is, then "making a difference" can't be the purpose of our life. Reducing suffering, fighting poverty, resisting oppression, these can't be our guiding purpose. Following Jesus as closely as possible, and thus helping others follow him, has to be our guiding purpose. It makes me think of Jesus' commission to his followers, not "make a difference," but "make disciples."

Looking at Jesus' life, it seems like we have to let go of the desire to make a difference if we want to follow him closely and constantly. Certainly there were moments when the power of God was effective through Jesus, and remarkable things happened. But there was a lot of waiting. And when things did start happening it was always clearly the power of God at work—God making a difference. The biggest impact on the world came when Jesus couldn't do anything at all, when he himself needed to be saved.

We need to focus ourselves completely on following Jesus. And, like him, let God make the difference.