"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.