at dawn

Last night I played this one more time, from Heather's celtic Christmas album:

O come, O come, Emmanuel

Thinking about a Christmas haiku this year, I kept remembering the first one I wrote, about fifteen years ago. I was in the novitiate then, on a path to be a priest with the Dominicans. But this feels even more appropriate for this year:

At dawn the star fades,
the barn filling with birdsong
to waken the son



st. nick

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why don't we follow their example?


2 days, 15 hours, and 7 minutes...

Heather's parents are coming (from France) and her brother too (from Thailand) right after Christmas. So Christmas gift-giving came up again, though without too much fuss. It reminded me of these old favorite entries, from years ago:

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: But what about St. Nick?


"my spirit rejoices"

Our reading for prayer tonight, from Luke 1:

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

And Mary said,

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

"He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."



God is gracious

Just sent this to friends and supporters:

We were grateful this Thanksgiving to have our boy with us, Ian George, born just a month before. It was an all night labor, but Heather did great. Hard to believe that was seven weeks ago. Now he’s starting to give us some smiles, which I really appreciate. It’s nice to finally get some positive feedback!

Ian is the Scottish form of the name John, meaning “God is gracious.” And God has been very gracious in providing for our needs this season. A playpen left by a neighbor that was easily converted into a bassinet. A friend that helped Heather make cloth diapers. Many gifts of baby clothes handed down from Ian’s future playmates (and a good car seat, too). A breast pump passed on by another friend, which is now starting to allow Heather some extra freedom. And the many blessings offered at the baby shower (because we didn’t need any more gifts!). Oh, and then there was the driver of the public transit bus who’s gotten to know us during many trips to see the midwife—when he heard what Ian’s name meant, he quietly slipped me $50.

I’m not exactly sure when we’ll be ready to offer retreats again, but probably by next summer. Our friends from Emmaus Ministries came in the fall instead of their usual winter retreat (it was much more peaceful here in September). We hope to introduce our boy to friends old and new during coming retreats, examples to show him what it looks like to trust our gracious God in the hardest circumstances.

Peace and hope to you this Advent season.



another two years on

For some reason this morning I started remembering thoughts of hope I had for this community a while back. So I looked back through my journal (which is one of the main things journals are for) and was shocked to discover that I had written about those signs of hope almost two years ago.

So much has happened since then. Now I see those hopes as pretty naive, though I think there's still something important to hold onto there.

My thought then was that the community was moving in a hopeful direction, in three ways that seemed crucial for vibrant, Christ-inspired life together, for "kingdom of God" life. Shifting the basis for community away from some kind of conceptual or constitutional framework, and towards a friendship-basis, people held together and identified by their personal relationships with one another. Shifting away from a subsistence or survival mode in community life and work, and towards a giving or generosity mode. And shifting the church away from politics and communal decision-making, towards an independent prophetic voice that God can use to speak to us more clearly.

There have been significant changes over the past two years, both in leadership and structure. But the inability of those changes to significantly transform community life, or move it in the directions that seem to me crucial for kingdom of God life together, have shaken my hopes. As I wrote a couple weeks ago, it seems that an independent prophetic voice cannot be expected from a church tied into the communal model (or any religious/political mash-up). And even with new leadership and a sustained push for a new direction here, what has resulted is primarily just a new constitution. More emphasis on the relationship-on-paper. The need for unity being addressed by defining and clarifying conceptually, rather than the realization that what is needed—real, loving human relationship—is not something that can be defined or grasped. And it doesn't exist on paper.

I don't see the shift towards generosity on the horizon anymore, either. But that may be a matter of interpretation, and I'm open to being surprised. This shift, though, really requires God's intervention and support, and when we're still relying on our council meetings and constitutions, I don't see God giving much support to that.

What I am still hopeful about is the realization that any of us can make these crucial shifts in our own lives even if the community around us does not. The group may identify itself and its members on paper, but we don't have to accept that. Our community can still be friendship-based, relationship-focused (and I'm personally seeing more opportunity for that at the moment). And we don't have to let church for us be "the church of the current administration." The church exists where the independent, prophetic voice of the Spirit is heard. Look for it, find it, be it. (Some experiments in that direction have borne satisfying fruit lately, too.)

And when we are seeking that, then we can count on God to support us as we focus on giving, rather than scrabbling for survival.

I suppose the lesson of these last couple years should take me back to all Jesus said about living "in the world." Don't expect the society around you to live by God's ways, or make it easy for you. Don't place your hope there. The life of the kingdom of God never was, and never can be, offered by a humanly instituted society (or intentional community). But it was and is real. Offered by Jesus to those who will follow him.



They brought him a coin.

And Jesus said to them:
"Whose likeness and inscription is this?"

They said, "Caesar's."

Then he said to them:
"Render therefore to Caesar
the things that are Caesar's,

and to God
the things that are God's."


can't wait


lest I forget

I think I'm going to start a personal Veterans' Day tradition. Technically I'm a veteran, though I don't deserve any honor for it. It would be good to remind myself of that, every year on this holiday, by rereading the story of how I left the Navy:

I was walking alone along the road outside a monastery in England, thinking about where I was. AWOL in a foreign country. I'd gone on a two-week leave several months ago, but instead of driving back and reporting for duty on the aircraft carrier I had boarded a plane. It felt like the only thing I could do. And I didn't think I deserved to be punished for it, so I'd fled.

These weeks of walking the Scottish moors and visiting monasteries to rest and pray had soothed some of the turmoil inside me. But still I didn't know where I was going. The initial gut-wrenching fear had eventually settled into the thrill of a new adventure, but it was now threatening to sink into dread. What would happen if I stopped running? Was my life ruined? Turned inward, I didn't notice the trees around me or the ancient stonework of the monastery. Was this all a terrible mistake?

That was when I first felt it. Deep inside, down in a dark part of myself where I never looked, it felt like something was moving. Like the stirring of a hibernating animal, something large. The slow uncoiling of a hidden predator. I couldn't see anything clearly, but it felt real enough to inspire awe at the power of the thing. It was enough to frighten me, yet the deep sensation was not fear. I remember thinking: Not yet. But it was coming. And it excited me.



the separation of church and state

Been a bit busy with the boy lately, but I have had some new thoughts on the separation of church and state. It never held much interest for me before. Maybe because the usual debates on the topic have to do with personal freedoms or keeping religion out of government. The Christians that have addressed the separation of church and state (at least those that do so most loudly) usually denounce the concept, saying it excludes their most important convictions and practices from the public sphere. And those who vigorously support the separation, usually see it as protecting them from religious oppression.

But it seems to me that the church should be kept distinctly separate from the state (or whatever political power exists locally) so the church can speak relevantly in the public sphere. The church should stay out of power so the church can speak prophetically to power. Christians should be careful to preserve this separation so the church can be the church, in continual tension with the world.

If the church becomes one with "the current administration," if the church is endorsed by those in power, that doesn't mean God's people have won. As Jacques Ellul put it so well:

...if we do not believe that society is good and right, their approval proves nothing except that the [church's] 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....
If the church becomes one with the current administration, then it's simply not the church any more. It's not the body of Christ in the world any more. It's not challenging the world like Jesus did (and does), it's justifying it, legitimizing it, using religious language (even twisting Jesus' own words) to bless it.

The church needs to stand apart like Jesus did, not to isolate itself from others, but to show there's a real, blessed alternative. To speak to others from outside the city gates, calling them out also.

Applying this more personally and practically, I've noticed that one of the places the separation of church and state gets dissolved is in Christian intentional communities. Especially those that share property and businesses communally among their members ("common purse" communities). Often the government of the community and the church are essentially one there. The political and economic power of the community is in the hands of the church, since the members are the same and the leaders are often the same also. No separation, so no independent prophetic voice from the church. Individuals within the community may at times speak prophetically. But the vote of the church is the same as the vote of the communal political body, so the same majority speaks for both. Perhaps the church there can claim to speak prophetically to "the powers that be" outside the community, but it can't speak prophetically to the powers that be within the community. Because the church there and the powers are one. And thus even when it speaks as prophet to those outside, it speaks hypocritically.

I've gradually, over a number of years, moved outside the church of "the current administration" here. Now that seems like the best place to stay. While continuing to find ways to work with, and cultivate, the church where it exists elsewhere, set apart.


for ian


the boy is here

Ian George made an exciting appearance this morning. Heather labored all night, but she and Ian are fine and sleeping now. I'm still running on adrenalin, I think. And so proud of Heather, and grateful.

Ian is the Scottish form of John, which means "God is gracious."


anna's prayer

A blessing for Ian, given by our friend's young daughter (our friend is having another daughter any day now). I really like it.



I've been a bit caught up in plans and arrangements for the birth (which could be any day now). But I've had some thoughts recently about what is sometimes called "reciprocity."

It's found in pretty much every culture, though emphasized more strongly in some. Basically, the exchanging of "favors," and the obligations that go along with that. Not usually in direct bartering ("I'll do this for you, if you will do that for me"), though sometimes that's the case. But just that doing something for someone else builds up a kind of unspoken "capital," something they owe you. We feel that favors ought to be returned. This may be between individuals, but it can also be a kind of social capital, a contribution to the group that seems to give us a stake in the community, or perhaps honor or even authority. There's been significant research and theorizing about this kind of reciprocity in social interactions.

Maybe my earliest experiences of the pressures of reciprocity have to do with Christmas gift giving (which I've written about before). But I've also noticed it in Christian communities where there's lots of sharing. You wouldn't think of paying each other for services, but it seems there is still a feeling that you owe (either an individual or the group), and I think that does motivate a significant portion of the sharing. It's hard to nail down, since it's almost never explicit, just something I've felt. But I've heard others describe the pressure as well. And seen how they've acted, which seems to indicate the same inner obligation they feel to reciprocate.

I suspect it's a natural social construct, nurtured to avoid the abuses that happen when some members of a group receive but do not give back. It seems pretty obviously fair, as well. But it doesn't feel like a very good motivation for helping others. Not what Jesus taught us about loving others, certainly. "Give to those who have given to you" doesn't really sound like something Jesus would teach.

Mostly I don't like feeling the pressure to do something just because I supposedly "owe a favor." And I don't like giving with string attached. I'd like to do something for someone else simply because it's a good thing, because I'm inspired to participate, because love motivates me. It seems to me that the pressures of reciprocity confuse and get in the way of that free motivation of love.

So I think I'll try not to encourage the reciprocity idea in my child. I suppose it can't be completely avoided, as it seems to be a part of every social culture. But I don't have to teach it myself (and I may be able to help expose it). I'd like to teach love and gift instead, like Jesus did. And not relying on favors that others supposedly owe us, but relying on God's love to inspire others to help us in our need—and doing the kind of good work that inspires others to want to help.



personally speaking

I was recently reading some essays by a person who takes a more universalist view of God and the spiritual life, accepting all the major religions as descriptions of the same truth. And I can certainly appreciate the parallels that are obviously there. They do seem to reinforce the truth of many of the important teachings of Jesus (and others).

It seems, though, that the personal nature of God seems to get lost with the universalist approach. Like with other universally accepted truths, such as the physical sciences, the focus tends to be on consistent laws and forces that everyone can observe or experience. So there's lots of discussions on ethics or morality or helpful religious practices. And also lots of references to God as a force, or life, or as Reality, Truth, etc. But God as Person doesn't easily fit with the "all religions are one" belief, and it's usually set aside.

Maybe it doesn't make much difference to our ethics or actions whether or not God is personal. But it would seem to make a difference to how we think God feels about us, and how we feel about God. We are personal. And we experience love in a personal way, through parents and friends and spouses. We are loved by persons and we love as persons. We can experience and believe in the force of gravity, but we are not loved by gravity. So it seems pretty important that God is personal if we are to know the love of God, and love God. And isn't that the main thing, at least according to Jesus? Not to believe in God, or fear God, or obey God, but to love God with all your heart.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty in accepting a personal God is dealing with the possibility that our suffering (and others') may be connected somehow to a personal will, rather than impersonal laws and chance. A bitter struggle indeed.

But as I contemplate right now the relationship of a child to his parents, and anticipate looking on my son with love, I cannot help seeing that as a powerful sign for us. An image so fundamental—and universal—in human experience that I recognize the revelation of God in it. Not many religions speak of God as our Father, but Jesus did. And he taught and showed us that we are loved, and that the God of the universe desires to be loved by us.


two coins

We gave a retreat this past weekend, a good experience. It was nice that we knew most of the folks from previous retreats. And we used the story of the widow's mite, which has been a favorite. Here's some of Heather's dramatic reading based on that story:

God gave me a good life. Oh, you could say it was a bad one, people do say that; what do they know? I'm alive, not dead. I still have joy, in a cup of cold water, in the face of a young man. I have something to give to God, even if they say it's nothing. My husband is dead, and of my two daughters one died in childbirth and the other ran away. And yes, it hurts. It always has and it always will. God hurts, too. It doesn't help to have gold or stars or incense, I think, when you have children who've run away, who are living their own nightmares and still will not come home.

I wanted to give him something. I wanted to give him something, to tell him thank you, to tell him I know, to say please, please do all you can for my Johanna and I know you love her too. And this is all I have, and he knows that; if he allows it I should be getting a little more next week, but until then I don't know what I'll eat, and he knows that too. It was the only way I could do it. I tried and tried to save a little up, but I couldn't. So I had to, I had to do this for him. He'll take care of me, I thought. He's taken care of widows before.

But now I don't know. Now I feel ashamed. The temple shines with gold in the sun and I have come to give him two pennies. Two pennies, as if they were worth something. As if I was doing something important, as if me and my sweat-stained dress were something God wanted to see. What will they use my two pennies for, in this temple? To buy a rag to wipe the floors with? What will people think of me, seeing me drop them in the offering box?

The beautiful lady in her silk dress is still ahead of me, walking slowly between her servants under the colonnade, gracefully. She turns aside a little, to avoid a group of dusty men listening to some kind of teacher. They lean in, all eyes on him; his face is hard and angry as I pass by, and I hear him saying “they eat up widow's houses and then they pray long prayers in front of everyone—”

(The whole reading can be found here: "Two Coins")



rose's poem

I rush out of the house finely dressed in my sunny day best
And run straight up the trail to the holiest place in the meadow
Sheer grace all around me
I look up at the heavens so gospel true blue
Oh it's here that I come when I'm wanting to pray
When there's something needs saying to you

In my wildflower church I kneel down with my knees in the dirt
Full exposed to the heavens, no props no pretensions
Just this feeling I get and these thank yous to set on the altar

Yes this is the place where I gather my blessings
And make my confessions of passions inspired
By meadowsong choirs and moments transcendent and true

Oh give me this day a full measure of beauty
Of sun in my heart and joy in my duties
And let all who I meet share a taste of this sweet
Nectar communion with thee


"going to church"

I've noticed over the last few months that my views about "going to church" are changing. Part of it had to do with not having very good options for church around here. And part, I suppose, has to do with thoughts about being a father and about what I'll teach and expect of my son. I haven't been going to church much lately, and it feels okay so far. We have our weekly small group going again, a time for singing and sharing and prayer and communion, and that has been more satisfying than most of my church experiences.

Now I know there are many good reasons for going to church, and that people can get a variety of good things from church participation. I've often had good reasons to go in the past. I usually haven't connected much with the worship or preaching, but I have valued meeting people there, and still do from time to time. I don't think I'd try to discourage anyone from going, if they're finding good experiences at church.

I'm just starting to think that it shouldn't be seen as a necessary part of following Jesus, as it usually is. If you have a good reason for going, then go. But if you can worship or pray or learn or find fellowship or serve God better in other ways, then feel free to choose those instead.

Ironically, one of the main reasons people use to insist on church attendance is one of the main objections I have to churches. We are told to go to church because the body of Christ is corporate, a union of many, and we cannot be Christians alone. True enough. But what does that have to do with going to church? The equating of the body of Christ with one of our many divided human organizations called "churches" is one of the main falsehoods taught in church. It's easy enough, if we attend for a while, to see it's not true. A church is always a mixed bag, falling far short of what we most deeply desire. But if we truly believe in the corporate body of Christ, and faithfully look for the unity and divine hand at work in the one Body, then we'll be shown how we can find support and serve God with others beyond the narrow confines of the churches. Without having to accept the hypocrisy and church politics and money squabbles, just like we find in every other human organization. If the body of Christ is what we're looking for, then in church is probably not the best place to see it. Some of those same people will reflect Jesus much better in other places, on other days of the week.

But, as I said, there can be good things to be found in church, and good reasons to go. I just don't think it should be automatic, or required for Christians. Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Two or three. That can be found in lots of places besides a church.


visitors from afar

We had guests with us all last week, friends that Heather met when she was in Nigeria years ago. Katherina (from Germany) and Israel (from Nigeria) and their two little kids. They have a small orphanage, with seven more children besides their own. The kids mostly came from very poor families, often because the father was killed. They received a gift to travel to the U.S. for a several month sabbatical and are staying with various friends around the country.

So it was a lot more interesting around here last week. They really enjoyed the fresh vegetables and learning about the farm. And we liked talking with them about how God has provided for them and their ministry. It was a real pleasure to have them with us. In a way, I saw it as providing a retreat, supporting them in their care of very poor and vulnerable children.

We also got a little more used to having a baby around (one of their daughters is just one). Ours should be here in less than two months.


"like a child that is quieted is my soul"

We've started doing evening prayer, hoping to make it a habit before the boy arrives. Here's what we're using (it's got some nice child, mother, father imagery in it, too):

(PDF version here)



"scarcely are they planted"

From Isaiah 40:

It is God who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them,
and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off
like chaff.

After elections, or any change of leadership, our attention often turns to the new people in charge. Maybe hopefully, maybe in frustration. But I think we should turn our eyes to those going away, and remember God's promise.


holy is your name

We're thinking of trying evening prayer together regularly and I'd like to use this song by David Haas, based on Mary's magnificat (Lk 1.46-55). It's sung to the tune of the Scottish folk song "Wild Mountain Thyme":

My soul is filled with joy
as I sing to God my Saviour:
you have looked upon your servant,
you have visited your people.

And holy is your name
through all generations!
Everlasting is your mercy
to the people you have chosen,
and holy is your name!

I am lowly as a child,
but I know from this day forward
that my name will be remembered
and the world will call me bless├Ęd.

I proclaim the pow'r of God!
You do marvels for your servants;
though you scatter the proud-hearted
and destroy the might of princes.

To the hungry you give food,
send the rich away empty.
In your mercy you are mindful
of the people you have chosen.

In your love you now fulfill
what you promised to our fathers.
I will praise the Lord, my Saviour.
Everlasting is your mercy.


a big night

"To eat good food is to be close to God."

That's a line from one of my favorite movies, Big Night. A few weeks ago we had dinner at the Chestnut Street Inn (where Heather is now gardener) and they were serving the fantastic menu from that movie. One of the great food movies. I've been meaning to write about the meal, because it was quite an experience. And free, given for all Heather's work in their garden.

The dinner was seven courses. The first was crostini with herbed fresh goat cheese, roasted pepper, crispy kale and balsamic. Then a spicy minestrone soup, followed by seafood risotto, parmesan risotto, and pesto risotto (made with arugula Heather grew for them), arranged in three stripes like an Italian flag. Next, an unusual dish, timpano, which means drum. It's made with hard boiled eggs, meatballs, mozzarella, genoa salami, marinara sauce and penne encased in a very large pasta blanket, baked and then turned out and sliced. My favorite course was the Wild Alaskan Sockeye salmon with moscato grape sauce. And then cornish hens with parmesan roasted asparagus. In the movie, this was followed by a suckling pig, but our hosts wisely skipped this course. The dessert was tiramisu, made with ladyfinger biscuits soaked in coffee, smooth and creamy mascarpone cheese, and chocolate. I'm a little amazed we made it through it all (any more would have sent us to God). Really great food.

This means a lot to me because Heather really enjoyed meals like these when she was growing up in France. Here, it's hard to find anyone cooking like this, much less afford it on what we live on. And yet God has provided this treat for her anyway.


father and child

With the baby coming in about three months now, I've found myself a little nervous about questions of identity. Needing to clarify who I am, what's important to me, what my life's about.

Part of it, I'm sure, is that having a child will be a big change in our life, and I'm sure I'll be letting go of some things I've gotten used to. I just want to make sure I don't inadvertently let go of what's most important to me. Another part of it, I think, is that becoming a "father" seems like a big identity change, or it feels like it's supposed to be. With that, there's the thought of how the kid will see me, and also what example and values do I hope to offer to my son. Those all seem like identity questions.

Struggling with these questions a few days has brought me back again and again to thoughts about being the anawim. The poor, weak ones who trust God to be their help. That's been central to my identity as a follower of Jesus. I see that as the identity Jesus himself took. There seems to be a tension, though, between that identity and traditional image (in any culture) of what a "father" is. A father provides and protects. A father is strong. A father is who the poor, weak ones look to for help. But that's not a role reversal that I want to undergo. Jesus' words come to mind: "Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven... and you are all brothers and sisters." (Mt 23.8-9)

But while there does seem to be a tension between the usual image of fatherhood and the identity of the anawim, I don't see a big conflict in the actual care of and relationship with a child. I foresee many occasions in parenting that will lead me to a place of need and helplessness, where I'll be crying out to God. And a child is the very image Jesus gave for those who would enter his kingdom. The image of the meek and lowly anawim. Those I have wanted to both care for and be like.

All this points to being a father who is not a hero, or a god, for my child. But discovering together what it is to become children who utterly trust their loving Father.



an inevitable loss?

As I've gotten older, I've become more aware of the "fourth dimension." Time. How things and people change with the passage of years. I'm trying to see people less statically, and more as what they simply are now, which is not exactly what they have been or what they will be.

One of the more difficult effects of time to accept, for me, is the common process by which younger people rise to take over positions of power from their predecessors. Those challenging authority become the authorities. And then they almost always end up nearly identical in their use and misuse of that power as those before them.

People who are very critical of power when others have it can become surprisingly understanding when it's put in their hands. When they see the chance to use that power for "good." Then it turns out the ends may justify the means after all.

That's my problem. When those who challenged authority with me become the authorities, then that power is seen by them as a good thing, useful now that it's in the right hands. That's where it feels like I lose them. Because I don't want to make use of their "useful" new influence, and I don't have any interest in working for the survival of the organization, which is now a central part of their job description. So I see little opportunity for collaboration, and experience a loss of the friendship feeling of working towards a common goal.

And what's most upsetting is that it seems so universal, it happens over and over and over, with each change of "leadership." So is this loss inevitable?

Yes, I suppose it is. People who will reject power when it's offered to them are quite rare. It's a depressing thought. Until you remember that others are changing in time also. New people are stepping into the places that the others have stepped out of. New collaborators are rising up to challenge the institutional authority that in its nature remains the same, though different hands wield it (or are wielded by it). As some wine skins harden into the organization, the new wine is poured into fresh skins. God's Spirit of freedom "blows where it will." So it's important to keep looking for and embracing that Spirit, where it's appearing next. That's where I'll find co-workers and the friendship of a common goal. I need to trust God to provide them, like I was telling my friend last week.

And I also need to remember that time continues to change people. The experience of being in positions of power is one of the best arguments against it. So I'll also look for the Spirit's return, and the chance to be co-workers again.


inspiring Christian community?

From a letter to a friend:

...I think I understand about the desire for an inspiring Christian community. Although, as you noticed (I think), often communities that seem great from one vantage point turn out to have a darker side when seen from within, or when we get a little older and more experienced. I'm actually glad, in a way, that the community I'm in now is weak and not very unified. Because it makes them a lot more flexible and willing to allow differences. Often "unity" and strong community spirit lead easily to oppressive practices and the expulsion, in one way or another, of those who don't fit in (including those who don't fit in for good reasons).

The only community that is truly unified and not oppressive is the one body of Christ. But I don't see us getting a full or homogeneous experience of that here, in the sense that the community we're in will always be a mixed one (even the same person is sometimes with Christ and sometimes against). Like in the wheat and tares parable. And the attempts to try to institutionally mimic the true body always show themselves false eventually, often catastrophically so. That's been my experience anyway.

But I believe we can experience the body of Christ here and now, and so satisfy our current needs for fellowship and inspiration. It just won't be in a massive, homogeneous group. And it won't be the same for everyone. It will be here and there, "where two or three are gathered," God showing us his people when we need them, letting us know the body is real and present. Just mixed in, and so not easily identifiable. The more we know what to look for, the better we can recognize it, I think. This seems better to me, too, because there isn't the temptation to try to leverage the power of a large group of people. And it's also a community without centralized human leadership, so it's easier to see the common spirit and cooperation as coming from God's spirit directing all the parts of the body. That's inspiring to me.


My friend Daryl just started a pilgrimage up the California coast. Praying for him.


all about relationships?

Recently I was watching a video presentation done by another Christian community, and noticed the emphasis on relationships. They said that Jesus' work was about reconciliation, restoring broken relationships, so that should be our focus too. I suppose that makes sense. They also mentioned a theme common in intentional communities, that our communities should be visible evidence of the kingdom of God, the community of God on earth. An implication of that is that our relationships in community are then seen as evidence of our faithfulness. That might be reassuring if relationships happen to be doing well, but otherwise, as is often the case...

I also recently spent some time with a friend going through a divorce. He didn't want to divorce, but that's not a decision he can make by himself. His situation really highlighted for me the nature of "relationship." It's not just something we can choose or do. It depends also on the choices and actions of the other people involved. And, actually, it's dependent on many other factors as well, like personality, gender, age, culture, "chemistry," and more. All of these play in to the quality of relationship that we can have with another person. From what I can see, a relationship is not something that we can create. I know we can work to improve our relationships in certain ways, but so many other crucial factors play into it, so that good relationships now seem to me more like a gift of God than something we accomplish.

In the truest sense of "reconciliation," too, it seems to me that the restoration of right relationship, real connection, with others and with God, is something we can only receive as God's gift.

And since a relationship is not something that any of us can make or choose (because it doesn't just depend on us), then this isn't the best evidence of faithfulness. As far as I can tell, Jesus didn't call us to "have good relationships." Jesus called us to love one another. That's an important distinction. No matter what the other person chooses, we can always choose to love them. And if we are not granted the makings of a deep, intimate relationship with someone, we can still love them in the ways that are granted to us. Even if the relationship we've had with another person seems to be falling apart, we can always love them. And that's all Jesus asks us to do.

Love one another, believing that, in love, we discover the deepest relationship with all others who love.



This weekend I started working on converting an older Pack-N-Play to a bassinet (temporarily). Which reminds me I wanted to take a picture of one of Heather's projects this past winter, tanning deer hides. She got pretty good at it. Was even able to make some gloves, and baby moccasins for a friend.

This is the new cover she made for my old bible (the one I've carried with me on all my walks).


"in weakness"

My friend Jason reminded me of a series of journal entries from years ago, and I've been rereading them. This part seemed especially important for me to remember today:

Jesus’ laying down his life was the perfect act of love. Yet it was not approved or appreciated by either his friends or his enemies. How could love be so misunderstood?

Those who condemned Jesus didn’t appreciate what he was offering, because he didn’t support their management of society. He strongly challenged it. So they saw his death, not as an act of love, but as what he deserved as a subversive trouble-maker. They saw him as a criminal, executed with two other criminals. But Jesus’ followers also didn’t understand his “laying down his life” as an act of love. They could understand why he would preach and heal and feed people, and appreciated his challenging the problems in their society. But they couldn’t see why he would go to Jerusalem and accept execution without resisting, and they tried to prevent it. They could only see his death as a tragic failure. Neither friends or enemies could see the value in Jesus’ perfect act of love.

This illustrates well the difference between God’s purposes and ours. We are intent on imposing our own will, either to keep things as they are or to change things. Some try to preserve and protect what is important to them, such as possessions, traditions, social structure, etc. But at the same time, there are others who do not like how things are. So they try to change the property distribution or the social traditions and structures. What they all have in common is the need for power to impose their will. Those who are in power seek to maintain it, and those who are not in power seek to gain more of it—more wealth and more political influence.

This pursuit of power makes sense if our purpose is to impose our own will, to shape the world as we think it ought to be. But if our true good is not the exercise of our own will, but the surrender of our own will—faith—then the pursuit of power is not helpful. Because it is not strength that helps us trust God, but weakness.

And this is exactly what I see in Jesus’ way of life. Not the pursuit of power, but intentionally becoming and staying weak. A continual “laying down his life.” Instead of seeking human power like everyone else, Jesus embraces economic and political weakness and preaches it to others. This is seen as subversive by those in power, and as a failure by those who seek power. Yet it is exactly right for helping people towards God through faith. And revealing God's powerful love.

As Jesus said to Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12.9)


"hear my cry"

This morning I thought I should memorize my old favorite, "Precious Lord, take my hand," to use as a lullaby:

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I'm tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm,
Through the night,
Lead me on to the light

Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear,
Precious Lord linger near
When my hope is almost gone
Hear my cry,
Hear my call,
Hold my hand lest I fall

Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears
And the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet,
Hold my hand

Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home

And maybe I could learn to sing it like B.B. King...



not "together we are strong," but "God is strong"

I got back in touch with a friend recently, and was reminded of our first encounter, in an internet discussion. Here's one of my pieces of that conversation:

It's not just an "absence" of the use of human power that I see in Jesus, but an avoidance. He avoided the attempts to make him king. He avoided wealth. And it seems he could have led a (violent or nonviolent) political uprising, since he had enough popularity at some points (though it seems most of those crowds did not understand Jesus' true purpose and would later abandon him). The Jewish leaders feared this, I believe. But Jesus did not do this, he squandered that opportunity, he taught hard things and lost followers (see Jn 6), and instead of using the crowds to achieve a political victory he let himself be arrested without resisting or threatening (like "if you kill me, my followers will rise up and..."). The fact that people in every society use these various forms of human power, and though Jesus could have used them he chose not to, stands out to me. I ask why avoid these? And I see that they offered nothing for his purposes and they also lead to the temptations of pride, the corruption of power, always and everywhere. Instead, Jesus stays poor and weak, avoiding those temptations of human power and relying only on God's power, which builds our faith and points others to God and lets God's power work most perfectly. As Jesus revealed to Paul, "My power is made perfect in weakness."

And we should be the same way as his followers. I'm always leery of the "Jesus had a very specific mission" argument. Which sets Jesus apart from us as unique and not necessarily to be imitated. Jesus told us to follow his example, even the cross part: "take up your cross and follow me." So I think we should avoid putting him in some isolated category. Jesus' mission now, in us, is the same as when he walked the earth. And our methods should be the same as well.

I have a feeling we might have a slightly different opinion about how much things have actually changed in the political realm since Jesus' time. Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent was enlightening to me in its description of how those in power can control the public in modern democratic societies. It seems to me that new "rights" have been allowed in about the same measure that new, more sophisticated forms of political control have been developed. Take the example of public protests. In American society, most all political leaders say they approve of the right to protest, but then they also have well-developed ways of controlling those protests, specific areas designated for them, and ways of "spinning" them to minimize their impact. Rulers in the middle east have not developed these political methods of handling mass protests, so they fear them more and handle them badly. In modern democratic states, violent repression is usually not needed for political control (so the negative political impact of the violence is avoided) since there are other nonviolent ways of controlling the populace. Even allowing a democratic vote is beneficial for those in power if they have ways to make sure they can win and stay in power (and look who does always win, those with the money and political party backing to work the system). Then when they win they can say to the people, "You chose me. Even if you didn't vote for me, you approved and supported the system that handed me this power." (For more thoughts related to this, go here: "modern forms of persecution")

I think the basics of economic and political power are the same throughout history, though the specific forms of that power vary. But it's always recognizable. Economic and political power in every age is the power of Babel, the power of people working together (or uniting their resources), the power that is rallied with the cry "Unite! Together we are strong!" And from the time of Babel, this has always been in opposition to God. It glorifies humanity, not God. It encourages trust in the power of united human beings, not God. And thus it is in opposition to Jesus' purposes, which was to encourage obedience to God, love of God, faith in God. This is also why I see Jesus avoiding human power and relying on the power of God, the power that works in miraculous ways through people who are themselves poor, weak, often uneducated and unorganized (except perhaps by God's one Spirit). Paul points to this when he writes things like "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us." And:

The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

The message of Jesus' words and actions was not "together we are strong" but "God is strong. You can trust God completely. You can be like a child, free and fearless under the care of your loving Parent." Just like Jesus was.


"where she may lay her young"

There's a wedding here today, which reminds me a lot of our wedding here a little over six years ago. Again trying to guess if it'll rain or not. Here's the reading Heather and I did together at our wedding, I still really like it, a combination of verses from Psalms 34 and 84:

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise will continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.

The sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young—
a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.

This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.

O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
for those who fear him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.


I'm starting to collect baby comics...


clinging relentlessly

Just sent out this update to people interested in our retreats...


It was a little surreal visiting the doctor this time. The same office, same examining room, and same doctor as a year ago. Same ultrasound equipment. But this time a baby quickly came into view, and Heather and I breathed a prayer of relief and gratitude. I don't think the doctor remembered breaking the sad news to us last year that a miscarriage was coming; she was just happy for us that everything looked good this time. As we watched, and the doctor tried to take accurate measurements, the tiny baby wiggled, turning away from our view. Shy, I guess, like me.

So it's been a very different springtime for us this year. The warmth has come slowly, and many of the trees show the impact of last summer's drought, but there is green everywhere again now. New life greets the sun each morning.

We also took the opportunity this spring, before farm and bakery work get more demanding, to visit friends at several ministries in the Chicago area. While visiting Good News Partners, we walked around their neighborhood with a women's bible study group, praying for and with the people there. One moment I remember well. We were with two friends, who had both been on retreats with us, and they were praying for a woman we just met there on the street. Praying that God would help her sons get out of the drug life. As we prayed with them, I thought of the many mothers praying the same anguished prayers on many other chilly streets. Clinging relentlessly to God's love.

We were also impressed by work being done with men in that neighborhood. Helping them as followers of Jesus to find ways to avoid violence in a culture where they face it on a daily basis. Theirs is not a problem of ethics. It's the challenge of protecting their friends and families and homes from people with very real weapons, and grudges, and reckless ambitions, and little tolerance for weakness. We pray that these men also can cling relentlessly to God's powerful love.

We're looking forward to seeing some of these friends on retreat this year. And we pray for them and you as life returns to the land, bringing new hopes with it. Please pray for us, our growing child, and our guests.


on losing my mind

I just heard that Walter Wink died. A year ago, actually, which shows I'm a little out of the theological loop. He had a lot of good things to say, though I've disagreed with him on some important points (and wished those aspects hadn't been so influential among the younger generation). But what really caught my attention about his death was his struggle with dementia.

A couple years before he died, Wink was asked in an interview, "What has this season of dementia taught you?" He replied:

I always thought that I might be able to learn from the illness, but my sense in passing is that this has not been a big learning experience. I just don’t think we ought to give so much credit to the sheer role of chance. We ought not to give death so much credit for our spiritual growth.

That's a sad answer. I remember years ago thinking about Peter Maurin's slow descent into dementia. Like Wink, he was a theologian, a thinker. Dorothy Day wrote of Maurin, her close friend and co-worker:
He has nothing left, he is in utter and absolute poverty. The one thing he really enjoyed, exulted in, was his ability to think. When he said sadly "I cannot think," it was because that had been taken from him, literally. His mind would no longer work. He sits on the porch, a huge old hulk. His shoulders were always broad and bowed. He looks gnomelike, as thought he came from under the earth. He shambles about, one-sidedly as though he had had a stroke. His head hangs wearily as though he could not hold it up. His mouth, often twisted as though with pain, hangs open in an effort to understand what is going on around him. Most of the time he is in a lethargy, he does not try to listen, or to understand. ...The only thing he had left in his utter poverty which made Skid Row his home and the horse market his eating places and the old clothes room his haberdasher was his brilliant mind. Father McSorley considered him a genius. Fr. Parsons said that he was the best read man he ever met. Now he remembers nothing. "I cannot remember, I cannot think."
That really scared me. Because I found my own identity primarily in my ability to think, and in ideas. To be stripped of that seemed to me to be sentenced to a living death.

But I also remember eventually finding some peace in the less intellectual aspects of my spiritual life, in the contemplative life. Because in contemplative spirituality, thinking is often pushed to the side, a hindrance rather than a help. What is sought is not ideas, but personal contact. Basking in God's presence rather than thinking about him. Finding our true being in God's being, in love, and abandoning everything that is not love.

From that perspective, losing my ability to think, losing all the ideas I had gathered, didn't seem so threatening. Even if I did lose my mind, my self would not be lost. Because love isn't the result of reasoning, love isn't a function of the brain, it is spiritual. I could still love. And I thought it may even be good for me (and perhaps others) to be stripped of those things in which we find false identities and be "reduced" to that which is truly our self. Our self as God sees us. A fearful and wonderful discovery.


stay out of school

College debt is a huge problem for young people today. And a big deterrent against doing charitable work or taking lower-paying (and lower-stress, more satisfying) jobs.


"the wise and intelligent"

From our worship last night:

Jesus said,

"I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent

and have revealed them to infants;
yes, Father, for such was your gracious will."
(Mt 11.25-26)


for our sixth


just don't do it

From my experience with people for over 40 years now, my impression is that the majority of human activity is misguided, very often to a destructive extant. I'm seriously of the opinion that if people would simply cut their activity in half, the world would be a better place.

The thought reminded me of this story of Diogenes, the famous philosopher in ancient Greece:

A report that Philip was marching on the town had thrown all Corinth into a bustle; one was furbishing his arms, another wheeling stones, a third patching the wall, a fourth strengthening a battlement, every one making himself useful somehow or other. Diogenes having nothing to do—of course no one thought of giving him a job—was moved by the sight to gather up his philosopher's cloak and begin rolling his tub energetically up and down the Craneum. An acquaintance asked why. Diogenes replied: "I do not want to be thought the only idler in such a busy multitude; I am rolling my tub to be like the rest."


"and he answered me"

We're celebrating our sixth wedding anniversary this weekend, and I was just reading Psalm 34. We used these lines in our wedding ceremony; I remember choking up a little as I read them. This year I'm feeling them even more:

I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.

This poor soul cried,
and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him,
and delivers them.

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.



"Enter through the narrow gate;
for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction,
and there are many who take it.

"But the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life,
and there are few who find it."

So what's all this about us living in a "Christian society"?

Or thinking we'll ever build one?



the doctrine of "structural sin"

Another piece of a discussion on Jesus Radicals...

It seems to me that the doctrine of original sin shares many similarities with the modern doctrine of "structural sin." Both state that everyone is born into this sin. Both state that we bear this sin not because of anything we actually did or thought or intended, but as a condition of being part of the group we were born into. In the doctrine of original sin, this group is all humanity. In the doctrine of "structural sin" the groups are smaller, but it still ends up applying to everyone.

I think the doctrine of "structural sin," though, is more oppressive than original sin in one important aspect. Original sin, we are told, can be removed by forgiveness through the church, if we repent. Not so with "structural sin." This remains as long as the evils of the society we live in still remain. We can repent all we want, but as long as we are connected to society (through economics, consumption, citizenship, race, etc.) we are connected to and complicit with its evils. And it is impossible to not be connected to society in some way. Thus this "sin" cannot be removed from us, at least not in this life. I am not surprised that this seems to cause an unquenchable guilt in people I know who believe it.

How about some examples of how the doctrine of "structural sin" is commonly applied these days. This essay addresses racism and "whiteness." Not everyone is born into this sin, just those who are the same race as the dominant group in an oppressive society (in American society, this is white people). Certainly there are many, the majority, of white people who actively support and participate in this evil. But the doctrine of "structural sin" tells us that even those white people who disagree and even oppose racism are still guilty of this sin, complicit in this evil, because they benefit from the oppression by being given advantages as white people in this society ("white privilege"). This guilt remains for white people, according to this doctrine, until "white privilege" no longer exists in our society. For us, that probably means all our life.

In a recent essay concerning vegetarianism, the doctrine of "structural sin" undergirded the argument that we are all complicit in the suffering caused by the food industry. The author was encouraging us to minimize that suffering by not eating meat. But because of his belief in the doctrine of "structural sin" he had to admit that even vegetarians caused suffering because of the food they consumed, because everyone did ("even Christ," he said). Even the food needed for survival makes us complicit in this oppressive and destructive industrial structure, since we pay money for our food and that money is passed along to others, and that supports a system that causes serious suffering (and I agree it definitely does cause suffering). While we could possibly disconnect from the food industry by growing all our own food, we would still be guilty of the "structural sin" of all the other industries we buy things from. Thus for effectively everyone in our society, there is no way to get free from this "sin." Even if we repent and repent and even fight against oppressive industries, we are still guilty as long as we buy.

And I've seen other essays here that apply the doctrine of "structural sin" to our status as American citizens. Since this is a democracy, we are responsible for the actions of our elected leaders, since they act "in our name." Thus the doctrine of "structural sin" says that we are complicit with the evils perpetrated by our government and the military, even when they are done far away from us, ordered by officials we did not choose, even if we try to stop it. Because we are citizens. Though we did not choose this, we gain many advantages from citizenship, and if we accept them then we are part of this national society and share the guilt of its evils. We could renounce citizenship and go elsewhere. But citizenship anywhere would make us complicit in the evils of that nation, and there is no nation I know of that is not oppressive. So, again, it is a "sin" that we cannot stop doing.

I may not have gotten all these details exactly right, and I'm willing to be corrected. But I think the overall implications of the doctrine of "structural sin" are accurately presented. It seems to me clearly a more damning doctrine than original sin, because, effectively, there's no possible release from it.

Both these doctrines are false, though, in my opinion. I don't see anything like this in Jesus' teaching. They seem to both be inventions of institutional theologians, serving (consciously or unconsciously) to reinforce the power and control of society over us. In that, I see them both as opposed to the freedom that Jesus offers us.


the new slavery to sin: "whiteness"

From a recent discussion ("whiteness" here, I learned, refers to a socially constructed white racial identity utilized in the systemic oppression of those considered "non-white"):

It sounds to me that the usage of the term "whiteness" is still being connected with something innate, unchosen and effectively unchangeable, rather than just an ideology or institution which can be renounced.

For example, you say "Saying 'I have white privilege' is very much a matter of confessing before God and Neighbor our complicity in a system of violence and committing our lives to challenging that system." But white privilege, as I understand it, is an aspect of our society, something we are born into and which we cannot significantly change (at least not in any immediate way, and perhaps not in our lifetime). You suggest we can confess our complicity, but nevertheless white privilege will remain for now, and we will remain white in this society, benefiting from white privilege, unable to remove ourselves from this "structural sin." Or is that mistaken?

I hear Jesus calling us not just to continual repentance (of a sin we cannot get free from), but to actual freedom from sin. And not just in some far distant future, either. It seems to me that the ideology of "structural sin" (and the guilt that necessarily accompanies it) diverges significantly from Jesus' preaching about sin and the real freedom he offers.

How is this "freedom in Christ" experienced in lived reality? You speak of resisting oppressive systems, and I agree that may indeed be a manifestation of freedom in Christ. But despite these efforts, white privilege will continue for some time in our society, and we will continue to benefit from it (by "virtue" of being white). So does that continue to make us complicit? Part of the oppressive "whiteness" as long as it exists? As you put it, "We can never stop being white so long as white privilege exists."

Must we just continue to confess this "structural sin," or is there the possibility, now, of being delivered from it in any real way?

From what I hear you (and others) saying, the answer is unavoidably no. Though perhaps we can experience "hints" of freedom? That doesn't sound like the good news of Jesus' preaching to me. Or his lived example, and he lived as a Jewish male, privileged in a society that oppressed women and Samaritans.

I like much of what you say about the reign of God. I just think you're denying the present reality of God's reign with the ideology of "structural sin" that you also seem to be preaching.

I'm not challenging the ideology of "structural sin" because it is abstract or impractical, quite the opposite. I've seen what it does to my friends that believe it. A guilt that is continually imposed on us by a structure that we did not create and did not choose and cannot change and cannot escape, that's quite something to deal with.

It may inspire activism (with the limited and piecemeal freedoms that the political struggle can achieve) but it does so by denying the present and complete freedom that Jesus offers us. How can we ever be set free from an ongoing "sin" that we don't intend or commit? Guilt can inspire a lot of practical action, but that's not the same as the truly free action inspired by love.


"no longer shall they say to each other 'know the Lord'"

I think I'll use this favorite passage from Jeremiah 31 for our prayer group tonight:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to bring them out of the land of Egypt—
a covenant that they broke,
though I was their husband, says the Lord.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, says the Lord:

I will put my law within them,
and I will write it on their hearts;
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.

No longer shall they teach one another,
or say to each other, "Know the Lord,"
for they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord;
for I will forgive their iniquity,
and remember their sin no more.



the new slavery to sin

Continuing the "law-based activism" discussion...

That's right, I was echoing and disagreeing with what I hear from many modern activists (and others) that seems to build a morality around our political and economic connectedness (as citizens and consumers) which unavoidably links each of us to the suffering in our world. As you suggest, the only apparent way then to stop contributing to the oppression and suffering is go completely "off the grid." Which is impossible. And so people are stuck with the belief (and usually guilt) that with almost everything they do they are contributing to oppression or suffering somewhere. There are suggestions about how we can reduce this, but we are also told there is no way to get free of it, for either the oppressor or oppressed.

This seems to be a morality that is clearly different from what we see in Jesus preaching. He certainly exposed and denounced sin in society, but not a "sin" that we could not stop doing, or a "sin" we could do with no knowledge of it or no evil intention. And he didn't seem to teach or demonstrate that following his way of love (and non-oppression) meant going "off the grid," did he?

Jesus also (as you seem to agree) announced the possibility of real freedom for those who follow him and trust in God's power to deliver. Not just "in heaven" either, but now, as he demonstrated in his life. The ideology of interconnectedness to oppression seems to deny that such freedom is possible, making it as much a message of slavery to sin as "the law" ever was.


law-based activism

From a recent discussion:

I can definitely see the compassion-driven aspect in much of modern activists relations to those they see as oppressed. And I support people's attempts to help those in need through their purchases (though I don't see filtering our help through the economic system as a very good way to respond to people's needs).

What I'm objecting to is what I see from many activists in relation to those they perceive as oppressors. Because by the modern rationale of political and economic connectedness, pretty much everyone becomes an oppressor through their consumption or their citizenship in a democratic nation. For example, in the article the author seems glad that Jesus "removed the guilt" from the poor that have to eat meat to live. But why would they even be considered guilty in the first place?

This assumption of guilt by activists, both towards themselves (as I've seen among my friends and people who write on JR) and towards those they preach against, seems to me clearly law-based. It doesn't matter what our intent is, only that our actions can be somehow connected to oppression or suffering somewhere down the line. This allows activists to tell everyone that they are causing suffering in the world ("even Christ") and use that culpability as a motivator for change. The "good news" you speak of seems to be limited to "you can reduce somewhat the suffering you are causing in the world."

That falls far short of the good news Jesus preached, doesn't it? He said follow him and "sin no more." And he showed it could be done by God's grace. Leaning on his power, we can stop oppressing others and break free from cooperation with the destructive Powers of society. And, as he also demonstrated, we who are oppressed can be really set free from the economic and political Powers that control our lives. That's some real good news, if you believe it.

If, however, you think Jesus was an oppressor too, unavoidably causing the suffering of others through his economic and political connectedness, then it will probably be difficult to trust him to show a real way out.


a different Easter

A couple days ago, Heather and I went to see a baby doctor. The visit was a bit surreal, because it was the same office, same doctor, and same equipment and examination room where a year ago we found out that there was a serious problem with Heather's pregnancy. She started miscarrying a few days later, on Easter. Everything was the same this time, but it was so different. As soon as the doctor took a peek with the ultrasound equipment, a baby popped into view. As we watched, it wiggled too, turning away from the camera. A little shy, I guess.

He or she looks a little bigger than we expected (though not actually very big). Probably will be born sometime in October. And we're about through the first trimester now, with everything looking good so far, so we're relaxing a bit. Relieved and joyful. A very different feeling for us this Easter.

The miscarriage last year really hit me hard, faith-wise. During the months that followed, I did feel like the experience helped teach me some important lessons, but I have to admit I still felt a little nervous about what God might do. We kept trying and trying to conceive after that and kept failing, which helped me recognize the importance of our trying rather than our success. But that still leaves us very dependent on God to do his part. In a way that will revive our faith and inflame our love.

It meant a lot to me that, without us trying to arrange it this time, Heather got pregnant almost exactly the same time of year as when we were trying to time it for the growing season. She'll give birth (God willing) right as the season ends this year. And several other aspects of our lives make it a much better time now to have a child, including finances and some important relationships with others. We're so grateful. And revived.


the bunny

Easter reminded me of this song from VeggieTales—the good, original, un-Parentally Correct version. About the beginnings of addiction to "the (chocolate) bunny":


"the world is empty now"

Our friends are coming tonight for a pre-Easter prayer time. I'm planning to use the dramatic reading Heather wrote five years ago, when we led the Easter service soon after moving here. Here's the beginning, with Mary Magdalene speaking:

My eye is pressed to the crack in the shutters,‭ ‬looking for light.‭ ‬The doors and the windows are locked and barred.‭ ‬What are they so afraid of‭?

The sky is growing gray in the east,‭ ‬I think it is,‭ ‬I know it is‭; ‬soon it will be light enough to go.‭ ‬Shabbat is over now,‭ ‬that terrible Shabbat.‭ ‬Sitting in the dark,‭ ‬not moving,‭ ‬not speaking‭; ‬the shuffle of someone's foot in the darkness,‭ ‬then silence again.‭ ‬Nothing we could bear to say.‭ ‬I sat with the other women around the spices and the smell of the myrrh made me dizzy,‭ ‬and the shadows would shift and float,‭ ‬and I would come to myself again and again.‭ ‬Almost before I had time to think‭ ‬it's not real—it's a nightmare,‭ ‬I was jolted by the knowledge that it's not.‭ ‬It's true.‭ ‬It happened.‭ ‬I was there.

He's dead.

He's dead and the world is not what I thought it was.‭ ‬He's dead,‭ ‬and it wasn't true.‭ ‬Oh,‭ ‬oh I know nightmares if anybody does,‭ ‬they walked beside me in the living day,‭ ‬in the time of my demons...‭ ‬I saw water turn to blood under my hands,‭ ‬I believed my touch would kill children‭; ‬I ran from them.‭ ‬There were voices,‭ ‬they were with me when I lay down and when I got up—whispering‭ ‬God hates you...‭ ‬Until he came.‭

He told me they were lies.‭ ‬He said to trust him.‭ ‬He asked me if I wanted them gone.‭ ‬They were flailing and screaming but I shouted over their voices,‭ ‬I shouted yes with all my strength—and he whipped them.‭ ‬Oh,‭ ‬if those men could have seen him then,‭ ‬those soldiers,‭ ‬those priests,‭ ‬if they could have seen the power in his hand,‭ ‬the light.‭ ‬His eyes were like the sun—terrible as an army with banners...‭ ‬And they really thought they could‭ ‬kill—Him‭?

And they did.‭ ‬They did.‭

There is no doubt.‭ ‬I watched him die.‭ ‬I watched his body broken on the tree.‭ ‬His breaths grew shorter‭; ‬farther apart‭; ‬desperate,‭ ‬fast,‭ ‬inhuman gasps,‭ ‬with silence in between.‭ ‬One last one,‭ ‬and then—no more.‭ ‬There is no doubt.

‬He's dead.‭ ‬And the world is empty now.‭ ‬And everything he said‭—

(The whole reading is available here: "Before the Dawn")


When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.

The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors...


All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.


Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.


american gods

I just finished reading Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods. Well written and pretty interesting. I used to enjoy comic books by him years ago. This story is about a clash between the "old gods" of classic mythology, brought here by immigrants, and the "new gods" of modern American culture. Gaiman obviously finds the old gods more appealing. His new gods are pretty vague and undeveloped as characters. I like one of his main observations, though, that the old gods are dying because they need people to believe in them in order to exist.

Belief seems very important in the book, but this belief is presented as very individualistic (not surprising these days) and so misrepresents the nature and worship of such gods. That probably also explains why Gaiman seems unable to clearly recognize the new gods of our modern culture. It's said again and again that America is "a bad place for gods." But why? And is that really true?

The classic gods of various cultures throughout history were not the gods of individual devotion, but the gods of a particular culture, a particular group of people. They only made sense, and only had power, in the context of that group of people. As I've written before, the power of idols, of false gods, has always been (and still is) "the power of the people." Gaiman presents a eclectic mix of gods from various cultures, those that apparently most appeal to him. But the development and purpose for these gods, and the power of them in the lives of their devotees, cannot be truly understood apart from the culture and people that created them. Perhaps it is true that America is a bad place for the gods of other cultures, the gods immigrants brought with them. But that is because such beliefs cannot be sustained, and the gods cannot maintain their power in human minds, apart from the group of people that spawned them.

Similarly, the "new" American gods are created and wield power as part of our American culture. Gaiman doesn't seem to be able to identify them very well, falling back on "this is a bad place for gods." But, from what I can see, our culture is creating idols just as every human culture has. We depend on them and fear them and serve them just as the ancient pagans did. And our American gods are made by people, consciously or unconsciously, just as the ancient ones were: for a social purpose. Appealing to a deep human need, in a way that will unite and subdue individuals for the sake of social power and security. They may be less supernatural these days (which may be part of the reason Gaiman doesn't find them so interesting) but they are just as transcendent, "something greater than myself." We, the People continues to demand our homage and obedience.