"He raises the lowly"

Thinking back over this past year, I felt too overwhelmed to try to distill a haiku this Christmas (last year's is here). But in church last week I was moved by the reading of Mary's magnificat. Her words have been so important and meaningful to me over the years, and this year they seemed especially powerful:

My soul glorifies the Lord.
My spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.
He looks on His servant in her lowliness;
henceforth all ages will call me blessed.

The Almighty works marvels for me.
Holy His name!
His mercy is from age to age,
on those who fear Him.

He puts forth His arm in strength
and scatters the proud-hearted.
He casts the mighty from their thrones
and raises the lowly.
He fills the starving with good things,
sends the rich away empty.

He protects Israel His servant,
remembering His mercy,
The mercy promised to our fathers,
to Abraham and his sons and daughters for ever.


From The Onion:

Dazed Mike Pence Wakes Up 15 Miles Outside D.C.
After Asking God To Deliver Him From Evil


praying for things

From a letter to a friend today:

I was just reading a similar saying of Jesus this morning (Mt 21.21-22):

Jesus answered them, "Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive."
It seems to me the key is "if you have faith," or asking in faith. Your Mark passage (11.24) uses the term "believe." And I think it should be obvious it's not about believing in ourselves, or having faith in the power of our own prayers. It has to be faith in God, in other words believing that what we pray for is what God wants. Not insisting on it, but believing, submitting to what God wants. And if it really is what God wants, then we can be sure it will be done.

This brings us back to "thy will be done." Which is really the right attitude, of course. But we don't need to just leave it at that. I don't think the best we can do is just pray "thy will be done" in some general sense, like "Just do what you want, God—you're going to anyway!"

I believe Jesus showed us that we can pray in faith, praying that God's will be done, while learning (as you said) to hear more clearly what that will actually is in our circumstances. So we can begin to pray more specifically and with more confidence as we learn to hear and know God better. And Jesus wants us to understand what God is doing and consciously will it with God (Jn 15.14-15):
"You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father."
Yes, "thy will be done" is good. But it's better when we can pray with understanding and agreement for the good that God is doing, freely and consciously willing the good with God. I hear Jesus inviting us into that.


the chief axiom

Watched an interesting movie, Experimenter, based on the authority experiments of Stanley Milgram. Here's a bit of it:

And from Milgram's book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View:
As soon as the child emerges from the cocoon of the family, he is transferred to an institutional system of authority, the school. Here, the child learns not merely a specific curriculum but also how to function within an organizational framework. His actions are, to a significant degree, regulated by his teachers, but he can perceive that they in turn are subjected to the discipline and requirements of a headmaster. The student observes that arrogance is not passively accepted by authority but severely rebuked and that deference is the only appropriate and comfortable response to authority. The first twenty years of the young person’s life are spent functioning as a subordinate element in an authority system, and upon leaving school, the male usually moves into either a civilian job or military service. On the job, he learns that although some discreetly expressed dissent is allowable, an underlying posture of submission is required for harmonious functioning with superiors. However much freedom of detail is allowed the individual, the situation is defined as one in which he is to do a job prescribed by someone else.

While structures of authority are of necessity present in all societies, advanced or primitive, modern society has the added characteristic of teaching individuals to respond to impersonal authorities. Whereas submission to authority is probably no less for an Ashanti than for an American factory worker, the range of persons who constitute authorities for the native are all personally known to him, while the modern industrial world forces individuals to submit to impersonal authorities, so that responses are made to abstract rank, indicated by an insignia, uniform or title.

Throughout this experience with authority, there is continual confrontation with a reward structure in which compliance with authority has been generally rewarded, while failure to comply has most frequently been punished. Although many forms of reward are meted out for dutiful compliance, the most ingenious is this: the individual is moved up a niche in the hierarchy, thus both motivating the person and perpetuating the structure simultaneously. This form of reward, “the promotion,” carries with it profound emotional gratification for the individual but its special feature is the fact that it ensures the continuity of the hierarchical form. The net result of this experience is the internalization of the social order—that is, internalizing the set of axioms by which social life is conducted. And the chief axiom is: do what the man in charge says.



nothing can save us that is possible (part 2)

(Continued from yesterday...)

I remember crying that morning. It seemed like our future would be decided in this meeting, with little hope for a good outcome. But I so hoped for something good to come from all these years of struggle and waiting. During the opening prayer, I prayed for a miracle. As the first proposals were offered, however, it became clear that the new owners were being counseled to not let anyone from the community remain. "Nobody here should count on staying. The politics here needs to come to an end." That was unexpected and frightening. We offered a proposal also, for some of us to stay and share the land with poor Latino families in the area. I remember saying at one point, in tears again, "You may not agree, but I'm testifying here that God has saved us." Our proposal didn't get much of a hearing, though. Several people angrily challenged us for withdrawing from some of the community activities. And no one spoke up for us. It felt extremely isolating, in such a vulnerable moment. One of the people leading the meeting tried to be helpful by observing, "When the Lord said, ‘Forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing,’ I think that’s the case here." The implication was that we should be forgiven, for not knowing how we hurt the others by our choices. But I have to admit I took that comment quite differently. Upon reflection, my understanding was that people were just ready to be done, and didn't want ideas about a way to continue. We had no vote in the meeting, as we weren't members. So we went out, waited nervously, then returned to hear the decision. I kept praying for a miracle, even though our proposal seemed to have no chance at all.

It was decided that the land would be given to a nearby Christian campground. My impression was that people were not overly excited about that choice (I heard some criticizing it), but the camp had a large donor base and lots of experience managing large properties. So the decision was not surprising. But it left us confused, with little hope of staying, and no sense of direction elsewhere.

It seemed as if our choices to follow Jesus in his poverty and powerlessness had finally led us off a cliff. In the weeks that followed, I often recalled these lines from a poem by W.H. Auden:

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss...

Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

Then, two months after the meeting, we got a surprising message from the campground. Upon review, the board of directors had unanimously decided to not accept the offer of the land.

There was a confusing scramble over the next few days. Then another meeting. And this time it was decided to give the land to a nearby church, though they didn't have much money or experience. This was totally unexpected. I can't imagine this choice would have been made in the first meeting, but now, at this late date, with limited options... And the people accepting the land for the church happened to be friends of ours.

Over the years, we had volunteered for a variety of tasks as the need arose. Like building maintenance, small plumbing and electrical repairs, groundskeeping and gardening, even bookkeeping, learning lots of skills along the way. Now all those skills were useful to help maintain the property for the new owners. Our friends were very grateful that we could stay and help (and even offered to reduce our rent). We were encouraged to keep hosting retreats. And even affirmed for staying out of "the politics."

It seemed like a miracle. God had saved us.

Later, when I asked our son if he wanted to stay here, he nodded and smiled. "There are lots of pretty flowers here," he said.


nothing can save us that is possible

I've only given hints over the past several months about what is going on here, because it's been difficult to write about. Many people close to us have had to deal with so much grieving. And our experience has been so different from theirs. But it's been one of those important waypoints in my life, and I really want to get something in my journal about it. So...

We had been living here for almost ten years, with a communal group of Christians, when they decided to dissolve their group and give the land away. It was not a complete surprise, as the group had been struggling for years. But it didn't leave us with many options. We had no steady income, no car, and a three-year-old. Actually, coming to live here had seemed like our best chance for a more stable life, and now it was falling apart around us.

It had felt like a miracle when we were invited to come. We had pretty strong convictions about following Jesus' example of voluntary poverty, giving our work for free, and living on the gifts of others. And also not wielding power over others, rejecting force or group pressure so others were free to act in love. Or not, if they chose. But we understood that's not how this community (or any human organization?) was run. Maybe if the group had been stronger at the time, we wouldn't have been accepted. But we seemed young and eager to start a retreat ministry for the poor, and at the time they were eager for new energy. So we were welcomed warmly. It seemed like God had opened a way forward for us.

And it had been good, though often difficult. We were able to start offering retreats, mostly to people from Chicago, and those were rich and inspiring. There were lots of opportunities for learning and helping our neighbors. And many of the ways we could help inspired others to help us, so our needs were met for years, and we felt secure enough to have a child. Yet we never fully "fit in." We wouldn't become official members, or take part in the hard economic or political decisions that most every organization feels are necessary. As the community got stronger over the years, we sometimes heard murmurs about us, and wondered how long we would be allowed to stay. Maybe it was a miracle that we lasted so long. I was grateful for the many good years, but I was also frustrated and confused about how marginalized we (and our beliefs) remained, with no signs of change on the horizon.

Then came the collapse. Several deaths of elderly members, unexpected departures of the newest younger members, and the closing of the main farm business, all within a few months, left everyone crushed. After years and years of struggling things had been starting to look better, then this. Within a few months, a meeting was held to consider proposals from new potential owners.

(Continued tomorrow...)


psalm 37

"Yet a little while..."



"so your faces shall never be ashamed"

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 afflicted 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 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 is the man who takes refuge in him!

O fear the LORD, you his saints,
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.
(Ps 34.1-10)


you again

Difficult changes here, that are hard to talk about. The community has decided to dissolve and turn over the property to another ministry. There's so much uncertainty about our future now that we don't even know what to hope for, much less what to do.

I've been reminded again and again of the difficulties we had in early 2007, as we were coming here. So similar to now. It's helped to read my journal from then. And yesterday I came across this, which seems like just what I need right now...

(Mt 14.26-31, 2 Cor 3.17-18)


"the winds blew and beat on that house"

Jesus said:

"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.

"And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!" (Mt 7.24-27)



the prodigal

We had a good retreat this past week, and Ian had a great time with the guests. Here's part of the story Heather wrote for it, a meditation on the story of the prodigal son, from the older brother's perspective:

Well, the awful thing played itself out, as I could have predicted. The bad friends, the drinking. The women. I won't speak of that. Until the day he came to my father and demanded his portion—to his face—and my father let him take his bites out of our farm, out of his heart. I thought at first he might want what I wanted—to be rid of him, even at so steep a price—until he told me he hoped for him back. And then I was afraid.

Because I knew what Levi was. I saw how he ate, and did not plant. He would run through the money; it was plain as day. He would run through the money, and then he would look to his chances, and realize where his best chance lay.

He's home now. Came in rags. I'd like to search that little pack he's got, see if he hid his real clothes in it. Father's put the best robe on him, and killed the fattest calf. He's got half the village out in the courtyard now while it roasts, and he's giving them the good wine. I can hear them laughing, I hear women singing. I can't stand it. There's nothing I can say to Father that he'll listen to. There's no way I can stop him from letting Levi eat the rest of his heart.

He sent for me. Father did. He sent Judah, his senior servant, with a message. I expected “Come right now” but it wasn't that. It was “Do you not want to see your brother?”

The whole story is available here: "Prodigal". Also on Heather's new blog: Gravity & Grace



the truth we don't want to hear

I’ve read a lot recently about how fractured our modern society is becoming. How the internet and modern media have allowed people to isolate themselves more and more, surrounding themselves with like-minded people and only the “news” they want to hear. And how more and more people have lost faith in the institutions that held our society together in the past: government, churches, scientists, news organizations, etc. The apparent result of this is that people are more easily duped by “fake news.” Because they are increasingly isolated from mainstream views and trustworthy institutions, they seem less able to discern the truth.

There seems to be obvious evidence of this trend. But then I wonder whether the institutions that people trusted in the past were really all that good at delivering the truth. Maybe that’s a big reason why they have lost people’s trust?

And is “the truth” really what people are most interested in now?

Or ever?

It seems to me that the development of new technologies has simply allowed people to find easier, more direct ways to affirm the particular “truths” they want to hear. Before, they had to rely on political institutions that would tell people what thy wanted to hear (because that’s how those institutions survived). But now people don’t need those so much. Now they can just find a group online to agree together, and so give almost anything a feeling of truth. As Simone Weil put it, “The power of the social element. Agreement between several people brings with it a feeling of reality.”

It may be that isolated people are easily duped. But people in big united groups are also easily duped (sometimes even more easily). History has demonstrated that. What is necessary to maintain contact with the truth is not a connection with large groups of people or their institutions. What’s necessary is a connection with God, who is the Truth.

And that requires the humility to submit and listen to what God is saying, in the myriad ways God speaks, rather than only listening to what we want to hear.



the welcome table

This morning the boy and I were dancing to Dan Zanes & friends' version of this old spiritual: