your Father's good pleasure

Do not seek what you are to eat
and what you are to drink,
nor be of anxious mind.
For all the nations of the world seek these things;
and your Father knows that you need them.

Instead seek God's kingdom,
and these things will be yours as well.
Lk 12.29-31

I have often been inspired by these words of Jesus. Not just for their comfort in anxiety, but also for the single-minded life they describe, and their completely revolutionary vision. Almost unimaginable. "Seek God's kingdom, and these things will be yours as well."

The only way I could imagine what this might look like was to interpret "seeking God's kingdom" as some kind of religious or charitable work. As if Jesus was saying if we devote ourselves to good, charitable work, we can count on other people to provide for our needs. Because that often does happen. But I also know there are many charity workers struggling to raise financial support for their work, who would question Jesus' assurances. And this vision actually isn't that unique or inspiring, is it? It basically leaves us in the usual situation of having to find and continue to provide a service that people are willing to pay for, with all the anxiety and divided motivations of any other profession.

That interpretation also leaves us thinking that we have to be doing work that deserves the support we receive. Even if we succeed in this, that's not a very good way to be thinking and living, from a spiritual perspective.

And, on second (or a hundred and second) look, it's actually foreign to the thrust of Jesus' words here (and elsewhere). He says don't be anxious. Don't be like the rest of the world. Our Father knows our needs, our Father who knows how to give us good gifts. And Jesus doesn't say do worthy, respected charitable work. He says "seek God's kingdom." Then his next sentence after this passage is, "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."

So it seems my initial assumption is clearly not what Jesus was saying. He's calling us to believe in and desire and pursue what God wants to give us. Something more important than food and drink and clothing (but he also says those will be given to us as well).

There's nothing in Jesus' promise here about what we should offer to God. Nothing about what work we must do. Nothing about what we can offer anyone at all. "Seek God's kingdom" is not about what we can give. It's about what God gives. "Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." At Christmas we often hear about how giving is better than receiving. But Jesus teaches that life is about learning to receive from God.


A breath of relief,
her eyes on the child, knowing
our God has done it

(previous year's haikus here)



calling and caller

I watched a really good movie recently, The Rider. About a young bronco rider who suffers a bad head injury in a rodeo accident. Very well-acted, and well-told. Its story is one that we don't hear often, about losing the thing we've been living for, the thing we're meant to do. Many stories tell about finding that thing; not many tell about losing it. And what can be discovered after.

This story seems especially important to me, too, because it even suggests that there's more important things in life than finding "what you're meant to do." Christians might say "what you're created for," or "your calling." There's so much emphasis on that. But it seems to me that this should not be our goal; really, it's just the beginning.

I do think that finding a way to express our deeper desires and talents to create or do something good is a wonderful experience. Energizing and fulfilling. And I do believe it can be a way of hearing God's voice in our lives. It's very important, too, to experience what hearing God feels like, then experience the joy of responding and being a part of something good God is doing. Maybe "finding our calling" is one of the most fundamental experiences of that.

It's the beginning, though, not the end. It's easy to get attached to "the call," the work we're good at, that's so satisfying, and that others admire. It's easy to think we've found the answer for our lives. But we'll find that the work itself won't fulfill us forever, and won't change the world as much as we thought it would. And it's easy for work to be co-opted by other people who want to use it for their own purposes. And then there's the inevitable end of the work. Maybe it's an accident like in the movie, or just old age. But it's going to end. And if we've been living for that, what happens then?

What's most important in hearing a call is beginning to recognize the Caller. Whatever action or work we're called to is limited and will end. But if we recognize the One who calls us, we can hear the next call, and the next. We should be careful not to attach ourselves to "our calling," but instead focus on the one voice calling our name.


what God wants

The other day, when my 4-year-old was trying to convince me to join one of his games, he came out with this:

"I think God wants you to play with me."


"Yes, so you have to obey God."

"Well, I'm not sure God is saying that."

"Yes, he is. I can hear him saying play with me. Just listen."


"Can you hear it?"

"I hear something..."

"What do you hear?"

"I think I hear God saying I need to teach my boy not to speak for God."



to be with God

Heather has been struggling for a couple months now with tendinosis in both elbows, which severely limits her ability to work. It been very difficult for her. And one of the most difficult issues has been something I've also been struggling with, which is how much our value depends on the work we do.

It's really a widely accepted thing. People who do more valuable work get paid more, honored more, their needs are met first, they are more protected. Those who don't produce much of value are treated as less valuable people. "Value," of course, being determined by the group, the society. And the fear of being considered "less valuable" is deeply ingrained in us. Because, if we are to survive, we need the help and support of the people around us. If they start to consider us less valuable, even expendable, we instinctively feel threatened. If the group doesn't need us, can we count on them to take care of us? And that's not an irrational fear. The less valued are elbowed to the fringes of society all the time, and we all see the suffering that results.

It's easy to think the same way when "the group" is the church, too. There are "callings" that are considered more valuable, and honored more. Our perceived "vocation," perhaps even more so than our career, often contributes significantly to our sense of personal value. And with the church, there's even more tendency to think that the value the group assigns us is our actual value.

But Jesus didn't teach us to think like this. He taught that God values us like parents value their children, not according to how much we produce, but from the depth of his love for each of us. Our value doesn't increase as we can serve God more, or do more for God's kingdom. And it doesn't decrease as we get older and can no longer work. God doesn't provide for our needs and protect us because we are valuable members of his work force, but because he loves us and wants to take care of his children. We need not fear becoming expendable to God.

Sometimes, though, the emphasis on Christian "mission," or on "working to build the kingdom of God," gives the impression that Jesus' message to us is that we are invited to work for God. But is that really the "good news"? That we're hired?

No, God doesn't want us for our work. We are not called for our labor value. God wants us for us. To be with him.

This is the good news that Jesus announced, that we can be reunited with God, our father. I like how the parable of the prodigal son illustrates this. It is not because the younger son is a valuable worker that the father welcomes him back. The father runs and embraces him on the road because he is his son, his beloved son. The father's joy is that his son is back, with him again. And the older brother's fault, though he is a faithful and valuable worker, is that he keeps himself apart and will not go in. The father's desire is just for him to be with them also.

There's a deeply ingrained drive to try to increase our value in the eyes of others, through hard and successful work. But this should not be driving us as followers of Jesus, and children of God. Jesus offers us the freedom to help others as God's love inspires us, without fear that our value depends on the intensity or success of our work. And Jesus offers us the truth that God just wants us to be with him, whether we're working or not.

Jesus didn't tell Mary to work hard like Martha. He said that Mary had chosen the better part—chosen to be with him.


"the vocation of the people of God"

I've been wondering lately what my role will be now that much has changed here. And I was reminded of this passage (from Jacques Ellul's The Politics of God and the Politics of Man) that's been so important to me over the years:

The action we attempt will always be regarded by the world as a failure, and the more so the more it is authentically faithful. We cannot be successful or show the church to be effective in the world unless we adopt the world's criterion of efficacy, which means adopting its means as well.

As the world sees it, action which is faithful to God will always fail, just as Jesus Christ necessarily went to the cross. Such action always leads to a dead end. It is always a fiasco from the standpoint of worldly power. But this should not worry us. It does not mean that our action is in truth ineffectual. Efficacy measured in terms of faithfulness cannot be compared at any point with efficacy measured in terms of success.

...These successes, this efficacy as it would be called from man's standpoint, and especially in our own society, will never amount to anything more than the approval given by the world, by society, to certain acts and means. It is the stamp of a group of men, a social body. But if we do not believe that society is good and right, this approval proves nothing except that the action is in conformity with the world. It does not mean that the world has changed; quite the contrary. Each time the people of God becomes effective according to the world's criteria, this only implies that society has absorbed our action and is using it for its own ends and for its own profit. ...The efficacy we think we have is simply a power in the world's service, for the perfecting of its own being, for its better organization....

There can be no question of securing the approval of the world or its conformity to us. ...We have simply to be, and we can only be a question put within the world, a question invincibly confronting it. This is our efficacy. It is the efficacy of the question, a question which society and sociological movements cannot assimilate. Israel and the church have never been efficacious except to the degree that the world has been unable to assimilate them. This is the vocation of the people of God incomparably more authentic than "service" or "works."

It is not at the level of works and their results that this efficacy may be seen; it is at the level of inassimilability.


runaway hit

We hosted a retreat last week, a fun time. Ian especially enjoyed playing guitar with our friend Al. And a lunchtime mishap turned out to be inspirational...


"like a bureaucracy"

I found this passage in an interesting novel by Mischa Berlinski, called Fieldwork. A missionary to the (fictional) Dyalo people shares his view of their gods:

Nobody knows what the spirits really are—maybe they're fallen angels, that's certainly a possibility, or maybe some other being created in the spiritual realm. The biblical evidence certainly associates the spirits with Satan. But you know how I've always thought of the Dyalo spirits? They're like a bureaucracy. Like a giant powerful bureaucracy, which imposes a million and one rules on the Dyalo. Fines them a pig or chicken or something worse when they do something wrong. Punishes them, kicks them around, treats them like dirt. You ever try to get a residency permit here in Thailand? Go from office to office, lose two whole days? It's like that all the time for the Dyalo. If the spirit of the big rock makes your kid sick, ask the spirit of your ancestor to protect you. So you slip him a bribe, a chicken, a pig. Maybe he'll help you, maybe not. If not, you go to another spirit, try and bribe him. So it goes.
Or maybe "the spirits" are just idols, creations of the people who serve them, another very biblical interpretation. But I find it interesting that he notices the similarity there. Between the oppression of the spirits in a more primitive culture and the oppression of a more "advanced" bureaucratic political system in our culture. If they are both indeed the creations of "We, the people," of course, then the similarities are not surprising.

We pity people bound by their group's superstitious beliefs, while not even aware of how idolatrous our group's beliefs are, which control so many aspects of our lives.


homer the heretic


in God

Our boy often comes out with some interesting (or odd) statement right as he's falling to sleep. Yesterday, laying in the quiet darkness with him, I hear:

Let's pretend that God is the house. We're going to sleep in God...

Then he did.