Outside, men quarrel
But here quietly I wait
for him to waken

(previous Christmas haikus here)


the purpose of life?

Often in the past I've found it helpful to think about "the purpose of life." Or, more specifically, what I thought my particular purpose in life is. It seemed to help give me direction, or help focus me again when I was getting lost in the many confusing demands of daily life. It was during such a time of seeking purpose that I found a new interest in the life and teachings of Jesus.

But lately it seems that focusing on my "purpose" has become less helpful. Maybe it's partly because I've seen how often I've failed to live up to the purposes I've pursued. And it's partly because I've seen how often my purposes (and the purposes of others) have been misguided, unachievable, or simply unworthy of a human life. But I think the biggest issue for me right now is that having "a purpose" seems too much like having "a job."

A purpose in life, even if it's seen as a purpose given to us by God, still seems to be a goal or task to be accomplished, a work to be done. Maybe that seems good to us at times, because we want to feel valuable or needed or useful. And there certainly is a satisfaction that comes from completing a task that has been set before us. But focusing our life around a goal or type of work does seem to suggest that our value is in what we produce, that we are workers that are valued as means to an end. Then there are the troubling questions that arise: How well (or much) are we working? Are we working towards a good enough goal? What happens when we can't work any more?

And it seems to me that Jesus' teaching and example lead us to a different understanding, that it isn't our work that God wants—it's us. To be with us. Because God loves us, each of us. Jesus' life and sacrifice wasn't about gathering an army or a workforce to reshape the world, but about reuniting each of us with God. What we are offered is not just the purposes of God, but the Person of God. And that is what we all long for most deeply.

When I find myself getting confused or anxious amid the many demands of daily life, I'm finding it much more helpful to reach out to the Person, rather than a purpose. Remembering that (despite what most everyone else seems to say) I'm not the means to something else that someone wants, I myself am what God wants. And God is what I want. That is a "goal" that is worthy of a human life, and God makes that achievable right now, in this moment. And in the next moment, whether it be work together, or rest together, crying together, or laughing together. To be and act together, in the midst of whatever the moment brings.

I've been trying to remind myself of this the first thing I wake up, inspired by something my young son does. He sleeps right next our bed. And every morning, just as he wakes up, he calls out quietly: "Da?" Just checking to make sure I'm there. Because that's what's important to him. I realize that's how I want to start each day also.




"their tongue struts through the earth"

Truly God is good to the upright,
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had well nigh slipped...
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For they have no pangs;
their bodies are sound and sleek.
They are not in trouble as other men are;
they are not stricken like other men.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out with fatness,
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth.

Therefore the people turn and praise them;
and find no fault in them...

When I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end.

Truly you dost set them in slippery places;
you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
They are like a dream when one awakes,
on awaking you despise their phantoms.

When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant,
I was like a beast toward you.
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides you.

Ps 73


the birds and the lilies

Almost two years ago, the land here was given to some folks from a nearby Mennonite church to start an educational farm, Hungry World Farm. The main idea was to help people understand where food comes from, and promote appreciation and respect for the earth. I can certainly see the value of that goal. It's obvious now that human beings have misused our natural resources and need to learn respect for our environment and ways to live more sustainably.

Environmental causes have also gained theological support more recently among Christians. I remember interest in "creation theology" when I was in seminary. But these ideas haven't resonated with me much. I can see that they were partly a response to previous Christian theology that had been misleading and was often used to justify selfish and destructive practices. God's words in Genesis had been interpreted to mean our role was to dominate the natural world:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Gen 1.26-28)
These words had used to often to justify a "conquer and pillage" approach, which contributed to the loss of resources and worrying climate effects we are now seeing. The more environmentally-friendly theological response was to interpret these words of God as a command, not to conquer the earth, but to care for it like a shepherd. Which does seem like a step in the right direction.

But, while I recognize the value of this shift in theology, the focus on our relationship to the earth still seems to me to be missing what's most important. Those words in Genesis must be read in the context of the whole story of creation (and the fall). The story is not about our relationship with our environment. It's the story of our relationship with God. The garden is the expression of God's love and care for us, and the story of life in the garden shows how life can be when God's gift is respected—or misused. The natural world is clearly a gift of God. Not something to be conquered by us, but also not our job or responsibility. It is God's gift of love to us. It is a way to experience and act out our relationship with our loving Creator.

As I look at it this way, I've been realizing that this is another aspect of our call to dependence on God, which is faith. We are not the conquerors of the earth, but we're also not the managers of it. The earth is not dependent on us. We are the dependent ones, looking for God to provide through the earth he created for us. This understanding of our dependence on God in nature, and the earth as God's gift, seems to me to be very helpful as we respond to God through the natural world. The way we live in the natural world is our response to what God has offered us in love. How will we receive this great gift?

And I'm reminded of Jesus' words, "Consider the birds... Consider the lilies..."



"let the nations know that they are but men"

The needy will not always be forgotten,
and the hope of the poor will not perish for ever.

Arise, O LORD! Let not man prevail;
let the nations be judged before you!
Put them in fear, O LORD!
Let the nations know that they are but men!

Arise, O LORD;
O God, lift up your hand;
forget not the afflicted...
The helpless commit themselves to you;
you have been the helper of the orphan.
Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer;
seek out his wickedness till you find none.

The LORD is king for ever and ever;
the nations will perish from his land.
O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their hearts, you will incline your ear
to do justice to the orphan and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.
(Ps 9-10)


judge not

Today I was supposed to report for jury duty. But a few days ago I received a call saying that all the cases had been settled and I wasn’t needed. I have to admit I was relieved to get that call, because I wasn’t eager to go to the courthouse and conscientiously object to jury duty, as I had been planning to do.

I had planned to simply say that, as a follower of Jesus, I had been taught not to judge or punish others when they had done wrong. That seems pretty clear from Jesus’ well-known words, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” And his sermon on the mount teaching, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” Then there’s the story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus was presented with the law and the evidence against the woman, and asked for his verdict. But he does not give it. Instead, he says “let the the one without sin cast the first stone.”

That response of Jesus seems to echo what he said about not judging. Since we are wrongdoers ourselves, we are not in a position to justly judge and punish others. “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Removing a speck from an eye requires a careful and gentle hand. And, as we learn from Jesus and our own experience, we should know that removing evil also requires great care and patience, not the blunt instruments of force and violence.

I don’t suppose this answer would have gotten much of a reception at the courthouse. But I do think it’s a worthwhile message. Both because most of the people involved would also call themselves “followers of Jesus,” and because the urge to punish others should always remind us of the wrongs we ourselves have done.


a morning like this

We reenacted the women visiting the tomb this Easter morning, followed by much running around and dancing. And I found this song by Jim Croegaert to play. A favorite from our days at Reba Place. Many have done this song, but I still like the original version best.


"sorrow to the point of death"

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. (Mk 14.32-35)

I've often thought a good test of our understanding of something is whether we can explain it in a clear, simple way. And I've found that kids give us plenty of opportunities to test our understanding like this.

Recently I was reading the story of Jesus in Gethsemene to my boy. But I balked at the story book's explanation for Jesus' extreme distress. Was I really going to tell him that God had been planning Jesus' death, and insisted on it, to satisfy God's demand for payment for the sin of the world? How can that be understood by a child? Especially when so many other stories have emphasized God's loving and forgiving nature. So I muddled through the story quickly, and thought about it later so I'd have a better way of explaining it by the time we got to the crucifixion.

The part of the traditional explanation that bothers me most is the way God seems so divided against himself. God insists on justice, but Jesus' self-sacrifice offers mercy. But is Jesus not God? Aren't they one? So if Jesus is sacrificing himself for us, is it not God who is sacrificing himself? That seems to me to be what is really happening here. Not Jesus suffering to satisfy God, but God suffering for us, to reunite us to himself. Now that sounds like the loving and forgiving God we hear about again and again throughout the bible.

But what is the cause of this suffering of God? How do I explain Jesus' distress in the garden, and his wish that "this cup" might pass from him? I think the cause of the suffering is the extreme rejection he is going to experience. He is going to be tortured and murdered by the people he loves.

What makes this necessary is not "God's plan" but that we sinful people often have to do our worst before we can see and admit how bad, how lost, we have become. Often the horror of our own actions is the only thing that can wake us up. I can see why God would not want to experience this horror with us, but would choose to do so anyway if it could possibly turn us back to him.

This seems simple and clear enough for even my five-year-old to understand, because he has experienced it to some extent already. When he sees how he's hurt us at times, he feels it, and is quick to say he's sorry. It's easy to see how the story of Jesus' suffering is repeated often in our lives, as the path to healing and reunion. It's not just a unique role in a predestined plan, but the suffering of our loving God, the suffering love we share when we "take up the cross" and follow Jesus.


Last week I got a (very) old computer running for the boy so he can do some reading and math practice. I had to replace the hard drive and power supply, but he enjoyed watching those repairs too.



A few days ago a friend cautioned me against "extremes," and I was reminded of this journal entry from 15 years ago:

Last night after a group discussion someone prayed that we be delivered from "extreme" views and beliefs and guided into the way between. After the prayer I said to her, "If you keep praying away the extremes, you'll be praying me away."

I could have also said, "You'll be praying Jesus away." Because Jesus is the most extreme person I know.

That reminds me of a discussion I started a while ago in the Jesus Radicals forum. Here's some excerpts...

I recently read this good quote by Blaise Pascal:
I do not admire the excess of virtue, such as valor, unless at the same time I see an excess of the corresponding virtue; [such as] extreme valor with extreme gentleness. For otherwise there is not a rise, but a fall. A person does not show their greatness by going to one extreme, but by reaching both extremes at once, and by filling up all between.
I know I am often disappointed by "radicals" of both the right and the left, maybe because they go to one extreme while abandoning the other (rather than "reaching both extremes at once").

And I see Jesus reaching both extremes, by being courageous and gentle (nonviolent), for example, or forgiving generously and holding an extremely high moral standard.

...Pascal's way of putting it appeals to me because I really don't like the idea of "balance." I usually hear balance used as an admonition against those who would "go to extremes," telling them not too go to far in any one direction.

Also, doesn't balance indicate division within us--in other words, "double-mindedness"? You have to have two sides to balance a scale, and usually people talk about balancing many parts of their life (like keeping a bunch of plates all spinning at once). But I hear us being called as Christians to single-mindedness. To focus on the "one thing needful." To hear God's singular will (for me at this moment) and do it, without weighing (balancing) it with any other concern. All this makes me want to leave the balancing to Aristotle (with his "golden mean") and follow Jesus' higher, more extreme Way.

For example: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes some extreme statements, personally reinterpreting the Law, "You have heard that it was said... But I tell you..." Quite a radically "progressive" thing to do, especially with sacred Law. But he precedes all this with:
"Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.

"For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
Can you get more morally "conservative" than that?

...Jesus' adherance to the "jot and tittle" of the law, denouncing anyone who would relax "the least of these commandments" is very conservative and strict (morally). More extreme to the right than most conservatives. Saying it's adultery to even look at a woman lustfully. Promising hell to anyone who calls their neighbor a fool. Etc.

But then Jesus takes "an eye for an eye" (a conservative's favorite) and extends it to the other extreme with "turn the other cheek." Give to everyone who asks of you. Love your enemy. Do not resist the evil man. This is more to the extreme left than any leftist I've known is willing to go.

I think "do not resist the evil man" sums it up nicely. The evil is recognized and condemned (as "evil")--there's no excuses like "he grew up in a bad environment," "it's not clear what's right or wrong here," etc. But, even with Jesus' extreme condemnation of evil, he also demonstrates the other extreme of nonresistance and unbounded willingness to forgive.

I also liked this comment by a friend:
The call to "moderation" is too often used to subvert the radical nature of the Gospel that calls us to live completely and totally other than the State and our culture would have us live.

This call for moderation is also too often a disguised and philosophical justification of cowardice as well. In the face of evil, in the name of "balance and moderation" we will not oppose, but will sit back and watch because we dont want to be [labeled] "extremists."