Sunday, April 20, 2014

Screen-Free Week: reflections and next steps

This was my seventh year of organizing Screen-Free Week activities for local individuals and families, and also of observing Screen-Free Week myself.* I always think at the beginning of the week that I don't use electronics much or mindlessly in my free time so it really won't make much difference to me.  I always realize that I have been wrong.
I wasn't on a total electronics fast. I still used my computer for the farm's work. In my free time I wrote email letters to some friends. But I stayed off Facebook, didn't read news or book reviews or blogs or random stuff online, didn't spent time searching Elance for write-for-hire jobs, and deleted all my mass emails from Good Causes unread.  This freed up a certain amount of time and unleashed a certain amount of discomfort.
There are good uses for all the things I stopped doing.  Facebook has helped me get updates from distance friends and relatives and has provided a space for some interesting conversations across religious and other divides.  Blogs have deepened, challenged and stretched my understanding of various issues. Online book recommendations have brought some excellent authors into my life. Online news sometimes occasionally helps me fill in the gaps in NPR coverage and get some understanding that can be well used for prayer or letter-writing...etc.  But too often I use these things to stuff the empty places inside myself.  When I'm lonely I crave Facebook or blogs for a quick-fix surge of connective feeling.  When I doubt the value and adequacy of the basic work to which I'm called I am easily drawn into 'clicktivism'. When I feel too tired to concentrate I can easily sink a lot of time into online reading.
This past week I didn't have those bolt-holes. I had also just finished my current favorite long-running fiction series. So I spent more time just sitting with my loneliness, my doubts, my tiredness.  That felt miserable sometimes, but it was salutary.  Here at the end of Screen-Free Week I remember more clearly what I choose to do with my life, why I choose that and what the price of that choice is, and I am clear that it's a price I'm willing to pay.  I am beginning, also, to have a clearer sense of when my attempts to reach out to people come from a clear. balanced and compassionate place and when they come mainly from nervous guilt. 
I've also taken plenty of time to enjoy the real world around me--hepatica and spring beauty blooming in the woods as the snow recedes, salamanders emerging, frogs calling, steelhead spawning, woodcocks courting with spectacular aerial displays, sunrise and moonrise.  I would have taken some time for this anyway as the spring unfolded late and quickly, but Screen-Free Week helped. 
I am getting clear about some practices that may help me stay clearer going forward. For the next month I'll be trying these:
Check Facebook no more than twice a day. (I find it a bit embarrassing to admit that this would be a substantial change.) I'm not putting a time limit on it--if a substantive message has come in I will take time to reply to it; but I won't keep logging on randomly or engaging in rapid back-and-forths in which it's much too easy to say something I'll later regret. 
Whenever I'm engaged in free-time activities online, stop every ten minutes, take a few deep breaths and notice what I am doing and whether it's a satisfying use of my time.
I am still trying to think what to do about the hydra-esque Good Cause emails.  If any of you have suggestions, please let me know.  If any of you have other online mindfulness practices that help you, I'd be glad to hear about those too.

*--The official Screen-Free Week dates are May 5-11 this year, but we've been observing it locally during the school's spring break week. 
The official Screen-Free Week site is

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Living With Our Limits

The prompt for this month's Spirit of the Poor synchroblog was "Affirm the Humanity."  As long as I can remember I have been painfully aware of the danger of defining other people as less-than-human.  I wrote about that in a recent post.  But for me there are other major obstacles to treating other people as I want to be treated, to seeing them clearly and loving them honestly. So today I find myself wondering: what would it mean for me to accept myself as fully and truly human, and how might that change my ability to see and love my neighbors as they are?
Humanity includes creatureliness, limitation.  The consumer culture isn't comfortable with that.  There is constant pressure to Maximize Your Potential and Be All You Can Be.   As a society we keep developing new technologies largely because we can; concerns about the damage done by the ever-mouting wave of unintended consequences are often dismissed in the name of 'progress', which we seem to assume is good or necessary.  As a result our power, en masse, increases, at the same time that our individual competence and the resilience of our ecosystems and communities decreases.  We reach beyond our limits, try to be more than human, and we end up failing to be fully human.
A similar message seems to warp our intimate relationships.  A disturbing number of young people have told me that they became sexually active just, like, to show that they could--that they didn't have some horrible flaw like prudishness or homosexuality or lack of sex appeal. [N.B. Just in case it isn't obvious--these don't strike me as flaws, horrible or otherwise; this is just what I've heard them saying.]   This hurry to prove something sometimes seems to crowd out desire, trust and intimacy as well as self-knowledge and self-control.
As a teenager I struggled most with messages about career Potential. People I loved and respected told me that as an intelligent woman I had a moral obligation to get an impressive set of educational credentials and a high-powered job--both because I might be able to Make a Difference through my work, and because the very fact of my holding the position would help to prove that there was nothing wrong with women. I bought that message on some levels.  I resonated with the appeal to women's rights.  More selfishly, I wanted to prove myself, I wanted to be special.  But I had already caused a certain amount of misery for myself and other people by focusing on that wish for achievement, attention, approval.  And I knew that I could all too easily live in my mind, in a world of causes and abstractions, and lose sight of my immediate neighbors and of other people who were harmed by the effects of my consumption.  So instead I chose to farm and be present to my neighbors, to try to live as a committed and responsible member of a small place.  I thought I'd made my choice and gotten over that danger. I thought I'd learned what I needed to about humility and solidarity.  It took me a while to realize that all the important choices have to be made over and over again.
I still find myself doubting my choice, wondering if it was really just a cop-out, a way of avoiding having to test my ability to make a name for myself and succeed in a challenging world. That doubt can sap my energy and attention so that I am less available to my neighbors, but at least it's uncomfortable and obvious enough so that I notice it and deal; with it.
The other temptation is more subtle.  There is a very real and important line that can be difficult to see. On one side is paying attention to people, trying to see them clearly and compassionately, and offering help where it's appropriate as they try to grow in the ways God calls them.  On the other side is trying to Fix People--either so that I can demonstrate my goodness or so that I don't keep having to know that they are in pain.  When I insist on being able to Fix People I fail to acknowledge the extent of the challenges they face and the wounds they bear.  I also fail to acknowledge what they can do, are doing,  for themselves, and what only God can do for them, and so I become unable to offer what legitimate assistance might actually be mine to give.
Not only now in Lent but all through the year I am haunted by the image of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, coming back to his sleeping disciples and saying "Couldn't you watch with me even one hour?" I can picture all too clearly what some of them might have been thinking: No, how could I? Hide you, yes, fight for you, yes, but just watch and not be able to do anything to stop your hurting? How could I bear to do that? I can imagine this because of all the times when I have wanted to look away--too often, have looked away--from the suffering of a neighbor: a mother tired by and afraid for her troubled child, a child steeling himself to go home to a chaotic and unsafe situation, a person struggling with mental illness more incapacitating than anything I've yet experienced, a migrant worker in pain from needless injuries incurred in the process of growing our cheap food without adequate safeguards… I do not want to have to see.  I want to make their pain go away so that it does not hurt me.  If I can't do that I want to unknow it, to distract myself with daydreams or petty worries or a long list of projects and accomplishments. 
I need not to do that.  I need to stay, as I have been stayed with in the hardest times that I have yet encountered.  Stay, and see, and listen, and offer what I can, even if that is only attention, prayer, grief. I begin to believe that most of what I can legitimately give begins with the experience and the acceptance of my limitations.  We've had guests at our Catholic Worker say that it helped them to see that we were able to have a satisfying life without a lot of the stuff that TV tells us we need. Some of these were people who had come to the US in hopes of earning more for their families--there were those who came because they couldn't afford to feed their children, but also those who said they could have had something like what we had, but that they thought they owed their children More.  Less tangible limitations and broken places also seem to contain possible gifts. Since my struggles with anxiety, obsessions and compulsions I have sometimes been able to accompany other people with mental health issues in a way that wouldn't have been possible before.
I read somewhere, and I can't remember the source: Out of our brokenness make us a blessing.  I pray for that sometimes now.  I don't know how to do that, but God can. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Burdens and Balances

I've just become aware of the Spirit of the Poor synchroblog, a conversation between people trying to live less as citizens of the consumer culture and more as citizens of the Kingdom of God, to do justice and live Jubilee in our economic lives, and I'm taking this opportunity to jump into that conversation. (If you've been reading this blog or St. Francis Farm's newsletter, you've heard about a lot of what's in this post before--sorry.  But do check out the SoP conversation...)

Luke Harms, who started off this month's round of synchroblogging, wrote: We can start by taking ourselves out of the center of our economic decision-making processes and reminding ourselves often that we are a part of a greater, interconnected whole.  We can start by seeking God in our own communities and working to discern what justice and jubilee look like in our particular contexts. 

I've been struggling with these issues for the last twenty years or so, since I started studying economics as a homeschooled adolescent and realized that my daily consumption supported the mistreatment of migrant workers and sweatshop laborers and the degradation of the earth.  I've had Leviticus 19:16b ringing in my mind and heart: Thou shalt not profit from thy neighbor's blood. Also Ephesians 4:25b: We are members one of another. I know that, more certainly than I know anything.  I know that we are bound together invisibly in God, so that our faithfulness helps and our unfaithfulness hinders others in ways that are hidden from us; I also know that we are bound together invisibly in an economic system that provides comforts for some at a terrible cost to others. 

For the last thirteen years I've been living and working at St. Francis Farm, an intentional community in the Catholic Worker tradition whose avowed mission is to live an alternative to the consumer culture.  I am not sure I've found any answers, but I do find some questions becoming clearer.  There are two major ones that I am aware of now:

How can I live in a way that does less harm to other people and the planet?

This question becomes more urgent and more complicated as I live further into it.  Here at the farm we grow a large amount of our own food and some extra to give away, we get heating fuel and building material from out woodlot, we travel by bike not car when it's feasible.  Most of the time I'm able to buy clothes, computers etc. used, which feels a little more like recycling and less like supporting exploitative practices...  But we still buy food and gasoline, and this troubles me more viscerally now that I have shared play, work, meals, stories and prayers with migrant workers injured on commercial  farms and with refugees, some of whom were fleeing from oil-related conflicts. 

This question brings up a host of technical questions: how can we grow more of the fodder our animals need on our own land? what crop varieties will grow well in the increasingly violent weather swings caused by our changing climate? what alternative energy sources can we use?  Then there are the questions of priority. How do we balance the good done by to taking car trips to take part in community meetings or help neighbors with projects and the harm done by buying and burning still more gas? Is it better to put limited time, energy and space into growing more feed for our animals so we're not buying ethically questionable grain, or into growing more vegetables for the soup kitchen? 

This sounds rather negative, but there's also a positive side to it.  I enjoy the sense of competence that comes with being able to do more for myself.  I am glad that we're able to help people figure out how to make and do more for themselves and their neighbors. I'm encouraged when we hear from neighbors who have started raising goats or guests who have gone home to start community gardens.

How can I give and receive help appropriately?

This is the one that still really hooks my emotions.  

Galatians 6:2 says "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."  Galatians 6:5 says "For each one should carry his own load."  Both are valuable and necessary.  Either one, taken alone or wrongly, can lead to distortion. I'm still learning to balance them.

I came to St. Francis Farm because I wanted to stop dumping my economic load on other people, and also because I felt that I had received a lot and wanted to give back.  Sometimes I've been able to do that. I've also become more aware of--though not necessarily more comfortable with--the ways in which I need help.  

At the farm we're fed, housed and transported partly by our own labor, partly by donations and volunteer help.  I'm grateful for those who give. I'm fairly comfortable with this form of burden-sharing in which people give freely to us so that we can give freely to others.  There isn't a hard line between those who give and those who receive.  People in tight economic circumstances make donations to the farm and people who are tired and stretched take time to help us with our work. That can be humbling and uncomfortable. Also, perhaps, helpful--I think that one of the most basic human needs is the need to be a giver, to have something to share, and sometimes we do people whom we see as poor a disservice by wanting to do things for them and not being willing to have that reciprocated.

My dependence on Medicaid is much less comfortable, since it requires people to support me whether they want to or not. I suppose there is educational value in knowing how it feels to be regarded as a taker, a parasite.  I think I would mind it less if I was completely convinced that that judgment was unwarranted.  But I mind that dependence somewhat less than my continuing dependence on fossil fuels and other neighbor-damaging goods, and the unpaid way of life which has brought me to Medicaid has also helped me to reduce that other dependence...

My struggles with anxiety and obsessive/compulsive tendencies have shown up my dependence on the insight and patience of those who live and work with me.  Those struggles have also shown me something about the limits of helping.   In my more difficult times I wanted to be understood, sympathized with, accommodated, not challenged.  (Those were same things I tried, in my better times, to do for people whose lives were harder than my own.)  Sometimes this was really what I needed.  Sometimes instead I needed to be challenged and held accountable.  I needed to stop focusing on myself and be aware of what the stronger-seeming people around me needed.   

It's easier for me to see how this works emotionally.  But I think economically there is a similar hard balance--people have very real needs that are not met, and people from all classes in this ad-crazed culture want things that they don't need and sometimes grab at their wants before their needs, and it's hard to know when and how to help most effectively.

It's true that people who are stronger should help those who are struggling.  But when we only acknowledge that part of the truth we can fall into the distorted belief that need entitles people to help and excuses them from doing what they can.  People get defined as helpers and helped, the helped become weaker and more demanding, and the helpers become exhausted and resentful or self-righteous. 

    People observing this problematic pattern may decide that helping is pathological, that they should hold onto what they have and not take responsibility for their neighbors.  This distortion ignores the ways in which we all depend on other people.  It makes us narrow, selfish and disconnected.

    The way between can be hard to find. I've been grateful for the people who have challenged me to do things that felt difficult, helped me to find resources and guidance, and borne with me when I was really unable to do some of what needed to be done.  I'm trying to learn to do this with other people. 

I don't know the answers.  I am grateful for other people who are willing to share the questions. Their fellowship makes it a little easier to avoid the distorted thinking that reduces all these questions to Am I doing well enough? Am I a good person now?, makes it a little easier to remember that the goal is to live in wholeness and in truth as members of one another and of God.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Besetting Scruples

Some of my Christian friends say that we each have personal 'besetting sins', destructive behaviors to which we are particularly susceptible, which we tend to be slow in recognizing and quick in indulging.  I think that many of us also have particular sins which repel us very strongly even in their mildest forms. I call these things besetting scruples. 
I can see plenty of good and no harm in applying our besetting scruples to our own lives.  I am trying to figure out when and how to voice mine in relation with other people, and how to deal with other people's voicing of besetting scruples in areas to which I'm not particularly sensitive.
My own besetting scruples have to do with what I call 'them-ing'; with attempts to demonize, or to separate ourselves from, people we define as Not Like Us, whether that's done on the basis of religion or nationality or political preference or… I can make a reasonable case for why them-ing is untruthful and destructive; I can quote the Bible and Jung and cite historical examples.  But all of these are really afterthoughts or justifications.  My immediate response is one of strong and visceral distress: don't do that, that hurts everyone, that distorts everything, that is dangerous, that destroys...
I grew up knowing, loving and respecting people on opposite sides of sharp ideological divides, and being troubled by the ways in which some of them sometimes spoke of the Others.  I grew up safe and loved, but there were some people who distressed me and whom I did not want to resemble.  Unfortunately, I couldn't help knowing that I did resemble them, both in some surface details and in the basic temptations that seemed to underlie their actions that troubled me: the will to lie, the assumption that other people are bit-players in a story starring me rather than living souls who are stars in their own stories and bit-players like me in God's story.  So I couldn't condemn those people without condemning myself.
As a pre-teen I once dreamed that I was a man on trial for war crimes; was guilty; was convinced that what I had done was right because the victims of those crimes were not human.  In the course of the dream the character I was had a series of devastating dreams, memories in which the faces of the ones I'd defined as not-people were replaces by the faces of people from my family and my church. Waking, I realized that those people had been human.  Also that the people who watched my trial believed I was not human, and maybe I had made that nearly true by what I'd chosen. Also that they extended that belief to my countrymen in general.  I understood at the end that I had known all along that the other people were human and had chosen not to know because I did not want to be like them, I wanted all the badness I saw in the world to be theirs and all the goodness to be mine and my people's.  I thought the people who were ready to hate my countrymen en bloc were making the same wrong choice, but my attempts to tell them so fell on deaf ears, and I couldn't blame them.  This dream comes back to me vividly in waking life as I read the news, listen to my friends, become aware of the harsh and sweeping judgments in my own heart.
Most people will agree, in general, that demonizing other people is not a good idea.  But I seem to take the concern farther than most people do.  Over and over I find myself in groups of people who are talking about the ill deeds of Group X with indignation, or comfortable superiority, or amusement, and I feel compelled to say "That's a very one-sided account of those people"  or "But have you thought about how they might have reached that position?' or "I know some of those people and they're not all like that", or "Yes, but then we do this that's really rather similar…" This often does not go over well.  I am still trying to figure out how to discern when I should do it anyway.
Sometimes I'm told, "You're being oversensitive.  It was just a joke.  Laughter is good for people." Yes, I know laughter is, and I know I tend to be painfully earnest. I see the danger in humorlessness.  I also think that sometimes humor is used as an excuse for bitterness or dismissiveness that would be easier to confront if it was stated directly.  
I realize that such humor, like overt statements of disparagement, can be a cover for great hurt. Often it seems to me that the hurt is deep and real and the generalizations it engenders are misleading and harmful.  I've started by questioning someone's disparaging remarks about gay and lesbian people, or about Christians, and I've ended up hearing personal stories of terribly wounding experiences with indivuiduals from the group in question. I know it's important to listen, to acknowledge the wounds, to honor the difficult process of healing which the storyteller has undergone.  I think it's also important to try to make a disctinction between the hurtful behavior being described and the group point out that most gay people are not sexually abusive and most sexually abusive people are not gay, that most Christians are not violent toward people of other faiths and many perpetrators of interfaith violence are not Christian, etc.  I am still trying to figure out how to do both of those things together.
 I am also trying to learn how to deal with the varied besetting scruples of my friends and relatives.  One friend who is particularly committed to truth and integrity is sorely troubled by what I could easily dismiss as white lies and minor inconsistencies.  Another is more sensitive than I am to obscene/offensive language and will not read books in which any of the characters speak profanely.  Another objects strongly to what look to me like trivial wastes of time or material.  Others are extremely aware of words and actions which they see as reflecting unquestioned privilege, whether racial or religious or gender-based; sometimes after they speak up I can see what they see, and sometimes I can't.  
Sometimes I am annoyed by the scruples of these friends.  This may happen because I genuinely don't see any problem with the thing to which they're objecting.  It may also happen becaue I can see what looks to me like a little problem, but I feel badgered, unable to relax, held to an unreasonably high standard.  
Sometimes I am grateful for the scruples of these friends.  They make it much harder for me to be either obliviously or wilfully blind.  They remind me of and keep pointing me toward qualities which I value: honesty, clarity, respect, decency, good stewardship, humility, justice.  
I don't always understand why I respond well to some expressions of besetting scruples and poorly to others.  It helps if I understand what experiences in the other person's life have made that particular issue so painfully important to them.  It also helps if they don't assume that any right-minded person would immediately understand and agree with all their concerns. I try to remember this when I express my own besetting scruples.  I also know that, however they express their concerns, I hear them better when I let go of my own defensiveness and wish to be liked and come back to my wish to see clearly and act justly and lovingly.  I try to keep doing that, and I hope other people will do the same as they listen to me.
What are your besetting scruples? What have you learned about how to express those scruples, and how to deal with the different scruples of other people? 

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Jesus I Have Met

The last two posts have been about the difficulty of talking about Jesus without getting mired in arguments and assumptions.  This one is about where I now understand Jesus to speak into my life.  
I know, I do know, that this is only a small piece of who Jesus is.   This bit from C.S. Lewis' Prince Caspian resonates with my own experience so far:
         “Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.” 
     “That is because you are older, little one,” answered he. 
        “Not because you are?” 
    “I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”
But this is what I have seen so far.  It helps me to articulate this from time to time, and also to hear what others see as they grow into God.  If any of you make it to the end of this post--or even if you don't--I would be glad to hear more of the God whom you have known. 

There are many clear teachings in the Gospels which I find easy to understand and very hard to live out.  I need to watch out for the temptation to use the more perplexing passages as a distraction from living out what I already understand. 
"‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’…Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
"Do not be afraid." 
"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."  "Let your yea be yea and your nay, nay." 
"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, that ye may be the children of your Father in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."
"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's." "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth…" "Freely you have received, freely give…" 
"Truly, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." 
"If any one doth will to come after me, let him disown himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me; for whoever may will to save his life, shall lose it, and whoever may lose his life for my sake, he shall save it; for what is a man profited, having gained the whole world, and having lost or having forfeited himself?"

Living according to those teachings is at least a life's work.  And it is a help and a comfort and a challenge to read of lives that actually embody that teaching. 
At the moment the exemplary aspects of Jesus' life that stand out most strongly for me are his constant return to prayer, his deep and nonviolent resistance to an unjust and deadly economic and political system, his rejection of the false security offered by money and arms and prestige, and his direct, forceful, loving and unapologetic response to each individual who addressed him.  These are all directions in which I know I need to move.

Sometimes one of the Gospel stories will come alive for me so that I feel myself directly addressed by Jesus in it.  During my struggles with anxiety and obsession I've had this sense of participation in the healing stories.  The madman in the tombs who, when asked his name, answered "My name is Legion, for we are many…" has spoken for my lack of singleheartedness, and in his healing I have found hope and courage for my own.  Jesus' question to the paralytic, "Do you want to be well?" has echoed in my mind; occasionally I have realized that my answer is No, and I've had to wrestle with the roots of that denial until I was ready to say Yes.  
Sometimes I've identified with Peter's heartfelt statement, "We have left everything to follow you…" even as I have imagined Jesus thinking "Oh, really?" And Jesus' question in Gethsemane, "Are you asleep? Couldn't you watch with me even one hour?" has echoed in my mind when I realize I have been unavailable and oblivious to someone who had need of me. 
Sometimes, too, I find myself identifying with Jesus in the stories--especially, for now, the stories of the baptism, the blessing and the temptation. 

When I hear or read the stories of Jesus' death and resurrection I understand myself to be in the presence of a truth that does not quite fit into my language or my concepts. When I hear people explain their significance I often think "There's more to it…" These are a few small pieces of the meaning I think I have understood, though I know that the whole is beyond my understanding:
I see that when people speak and stand against injustice they risk being killed, and that their deaths are not the end of the story.  
I identify with Jesus. I know that following God requires us to die to our self-centered lives.  So far I have not experienced one conclusive rebirth; it's been more like a series of little deaths...which may be related to what Paul meant when he said "I die every day…" or to what Jesus meant when he spoke of taking up one's cross daily.  I see that this dying is terribly frightening, and that new life really does lie on the other side of it. 
I identify with the people who condemned Jesus.*** I know what it is like to resent someone who lives in a way which makes it clear that I also could choose to live more faithfully.  I know what it is like to resist God's breaking in to the order I have tried to make in my life. I know what it is to fear the truth enough to hate a truth-bearer. And I know that avoiding the truth by attacking or avoiding truth-bearers doesn't work in the long term.
I identify with the disciples who ran away and hid and despaired and were restored by the visitation of the risen Christ.  I know how it is to be willing to work for the Kingdom in a way I can predict and control, but not to want to follow leadings that do not offer control or obvious success.  I know what it is to shrink back from what I am called to do, and to be forgiven and called back to the work. 
All these start with my encounters with Jesus in the Bible.  Then there is this other thing that begins with encounters in prayer, or with neighbors. 
Jesus is the name that I know best for that aspect of God that wears a human face, that knows from within our loneliness and brokenness and blindness, that suffers and dies and rekindles new life in us. 
Jesus is the name I know best for the God who stands at my shoulder urging and guiding and comforting me, the one who has been through all the delusions, discouragement and temptations of being human and yet at the same time remained anchored in the depths of God. 
Jesus is the name I know best for God given over into our hands--within ourselves, and in the people we meet, and in the rest of the created world.  For God whom I can help or hinder now, in every living encounter.
I've heard some people say that seeing Jesus in others means seeing others only as abstractions or ways of getting credit with God.  I can see that such a thing could happen. Certainly I'm often tempted to get credit for being a Good Person rather than actually knowing and loving and working with the people I meet--though more often I'm seeking that credit in  other people's eyes or my own, not in God's. 
When I speak of seeing Jesus in others I mean seeing that indwelling, vulnerable and powerful presence of God at work in each of them, and seeing at the same time the brokenness they bear.  I mean seeing them as fully alive and real, not as bit-players in a drama starring me.  I mean something like what I understand Martin Buber to mean when he writes about I-Thou encounters.  I mean being responsible and responsive to them, being open to the challenge and the blessing that they offer me.

I don't do that consistently.  I get stuck in my ideas, my hurts, my wants, my self.  My brokenness and blindness undermine my best efforts.  Knowing that, I turn back to Jesus, and to the God to whom Jesus turned, and ask for grace and strength so that I can get back up and start walking toward the Kingdom one more time. 
***In case it still needs saying, I do not believe the narrative that blames Jews or Judaism for Jesus' death.  I know that narrative has done great harm. Other people have explained why it is wrong clearly and forcefully. I am convinced by them. I'm not going to try to summarize them here.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Do You Love *My* Jesus? (Talking About Jesus, part 2)

When we talk about Jesus with people of other faiths we recognize that we are encountering a different culture and worldview; this can remind us to pay attention and to show courtesy.  It can be harder to talk, worship and work well with people who are worshipping and following Jesus in a way that is not ours.
I know, love and respect some people who see Jesus so differently that if it weren't for the shared name anyone might think they were describing separate people.  Some talk primarily about Jesus as a savior of souls, someone who came to die for us, reconcile us with God, and thereby enable us to live more faithfully now and to enter heaven when we die.  (Some--not all--of these downplay or spiritualize Jesus' role as a social and political revolutionary.) Others talk primarily about Jesus as a preacher and exemplar of a new social order, a nonviolent revolutionary, a defender of the poor and the marginalized. (Some--not all--of these downplay or allegorize Jesus' role as healer of the sick, walker on water, raiser of the dead.) 
I find something to agree with and to admire in what both groups say.  Sometimes when they get talking about each other I am discouraged.  I hear the line from the Jacob's Ladder spiritual echoing in the back of my mind: "Sinner, do you love my Jesus?" (emphasis mine) I find myself thinking in response, "Well, maybe not  your Jesus, exactly…"  I try to broaden my perspective by reading books written by authors on several sides, and I find more helpful truths and more frustrating arguments.  I get frustrated and confused. Then I remember that I don't need to define or defend Jesus.  I do need to heed, be healed by, follow, imitate and become one with Jesus. That process requires me to see Jesus in and stay in relationship with all my brothers and sisters, including the contentious Christian ones. 

  We all have our own narratives about Jesus. We mostly have our own, sometimes rather skewed, versions of the Jesus narratives of other people.  Sometimes we assume that we know what someone else's Jesus narrative and basis for living is based on a few phrases we've heard them use or a few positions we've heard them espouse.  We're often wrong.  
I hear talk about conservative Christians who care only about saving people's souls and have no concern for courtesy or for social justice.  I have friends who talk about accepting Jesus Christ as their personal saviors and who try to witness to other people and bring them into a saving personal relationshop with Jesus. They often also take responsibility for caring for neighbors in need and speak with courtesy and humility with those who disagree with them.  
I hear talk about liberal Christians who are so concerned with political correctness and inoffensiveness that they have no true convictions by which they're willoing to live, no moral backbone, no spiritual fire. I have friends who carefully use universalist lanaguage for Spirit and emphasize inclusivity and outreach to the marginalized.  They often also are deeply grounded in prayer and willing to work and suffer for their beliefs.  
I have friends who don't fit well on either side of the liberal/conservative divide--who are passionately antiwar and also passionately pro-life; who take a rigorous and literal view of Biblical commands for their own lives and also deeply respect the differently ordered lives of people following other religious traditions.  
Because of all this I try not to make assumptions about what other Christians know of Jesus; I try to listen carefully to what they actually say, to watch how they actually live, to work and pray with them and to ask them questions.
I have been helped and blessed by this contact with people whose Jesus stories are very different from mine.  Not so much by theoretical conversations as by the sharing of Jesus' working in each of our lives, our experiences of joy and clarity, our inward conviction of wrongdoing, our attempts to live in faithfulness, and the grace that sustains us when our attempts are inadequate.  Often I find that we are on a similar journey, though we describe it very differently.  Sometimes their different languiages and stories quicken my awareness of truths which I had come to take for granted.  Sometimes they open up possibilities I hadn't seen before. I am convinced that, just as God is greater than any of our names for God, Jesus is greater than any of our narratives about Jesus.  
But sometimes I hear people speaking or see people acting in Jesus' name and I think they are doing harm.  Then I am confronted with two temptations.  One is to avoid confrontation at all costs.  The other is to denounce Those Christians and make it clear that I am one of the better Christians.  Both can be deeply destructive. I am trying to find my way between them.
It's partly a question of focus, of motivation.  If I act to preserve my comfort, either by avoiding conflict or by dissasociating myself from behavior that troubles me, I may do harm outwardly and I certainly increase my own selfishness.  If I act to preserve my self-image or the image of my religion, either by making a show of unity or by making a show of purity unsullied by the behavior that troubles me, I may do harm outwardly and I certainly make myself more prone to hypocrisy.
Instead of doing those things I can act from the knowledge that I and the person whose words/actions seem hurtful and the people who might be hurt are all one in God.  From that understanding I can reach out to those who may have been hurt, can listen and offer what help or reparation is possible.  From there I can speak to the person whose behavior troubles me, if either their manner or our relationship make me believe that they might be able to hear a concern firmly and lovingly expressed.  To do this I need to be aware of, and may need to speak of, the times when I have been hurt and the times when I have been hurtful.
I'm clear about this.  I am not clear about when or how it's right to speak publicly about people whom I believe to have spoken or done wrong in Jesus' name.  I can see a case for doing that, for the sake either of the people who are hurt or of the people who are likely to judge all Jesus-followers by the hurtful actions of a few people. I also see that this can easily become self-righteous and can intensify the hurt or alienation which is probably already felt by the people whose behavior troubles me.
I don't know the right answer to this.  Perhaps in one way that's a good thing.  When I know I don't know the right answer I am driven back into prayer.  I ought to anide there anyway, as Jesus did, but too often I don't.
I would be glad to hear how any of you resolve these questions in your own lives.

Link to part 3

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Talking About Jesus, part 1: the powers and perils of naming

I've always been a Christian--that is, my relationship with God has been interpreted and enfleshed through Christian scripture, practice and community, with an emphasis on Jesus.  In the years when I worshipped with unprogrammed Friends my experience of God and the understandings and practices that engendered remained fairly constant, but we didn't use Jesus' name regularly and frequently as a group.  Now, while I still practice Quaker worship daily at home, my Sunday worship is with a little nondenominational church where we talk and sing a lot about Jesus.  I find a gift and a challenge in this naming.
Some of my Christian friends speak of the importance of naming the God we serve as Jesus, reminding ourselves and others of the particular challenge, peace and guidance found in Jesus' life and teaching.  Some parts of my relationship with God are most readily and precisely described through Jesus-language.  Some other Christian friends and some friends from other faith traditions speak of the dangers of using Jesus-language in a world where so much harm has been done by people who claimed to worship and follow Jesus.  I think all my friends are articulating important truths.  I am trying to find my way between them.

This post is about the challenges of talking about Jesus in groups that include non-Christians.  The next one will be about trying to talk about Jesus with fellow Christians without getting stuck in assumptions, and the one after that will be about my own relationship with/understanding of/attempt to follow Jesus thus far.
Years ago I brought a message about my experiences with Jesus-following, economic justice and integrity to a Quaker gathering.  I was told afterward that some people were upset with me.  I invited those people to meet with me.  Some did.  I expected them to have problems with my economic message.  Instead they felt hurt because I had reminded them of Christians they knew who spoke against or violently mistreated Jews or gays and lesbians.  They agreed that my message had not discussed Judaism, non-Christian religions, sexual ethics or sexual orientation, but I had used Jesus' name and had spoken in tones of exhortation and that had reminded of something that had hurt them.  Some of them had assumed that I was trying to convert them. 
My reaction was split.  There was frustration: I found myself thinking "Quakerism is originally a Christian movement, many of us still are Christians, you don't have to be what we are but you do need to let us freely describe what we have known of God."  There was also sympathy and concern: I understood that these people had experienced deep hurt in their own lives and had seen harm done to people they loved, and that I had reawakened the memory of that hurt. I regretted that. 
I listened to their hurt.  I acknowledged that great harm has been done in the name of my religion and expressed sorrow over some of that harm having been done to them and their loved ones.  I told them that I had been describing my own faith journey, which does centrally involve Jesus, but that I was asking other people to integrate their lives with their religious beliefs, not to modify their God-language to match mine.  I tried, also, to point out that the tendency to attack People Who Aren't Like Us is fairly widely distributed across humanity, and shows up in many religions, races, classes, orientations and ideologies...that Christians are neither immune to it nor unusually prone to it, though I thought if Christians followed Jesus more faithfully, and if people of other faiths deepened their communion with God, however they name God, we would all be healed of this tendency.  

I see two challenges here: a psychological one and a philosophical one.  The psychological one has to do with responding to genuine painful experience that has prompted a distorted overgeneralization.  This doesn't happen only around religion.  Once a friend voiced vehement disapproval of same-sex couples adopting children.  I spoke to X about some women I knew who were very capable, caring, generous and faithful, and also married to each other.  X responded with a very painful personal story of same-gender child sexual abuse.  I listened and sympathized with the great harm that had been done to X and others whom X loved.  I also tried to point out that child abuse is a terrible thing which is done by some people of all sexual orientations, and that self-restraint and faithful, healthy love between adults are also possibilities open to people of all sexual orientations.  Another friend who was present shared a very painful personal story of cross-gender child sexual abuse.
         I left that conversation and the conversation at the Quaker gathering in considerable doubt about my response.  I thought that trying to make a counter-point might have seemed dismissive of the hurt my interlocutors were carrying.  I thought it wrong to respond in a way that they might take to suggest that I agreed that Christians or gay and lesbian people really are abuse-prone and should be avoided.  I still don't know what the right response would have been.  

Then there's the philosophical problem.  We humans have misused and desecrated many--perhaps all--of our names for the holy and the good.  We have used them to justify unjustifiable actions.  This is true of many names of God, but avoiding religious language does not avoid the problem.  A guest once spoke about talking about Love instead of God because God-language has such a problematic history.  I told her I didn't find Love any less problematic.  I'd heard the word 'love' used in troubling ways in the fantasy play of kids who'd been sexually abused. I'd heard "If you really loved me, you would.." used to manipulate people destructively. "But that's not really love, that makes people behave like that," she said.  "No, and it's not really God who makes people abuse each other, either," I said.  It's not just God and love, either.  Most of us can probably think of atrocities and injustices which have been committed in the name of truth, justice, freedom, peace….
So when we use these good words they are subject to ambiguity, and they trigger pain and fear in some people.  But I think there are at least two good reasons for continuing to use them.
One is reclamation.  If we don't use these good words when we are trying to be sensitive to our neighbors, we abandon these words to thoughtless use, and the stigma and the hurt around them deepen.  If we use them carefully, lovingly, humbly, we may make it possible for some people to see the goodness in them.  (Pope Francis seems to have done this for some people's understanding of Catholic, or general Christian, language and practice.  I am very grateful.) Using them in this way we are reminded of the 'great cloud of witnesses', of all the people down through time who have invoked these good words as they healed sick people, taught children, reconciled enemies, forgave persecutors, cared for the earth, loved God and their neighbors.
The other is focus. If we don't use these good words an essential part of our lives and souls remains mute. If this muteness was part of a general context of silence it might have a different kind of strength.  In a very talkative society, we're apt to think largely about what we talk about, and if we refrain from talking about what is essential and keep talking about peripherals our focus is apt to be skewed.

I have also had good conversations with people of different faiths and with people outside any formal religious tradition, in which I was able to name my experience of God and Jesus and to hear the other person's names for the sacred without tension.  I have been helped by contemplation of the experiences and principles we hold in common.  Sometimes the other person's different language and images have helped me to get a fresh and vivid look at truths which had become so familiar to me in my own tradition that I almost stopped noticing them.  Often the other people in these conversations also say they have experienced them as blessings.
It's not a matter of being nice and non-challenging.  I want and need to be held accountable as well as supported in my attempts to follow Jesus.  I think God sometimes requires us to speak hard truths.  If we duck this in an effort to preserve group tranquility our lives become shallow. I'm still trying to figure out how to speak in a way that is both bold and humble.  I have figured out a few things to start with:
I need to remember that we are members one of another--all of us, all the living creatures that God made.  When I speak of what is right and good I need to remember that that goodness is available to everyone, not only My People.  When I speak of what is wrong and harmful I need to acknowledge the roots of evil in my own people and my own heart, rather than denouncing evil Out There as though it had no part in me and mine.  
I need to remember that God is greater than any of our words, names, concepts, images or practices.  We are creatures and we need all those things to help us ground our little lives in the Life, but we must not mistake them for the Life entire.  I think there is a way of using particular language that can actually foster this recognition.  If I try always to speak in a way that I think everyone can hear and agree with, a way that doesn't leave out anyone's experience of the sacred, I become vague and anxious and I still am bound by the limits of my assumptions.  If I speak of Jesus--who for me is, among other things, the bearer of the human face of God, God born in us, broken in us, working in us, suffering in us, dying in us, raising us to new life--and if I remember as I speak that what I meet in Jesus is met by other people under other names, I am more able to enter into communion.

If any of you have made it to the end of this long post, I would appreciate hearing about your experience with using your God-language and hearing other people's, and hearing how you decide which names to use, when to speak and when to keep silent.

Link to part 2