Saturday, December 11, 2010

hunger for fellowship, hunger for righteousness

I’ve made stabs at writing this post for a couple of months now, and I still don’t feel that it’s clear or complete. I will post it now anyway to mark a question I still wrestle with.

“Hunger is my native place in the land of the passions. Hunger for fellowship, hunger for righteousness--for a fellowship founded on righteousness, and a righteousness attained in fellowship.” --from Markings by Dag Hammarskjรถld, translated by W.H. Auden and Leif Sjoberg

This quote spoke to me the first time I read it. Then I was thinking primarily of my wish to move further into economic integrity, and my sense that this wasn’t easy in this culture (perhaps it isn’t in any culture) and that I would have a better chance in good company. And I did find the fellowship I needed, with my mother and brother, with the Quaker Meeting in Portland, with other brief but helpful contacts that opened my way into the work and life to which I was called--work which took me to a distance where I lost touch with the many of people with whom I’d been in fellowship. Now I have work I love, and the gap between my convictions and my life is shrinking slowly. I am (when I remember to be) very grateful for this. Now I am more acutely conscious of the ‘hunger for fellowship’ part.

I’m blessed to be here with my mother and brother. I’m blessed by the deep and real connections that we sometimes experience with our neighbors and guests. I continue to wish for some more extended and permanent community of which we might be members--for neighbors who would come to us at times of celebration as well as times of trouble; for people whom we could know would be there for us; for people who know us well on many levels and are well known by us in the same way. Also for the ability to keep in tough with people over time and know whether or not we've really been able to offer anything that makes a difference.

Sometimes I think that I lack this because I’ve moved away from the place where I grew up, or because I’ve chosen to live in a way that strikes most people as odd in one way or another. I know people who work with their hands like me, who value practical capability, who have the understanding of limits and the satisfaction with a job well done which come from doing work with concrete and readily visible consequences (and, perhaps, from having limited financial resources). I know people who share many of my political convictions, tastes in reading etc. I don’t know many people who share both. But when I listen to the people around me I realize that many of them feel even less connected to and supported by other people than I do, although some of them are married or have churches and other groups which seem at first glance to answer the hunger for connection. I see the hunger for fellowship in myself and in many other people, and I wish I was clearer about the right way to deal with it.

I have known a few people who grew up in strong, multilayered communities that were given as much as chosen: a brother and sister who lived and farmed with three generations of extended family in a valley in NZ, with Maori neighbors, and a young man who grew up in a church whose members spent a lot of time studying, playing and visiting together and helping each other, and who also went to a small Christian school. These people seemed...unbroken in some way that most of my acquaintance who are my age or younger don’t. I don’t think their lives were idyllic; there were certainly times of tension, frustration, struggle with different understandings; but still there was this wholeness or certainty that they carried. I wasn’t born into a community like that, beyond my mother and brother. My extended family lives all over the country. I went to four different churches as I grew up; most of them were composed of people who met on Sunday and saw little of each other during the rest of the week. Our town was full of people who commuted away. We had satisfying relationships with various people--neighbors, relatives, friends from church or from two different homeschool groups--but we knew most of them in only one context, and many of them didn’t know one another. And many of those relationships didn’t survive my move to NY and the Catholic Worker.

I also know people who seem to find some of this sense of community and belonging in groups of like-minded people who may not live close together or know each other in different contexts. I’ve been at various functions--’gifted’ conferences, large Quaker gatherings etc--where I heard other people saying “Finally I’m with other people like me; I’m safe; I’m understood; I’m at home.” That wasn’t my experience, though I had some good conversations, learned some things, experienced some moments of real connection.

I guess I have a strong contrarian streak; in a group of liberals asserting their unity with each other and their separation from conservatives I find myself thinking (and usually talking) about the value of chastity, temperance, groundedness in scripture, commitment, personal responsibility, and also about particular fairly conservative folks whom I cherish and admire; in a group of conservatives asserting their unity with each other and their separation from liberals I find myself thinking (and usually talking) about the importance of social justice, environmental responsibility, humility, diversity, openmindedness, and also about particular fairly liberal folks whom I cherish and admire... I mean to make our connections richer and truer. I tend to irritate people. I can be excessive about this. I also think that there is a legitimate concern about groups of like-minded people--that we may end up overstating our similarities because we don’t want to lose the connection we have found. And this can become distorting and stifling internally, as well as creating difficulties in relating to the people whom we have defined as Not Like Us.

I’ve had better experiences with community based on shared work. Wholehearted and shared commitment to the task at hand can bond people who otherwise don’t seem to have much in common and generate a certain amount of trust and understanding. For me, so far, most of these connections haven’t been long-lived, but they have been gifts while they lasted.

Perhaps part of what I need to do is to stop clutching, stop focusing on what I wish I had and look more clearly at what I already have and what I can already do. I know a few things that I need to do in order to be open to true connection. I need to listen honestly to people, to see them as they are and not mentally reshape them to suit my desires. I need to speak and act honestly and not reshape myself to suit what I think they desire. I need to be dependable. And I need to remember and give thanks for all the moments of understanding, connection, help given with which I have been blessed, with which I have sometimes been able to bless other people. I hear from some of our guests that their time with us has given them clarity or courage to move further into righteousness themselves, and I know their visits have often had this effect on me. So whether or not we remain in obvious relationship we have helped each other further into the center, into God, into the place where we are one.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gifts and grunt work

In addition to the general call to single-mindedness that I heard at this last New England Yearly Meeting sessions, a specific concern that seemed to need its own post came up clearly. This has to do with our understanding of gifts and the distribution of work.

I heard several Friends call us to recognize and support the spiritual gifts of particular individuals, gifts which were to be used for the benefit of the community. This sounded good to me, but seemed as though it could mean a variety of things. I had lunch with one Friend who spoke eloquently of the need to recognize ministers and elders, and went on to define these roles. Here’s how I understood the definition: ministers carry God’s words to the community, and are accountable to the community for their faithfulness in bearing this message; elders provide physical, logistical and emotional support for ministers and help them to discern whether or not the message has been delivered faithfully. The minister/elder relationship is not meant to be reciprocal--the elder takes care of the minister, the minister takes care of the message. People are apt to be given either the gift of ministry or the gift of eldership lifelong. This Friend felt called as a minister, and said that I seemed clearly to have a gift for eldership, as I had been busing tables and carrying things for people over the course of the week. I didn’t say much, but I didn’t take well to this. Partly that was an ego thing--I feel that I’ve also had occasion to speak the Word sometimes, which may be well and good, and I want to be recognized for that, which is not so good. Part of my reaction, though, arose from a larger concern which seemed to be connected.

Everyone is asked to volunteer with some physical work during Sessions, and I spent some time carrying trays and clearing tables. In the course of doing that work I noticed that quite a few people seemed to have loaded their trays into the rack that fed the dishwasher without sorting out and disposing of their paper and trash, as the signs clearly asked us to do. This bothered me because my work at the farm sometimes involves cleaning up after groups and I object when they don’t do their part, and because we had been talking about Jubilee and racial and economic justice and we were being inconsiderate of the folks who cleaned up after us, who were on average darker-skinned and probably less affluent than most of us. I started talking to other Friends about how we could most effectively remind people to be considerate. Some gave helpful suggestions and seemed to share the concern. (One especially helpful Friend pointed out that we should also be paying attention to the table signs asking us to avoid using trays unnecessarily, in order to save soap, hot water and the time of the dishwashers. I hadn’t been doing this, but I started after she spoke to me.) Others offered variations on, “We’re here trying to do important spiritual work, and you want to take people’s time and attention to talk about scraping plates?”

I had done something similar earlier in the week; I pushed the button on the ice-cream machine for a kid, and when we missed each other and there was a glob of soft-serve on the floor I was embarrassed and slipped away, figuring that someone would be along to clean the floor soon anyway and that would be their job and I wanted to get away from people who’d seen me being clumsy and foolish and anyway I had some other important things I wanted to do.

But I believe that the real important work, living into the kingdom of God, requires us to pay attention to the messes we make and the people who get stuck cleaning them up. I think it requires us to do more of our own basic work and to help our neighbors with theirs, rather than leaving a disproportionate share of it for poorer folks. I know this isn’t the only thing we need. I know we need ministry, teaching, the Word. But I think that if we each did our share of the basic work we’d each have some time and strength left to cultivate other gifts and use them in God’s service. I know that we need help in discerning how to rightly use our gifts. I hope we can find a way to do this clearly, consistently and lovingly, without letting our gifts excuse us from helping with the grunt-work of the world. I know both can be done; one of the things I like about Paul’s epistles is the combination of his clear writing about spiritual gifts and their care, and his insistence on the importance of manual labor.

I realize that I don’t think as clearly and calmly as I’d like to about this. It hooks into my memories of childhood involvement with the (intellectually) Gifted communityand into my recurring frustration at being considered dumb because I am farming. And it hooks into my dismay at the waste of the gifts of migrant workers who have visited us, who are usually too overtaxed and exhausted by their overlong shifts growing our food to have much time for prayer, song, storytelling... I would like to hear from others about how the recognition, nurture and exercise of spiritual gifts can be rightly exercised and balanced with mutual responsibility for basic work.

New England Yearly Meeting, part 1: seeking a single mind

I’ve been back from New England Yearly Meeting (for my non-Quaker friends, that’s when people from all the Quaker Meetings in New England get together to worship and make decisions) for a week now, and I’m still trying to sort out what happened there.
We spent most mornings and evenings in extended worship, setting aside our usual agendas and preoccupations so we could listen for God’s guidance. At least that was what we meant to do. I know I had trouble setting aside my own ideas about what we should do as a body, and my wish to say something noticeable and impressive, and my fear that we’d leave our time together without any sense of shared leading, and my fear that we’d settle for some Big Project that wasn’t a leading in our desperation to have something to show for ourselves... Sometimes I was able to look at these things quietly, not indulging them, not fighting them, and come into a spacious place, the place beyond myself. Sometimes when other people spoke I was able to stay there. Often I didn’t. From my own very limited perspective I thought I heard a wrenching combination of Truth and of human neediness and confusion, sometimes both emerging strongly from the same message. I still don’t know what proportions of each were present in the message I gave.
James 4:7-8 was strongly in my mind during this week. “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” I struggle fairly constantly with double-mindedness. When I try to do the work that needs to be done to meet the needs around me, I am moved by love but also by the fear of being culpable and the desire to prove myself Good. Sometimes this double-mindedness hurried me into work that isn’t really mine or prompts me to try to solve a problem before I have taken time to understand it. But most of the time I can muddle along and do more good than harm. I thought I heard other people speaking from similarly mixed motives in their own work, and I believe that much of their work is well done. But when we come together and try to act and discern as a body this double-mindedness effectively blocks us. On the private, human level our concerns, priorities, fears, gifts, blocks are different; our only hope for real unity is in our common submission to God. And when that isn’t single-minded we’re stuck in our separate brokennesses, unable to hear, heal, help each other. We can’t effectively be the body of Christ. Of course other, more destructive forms of unity are possible; we can be a clique, or a mob. We didn’t do either of those things this week. We did acknowledge our brokenness and the call which we hear and can’t yet corporately answer. We did recognize that we had hurt and disappointed each other.
And, in small groups and small ways, I think we did help each other. After one particularly conflicted session Colin Bussiere-Nichols, a young adult Friend, invited people who had felt drawn to offered vocal ministry to talk about how they discerned whether or not to speak; I thought there was some help and deepening in that conversation, as well as tenderness for people who had felt hurt in the session. I heard many Friends say that they felt a new kind of support, accountability and connectedness in the small ‘anchor groups’ with which they met daily. I met with a small group to talk about forgiveness and felt that some good wrestling, stretching and healing happened there. Cat Chapin-Bishop's post about forgiveness speaks to this more clearly and strongly than I can at this point.
I hope that we can remember both the good things and the brokenness, and that we can practice wholeness and faithfulness over the next year. I hope I can do this. I hope, too, that I can hold onto the sense I often had in our group sessions of deeply knowing both our failure and God’s sustaining.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

looking into the darkness

There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see it; and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look. --Fra Giovanni

I’ve been thinking lately about the benefits and dangers of talking about what’s wrong, broken, evil, as well as what is good. Pamela Haines’ Friends Journal article on good and evil was one reminder that I needed to consider this. Another was a collaboration with a Friend whom I admire and who is inclined to focus on the positive, to divide things into what’s good and what we can make better rather than what’s good and what isn’t. I do see at least some of the strengths of this approach: it tends to make people feel energized and hopeful, and it avoids bitterness and blaming. But I still feel some need to talk explicitly about what’s wrong. My Friend has been patient with my need for this, and has also prompted me to think about its causes.

If I don’t explicitly acknowledge problems I tend to let them fester. When I see a problem, whether in my garden or in my relationships, I’m strongly tempted to pretend that it isn’t there. Of course, when I do this the problem keeps getting worse until I can’t ignore it. Sometimes I soft-pedal the problem: okay, well, this could be better--what could I do to make it better? Unfortunately my answers to this aren’t usually adequate; I give extra fertilizer to seedlings that can’t absorb nutrients because they’re in soil with the wrong pH; I do extra nice little things for someone whom I am letting down on a basic level... I seem to have to focus squarely on what is wrong and name it before I can actually make things right. (This, I suppose, is a matter of personality. I usually assume that I can solve things, and my main challenge is to figure out what I’m solving. If I tended to see problems as intractable I might have to do something different.)

I can’t help being aware of many things that are wrong in and around me; knowing and not saying them makes them feel larger and more overwhelming; naming them makes them feel bearable. Since I was a little kid I’ve found that my fears and griefs and rages diminished to a manageable size when I wrote them down. Even before I know what to do about them, naming them brings them into the world I understand, the world whose basic goodness I trust.

Sometimes I am able to lift up my own broken places and hurtful tendencies in prayer; this helps me, and sometimes I believe it may do more than that. Once I bring my wish to lie or to hurt someone, or my overwhelming anxieties, into God’s presence, I remember that God is much more real than they are; sometimes in this process I can even see my own thwarted or twisted longing for God at the root of the ugliness, and as I sit and attend carefully to this the ugly growth begins to wither away and the longing at the root remains to become a source of strength. I know I need this personally. I think it may have some corporate significance. There’s the communion of saints, the cloud of witnesses, the ways in which love and courage and clarity are not personal properties, are shared between us in ways we don’t understand as we grow toward God. I also think that our fear, falsehood, cruelty and greed--our ill-grown longings--are not only personal but collective. And when I turn these things back toward the light sometimes I remember to pray also for the other people who are stuck in the same ways that I am stuck, and ask for turning and healing. ..I don’t have good language for this. Elizabeth Goudge’s novels say it better. But I think it matters.

What about you? Does it work best for you to simply focus on the positive? Are there ways of dealing with the negative that strengthen or deepen you in faithfulness?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A common revolution?

Lately I’ve been reading things recommended by friends who are Tea Party enthusiasts and other friends who are more on the Green Party end. Sometimes I am dismayed or exasperated by the vehemence with which each side excoriates the other. Sometimes I’m able to let go of that and notice the similarities between them. Both say that our political and economic system is deeply flawed, that ordinary people aren’t well served by it and feel powerless to change it. Both sides call people to revolution, to a radical change initiated at the grassroots level. There are some real and important disagreements between sides, and I don’t mean to minimize these. Taxation, financial and environmental regulation, immigration, war and other issues of public policy, are hugely important. But they are only part of the picture. Real reform or revolution will also require us to live differently each day; to be a different kind of people. I think that most of us, liberal and conservative, don’t yet live as though we were citizens of the society we envision; the free and just society, the beloved community, the Kingdom of God. I think many of us might be able to agree on some important qualities of such citizens, and to work together to help each other gain these qualities. If we did this wholeheartedly and patiently, we might become more grounded, more powerful, more humble, and less willing to caricature or dismiss one another.

Here are a few practices with which I think we might begin. I’d like to hear how they sound to you, and what you would add, subtract or change.

Gain competence. Do more for ourselves and our neighbors.
I and some of my liberal friends deplore the excessive power of corporations. Tighter government regulations might help. But so long as we depend on a complex, far-flung and incomprehensible global market to provide all our basic needs, we will be powerless. Learning to grow food, build and repair housing, fix machinery, make music, tell stories, listen to and counsel one another is the root of real independence.
Some of my conservative friends deplore the impersonal and disempowering nature of government assistance to people in need. I share some of these concerns. I think institutional help is better then no help, and some needs may need to be met on the public level; but people and faith communities could do a lot more to take care of each other. What if we took responsibility for knowing the people in our neighborhoods and churches well enough so that we could provide each other with practical assistance? What if we took time to find out where there are communities with fewer resources that might need our help?

Consume less. Waste less.
This practice is essential to the practice above. If we are going to take responsibility for supplying our own needs, we’ll need to know the difference between needs and wants. If we are going to have enough to share, we’ll need to stop hoarding more than we need. If we expect this finite planet to produce enough resources to provide for everyone, we’ll have to stop taking more than our share.

Break free of addictions.
We can’t do any of this work well if we believe that we’re dependent on drugs, or electronic entertainment, or the good opinion and praise of the people around us, or...

Slow down.
When we do things in haste, out of fear and the desperate urge to Do Something, what I do usually doesn’t help and may actually make things worse. I just proved this to myself again yesterday morning, when I woke up to find that the predicted light frost had instead been a hard freeze; I rushed outside to sprinkle my plants with water before the sun hit their leaves, though it was still below freezing. Some of the plants I didn’t sprinkle look unhappy; most of the plants I sprinkled are dead. It’s easy to see how this works on the physical level. I think when we rush in to help people before taking time to really understand their needs, gifts and stories we may do just as much damage, though it’s harder to quantify.

Listen to the Others.
Whoever the Others may be for us, and however frustrating we find them, they’re part of the Kingdom too, and we have to learn to live with them. I’m easily tempted to dismiss or disparage groups of people (rich folks, meaning those significantly richer than me; wearers of makeup; supporters of harsh anti-immigration policies...), but usually when I get to know people who arte part of these groups I find that they have something to teach me. And there’s not much chance of my teaching them anything while I’m inwardly belittling them.

Listen to God. Obey what we hear.

This is the root. If I actually did this faithfully and well I probably wouldn’t need a long list of other principles. When I do this I am taken out of my fears, obsessions, greeds, self-contradictions, and set in the way that I should go. When I do this I know myself to be one with all the people whom I admire and love and resent and despair of, and also one with the One who bears, sustains and transforms our pettiness and grief. When we do this we are already in the Kingdom.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

what sacrifice?

Turnoff Week(see my last post) went well for me and also for the farm. We had local families, with little kids and grandparents and everyone else in between, in for nature walks four evenings a week, and the weather was good for finding wildflowers and salamanders and hearing frogs. A youth group from out of state also spent several days and nights with us. We got some good work done together and had some interesting conversations. The adults and youth spoke of how they’d ‘sacrificed’ their break to come live and work with us; they also praised us for ‘sacrificing’ our lives by living simply and being available to our neighbors. Both statements made me somewhat uncomfortable. After they left I began looking into that discomfort, and realized that it was closely tied to my own struggle against self-righteousness and self-indulgence and for wholeness.

I started to reach clarity as I was bicycling back from town with a carrier full of groceries. By any serious bicyclist’s standards it’s a very short trip--six or seven miles each way--but I am an intermittent cyclist, and occasionally felt stretched on the way home. I caught myself mentally grumbling about having to do most of the uphills once my carrier was full and I was tired, humming the theme from “Chariots of Fire” on particularly steep bits, congratulating myself on being disciplined, resenting being disciplined, and thinking about what I wanted to do to indulge myself when I got back. I realized that this was quite ridiculous. I also felt empathy for our recent guests. Working with our hands, eating at meals instead of living on snacks, taking time for silence and for meaningful conversations instead of being plugged into electronics--all of these things seem basic, normal and non-strenuous to me, just as the ride back from town seems to my brother who cycles much longer distances. But beginning to practice any basic, sensible alternative to consumptive convenience feels uncomfortable. And it’s easy to compensate for that discomfort by exaggerating it and claiming it as a sacrifice or a proof of my own goodness.

The truth is, though, that bicycling to town was my choice, made for many reasons. Bicycling gives me a chance to notice the flowers in people’s yards and the birds in the trees, to stop and talk to neighbors, to step back from my usual routine and clear my mind, to strengthen my muscles. It does also slightly reduce my carbon emissions; but since I have to live with the results of climate change, I can hardly claim this as a disinterested or altruistic motive. The same thing goes for keeping Turnoff Week. I can think of it as a duty, a case of good citizenship or good example-setting; but basically I observed it for the sake of my own health and balance and for the health and balance of the community, and the two are closely connected.

If I remembered this I wouldn’t fall into self-indulgence or self-righteousness, which arise from a false separation between a sense of duty and a sense of pleasure, both too narrowly defined. I want to move beyond these and work for wholeness in myself, solidarity with my neighbors, unity with God, for my sake and everyone else’s.

This isn’t a sacrifice. This isn’t always easy either; then, nothing is. In John Holt’s writings I encountered a Spanish proverb that sticks with me as I keep trying to live as if the Truth was true. “Take what you want, says God; take it, and pay for it.”

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Be still and know...

This is the third year that I’ve organized activities in my neighborhood to celebrate Digital Detox Week (which used to be TV Turnoff Week), and the first time I’ve actually felt a need to change my daily activities because of it. We still don’t have a television, but over the past year I’ve spent more time reading blogs and also joined Facebook. I won’t be doing that between April 19 and April 26. First I thought of this as setting a good example, since I’m encouraging other people (who have a digital fixation that seems obvious to me) to try the electronics fast. I think I may need it for more personal reasons as well.

I do see value in the things I do online--I’ve reestablished contact with some long-lost friends and relatives through Facebook, and actually gotten into substantive correspondence with a few of them; I’ve read blog posts that have challenged, reassured and clarified me. But I also find myself slipping online to stuff an inner emptiness--to paper over loneliness, to distract myself from dissatisfaction, fatigue, the knowledge of failure or other uncomfortable realizations. I tell myself that it doesn’t matter, I’m not doing anything really mindless or destructive...but stuffing that emptiness is inherently destructive. In that emptiness I am dis-illusioned, cast out of the imaginary securities that I construct for myself, and forced to know again my dependence on God. In that emptiness the still small voice may speak to me. From that emptiness I return to my work and my community, less grasping, less confused, more ready to give and receive truly.

So I hope to come back from the fast week with a greater mindfulness about my real purpose in my online time. If any of the rest of you are trying a media fast, I’d be interested in hearing about why you’re doing it or what you learn from it--after I come back.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

the good-enough line

When I was a kid my family attended a Methodist church, but on Wednesday afternoons I went with a friend to a Baptist Bible school. I was ten years old when my friend’s parents, who were in charge of my class, led an object lesson on grace that has bothered, helped and stuck with me through the intervening years.
They drew two lines in the dirt of the parking lot and had us stand behind one. Beyond the other, several feet away, they wrote “Being Good”. They invited us to jump across. I was a long-legged energetic kid and wanted desperately to be good, or good enough. I jumped hard and fell just short. No one else made it either. The teachers asked how we could get across. I suggested being able to touch ground once in the middle, and that was vetoed. I asked if I could try again; they said yes. I fell short again.
Then my friend’s father said that he would carry anyone who asked him across on his back. (He got to walk, not jump.) The other kids started to ask him. I took a running start and jumped again, getting both arms and most of one leg across the Good line, and clutching the dirt on that side as though the gap was a bottomless pit. They said I hadn’t gotten all the way over, it didn’t count. I realized that I was making them uncomfortable; they were some of the kindest people I’ve ever known, and they didn’t like to distress me; but on this point they wouldn’t be budged. Neither would I. Finally they redrew the Good line so that even I could see that I couldn’t jump there.
I gave in and asked my friend’s father to carry me across, apologizing for my size and weight and for the distance he had to go. He said it was fine and set me down on the other side, where they talked to us about Jesus’ unique power to overcome our sins and reconcile us to God, and urged us to ask Jesus into our hearts. I didn’t listen well; I was still resenting the redrawn line. I could have been good enough, should have been good enough, was almost good enough... My friend’s parents saw that I was upset and tried to comfort me, but I wasn’t very receptive.
At first I found the lesson fairly easy to dismiss. I saw the harm done by myself and by others who claimed to be Christian, and I figured asking Jesus for help wasn’t sufficient. I knew people (not including my friend’s parents) who seemed to think that their correct belief freed them from the consequences of sin and therefore from having to attend carefully to how they lived. What I wanted wasn’t so much to be forgiven (though I did sometimes crave that) as to do less harm and more good. And that seemed to require a lot of hard work, a lot of leaping in the dark. I prayed, not to be carried, but to be given enough strength to do what I needed to do.
And, of course, as I grew up I found out over and over that what I could do wasn’t enough. In spite of my best efforts I couldn’t answer most of the urgent needs around me; this was especially hard to accept when I was working with children who were ill-treated. Worse, I couldn’t do away with my own destructive tendencies. I came to a clearer understanding of what it might mean to be carried. I needed to stop pushing desperately to do things just because somebody had to, and also to stop turning away from truths that pained me and comforting myself with daydreams. I needed to slow down and learn to listen to what God was actually calling me to do. I continue to struggle with this, but when I do it well I am aware of being strengthened and guided in the work that is mine, and of being able to hold the work that is not mine in prayer, knowing that it is in God’s hands. I used to look at the hard lives of some of my neighbors or the destruction going on in more distant places and think, God has dropped them; God isn’t taking care of them; therefore I should be. I still look at these things and fall into grief, anger, discouragement, wish that God or someone else would step in and set things right; but I have some more confidence that Christ is still there in the midst of the darkness, suffering with us, offering meaning, companionship, a way forward into Life. And I know, now, that the way into this Life requires leaping and being carried, listening and hard work and acceptance of whatever the results of that work may be, acting and being acted on and through in turn.
As I began to understand that I thought that I had learned the lesson, though it took me more than ten years. But now it comes back to me in a different way as I struggle with anxiety. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy in the desperate attempt to convince myself and anyone else who might happen to be watching that I am Good. This makes it very hard for me to see my faults calmly and deal with them honestly. Worse, it keeps me focused on myself in a way that makes it harder for me to pray well, or to truly see the people around me. I’ve had inklings of this for some time; in the parable of the rich young ruler in my Bible there are old double underlines under Jesus’ question, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” I can’t remember now what I was thinking when I marked the passage. But lately it has been in my mind again, along with the Bible-school lesson, and it seems to point a way forward. The point isn’t for me to be good; the point is for me to be rooted in God’s goodness, and to help to bring it more fully into the world. From this perspective my faults still matter, because they make it harder for me to enjoy or embody God’s goodness; but they don’t threaten the basis of my world. I can bear to look at them long enough to change them instead of hiding from them. I can let myself go and really see the people around me, and really see God.

I don’t know how much of this my Bible-school teachers had in mind. I do know that the lesson means a great deal to me now, but didn’t mean much at all until I had time to live into it—and it has taken me a long time indeed. I need to remember this when I mean to open other people’s minds to the truths that seem important to me.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

the root of the question

I’m coming out of my January funk and enjoying the lengthening days. I’m still trying to figure out how to engage other people in a way that makes sense. Often even in groups of people trying to address the same concern I seem to be asking questions at a different level.

Last month I heard that the director of a nearby early learning center was seeking help with reading etc. for students, and I thought perhaps we could do that; but when I inquired further I learned that she wanted auxiliary homework help. I do know that the kids have to get through their homework in order to avoid trouble at school. But when I’ve tutored other kids I’ve found that the work seems to be scattered, remote from the actual lives and interests of the children, and often several levels beyond their comprehension. What I’m interested in is stepping back and working on the foundations of understanding math and language. The learning center kids will be coming out to the farm to explore in the woods and help make birdhouses come spring; until then we don’t seem to have projects in common.

After my last blog post about challenges in my Stop and Think! counter-recruiting visits to the high school, a Friend wrote to suggest that students would respond better if I dressed up in a way that made it clear that I was successful. I had to stop and think about why this didn’t seem right. I don’t own the right clothes, and I’m not a ‘success’ in the usual way; I don’t have a degree, a job title, a salary, a retirement plan. More basically, my message to the students isn’t “Avoid the military and you can be a success.” I don’t think this is necessarily true. Our economic system is configured in a way that requires a large number of ‘losers’ to do the unprofessional but necessary work that feeds, clothes and houses the ‘successful’. And many of the kids at the local school are starting at a disadvantage; that’s why the recruiters spend so much time at the school and appeal to so many students.
Furthermore, I look at ‘successful’ people of all ages and am not convinced that their success translates to a meaningful, integrated and satisfying life, or even to freedom from fear. Our economically privileged guests still worry aloud about not having enough, or about losing what they have; and they speak of loneliness, of lacking time for prayer, of feeling trapped in work that pays their bills but doesn’t satisfy their souls. So what I want to say to the students, and to all our guests, is “Don’t listen to the people who try to sell you safety, happiness, importance. Nobody’s safe, except in the sense that we are all in God’s hands. You can find sufficiency, and sometimes happiness, without a lot of money. You are already important; you are a living soul. Your life matters. You have real and important choices about how to use it. Make them with your eyes open.”

At the end of January I took part in the first session of a group study/reflection/action course on Jubilee. As most of you probably know, the Mosaic law designated every 49th year as the Year of Jubilee when debts were to be forgiven, slaves freed and land restored to the families who originally worked it. It was also one of the Sabbath years, which were to occur every 7th year, when the land was to be left fallow and the people to trust that God would provide the food that they needed. We seek to live more fully into the values of the Jubilee—economic justice, forgiveness, liberation, trust in God and abandonment of illusory human security—in the context of the work to which we have been called.
For several of the other course participants this work is tied to the attempt to bring about large-scale political change—ending war or torture, limiting corporate influence in politics, strengthening environmental protection etc. I admire this work. I can’t imagine doing it myself. I see the abuses that they wish to correct, but it seems to me that these abuses are not isolated policies but the natural result of the system by which we live. And I don’t know how to change this system meaningfully on a large scale. I only know how to meet people one by one and invite them into a space where they can examine their lives, decide what matters to them and find ways to live accordingly.
It’s not a matter of preaching at people, but of offering an example and a space. We’re sometimes amazed at what happens when we offer these things. A migrant worker decides to go home, plant a garden, keep goats, and buy less so that he is able to live at home and be with his children instead of traveling to this country and taking abuse and long separation from his family in order to send home money that would enable them to have an American lifestyle. A college student changes from a major that seemed lucrative to one that allows him to do work he loves. A seeker stops frantically trying to do more Good Works and decides to take some significant time for prayer.
Sometimes what we offer doesn’t make sense to our guests, and there is frustration and loneliness on both sides. Often I look at the needs around us and realize how painfully inadequate our offerings are. Then I need to remind myself that the results of our work aren’t up to me. All I can do is stay faithful and stay open. The rest is in God’s hands. And also in the hands of the people who do the good work that I am not clear to do.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

reaching through despair

I’m going to a nearby high school every month, setting up a table in the front hall with information about the drawbacks of military service which recruiters tend to gloss over and about other possible ways of earning money, traveling, learning skills and serving America. Two months ago I was greatly encouraged when a young woman told me that she’d decided not to join the National Guard once she learned that Guard members could be sent into combat overseas, so she was looking into civilian service options and encouraging her friends to do likewise. My last visit was less encouraging. A young man stopped by and said he was joining the military. I asked why, as I usually do. Some students tell me they’re eager to protect their country from its enemies; some say military service is a family tradition; many say the sign-up bonuses are good and where else can they earn that kind of money? This one said that he was in all kinds of trouble--alcohol, drugs, knife fights--and fighting seemed to be the only thing he was good at. He wasn’t worried about dying--he’d be a hero then, and his life stunk in any case. He was aware of counseling services, work and service opportunities, all that stuff; it just didn’t interest him. What was the point?
I’ve heard other young people give similar reasons for enlisting. I’ve heard a similar sense of the worthlessness of life from visitors and friends (some from apparently good families and privileged backgrounds) who have decided that the only way to keep going is to keep themselves distracted, with alcohol or drugs or virtual reality or... And I don’t know what to say to them. I try to listen to them while they’re present, try to pray for them afterward. I know that’s inadequate. Sometimes I think that the problem is that I can’t imagine being in their position, can’t imagine finding life meaningless, and so can’t make a case for meaning in language that would reach them where they are.

And then I get brought up short by my own times of disillusionment and discouragement. I’ve been in one of those lately.
Part of it has to do with externals. I keep thinking I’ve cured myself of having unrealistic political hopes, but my dismay at the increased military intervention in Afghanistan, at the ugly fight over health care reform, at the Supreme Court ruling lifting what restrictions we had on corporate money in political campaigns, shows that I still haven’t learned.
Part of it is disappointment with myself. I am doing work I chose, work I value, but often I don’t do it well. I work hard, but when there’s a problem I try not to see it,and once I can’t help seeing it I grab at a solution, any solution, rather than stepping back and looking at the root of the problem. This generally means that the problem continues and wastes a lot of time and energy, mine and others’. It also means that I lurch back and forth between excessive confidence and excessive lack of confidence. In the latter times I also tend to bury myself in distractions (novels, Facebook, busywork...), and to daydream about doing something spectacular that would somehow compensate for the daily failures. At those points I can very nearly imagine being where the desperate people I meet seem to be.

And yet I don’t conclude that life stinks. There are things that make that easier for me: I live in a beautiful place where walking in the woods and fields, listening to the streams, is a great comfort, when it isn’t too cold, and I live with people I love. And even in the times when I don’t seem able to see and be glad in these things, on some level I continue to remember God--to remember that there is life and light and meaning that can’t be destroyed by human carelessness or malice, either my own or other people’s; and also that that light, life and meaning can be brought more fully into the human world by people who attend to it. Knowing this, I can’t despair.
But if I really knew this, knew it all the way down, I wouldn’t waste energy in hiding my faults from myself and other people, or in resenting people who disappoint me, or in refusing to forgive myself for disappointing others. On some level I still figure that I’m the center of the universe. From this position I can’t bear to be wrong, so I ignore what I know about my shortcomings and demand the approval of other people to reassure myself. From this position I try to ‘keep score’: am I doing enough good, in view of all the good things that have been given to me? Are other people doing enough for me, in view of all the good things I’m trying to do? From this position guilt, resentment, desperation come easily, and prayer, gratitude, love, understanding, do not.

Perhaps if I could learn wholeheartedness; could consistently step out of the center of my imaginary world and live in God’s world; could see clearly what is around me, respond to it faithfully, and trust God both to show me what I can do and to care for the things that are beyond me; then I could help other people to make the same transition. Perhaps by speaking about it (though not in religious language at the school). Perhaps just by virtue of living from the deeper level, the place beyond words where we all are one. In the meantime, I try to remember them both in the dark times and in the times of grace.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

whose burdens do we bear?

“Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” –Galatians 6:2
“Every man shall bear his own burden.” --Galatians 6:5

These two teachings have been on my mind lately for several reasons. St. Francis Farm is holding its annual review/discernment/planning session, looking at the work we are called to do and the things that sustain this work. I just filled out my annual Medicaid application. And the response to my first blog post, particularly this comment, brings up the old liberal/conservative argument about personal responsibility.
This argument can become very polarized when it’s theoretical. In my daily life and work I see truth in both sides of the argument, in the command of Galatians 6:2 and that of Galatians 6:5, and I am trying to find a balance between them.
I tried to write about this whole question in one post and it became hopelessly unwieldy, so I’m splitting it in two. This post looks at how we bear the burdens of our own and others’ physical/material needs. The other kind will go in the next post.

I see the damage that’s done when people are divided into helpers and helpless, when wealthier people come to Help the Poor, feel good about themselves and reinforce their feeling that they deserve to have more, and less wealthy people take what they can get at the expense of their dignity and agency. This does harm to everyone involved.
I see the damage that’s done when people insist that they are not their brothers’ keepers and that they are entitled to whatever they can get. This leaves some people glutted with things that give them ever less satisfaction, and others going without what they need. This does harm to everyone involved.
I see the good that is done when we willingly bear each other’s burdens. We all need help, we’re all capable of helping in one way or another, and we all need to be willing to give and to receive. The children whom the local school sends to us in the summer explore in the woods and fields with us and take vegetables home to their families; they also help us in the garden. We set it up this way because we needed their help if we were going to take time to explore with them and still grow enough for ourselves and for sharing with neighbors and the soup kitchen. When we hear them talking to their parents it’s plain that they take pride in being needed, in having something to give. We’ve received gifts of time, know-how, useful items and money from people who plainly were getting by with very little. It’s humbling to accept these gifts. It also makes it possible for us to give. And we find that the more privileged people who come to us meaning to help also hunger for wholesome food, people to listen to them, quiet time for prayer, work that can be shared and that has tangible results.
We all also burden each other in ways that are less voluntary. I can’t help being aware of this when I fill out my Medicaid forms. Taxpayers aren’t being asked to donate so I can have health insurance; that money is demanded from them. I can see why some people object to taxation for social programs as forcibly burdening some people in order to support others. But our economic system does this as well as our political system. Many of the people who grow our food and manufacture our clothes and our electronics aren’t doing it because they care about us, or because they find the work fulfilling. They’re doing it because they need to live and they can’t find better employment. Many of then aren’t working in conditions that I’d work in or wish on anyone else. This isn’t necessarily the result of their choices. I’ve heard experts talk earnestly about helping people to rise out of poverty by teaching them ‘middle-class skills and values’ so that they could get office jobs. I asked who would provide for our physical needs once we were all office workers. They said there would always be plenty of people who failed to rise and weren’t willing to discuss the rightness of a system which requires some people to stay ‘down’. I don’t know what to do about this except to reduce my demands and do more of my own work—to bear more of my own burden—and to remain mindful of the people who are still forced to bear part of my burden for me.
And sometimes I am less able to bear others’ burdens than I wish to be. One of the hardest parts of our work at the farm is saying no to people who ask us for help. Sometimes we say no because the request doesn’t seem to make sense or because it seems that they are in difficulties of their own making and keep choosing things that make it difficult to help them. Sometimes the need is very clear but we still don’t feel able to meet it. In our first year at the farm, when we were struggling financially, a family called and asked us to finance a new well and septic system for them. We couldn’t. We’ve been asked to provide hospitality to people who were dealing with active addictions, or who had severe mental health issues and lacked an outside support. We didn’t have the training for it and didn’t feel we had the emotional energy either.
Sometimes the needs around and within me exceed the apparent strength around and within me, and I am discouraged. Then I have to remember that we are all in God’s hands, and I am not God. It isn’t up to me to figure out how to make everything come out right; only to do my part as faithfully as I can, and then let the rest go and give thanks for all the good gifts that come to us each day, beyond all deserving.