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Archive for November, 2008

How many times have I waited for someone else to put my ideas into practice?  How many times have I not spoken up for how I’m feeling out of fear or laziness or self-righteousness, and then been angry because those around me did not seem to know my thoughts?  How many times have I had a wonderful, powerful, inspiring idea, one that got my friends and me talking into the wee hours of the morning, one that made me want to shout it from rooftops, and then woken up the next day and acted as though nothing about me was different?

It’s a growing trend that I had noticed before, but never realized its implications.  So many times we are caught waiting for someone else to give us approval, or permission to move forward.  So many thousands of people have sat on couches in living rooms around the globe and ranted about what’s not right in the world around them, then gone on to do the same things they have done every day before that as though it was not their personal responsibility to create a better world.  So many times I have known exactly what I needed, but not asked anyone to help me and then been frustrated when the need went unfulfilled.

But God calls me to something better.  A quote from Clarence Jordan’s version of Matthew captures the essence of this call:

“Reshape your lives, for God’s new order of the Spirit is confronting you!”

To me, this means that following Jesus will not be an easy thing…there’s confrontation involved, and reshaping is always at least mildly painful.  It means I will eventually be faced with the most terrifying facts about myself and my shortcomings, but the good news is that I get to do this with God, in the new order of the Spirit!  I get to be free from fear because God has forgiven me before my shortcomings even existed.

Free from fear, I can learn to be patient.  And I can also speak up when I feel the Spirit nudging me to lead the way.  I don’t have to wait on someone better than me, or more powerful, or more graceful…I can be good and powerful and graceful.  I can be brilliant.  I can lead the way with my light, because it’s the light of God’s unfailing love.

So, I am learning to be patient with the people in my life, allowing them room to grow into God’s will for them.  And I am also learning not to wait for people to figure things out when God gives me the answers and calls me to share his word.  The hard part is knowing the difference…I guess that’s where the age-old serenity prayer comes in (with a few edits):

God, grant me the serenity patience to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can speak up when you call me to, and the wisdom to know the difference when to keep my mouth shut.

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My Mom sent me a link to this article yesterday:

Russian Village Church “Vanishes”

A church has vanished from the Russian village where it stood for almost 200 years, the local diocese said.

The Church of Christ’s Resurrection, in the central Russian village of Komarovo, was built in 1809 but in early October someone took it away brick by brick, Father Vitaly a spokesman for the local Russian Orthodox Church, claimed. “We have sent a letter to local prosecutors,” he said. “Who exactly did this, the investigation will show.”

The church was in an isolated area only occasionally visited by clergymen, so the disappearance was not immediately noticed.

This is a real article, you can click here to read the whole thing.

If you clicked to read the rest of the article you would learn that vanishing monuments are not uncommon in little Russian villages.  In fact, the article ends by saying:

“This is not an isolated case,” said Father Vitaly. “In many villages in central Russia sites of historical interest are being dismantled and people suffer by being deprived of their cultural heritage.”

Besides being good for a laugh, this article got me thinking pretty seriously about some ridiculous situations in my own life.  When everything is in turmoil, when complete chaos breaks loose and I get so distracted that I fail to notice when major aspects of my life are out of whack or entirely missing, what is at fault?  Who is to blame when I feel insecure, neurotic, or when I begin to feel out of control?

One word in this article led me to ask these questions: “suffer.”  The way that the author writes about the suffering of the townspeople really strikes me between the eyes.  He says that people suffer “by being deprived.”  As in, their suffering comes from outside of themselves.  I would like to propose a completely different train of thought about the source of most suffering.

You see, I like to blame other people for my feelings.  I wrote my senior thesis in college about Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and part of my research was on scapegoats.  In the novel, there is a young man who commits suicide when his PTSD after returning from the first world war is too much to bear, and some critics suggest that he serves as a scapegoat for the wealthy Mrs. Dalloway who is struggling with her own emotions while preparing a dinner party for her rich, shallow friends.  A scapegoat, in Jewish tradition, was an actual goat that would symbolically carry the sins and burdens of the townspeople out into the wilderness where it would then perish with the offensive characteristics, thus freeing the people from their burdens for another year.  A scapegoat in modern times has come to mean a person who takes the blame for the wrongdoings of others, thus diverting attention away from the real issues that might need correcting in those people’s lives.

While I was writing my thesis, my friend Marty took on the role of scapegoat for all of our friends.  Whenever anything was going wrong, we would yell at him and he would profusely apologize, and sometimes we would even drive him out of the house, and we would all feel a little better after this silly ritual was over.  Here at Koinonia, the scapegoat thing has become a running joke in our office.  So far this fall at least three community members have taken turns as the scapegoat, and a few of us jokingly blame that person for any and everything that goes wrong.

But here’s the part that really disturbs me…many of us here at Koinonia are actually allowing ourselves to be scapegoated.  We are continuously volunteering ourselves for suffering, and often it is particularly needless suffering at the hands of others while they get to walk away without any cares or worries.  I, for one, am guilty of this on an almost daily basis.  Luckily I have other folks around me to steer me away from my self-righteous suffering, and bring me back to God’s vision for my life.  And what exactly is God’s vision for me, and for Koinonia?  I think at least part of it can be summed up in 1 Peter 2:8-22. I won’t quote the whole thing, but you can click here to read the Message translation.

Verse 17 jumps out at me:

It’s better to suffer for doing good, if that’s what God wants, than to be punished for doing bad.

This might be one of the most misinterpreted statements in the whole Bible.  Many of us here at Koinonia (and I am talking about myself here more than anyone else) try to be “good Christians” through our suffering, never considering whether the suffering is God-created or self-created.  The part that we forget, is that It clearly says that suffering is good only if it’s what God wants.  In other words, all my self-created suffering is not only painful, but potentially sinful as well.

So, if most of my suffering is self-created, then that means that God actually asks me to suffer for him very little.  In fact, God invites me to live in wonder and awe, but I constantly distract myself from his gifts because I think, “Nah, couldn’t be that easy.  This whole God-calling thing is supposed to be hard.  What should I suffer today?”  I’m distracting myself from doing God’s work, and I’m actually becoming miserable in the process!

The good news is that I’m a human being.  And I know a loving God who is here to save me from all my needless suffering, from all my complaints and grandiose self-loathing.  If only I would accept that gift, perhaps I would be free enough to suffer for God.  Then I would not be afraid that my church might vanish, because my faith tells me that God will build up a new one in its place.  Not with stones and mortar, but with the people he calls to come together to do his work, to welcome the kingdom of heaven on earth so that we can finally be free.

Here’s what God calls us to before he calls us to “suffering for doing good,” in 1 Peter 3:8:

Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing and also get a blessing.

Thank God the responsibility does not lie solely with me…and thank you for being part of the vision with me!  The church that God envisions will last much longer than 200 years.  It will go on forever, in each one of us, as we bless one another through our collective faith.

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God speaks to me through fortune cookies.  I’m serious about this.  The God of my understanding has, over the years, used any means possible to get my attention, and one of the first times I noticed that the Spirit was trying to get my attention was in this fortune cookie message: “What is hidden in an empty box?”

Normally fortune cookies tell you that something wonderful is about to happen, or that your work is going to be successful, or that happiness is right around the corner.  But this one made me sit down and think.  I still have it, taped into my journal from that year.  I was a senior in college, and I thought I knew a lot about life.  I liked to stay up late drinking and telling anyone who would listen everything I knew about saving the world.  After several too many of these kinds of nights, I was beginning to grow weary and embittered.

But then the question: “What is hidden in an empty box?”  I was reading a lot of taoism at the time, and probably saw the fortune cookie message as some sort of sign.  Reflecting on it more than 10 years later, I see many layers of meaning in it for me, both today and back then.  During college, I used an array of substances to “escape” what I saw to be the evils in the universe.  At such a comfortable distance from the truth, I could then feel free to analyze and prosyletize on any subject imaginable.  I was, after all, in the midst of writing a thesis on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and the definition of self.  I knew a thing or two about identity…though not too much about my own.

Now, after six years of living sober, I see that God’s fortune cookie message may have been trying to reveal that all my pursuits of perfection were empty, devoid of substance because I was pursuing them in a state of self-righteous, self-hating intoxication.  Maybe God wanted me to see the emptiness then, so I would look to him and be liberated from my struggles.   But instead, I continued in the same way for several more years to run from myself, to dig through so many empty boxes looking for the magic key that would take away all of my worries and fears.  I finally did find that key; it’s called a relationship with God, as I understand God, coupled with the willingness to clean up any of the messes that I make.  But at the time I thought there might be an easier way, so I continued on the same path and got the same results.

Before I could get to the point of having a real relationship with God, I had to let go of my fears.  One of my fears was of losing the mystical quality that my spiritual path had taken on during my college days.  In addition to the fortune cookie-type messages appearing out of the blue (which happened almost monthly for a while there), I read a lot of Rumi and had practically memorized the book Conversations With God.  If I became a Christian again, I thought, I would lose these new modes of understanding which had taken such hold of my heart.

When I moved to Koinonia Farm in 2006, I had no idea that my spirituality would be challenged and solidified into a relationship with God, with Jesus and the Holy Spirit.  I had no idea I was going to go through that kind of conversion.  I feel so blessed to have made the transition to Christianity here, because I did not have to give up on the mystical ideas of my college days.  To my delight and surprise, they integrated easily and fully into my practice of Christian principles.

The fortune cookie-style communication from God had died down, but last winter I guess myself and a few others here needed a blatantly obvious message about where our focus should be.  The holidays are Koinonia’s busiest time, shipping out thousands of orders from our catalog, harvesting from our 90 acres of pecan trees, and hosting hundreds of visitors and guests.  Bren, Brendan and I were having a Chinese take-out dinner late one evening, after a long and busy day one week before Christmas.  We finished our meal, and had been talking about plans for the following year.  Brendan had just recently begun keeping chickens, and he was fairly well obsessed with getting more animals and resurrecting our neglected gardens.  Bren was chest-deep in responsibilities, desperately needing someone to assist her as she changed hats many times each day and tried to keep the peace among the community members.  I was overseeing the parts of the community that Bren and Brendan couldn’t keep up with, and slowly learning how to lead without being an overbearing manager, how to guide the people in leading themselves.

The tasks before us were monumental, and though we are all visionaries and could see clearly the potentials of our community at Koinonia Farm, we were having a very frustrating time getting over the many bumps in the rutted dirt road that we had to take to get out of some serious messiness left over from years of high turn-over and neglect.  Bren liked to use the metaphor that we were all in a car hurtling down the road at 70 miles an hour, and if something was wrong with the car we had to fix it while it was moving.  Well, when we finished our meal, each of us grabbed a fortune cookie, of which there were only three.  I mentioned playfully that God speaks to me through fortune cookies, and everyone smiled though we weren’t expecting much.  And then one of those Koinonia miracles happened.

Bren opened hers first.  “A handful of patience is worth more than a bushel of brains.”  She guffawed and said that was exactly what she needed to hear at that moment.

Mine said: “You have an ability to sense and know higher truth.”  We all nodded, acknowledging the affirmation that I was doing difficult, but good and important work, and that my intuitions were pretty accurate amongst the interpersonal conflicts that were flaring up like little wildfires.  And Bren and I were the firefighters, charged with noticing the fires before they got too big, and showing other people how to put them out.

Brendan, a little starry eyed from exhaustion, wondered if his might say something about chickens, since he was still so uncertain about what direction to take with our farm animals.  Then he opened his cookie, and started laughing hysterically.  Bren and I waited for him to share: “It is better to have a hen tomorrow than an egg today.”

We sat around the table for about 10 minutes, not really speaking much, in awe of how blatantly God delivered specific messages to each one of us that night.  What a gift, to live in awareness of God’s voice coming from all directions, even from a small slip of paper tucked inside of take-out cookie.  It liberates me, strengthens me to carry on the work that I am called to do here at Koinonia, and beyond, because I know now that I’ve always been on the path that God intended, and that I’ve experienced all I have for very specific reasons.  I’m learning is that perfection does not arrive all at once.  But every once in a while I get to see very clearly one thread of the glorious tapestry of creation, and it is enough to carry me through anything that life can dish out.

If I could just let go of my fears, there would be nothing to stop me from realizing my full potential.  I have just one question now: What are you hiding in an empty box?

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