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Archive for November, 2009

A friend of mine posted the following thoughts on his facebook earlier this evening: “What does love require? What if the week after the Samaritan picked up the wounded man, he came again down the same road toward Jericho and found another victim? Then it happened a third, fourth and fifth time. Don’t you think that after taking care of the victims he would have gone to the authorities with suggestions on how the road could be made safer?”

To which another friend responded with the following quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

As grace should have it, I had been pondering just such a topic all day. See, I agree with my friends’ thoughts that the system is screwed up, and that it’s going to take change on the system level to bring about the transformation our society desperately needs. But as I observe the socio-political workings of our American culture, it seems that the system we have is plagued by Type 1 Error status. Bill Mollison, co-founder of the permaculture movement, describes it thus: “One of the great rules of design is do something basic right. Then everything gets much more right of itself. But if you do something basic wrong – if you make what I call a Type 1 Error – you can get nothing else right.”

Human notions on how to “fix” society seem to fall under the Type 1 Error category far too often. Because whenever we look at a group of humans and try to come up with a blanket solution for all of them, we inevitably short-change the individual. Humans are walking contradictions, and if we were to get really honest about who we are, I bet none of us would fit neatly into the demographics to which most structural solutions require us to conform.

Why is this? Well, I have myself as an example. I’m one of the leaders in the Koinonia community. I’ve had many different “job” roles, and most of the time my work involves coordinating other people. Whenever someone isn’t living up to my expectations, it’s so tempting to tell them to do things the way I do them, with the assumption that the way I do things is right. To make this less confusing, here’s an actual example of how this sort of thinking has backfired on me in the past:

Two years ago I was helping to oversee our mail- and internet-based business during the busy holiday season. Order processing can get pretty hectic, and if we don’t stay organized then orders printouts and payments could get lost. One of our order-entering community members was less than tidy, and one evening someone found a customer’s check on the floor under his desk. I was charged with the task of asking him to clean up his act, and my approach was to explain to him that even though my desk was also a cluttered mass of papers that looked much like his own, I didn’t lose other people’s checks or other important items and neither should he. He shrugged at my self-righteous admonishment, and I uncomfortably returned to my work.

Not ten minutes later, I discovered a week-old phone message for someone else in a pile of papers on my desk, and then looked down only to find a check on the floor under my chair. Humiliation is sometimes the only way to humility. And I learned that the way to give direction is not to be perfect and then demand perfection from others. Now when I am challenged to mentor another community member I’m quick to remember my own shortcomings first, and forgiveness (both for myself and the other person) is the rule. Whenever I think I know the right way of doing things, I first take a look around to see if my own house is in order. And always, there is room on my side of the street for improvement.

When talking with a friend about what to do in the face of a seemingly irreconcilable disagreement I was having with another community member, we wondered whether the Godly path would be for me to empathize or reprimand. Should I go to work alongside my sister, offering to do with her the tasks she hates the most in a gesture of solidarity and compassion? Or should I tell her to suck it up and behave like a mature adult? My friend surmised that Jesus probably would have done both. The story of Zaccheus comes to mind. Jesus called out to the little man to come down from the tree and stop sulking, then invited himself to a party at Zaccheus’ house. He both demanded that Zaccheus display generosity and offered the friendship that he desperately needed in a totally non-judgmental fashion. And the tax-collector’s entire life was transformed.

Too often we get things backwards. American culture has taught us to earn our living, that we get rewarded only when we deserve it. But the gospel of grace thwarts this notion, because grace is extended over and over again to sinners who deserve nothing but punishment. This story of a pious monk illustrates it the conundrum beautifully:

A brother told a hermit, “I will not invite anyone who is known to be guilty of sin into my cell. A good person is always welcomed.”

The hermit replied, “If you do good for a good person that makes no difference to him. Give the sinner twice as much love, because he is sick.”

I’m not suggesting this is particularly easy to put into action. Sometimes acting in love means saying no when it would have been easier to say yes. Sometimes acting in love means I’m embarrassed in front of my friends as I become humble enough to reveal my shortcomings. Sometimes acting in love means risking my reputation or my rights so that a total stranger may witness the good news of Christ.

For me, the story answers the initial question: What does love require? It requires twice as much love. It requires growth and expansion…even more compassion than we think we need, even more care. And it requires that our human hearts open up to the infinite source of God’s love, so that when our social systems and earthly kingdoms fail yet again we will have strength to welcome each other home (for like Zaccheus, we are all sinners) as Christ would have us do, with open hearts and open arms.

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Today was a rough day at Koinonia. I believe in Clarence Jordan’s assessment of the devil as “the great confuser,” and there was some pretty serious confusion among the folk at the farm this morning. People were arguing, grumbling for no apparent reason, complaining, wallowing, and falling prey to self-righteousness and judgmentalism. Meanwhile, pipes were leaking, water heaters were failing, neighbors called needing a place to stay because their house burned down last week, someone called looking for a place to bury their impoverished friend who had suddenly died…the requests couldn’t have been more random or poorly timed. All the while, the storm named Ida (which is my 5-year-old’s name) was encroaching, and so the pecan harvest will face another setback this week.

With all the opportunity for ill-will and bad behavior, of course most (if not all) of us succumbed to the temptation to sin at one point or another. A friend of mine said he felt as though “the weight of evil had descended” on his shoulders. I, for one, fell into complaining in front of visitors, spreading rumors, and generally behaving like a total nag powered by self-righteous zeal to get everyone else straightened out in their thinking.

Just about every night before I log off of my computer, I click over to Bible Gateway to see what the verse of the day is. And just about every time I do that, the verse is exactly what I need that day. Today was no exception. The verse of the day always shows up in the New International Version, which is not my favorite translation. But tonight the good ol’ NIV did the trick.

Isaiah 1:18

“Come now, let us reason together,”
says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.

What strikes me is the nature of God’s invitation to reason. In the Message translation it says, “Let’s argue this out.” The New Living Translation reads, “Let’s settle this.” But NIV calls for reason. My trusty online dictionary defines reason as “a rational motive for a belief or action.” It also uses words like logic and justification. So when God calls for reason, you might expect a logical, rational solution to the problems that his followers are facing.

Yet, as we read on, the very next sentence shows that God’s reason says sins will be washed away, that blood-stains will be made white as freshly fallen snow, as the wool of a lamb. Where’s the logic or rationality in that? It’s totally beyond reason.

This is why I’ve come to love this crazy God, father of all creation. No matter how tarnished I appear, regardless of how impossibly stained I am by the sins of my past, I can bring everything I have and everything I am to God. No need to hide anything, after all God sees all and knows all. And even with all the ugliness of sin, he loves me just as I am, so much that he’ll take on all my burdens and give me a fresh start every time.

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I had one of those comforting, completely terrifying realizations last week: Whatever I do in life, it’s never going to be enough. What I mean is, that I’m never going to “finish” that there will never be a point where things get perfect and remain that way. There will always be someone who disagrees with me, always the potential that someone could be unintentionally (or worse, intentionally) harmed by my actions.

How, you might be wondering, could this sort of discovery ever be considered comforting?

Well, as most people who know me quickly figure out, I am a perfectionist. And I like to be right about things. This creates untold anxiety, far too many sleepless nights, and an unhealthy obsession with minutiae. I get energized when I get a chance to tidy things up. Mind you, I am far from a neat freak in my own living space…you don’t even want to know how infrequently I finish washing the dishes. But when it comes to a cluttered file cabinet at the office, a garden full of weeds, or a mailing list full of duplicates, I get obsessed with straightening and making things right.

Fortunately, my perfectionist bent has a sunny side. I also love to laugh and tell stories that make other people laugh. I love to network, to introduce people to that new idea they’ve been longing for, if only they knew it existed. I want to be everyone’s friend, want everyone to haveĀ  a great time at the party, want to hear about everyone’s hopes and dreams and am delighted when I have the chance to watch as those dreams are realized.

So when there is a mess I can’t clean up, or a person who doesn’t want to be my friend no matter how hard I try, it crushes my spirit. Here at Koinonia I’ve encountered situation after situation where the mess is carried over from generations ago, and the scars cover wounds too deep to be healed in my lifetime. Koinonia’s history mingles with our personal stories, and while sometimes the melody is soft and sweet or dancey and catchy, in other moments the cacophony would make a deaf person wince at the dissonance.

Sometimes this manifests in a physical disaster, like broken machinery, leaking roofs, and missing records. But there is a steady stream of emotional wreckage as the members of our little community open up our baggage (the kind that we’ve been carrying since childhood) and attempt to deal with the moldy, moth-eaten disaster of the past. Worse yet is when one of us needs to let go of our baggage, but won’t let anyone help carry the load. It brings me great discomfort when I see someone in pain and I’m unable to do anything to ease the suffering. No matter how clever or funny I can be, no matter how well I listen and reflect back what I heard, nothing I can say or do will be enough to fix the situation and make everything right.

For the past few weeks I’ve been walking around with Ani DiFranco’s song What If No One’s Watching stuck in my head. In my atheist days it was an anthem of self-reliance. I took comfort in the joyful pessimism of it all, in the freedom that came through admission of defeat. Ironically, now that I’m a practicing Christian, the song still brings me a great deal of assurance. The full lyrics can be found by clicking on the song title, but I’ll quote a few lines:

if my life were a movie…
everything i do would be interesting
i’d play the good guy
in every scene
but i always feel i have to
take a stand
and there’s always someone on hand
to hate me for standing there
i always feel i have to open my mouth
and every time i do
i offend someone somewhere

(refrain)i think what
what if no one’s watching
what if when we’re dead
we are just dead
i mean what
what if god ain’t looking down
what if he’s looking up instead

Ani Difranco’s music played a tremendous role in the shaping of my adult life. She was one of the first voices I really heard giving me freedom to try things a little differently, to mess up really badly sometimes, and to still somehow learn to love life.

So, what? What if it’s never enough? What if things never get better? What if no one’s watching? What if no one reads what I write, what if no one ever applauds me or laughs at any of my jokes? What then?

Perhaps Ani was right, maybe God is looking up. All the time I forget the command to build faith on a strong foundation. In the upside-down kingdom, the Lord of all is the servant of all. The God I know today is more than even a foundation; as it turns out, Jesus’ life and death was and is enough to free me. If I get really quiet, even when I’m feeling neurotic and obsessive, I can hear his still, small voice cheering me onward. And comfort comes. I don’t need all the answers today. In fact, if I never find out any of the answers, that would be all right with me. If it never gets any better than this…well, perhaps enough is enough after all.

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