Most of the mud is cleaned up and we're back in action at Shekina Garden. We had our first post-flood lunch on Sunday and our dear friend Brian made us a video! You can watch to see a little of what our Sundays are like.
"Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me." -Psalm 42:7
On Saturday morning, after a night of apparently light rain, the Pai River was unsatisfied to stay within its banks. It broke free, rising a meter and a half, rolling over fields and grassland, huts and motorbikes. The pretty green lady river became a raging, muddy monster, freaking many people out of their wits. It didn't take any lives.
The water flowed into Shekina Garden, and, stronger than we could have imagined, picked up big things and small things, carrying them from one side of the garden to the other, or taking them away completely. It knocked our fence down and plucked out our flowers. It pulled our garden beds apart and ripped up the seeds I had just planted. It destroyed our beans and some of our trees. It brought us many chili plants from another place. It displaced angry fire ants, now looking for revenge.
The flood also came into Brendan and Leaf's house, creeping up the walls of their downstairs room, destroying precious things. It swept their neighbor's bamboo house away, and covered their motorbikes. It swept the little fish that Isaac named Steven (?) out of his bowl and into a big, wide world. (Leaf says that Steven swam all the way back to the pet store and she and her little daughter Ruby are going to go and pick him up there.)
When the water went down, everyone could see the feet and feet of fine mud everywhere. The garden is no longer the rich green of this season, instead it is brown, brown, river mud brown.
I was away when the flood happened, and I didn't get back until a few days ago. Today I went to the garden for the first time, and I saw a changed place. I was in Chiang Mai on a work retreat, trying to get World Whisperer 2 ready for publication and World Whisperer 3 written, and decided to stay rather than turning around and coming back home. I'm not sure it was actually such a good idea, in hindsight. I drove around and cried. I walked around and cried. And perhaps being away made it more sad, because I was alone and anxious. When I went to the garden today, all I could see was what it didn't take.
Here's what the water didn't take: our carefully made earth walls. Josh's precious comfrey plant. The songbooks I made by hand. Or really, the garden itself. Because Shekina Garden is the physical representation of an idea: that we can live as a group of Christ followers in the world and in living out our faith, form a loving community of people in different points in their path toward God, existing in the circle of Jesus's love. It didn't take Brendan and Leaf's hospitality when it hurt their home, it didn't take Rowan's playfulness or Neil's mad scientist obsession with fixing electronic equipment, even when it has been submerged in water.
I look around and see pictures of the love, the play. Josh digging trenches, Chinua throwing people in the mud, Heather upending a bucket of mud over his head, Naomi watching our kids so he could help while I was away (crying and trying to work). It reminds me that community is always better. That adversity can't hurt community. People have rushed to help, cooking and digging through the piles of stinking mud to cart debris away.
We are warmed, we are loved, we are resilient. Pray with us as we look for ways to help others affected by the flooding. And thank God that the flowers will grow again. They can't help it, in soil this fertile with love.
"By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life." -Psalm 42:8
Neither of these images are mine, and this post is cross-posted at journeymama.com
It was our own form of shopping spree and we were in heaven.
“It’s gorgeous… I’ll take four,” is a phrase that doesn’t come out of my mouth very often. Nor do I exult in shopping sprees. Except, unless… I am in the Kamthieng Market, a blocks long garden market in Chiang Mai. Basically, shop after shop has the most gorgeous plants and trees and flowers for sale. It is a hippie’s paradise. We could have spent days there, but we limited ourselves to a few hours, roasting in the hot sun, (Leaf and I bought sombreros to keep our heads cool) while Brendan kept the kids in the air conditioning at the Tesco Lotus nearby. He watched as the kids played in the playground and stormed the arcade. We, meanwhile, stormed the garden market, determined to make the garden of our dreams.
“Yes, let’s take more of them!”
“What about these wildflowers?”
"We have to have pomegranates!"
“Let’s get three kinds of mango tree.”
“What are lamyai?” “Oh, they’re small fruit, really good. Let’s get one!”
The enthusiasm was crazy. I quickly took photos of all the little trees, labeling them in my phone so we wouldn't forget which was which.
We are planting trees at Shekina Garden, and for the first time ever, all of us in our little community got on the curvy, sick-making bus ride to go to Chiang Mai so that we could buy trees together. We piled into the back of a song taew, which took us through the city to the market. Plants. Flowers. Heaven. We bought a lot of fruit trees that will take years to bear fruit. We bought climbers and ten crepe myrtle trees to stretch along the front of the garden, blocking the view of the new resort that is being constructed directly opposite us. (One day—the crepe myrtles are still pretty short.) When we got home I found a nursery in my yard, trees upon trees. We have planted many of them and every Friday, during gardening time, we plant more. Planting trees is always good, always right, and doing it together is a lot of fun. And a lot of work, but what beautiful work.
(This post was cross-posted at Journey Mama)
The evenings have been otherworldly, lately. A drape of thin cloud hangs over the valley, and as the sun goes down, the clouds pull the light into them, refracting a golden glow onto everything you can see. An extra bit of brilliance just before the light disappears, like a thousand invisible lamps being turned on at once. We were sitting in the sala at Shekina Garden yesterday, finishing up with meditation, bamboo leaves rustling in a strong breeze. Brendan began riding Nay’s bicycle in circles around the garden, testing it or something, I never did find out. “It’s like the Wizard of Oz,” our friend Beau said. “And look, he’s riding a bicycle out there.” Brendan did make quite a sight, green and golden in the weird light, cycling on the grass.
We were drinking kombucha and I felt the kind of happy settledness that meditation brings me. We lingered, the light keeping us there, our little conversations blinking on and off. We talked about light therapy and skateboarding, and then I told some stories about the Catholic shrines in Goa, out of nowhere, related to nothing. Snippets of memories. Leaf and I walked back over the bridge together, then lingered longer beside the river, talking. We meant to head in different directions, but we were caught there, talking by the river, as the light got dimmer and dimmer and finally it was gone before I even pulled away, my headlights guiding me along the narrow street.
Earlier in the day we had looked at land, dreaming of a future with a bigger retreat center in it. Chinua is recording everything lately, every moment, so I drove while he held the video camera and we followed Brendan and Leaf on their red motorbikes, which are forty years old and aptly named Big Red and Little Red. It was all ridiculously photogenic—Brendan with his waist-length dreadlocks and Leaf with her brilliant hair on these old, beautiful bikes. They drove side by side and chatted. Chinua filmed it all. (Filmed? Is there a different word for that these days?)
I left quickly when I realized I was late for my afternoon tea with my friend Rowan Tree. Ro and I ate cake. We ate too much cake, the pieces were twice as big as we thought they would be. I offered Chinua some when he wandered into the café later and groaned that he couldn’t go anywhere anymore without bumping into us. He looked at me suspiciously. We are competing to reach our weight goals, (people still ask me if I’m pregnant, nearly every day) and we have been known to offer each other food as a weapon because we both want to win. But I really just wanted him to enjoy the cake with me and eat it because it was too much. He took a bite and disappeared. Ro and I talked about learning Thai and how it can be an obsession, words tumbling over each other in your brain until you think you will go crazy. I was nervous about guiding meditation because I’ve been using up a lot of my courage lately and it seems to be finite, though rechargeable. I’m not usually anxious about guiding meditation but this time I was and Rowan Tree set me at ease as she clutched her stomach and groaned “I ate too many snacks…”
We went to my house and I finished making dinner so it would be ready while I was away and Josh was watching the kids. Once the salsa was made and the lettuce was cut, we rode off to sweep the floor of the meditation space and put the mats out. Our friends began pulling up one by one on their scooters and the sunlight slipped further along the red floor as we settled in a circle and began.
God is our refuge and strength.
Sometimes there is difficult work to do in community. I think this particular group of friends has fooled me away from my firm belief that community is a kind of suffering. I start thinking it is all fun and games and playing in the mud and get careless. But in talking about what really matters to us and digging to find each other and dream together, a wild fear of being seen or unseen, changing beyond recognition or being misunderstood can rear its head.
A very present help in trouble.
Past days, memories and fears and stumbling, clumsy love can make me retreat into myself, can tempt me to isolate myself. Maybe you are the same. But as soon as we try to run from the knife of suffering, the iron of community, we give up on the depth and truth of love. It is the same in marriage, in parenting. We flinch away from pain, but suffering guides us to new depths of understanding. We learn more of what God is doing as he writes his story among us.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God…
We sat in the circle together, our minds close and far away, and birds sang above us, and one shrieking cicada tried for all our attention.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved.
The evenings have been otherworldly, lately. A drape of thin cloud hangs over the valley, and as the sun goes down, the clouds pull the light into them, refracting a golden glow onto everything you can see.
*From Psalm 46
This post was cross-posted at Rae's blog: Journey Mama.
I finally borrowed some photos from a new friend who is visiting for a few weeks, so all but this first one are Josh’s photos- thank you so much Josh! When I went to look at what Chinua had taken of wall-building, I found, egad, that it was all video. On the unedited video I watched I saw myself make this statement: “I’ve never been happier than I am building these walls.”
What can I say? It has been a lot of work for a lot of days, and I have made mistakes and floundered a little, but sitting there in the afternoon at our beautiful garden space, the trees on the hills in the distance slowly turning red, using our hands to grab mud, smoothing it in between the bamboo lattice of our wall—oh, I am truly happy as I tell the wall that I love it and the wall tells me that it loves me too, somehow in Ro’s creepiest voice.
(There is a cast of characters that has come riding into our lives on white horses, singing loud songs. We are smitten with them, and their names will litter these pages from here on in. Get ready.)
But the mud, the mud. We take earth, beautiful red earth, and we add water to it, smoothing it and stomping it with our feet until the hard bits are gone and it is the loveliest soft mud. The kind that Kenya desires to swim in, and does. Then we add a lot of straw and rice husks and stomp more and more and more until we all fall over because mud stomping is very tiring. But what we end up with is something very pliable and soft and buildable, with long strands of straw that catch on the bamboo lattice and hold the whole thing together.
And then we build, taking handfuls of it and moving up the walls. Neil coined the term “poo-shaped slug” to describe the shape of the mud that we form to push into the wall, and soon after the words poo-shaped slug came into our lives, a song was created, and that song worms its way through my mind for days and hours on end.
Travelers come to help us build and we initiate them into the methods of building. There is a lot of laughter. And the golden light moves across the hills and our hands are in the dirt and it’s rather hot in the middle of the day and the sun feels good on our backs. And I feel so blessed to be doing this work— I wake up thanking God for it- this work, this community, the hills and the future garden plans and the wide sky that surrounds us.
(This post was cross-posted at Journey Mama)
On Christmas Eve we had gatherings in two countries. Miriam and the community in Goa made a beautiful circle and dinner there, and here in Thailand we made a circle as well, and we ate and sang and shared together to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We passed a light around the circle, which has become a tradition, lighting each candle from the candle next to us and sharing what has been a light to us in the past year. The kids joined in and some of us scrambled to keep everyone safe, but it was beautiful.
There was so much food, there was music, we sang carols, and many travelers found their way to us throughout the night. I can’t think of a better way to spend Christmas, I love to welcome in those who don’t have a place to celebrate, and it's beautiful to eat and sing and be together.
I hope you all had a beautiful Christmas. I’m excited for this gift of a New Year! Who can tell what it will bring?
We have many people who have joined us here at Shekina in Thailand, friends who live the same dream: to practice following Jesus in a way that embraces those who want to learn more about Christ centered life. These past weeks have been a blur of joy and adjustment as we have welcomed two couples, and some adorable children who will stay here long term, as well as four pilgrims and beautiful family friends who are visiting for a month.
Morning. We sit in a circle and listen to the words of the day’s meditation guide, slowing into breath and the waiting, quiet expectancy for the Spirit of God. Some of us are new at this, some have been working in meditation for years. We are all the same together today though, this morning with the birds singing around us, a buzzsaw going through metal in the distance, a washing machine nearby whirring. The fields are full of flowering weeds or garlic. The hills are blue. God’s word pierces like a sword, washes like a gentle cloth on a hot face.
A pharisee and a tax collector went to the temple to pray.
All of us from different backgrounds. There are three children in the circle, two of them my own, grown enough now to join a grown-up (sit very still) meditation. Some people in the circle are emotional and even in tears. Some are more at peace, resting with familiar words that challenge and embrace.
The pharisee thanked God that he was not like the tax collector.
Josh is leading today. He speaks the ancient words slowly and with care. I find myself deep in the story. I find myself, as he guides us, sitting across from Jesus at a table. Jesus grips my forearms and speaks the words to me.
The tax collector begged God for mercy. He knew his sin well.
Every meditation is different. If all is well with the world, we may hover gently over the scripture, hearing the words as song. If life seems harder, we may dive down so deep it is hard to come back up. How many ways are there to hear a word? Certainly as many as there are people in the circle.
The humble will be exalted, the exalted will be humbled.
A breeze picks up and it is chilly in the shade. Sharing time is deep, as we hear from one another, stories and hearts, minds full of questions. We do the work of faith, no matter where we are on the path to Jesus. We hear truth and and dig in, and the same story moves each of us differently because the Word is alive, though unchanging and Eternal.
Recently, at Shekina in Pai, Chinua guided a meditation on Psalm 104, introducing it as a hybrid meditation between Lectio Divina and contemplation of nature. He read the Psalm through and then we each chose something in the world around us to focus on and absorb, asking ourselves about how this piece of nature spoke about the attributes of God.
First of all, what a Psalm! It’s really long and I encourage you to read it. Here are some snippets:
He makes the clouds his chariot
He rides on the wings of the wind
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly
The cedars of Lebanon that he planted
In them the birds build their nests
The stork has her home in the fir trees
I will sing to the Lord for as long as I live
I will sing praise to my God as long as I have my being
May my mediation be pleasing to him
For I rejoice in the Lord
Sitting with the greenest fields and mountains all around us, with birdsong in my ears, these words washed over me like water. I felt lifted, as I always do, by scripture in this quiet setting where we only hear the words and don’t share our opinions on them (at that moment). The words themselves are full and strong and pure.
Then, for my contemplation of nature, I chose a small, purple set of flowers that grow on one of our trees. In thinking about what this flower spoke about the heart of God, I was filled with the strongest love. Flowers! I pictured flowers springing from the heart of God in all their delicacy and color. That he made these things which serve such a practical purpose (to spread pollen and attract bees and butterflies) and yet our eyes love them, that he made this partnership between us and the beauty of the world speaks of a great tenderness and love for beauty that goes beyond any of my own love or desire to create. How could I shrink in shame from a being who made flowers? He reveals his love for me in feeding the longing for beauty with something as lovely as a flower. How can that not fill me, enclose me?
In our contemplation of nature mediations at Shekina, we often think of how the piece of nature that we are contemplating is like God and unlike God. As we sat in silence, I thought of God, this eternal love and being, and how being eternal means that he is eternally young and eternally ancient. The flowers I held in my hand would only ever be young, then die and wither. But God, though his heart is young and rejoices with the blooming of each flower, also is ancient, with the wisdom of the ages and the understanding of every single happening on the earth and beyond it. The flower is not God, the flower did not make God, but something of who he is springs into the world every time a flower blossoms, and this blooming speaks of him, all around the world, every day.
Every time we have a meditation circle, different thoughts and images come up, and I often write my experiences out. I'll take time to share some here, as we continue in meditation--both my experiences and the thoughts of others. The meditation I want to share about today was guided last month by Chinua at our space in Pai. It was a Lectio Divina meditation from 1 John 2: 8-11.
At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because he darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.
While in silence, I had a very clear picture of walking in darkness. It was from 2006, when I was at the National Rainbow Gathering in Colorado, walking through the pitch black woods with a flashlight. I had a flashlight! But it was only a maglite and the little beam of light it produced wasn’t enough to distinguish a path from a non path in the woods. I very badly wanted to get to the Pop-Corner kitchen to eat lemon flavored popcorn but eventually I had to admit defeat and simply turn around to go back to my camp. I couldn’t get through the woods in the dark. The next morning, the path I had been seeking was perfectly easy to find. The sunlight made the forest a perfect place to be, I saw the way I needed to walk and I also saw the beauty of the Colorado aspens.
In meditation it became so clear to me, through this picture, that hatred blinds us. In hatred, perhaps of a difficult person, we cannot see the way forward, we can’t help but be lost. The love of God alone allows our path with a person to be illuminated, to truly know the way to walk, to walk in the light and not stumble around blindly in the wrong section of the forest entirely. Have you ever viewed someone with bitterness and found that every single thing that they do is distorted to be the worst possible thing with the worst possible motive? Likewise, the same actions viewed with love receive the benefit of the doubt, the person is seen clearly as a child who is loved and needs love, no matter how broken or misguided their actions may be. This verse is not about punishment, but about what hatred versus love does to the human soul. God sees in perfect love and wants us to see the same way.
Here is is. I want to share Shekina Meditation, with as many people who will receive me, in the states, soon.
I just put a post on Facebook about how I want to go home to the States to do our practice with people. Doing a facebook update about something more complicated than "OMG, my cat just sneezed!!” is not as always easy so I also posted here.
Simply put, I want to demonstrate and encourage Shekina meditation with all who want to benefit from it. In my mind it's small groups, churches, bible studies, kirtans, gatherings, any place people have the open intention to further their spiritual growth. We have somtheing valuable to share.
If I get a robust response from facebook, emails and such I will make it a priority to be there. After all, it’s expensive to come all that way. I’m hoping for four weekends and some midweek time too.
A photo I took way back in the 90s. Did I really live here?
But why would I come all the way there, literally half way around the world? I want some of you to do the smae honestly. We want people to come here and help us do this. It would be crazy, and wonderful, to imagine returning to Thailand with a 10 people wanting to come help us at some point.
I want people to be thinking and dreaming about it, but how can anyone even begin if they have no idea what we even mean by Shekina Meditation? Experience is the best teacher. We have brochures and blurbs, but you know everyone is selling something. Like good fruit, you have to really take it in to benefit from it.
Honestly it's a good moment, our center here is almost ready to open and the high season is coming. I want to inspire as any people to move more deeply into their spiritual life through meditation as possible. I want to build some momentum so that when my whole family comes in the spring, we can be taking the next natural step rather than the first.
Its easier for me to zip around when its just me, although almost infinitely more sad (insert heart wrenching pining sound) to be away from them. Rachel can manage with support, although it’s a stretch for us all. We really think it will be worth it.
I’m hoping to connect with people in Southern California, Northern California, and up in the Pacific Northwest. I have a mind to come to the Midwest as well, since Michigan is my home state, and we have a smattering of good people that we know in the region. Asheville is a natural stop too.
What are we offering? One hour sessions at a location of your choice. Rachel and I and the Shekina Center in Goa have been doing this for years with the help of many amazing people. It could be after church or during a mid week gathering. I will give a short but clear introduction into the practice and we will jump right in. I’m open to everything from circles of old friends to YWAM groups to your church cafeteria and everything in between.
So what do you say internets? Is this a meh or a woo-hoo? So when do we see Chin and Shekina Meditation together with you in the States? That’s easy, when you want it :)
Let me know in the comments!
I was chatting with my new neighbor at the almost-fully-formed-but-not-quite-ready Shekina center just two days ago, when something happened, something i get all the time.
My resourceful hill tribe woman neighbor complete with her magnificent conical bamboo hat was commenting on how I could just throw up some bungalows and make some money, seeing as how i had land like her now. I explained (all in Thai, crazy huh?) that we were building a center for meditation. She smiled and said meditation was for Buddha.
I said yes but also we happen to be Christians. Her brow furrowed and she said nothing for a second. Christians? Yes I said, Christians. I could see that Christians and meditation did not go together in her head. But she humored me.
It’s still a minor shock to many people. That can't quite take it in, like when you ask someone for a football bat. There's a double take. It should bother me at all, but I find myself explaining a lot.
But this double take really doesn’t make much sense when you think about it. Why should the two not go together? The truth is Americans, and especially American Christians don't meditate enough. We don't value it. We are even alarmed by it. I feel tht just about any kind of meditation would help our frantic lives have moments of peace, and that would be beneficial without a doubt.
And for clarification, devotional time or quiet time, something millions of people do, is not really meditation. I'm all for it, because its good. Devotional time has many meditative aspects (quiet, listening etc...) and can be incredibly benificial.
But its generally too mixed in with other things, like prayer and worship. It's too generally shapeless to stand up in comparison to a developed meditation practice. I don't know, you'd have to do both to form an opinion. True Christ-centered meditation? Those us you place a high value on the Bible and Jesus words haven't gotten our heads around this incredibly valuable discipline, for the most part.
But its very visible in this original book that should be a guide to our faith. Just crack open the Psalms and you'll see it too, it’s everywhere. Commands to meditate and evidence of a rich meditative practice in the life of the writers.
Cant live without a cluster of references? Got you covered. Ready? Psalms 1:2, 4:4, 27:4, 63:6, 77:6, 77:12, 119:15, should I keep going?.
Isaac even has a practice himself in Genesis, "Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, camels were coming." Evidently the biggest threat to your meditative practice in those days was not being accused of being an outsider to the faith but of random interuppting camels.
You should look into it if the very idea of Jesus alongside the word meditation is shocking to you at all. Christians have practiced meditation in many forms for centuries, all the way back to out roots with the ancient Hebrews practicing Judaism. Listen, no one can really own a particular practice of discipline. Christians don't own prayer, Buddhist don't own meditation. Those practices belong to all of us. As humans, we do them for many reasons.
More often than not it just comes down to fear, plain and simple. Doing and talking about meditation feels foreign to too many people. It should be a natural part of any spiritual discipline. It only feels foreign because it is. Just like a lot of things we believe deeply in, just like Jesus himself, for example. Foreign and valuable. I think we should get back to it, like it was in the Psalms.
Shekina meditation is all about meeting God in modes that may seem unfamiliar. In silence, in listening. In fewer words, in more time. In being still and knowing There is a world of health and peace to be discovered in those kinds of spaces. Do you know how to get i?
There’s something powerful about first light.
After days of constant rain, the sky cleared. It happened just as the electricians got done wiring everything, so that the first look I got of the lights turned on was amazing, lush and magical. It was one of those seemingly orchestrated moments that make you think what you are doing is somehow über-important. It's silly and self indulgent no doubt, but who can deny that its fun to dream like this? This time I just let myself dream.
Some advice. When you are building your meditation center in Thailand and you are on a budget, I suggest just putting your light in baskets and just stringing them up. Basically, magic is cheap.
In Shekina meditation, we don’t try very hard to block out our surroundings and go completely inside ourselves. A lot of the practice is about cultivating awareness and openness as a door to welcoming the spirit of God.
I sat for an hour or so, thinking about all the amazing meditation times we would have looking out on this humble and beautiful little mountain range, listening to the sounds of nature, taking it all in. I can't wait.
Also, I can’t thank the workers enough, who slept in the center for three days because the rain made the roads unusable. I carried the refrigerator in by hand (with my newfound delivery-man-buddy-for-life) slogging through mud and getting soaked because the delivery truck got stuck in the mud and had to be pulled out by another truck, which barely escaped the same fate. We had fun in the mud guys! Thanks for everything!
When Chinua and I moved to Pai, it was with the intent of beginning a meditation community similar to Shekina in Goa. This past year has been a settling year. We’ve been learning language, getting to know people here, playing music, making connections-- doing all the things you need to do to get into life in a new place. I didn’t want it to take a long time and I’ve been very impatient at times, sitting on the bus trying to make it move faster with my knees and the muscles in my cheeks.
But sometimes we wait for God. He has his time and we don’t know what’s going on, but we wait. We looked and looked for what would be our own space, a place to gather, to be the place for our circles and meditation here. Sometime in May, a friend told us about a property for rent that he thought might be something we could use, a lot like what we’re looking for. I walked out to the property. Chinua was away for five weeks, and I remember the Skype call I had with him.
“I’m in love,” I said. I took Miriam out there and she loved it too. And Chinua, when he came, saw all the things we saw and more. We started dreaming.
The property is small, just the right size for beginnings. It’s for rent, rather than for sale, also good for beginnings. It’s close to town, close enough for people to walk out to us in no time at all, and yet when you walk out to it, crossing the river in the process, you enter a little space of quiet and you can see for a mile, all the way to the mountains. It’s lovely.
We signed a lease on June 15th.
We started building on July 2nd.
We’re making progress, and we’re so excited; planning and sketching, dreaming and comparing ideas. We talk about the feeling of absolutely everything. The words we use in designing are: simple, welcoming, sacred, artful. We ask ourselves questions: Can you see the doorway when you walk in? Will you feel drawn in? What does the way the buildings are arranged do to your headspace as you see them? It’s all important.
There were two buildings already on the property. We kept the kitchen (re-did the walls) but took down the bamboo hut, and now we’re in the process of building a large meditation/gathering space and a bathroom.
We’re nearly ready to begin here. And of course, the timing of God is perfect. If we had tried to do all this a year ago, without the amazing connections we have now, we’d be spinning our wheels. If we tried to do it without being able to speak Thai as we are now, we’d be incredibly frustrated. It shows me yet again: Wait, oh wait on the Lord.
There are many ways to attempt to keep a community moving toward an idea or purpose, rather than away from it. One way is to write a set of rules that the members of the community should follow, then have the leaders of the community make sure people abide by them.
This is a terrible idea. Honestly, take my word for it. There is nothing worse than an adult feeling like a kid because of a well meant but misguided rule book, and a visionary feeling like a policeman or policewoman. I shudder, even writing about it.
But there has to be something. Doesn't there? Because if there isn't anything that keeps the structure of the community in place, how is it intentional? How is it safe? How is it not completely annoying because everything changes all the time?
This is where a written group of ideals comes in, and it needs to be in place from the beginning. Your written values originate with the core group of people who are starting your community. But how do you come up with these ideals- your values? I suggest you sit down together and have a talking circle. (Use a talking stick if you need to- they're very handy and keep more vocal people from trodding over quieter ones.) Ask questions and listen to the answers around the circle.
- What things feel like the most important things in the world to you?
- What things will strip you of the will to live, I mean, the will to remain with your community?
- How do you dream of living, when you have beautiful dreams about life lived in a different way?
- What makes your community different from any other?
- What are your experiences in trying to do things with other people? What have you learned? What are the pitfalls? What would you like to avoid? What would you like to repeat?
Come to the talking circle with the goal of really listening to one another. Write down all the things you think you are best at, as a group. Write down all the things you are worst at. And write down the answers people give to the above questions. Then pass that stick around the circle again and again until you come up with the things that are most important to how you will structure your community.
With what you have at this point, it is not too hard to form a values statement. The purpose of the values statement is that it forms a sort of constitution. It does the work of aligning person to person. It inspires the original feelings and hopes of the community when things get opaque and full of struggle. And when others desire to join your community, you can give them the values statement and ask some simple questions: Do you agree? Can you live by this? The answers to those questions will tell you whether people are a good fit for your community or whether you need to encourage them to live their dreams elsewhere.
Here are a couple of sentences from our values statement, stated in brief (because our statement goes on to explain each sentence.)
We have sentences that describe the beliefs the community is built on:
Each of us is personally responsible before God and also to others in the community to live life in a way that honors Jesus.
And sentences that describe the practices of the community:
We choose to be a community centered around prayer, meditation and worship.
We are a community that practices hospitality.
We are a community that values creativity.
And they go on. Our values are quite serious because we spend a lot of time with one another in countries around the world, living life together and seeing one another every day. If you have a community of women who love to knit together for those in need, your values might be as simple as: We will be welcoming to newcomers. But maybe you also believe in encouraging local economy, so you write down a value like, We attempt to support our local yarn stores, whenever possible.
Values differ from rules. A rule states: Greet newcomers as soon as they enter the door, or, members must purchase yarn locally. Rules take the thinking out of a value system, and they take ownership away from other members of the community. Rules limit. Values expand. The support of local yarn stores can take many different shapes, (a sale of goods to raise money for those in need, held in the yarn store, which then attracts customers and interest) just as our practice of hospitality can take many different shapes, and these things are not limited to rules when they are expressed as values.
This is a rather silly example, but say our community, because the core members feel strongly about being hospitable, had a rule like Greet newcomers as soon as they enter the door. How would that honor someone perceptive enough to notice people who seem shy, as though they would rather sneak into a circle and be there for a while before talking to anyone?
This is why values trump rules. Rules are for elementary school. In a dynamic, communicative, thriving community, each person will feel that she has something to offer and a statement of values helps her to sort out, for herself, what her offering will be. The health of your community can only be as strong as your understanding of your values.
Last week I wrote about the expectations surrounding community and how to adjust them to be more accepting of what living alongside other people actually entails, how to cultivate an inner acceptance.
Today I want to talk about the next thing to make community work well, an outer bit of practicality that has everything to do with putting things in the correct order. I think this is one of the easiest things to fumble over. I know we have, many times.
To have a healthy community, you need to ask and answer questions on a regular basis and come up with community rhythms that help and challenge everyone.
There is a set of questions that I've sketched out, to help with finding out where your community is now, then setting the schedules that will work best for you. I can't tell you how important the order is, here. In a world and culture where we are always scrambling to fit the bill, we tend to come up with ideas of what we should be doing, and then, when leaks inevitably spring because we've overextended ourselves, we run around and try to plug the holes. So. Here are the questions that seem to work, in the sanest order.
1. What is your vision?
2. Who do you have?
3. What will you do?
4. What/who do you need to do more?
What is your vision?
I strongly believe that a community will be healthier if it has an idea of something it wants to accomplish, if being together is not the end goal, but the way of life that enables everyone to thrive in doing what they believe in. For my community, that would be living and teaching Christian practice among the international community of travelers around the world. For some communities, it may be restoring permaculture methods, rebuilding a neighborhood in an urban setting, or working with children who are at risk. It may also be something small, like knitting or eating soup or putting photos in albums or listening to stories.
Once you've decided what you are hoping to accomplish, you can dream and make your vision more robust, and you can look at who you have and what kind of community you want to create. Community means togetherness, and you can do togetherness in anyway you want, as long as it is committed. You can be together twice a week, you can live together, you can live near each other. You decide, and you come to agreement.
Who do you have?
Look around and really see each other? What are you skilled at? What are you passionate about? How much time do each of you have to work with? What are your capabilities? Longings? Dreams? How many families do you have, and how will their children be involved? How will singles and families work together?
What will you do?
When you look at who you have with you, you'll be able to decide what you will do. For example, this year when Chinua and I were in Goa, we and Miriam had a talking circle, as we always do, at the very beginning of the season. We asked each other, "What can we do this season?"
There were three of us who were experienced at guiding meditation, so we decided to have three meditation sessions per week. In past years, when we've had more people with us, we've done them five days a week.
Chinua, a skilled musician, was inspired to be out playing music as much as possible, so we decided to worship together on the beach once or more a week. Chinua was also really excited about leading workshops on aspects of the life of a Jesus follower, so we added that into the week. We all loved Devotion Circles, so we kept that in place on Saturdays. I am in love with gardening and Miriam wanted to learn more about gardening together before she took on the care of our community gardening, so we added a community gardening time. And we took Sunday as a day of rest. Our week ended up looking like this:
Monday: 10:00 AM meditation, 1:00 PM lunch scheduling circle, 5:00 PM worship on the beach
Wednesday: 10:00 AM meditation
Thursday: 9:00 AM community gardening
Friday: 10:00 AM Workshop, 5:00 PM meditation on the beach
Saturday: 5:00 PM Devotion circle and dinner after
These were the rhythms that we cycled through, week after week. In addition, we would meet once a week (during the Monday lunch scheduling circle) and talk about whether there were other things we wanted to do during the week. There were always things we wanted to do, and we managed to make time for a few of them! We hosted two night time concerts. Miriam would often make lunch on Wednesdays, inviting friends from the larger community in our neighborhood. Miriam also had a daily group prayer time, from 8:00 to 9:00 every morning, which was always optional since some of us have children and felt that it wasn't something we wanted to add to our days, as well as preferring a private prayer time.
Some people, looking at this schedule, will say that it is a LOT for a group of people to do together. Some people will say that it's not a lot at all. "That's not community," they say. "You barely do anything together!" That brings me to something that I will write about next week. To form a community that will work, you will need values that do not change, because people's opinions about your community will be many and varied, and you cannot shift with opinions. The things that are unchangeable will allow you to be flexible with other things, the things that can change. Your rhythms and schedules are like crops in your garden, you can change them depending on the season, but you always have the soil underneath, you feed it and take care of it, because your harvest depends on it. This is the deep stuff.
We have a long page of these values. One such value for us is that we do what we are able. We look at who we have, then we decide what to do. It works.
What/who do you need to do more?
Is your vision larger than your current community is capable of sustaining? The answer is not to get everyone to do more, but to ask what you need to grow. Do you need more people? Or more skills?
In our circle of deciding how our seasons will look, we take into account the fact that we have a musician and people who are experienced with guiding meditations. We also have good cooks and people who love gardening and are willing to champion it as a community practice. If we want more, do more of us need to learn to play music? Or do we need to invite more musicians to live with us? If we want to build an earth building, does one of us need to take a course on earth building? Do we need more gardening skills? More people to make our community healthier?
And after all this time, I can say that we always seem to need more skills and more people. We need people! It's something that comes up in our prayers all the time. You can pray for the things you need, and you can work on ways to find what you need.
There are so many variations on making your own community rhythms. I think that often people imagine there's only one way to make a community and see it grow, but the truth is that the need for community lies within all of us and there are as many different ways as there are walks of life. Be free to explore yours!
Next week I'll write about forming community values.
Community is such a loaded word, isn't it? There seem to be words behind words whenever we bring up the topic of community. Sometimes I don't even like to call what we do community, because I know the word is stacked with meaning.
If there is anything I've learned in the fourteen years that I've lived in intentional community, it's that every person carries his or her own definition and expectations of what the word community means, what community IS. These expectations, which tag along whether we like it or not, can bring more trouble with them than almost any other part of living in community. They create a scenario where no matter what the current situation of our community is, there will be disappointment or frustration at how it's not measuring up. People have different ideas, different dreams. We bring our blueprints to the circle, lay them side by side, and nothing matches, the building feels crooked and clumsy.
The heart of these expectations, troublesome though they may be, is good. It's here that our deepest desires for connection lie, and in a community of people desiring true Christian practice, there is an even deeper and more central desire for the Kingdom of God.
What is the Kingdom of God? It's something Jesus talked about almost more than anything else, and it can very simply be described as a place where things move and breathe and sing in the exact way they were designed to, the way God wants them to. Where we truly love and feel loved. Where we see others as who they truly are, as beloved to God, no matter their rank or usefulness or stature.
At the heart of who we are as believers, we desire connection with God and connection with the way he wants things to be, and we carry all of these infant dreams and desires to our new community and lay them gently and tenderly down on the altar we've constructed.
But then we come up against the very worst thing about community. Its made of --ugh-- other people, with their own desires and dreams and weird breathing and annoying ideas and strange morning rituals and the way they look when they chew their food. What a contradiction in wishes we all are, made of our desire to be side by side and our longing to get away. The very substance of our answer threatens to tear itself apart.
But I think there's hope. There are some things we can do to soften this jarring difference between expectation and reality.
The one I want to talk about today is a very simple changing of expectations. It's so simple, but so profound that it moves everything off a shaky foundation and onto a solid one, right from the beginning. We need to come to the table of community with the understanding that a part of community is suffering.
It is the suffering that Jesus underwent as he loved and longed to be loved. He knew, though, that this love would be partly grief and disconnection.
But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
John 2:24, 25
At some level, because we are not God, we will disappoint each other's ideas of love and togetherness. You will insult my neatness with your messy scrambling, I will insult your spontaenaity with my desire for rules and schedules. (In reality, it will most likely be just the opposite.) Community, in many ways, IS suffering, a beautiful, refining, redeeming, abundantly joyful suffering.
Henri Nouwen says, "Within the discipline of community are the twin gifts of forgiveness and celebration that need to be opened and used regularly. What is forgiveness? Forgiveness means that I continually am willing to forgive the other person for not fulfilling all my needs and desires."
Of course it's not all suffering. The most amazing moments of my life have taken place in the garden of community: playing crazy games, surprising people on their birthdays, being surprised on mine, singing around a bright fire under the trees. It has been a wonderful, wild dance. But when I come up against my own desires and see the difference between the fantasy of community and the truth of it all, the fact that I disappoint and am disappointed, I remind myself that this pain is a part of any true, committed community. Walking through this suffering together produces beauty in friendship that goes beyond a simple similarity of interests. Walking through this, I have gained friends unlike any I could have imagined, in my first fluffy daydreams about Christian community, when I had no idea that it would hurt.
If you want to form a community, adjust your expectations. Have everyone adjust their expectations! And you will all be surprised by the brilliance that can come from the simple act of loving other people and experiencing life together.
Next week I'll address a more practical aspect of a thriving community: Finding your community rhythms.
We are back in Goa and there is much to be done. Miriam will be here for the full season (she'll stay until the end of March) with several people who will be coming and going to join in meditation and devotional practice with her.
Chinua and I (Rae) will be here for six weeks before going back to Pai to have our baby and continue on in our quest to form another Jesus devotional community there. While here we plan to soak in as many beautiful moments together with our dear friends, Miriam and Johanna.
But first, there is work to be done.
And I probably shouldn't even say "first", because there is so much community and meditation involved in good, physical work.
Especially the work of preparing a beloved space for time spent together.
Miriam has been the superhero here. With some help from the kids, our new friend Ulli, Johanna, and Jaya, she has been scrubbing all the monsoon mold from furniture and floors. We have to do this every year, and every year it feels like a big giant task.
But soon it is done, and the mattresses and cushions are out, the floor is clean, and we're ready for another season together.
Loneliness is suffering, and it can be crippling. We all have periods of loneliness in our lives, and in many ways it can be out of our control. However, I believe that loneliness can lead us to a place of understanding and peace, if we allow it.
Why am I writing about loneliness when this blog is about community? I could write a thousand posts about community--maybe at some point I will. My husband and I have lived in communities all our adult lives, including for the entire time we've been married. For me it's been since I was eighteen years old--that's fourteen years now! Chinua and I have lived in tiny bedrooms in large houses filled with people, we've lived in tents with other people around us, we've traveled on an RV with so many people that some of us had to sleep on the floor on under the RV or between the front seats. In more recent years our house has been next door to others in our community. We eat together, meditate together, walk to the beach together.
Intentional Community is our normal. We don't know any other way of life, and I could talk for hours about my love of community, my failures in being a loving part of a community, my successes... but right now, I'm actually feeling kind of lonely.
Chinua and I are beginning a new moment in the life of our larger community. We've moved to Thailand in order to begin a meditation practice and community here, which is exciting and interesting and full of possibility. But we're on our own right now (as "on our own" as any six person family can be) and loneliness is a new and unsubtle part of our lives. As I'm working through the loneliness I'm encountering in my own life, I thought I'd share a little of what I've discovered about loneliness over the years.
One, loneliness is inevitable. There isn't any way to escape loneliness because if you go deeply to the very center of who you are, in your inner being, you will find that you are there... alone. This will always be true, whether you are single or married, living alone or in community, in a big family or in a small family. Look deep inside and there you are, face to face with God, by yourself. This solitude doesn't necessarily need to be lonely, it won't be, if you have a full understanding of God in your life, touching your deepest heart, but few of us will be driven to this understanding without loneliness.
This deep reality of your solitude, if anything, becomes more clear in community. Community living forces us to come to terms with your aloneness. Maybe you've always thought-- What I really need is a group of like-minded people to live with, that's what will make me accepted, finally. You look for a group of fellow Christians, or vegans, or woodcarvers. But the deepest things are the hardest things to share and it doesn't take a long time of living with others to realize that you are clumsy in love, misunderstood, not comprehending. You open your mouth to explain your great idea for a new water system and someone shoots it down, and there you are! Alone! Or you've waited a long time to get married, but when you do, you see that you sit side by side, but you cannot climb all the way into your spouse's head, neither would you want to. You are one, but you are alone.
Two, loneliness reveals the gift of togetherness. Now that I am temporarily living outside of community, I treasure my loneliness because it reveals to me what a gift I've had, all these years, with all these shining souls in and out of my life, slamming doors and cooking and taking care of kids. I hold these memories like baby birds, the broken memories and the whole, shining ones, both. I remember coming home on the day that my daughter was born, sitting on the couch in one of the rooms of our flat, and how everyone sat around us in awe, touching her tiny face and hands. I remember how loved I felt. I remember all the times I felt like I belonged to something bigger than myself, the times I saw Jesus clearly radiating in a close friend giving something of his or hers away to someone who lived on the street and in those moments how in awe I felt of this wonder we have, this love. I also remember all the times I was selfish, the times I chose anger over forgiveness, being offended rather than understanding--it's easy to think, ah, this is too much trouble. But love is what God is made of, it is the gift he gives to us, it is miraculous that we reach each other. Loneliness helps us understand this miracle more clearly.
Three, feeling lonely leads to deeper understanding of our own true solitude. Right now, feeling lonely, I'm driven back to myself. If I'm truly aware of it and accepting, I begin to realize how much I normally cling to others in my identity. Who am I? I'm this person in the community, this cog in the machine. I'm this one. The nice one, the mean one, the emotional one, the artistic one. Whatever I identify myself as, it's coming from the larger picture of the group of people around me. There's nothing wrong with this -- it's part of the joy of community-- the day to day life, the love and kindness, the respect and fun involved in community living. But the discovery of my own solitude, of the fact that I don't know how to be alone, how to be who I am when I'm solitary, tells me that I have more learning to do.
I come around again and again, reaching out for something to orient myself by, and meet only myself, no other person to help me measure myself in terms of goodness or greatness or unworthiness in a human being. No words to tell me who I am, other than the true words from the heart of God, if I can bring myself to hear them. And this is the ultimate gift of loneliness. There is silence, when I quiet the wild and anxious thoughts that fly around, insisting that there should be others here, and in the silence I hear Jesus, I see God undoing another of the patches I have carefully laid over my heart.
Henri Nouwen puts it this way:
... by first embracing solitude in God's presence, you can pay attention to your inner, clamoring self before looking to others for community and accountability.*
And King David this way:
... I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me. **
At the center, alone, I simply am. I am not a role, a title, a job, a product or a producer. I am, and I am in the presence of the Great I Am, and this brings me closer to being like him, without all the rippling and striving among the litter of the day-to-day things of my life.
Four, loneliness gives understanding of the suffering of others. I don't think of loneliness as a true and good state of being. I think we are naturally alone in our inner solitude, but loneliness is a type of suffering, able (as any suffering is, if we allow it) to draw us to new truth about God and our way of relating to him, but something to alleviate if we can. As we grow closer to God and to the miracle of love that he gives so freely to us, we work with Him to alleviate suffering in the world. Part of that suffering is the deep, soul-crushing loneliness that pursues so many in our culture of isolation.
Understanding what it means to feel lonely lends new strength to our desire to welcome people, to help them belong. Helping others to come inside our circle comes at a cost, we know it's worth it because the loneliness we've experienced has been allieviated by Jesus in us. Our understanding of suffering gives us grace in our hospitality, patience in listening, fullness of heart in being present.
Taking action is always a way to work against suffering. Next time you feel lonely, don't let it drive you towards the TV or the large bag of doritos or the mall. Let it bring you nearer to your solitude, to the overwhelming love that is waiting for you in God's presence. And then let it inspire you to call someone you know is lonely, to invite an acquaintance over, to send a letter to someone who needs the surprise of mail that is not a bill or a flyer.
*From Spiritual Direction, by Henri Nouwen
Here's the truth. In the beginning of any new practice, you will encounter resistance. You'll encounter your own resistance and the world's resistance and even the devil's resistance.
Until something is a habit, it often feels too new, unsafe, something that you could fail at. Even after it is a habit, there are often reasons to put it off, or if you get out of habit due to sickness or sadness or worry, it can take a lot of bravery to restart.
-Imagine that you want to begin a practice of hospitality in your life. You dream of it, you're inspired by someone you know or have read about. You dream of weekly meetings of dozens of people in your home, all of them eating and happy and enjoying life. In your preparations, you begin to get a little worried. Where will you put everyone? Do you really have energy for this? Aren't you the most awkward person the world has ever known? What on earth will you say?
There is always a simple answer. The only thing people want from your hospitality is to feel welcome. Invite one person into your home and make her welcome. Feed her tea or feed her dinner. Do it with love, do it regularly, and when you feel like it's a simple thing, make your circle wider.
-Imagine that you want to begin a practice of Lectio Divina. You think your circle of friends will really benefit from it, and when you invite people, they express excitement, but don't show up at your early morning circle. They slept in. After one or two times, you go back to sleeping in as well.
Keep getting up. Make one verse the song in your heart that sings all day long. Invite one other person who you know will come. When your practice begins to transform your days, let everyone know. Don't stop waking up with this song in your heart.
-Imagine that you want to begin a practice of deep prayer. You try but it seems that you are "troubling deaf heaven with your bootless cries."* You feel dry, you feel old, you begin to question this practice of prayer. Why ask God for anything if he knows everything already, you wonder. Why talk? You begin to grudge any words, you begin to be stubborn and silent.
Ahhh, try something new. Write your prayers in tiny letters on long sheets of paper, sing your prayers, paint them into canvases, keep a prayer journal, look up old Orthodox prayers and pray them, pray the Psalms.** This miraculous communication is never unheard! Don't give up. Don't turn to entertainment. Don't let the struggle quench you.
Life changes quickly and without warning. In our community we've had to learn to be flexible. The way we do things these days is we take a quick look at who we have with us and decide on what we'll do. We have three people who like to cook? Very well, we'll have an open lunch twice a week, to give a break to one person every week. We have a musician with a loud voice? Cool, we'll have worship circles on the beach. Each season demands its own practices, and we've become skilled at figuring out what we have the power to do. These are some of the most valuable times I've ever had, singing together, eating together.
I'll tell you a secret. I meet resistance every. single. time. Every time I'm cooking, or decorating, or getting ready for an evening on the beach, I run into it. I find myself wanting to pick fights with my husband, or run away, or go to sleep for a day. And I know now, after many years, that this is part of doing things that are hard and important. I have learned to grit my teeth, ask God for help, and go on with it. I know that the resistance only lasts up until I'm actually at the beginning whatever it is we've decided to do. It hasn't won, and I relax into enjoying the time with friends-- meditating, sharing life, singing, enjoying food.
I know that you can, too.
*Shakespeare Sonnet 29
**I have prayed in all of these ways.