A hard, horrifying, sad, good day.

Image: Gethsemane by P. Solomon Raj

Image: Gethsemane by P. Solomon Raj

Last night during Bible Circle we read Mark 14 and 15 and then passed a talking stone to share what stood out to us. A lot of us noticed the disciples leaving Jesus. Or the loneliness of Jesus in those hours leading up to his death—he faced his accusers alone, he was alone when he was whipped and mocked. Where was everyone? Why did they sleep when he asked them to pray?

He told Peter, James, and John, “I am so sad that I feel as if I am dying. Stay here and keep awake with me.” Mark 14:34 (CEV)

I feel that I have felt that kind of sadness before. I have been so sad that I wondered if I would die from it. And whatever it is that I felt, I’m sure Jesus felt it more. We find it hard to offer one another companionship in that kind of sadness. We find it hard to sit and wait. Perhaps we would rather come to our own defense (“I will never betray you!”) or offer solutions. 

I thought about how Jesus says of Mary Magdalene, “She who has been forgiven much, loves much.” Mary had sat in that kind of lonely sadness before. She had no delusions that it would not find her, or that bad things wouldn’t happen to them all. And being loved in her own sadness, called out of her lonely sadness by Jesus gave her the strength to stay: to watch his death, care for his body, and show up at his tomb. Maybe Peter, James, and John just hadn’t been tested enough yet. 

They would be, and later, that same ability shows up in them. 

And there Jesus was, steadfast in love while they all fumbled, chopped people’s ears off, ran away, swore they didn’t know him. He remained in love. They couldn’t take that away from him, though they stripped him of dignity and life. 

I find it so hard to keep my own brain from looping into a poor-me story. Sad and abandoned, lonely and misunderstood. Even in my beautiful, abundant, untouched-by-violence life, I find this hard. I feel the strength of what Jesus did, remaining in love, not blaming, not resisting. I want to lean into him in this moment. Allowing, accepting, being ready for the road God gave him to travel. I want to be like that. I also want to learn from him to sit with others in their sadness.

My heart is heavy with his death and his loneliness. And the Father in that moment bore deep and heavy suffering as well. The suffering of the Son, the grief of the Father. The love between them in that moment. For what? For a new creation of reconciliation, oneness between God and humanity.

At the end of the discussion last night, we remembered that this story would be the worst ever if not for the resurrection. Jesus endured for the joy set before him. I am about as crappy in centering myself, feeling badly for myself, and being defensive, as any of the disciples were. And yet we all are loved into a new reconciliation, a connectedness that contains a million seeds of possibility- things God and we can do and be together because of this suffering. 

What a day. A hard, horrifying, sad, good day.

Shekina :: The Presence


Our name is a sort of Anglo-Hebraic mash up of the word that describes the presence of God where he dwells in the world. We say it “She-keen-ah,” just a little closer to the Hebrew pronounciation, “She-(c)hinah” with the fricative “h”.

So yeah, gets mispronounced by people who read it all the time. 

But I’ve been thinking about this name lately, and how audacious it is. 

How can we name a community after God’s presence? How dare we? As though he wants to come and hang out where we are telling ridiculous stories in the kitchen, dancing on the beach, or sweeping leaves off the dusty floors, again and again (and again)? 

What chutzpah. Frictate that as well, if you can. It’s fun.

Imagine a circle of skin-enclosed people, getting more wrinkly through the years, sitting and trying with all their little hearts to understand a little more of God, who he is as shown in his scriptures. They sing a few songs. There are people who have followed him for a long time, and people who have never prayed, or done this kind of thing before.

And then into their midst, a light, a flash of heat, a warmth, a sudden rush of tears. The most sparkly, desirable, hope-filled one walks into the circle, invisible to the human eye, and envelops all of them. Why? Because they are there and waiting and he loves them.

That’s how he is, when we ask. Generous with his presence. We don’t always feel it, but he is here.

“The divine secret of creation is the Shekinah, God’s indwelling; and the purpose of the Shekinah is to make the whole creation the house of God.” -Jürgen Moltmann

“Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, Lord.” Psalm 89: 15

“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” Psalm 84:10

More than you can imagine.

Ro in the garden harvesting miraculous fruit that came from tiny seeds.

Ro in the garden harvesting miraculous fruit that came from tiny seeds.

We had a Devotion Circle on Monday about the kingdom of God. The realm of God, the reality of God. This shining thing that is just behind our eyes, that we sometimes can’t see in the trudge and dirt of everyday existence: the annoying interactions, the misunderstandings, the thousands of bridges we have to build to get to one another. 

We looked at three verses from Matthew 13, about the treasure hidden in a field, the mustard seed, and the yeast exploding in a whole lot of flour. 

As we went around the circle discussing each verse, here are the insights that emerged:

The examples Jesus used are hidden, tiny, not immediately apparent. They involve waiting or time, they are organic, beautiful. They need the right conditions (the seed needs soil, the yeast needs flour), but then they grow without effort. In the case of the seed and the yeast, they are alive and reproduce, they rise. They are common, ordinary examples, or dreamy ones, in the case of the treasure (who doesn’t want to find a treasure?). Each can become more than what it is, effortlessly. 

Dallas Willard says that Jesus was looking at a “God-bathed and God-permated world… in which God is continually at play and over which he continually rejoices.” (The Divine Conspiracy)

The kingdom is always right there, at hand, and we have the chance to step in, to engage in this reality where the tiniest of things burst into God-breathed life. Where small works or moments become much more than they could be, if God’s spirit was not breathing and moving and working around and behind them.

Watering the garden. Cooking meals. Offering money to someone in need. Inviting someone over. I don’t know that I could spend my life on all the little things that take up my time if I didn’t believe that each one is a tiny keyhole into something that God will breathe on and cause to live. Teaching kids. Making tea. A kiss on the forehead. Washing hair. Reading aloud for hours, and hours and hours.

Welcome to the reality of God, Jesus says. It’s right here, but you have to look for it. You have to remember that it is here before you. It isn’t transactional; you don’t get exactly what you put in. It is a whole plant sprouting out of the tiniest of seeds. It is so much more than you can even imagine.

(A post by Rae)

Community is like an ox.


I love the birds near my house. They wake me up every morning with singing. Or squawking. Or crowing. They remind me that I am in a living world, that it flies, creeps, crawls, and sings with life. 

I have other reminders. The snails in the kitchen, the ants in a line along the wall. Mold on the baskets, moss in my motorbike seat. A little white dog, snores from my family members. Plants that need water, white flowers falling from the tree. All of this is life. Life that changes, grows, moves, bursts, buzzes, lifts, explodes. 

One of my favorite verses is “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” (Proverbs 14:4) It reminds me every day that messes are from life. Misunderstanding is from life. Life breeds, smears, and eats all the cheese. Life finds the chocolate stash. Life rains and wakes you up too early. Life accidentally steps on your new sprouting lettuce when it was playing a game with a lot of other chubby lives. 

Where there are no oxen, no life, no explosive, inconvenient growth, you do not have to buy new shoes or take the kids to the dentist, or apologize, or make amends, or try so hard to understand someone from another culture, or stretch your brain to empathize, or wait, or cook food day in and day out. 

An empty stall is clean and peaceful. And… empty. Nothing is happening, nothing is making a mess but nothing is coming back at the end of the day snorting and dancing its way into the stall, bringing in the sheaves, spilling its food, bringing stories and songs and a rich harvest.

Community is the ox, the life…it is better to have the ox. A good rule about life is that if it is messy, it probably means it is full of life. 

~ Rae


"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

Gardener's Paradise.

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.

“Avocado trees?” 

“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)

A Thin Layer

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.

Building Walls Together

Everyone gets into it, from big to small.

Everyone gets into it, from big to small.

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.

Sometimes Little Gem and Leaf come along to brighten our lives. One time Leaf stomped mud with us and it sucked two of her toe rings off, so we have silver in our walls as well.

Sometimes Little Gem and Leaf come along to brighten our lives. One time Leaf stomped mud with us and it sucked two of her toe rings off, so we have silver in our walls as well.

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)

A light has dawned. (Late Christmas Post.)

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? 

Chin in America? When does that happen?

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!

It begins: building a new Shekina space.

Meditation center in progress.

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.


Meditation center in progress.

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.

Meditation center in progress.

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.

Beautiful Community: Values

New Year's 2013

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.

Beautiful Community: Rhythms of life together.


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
Sunday: Rest

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.

Beautiful Community: Adjusting Expectations.

Many people joined.

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.

The meditation of scrub scrub scrub.

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.

First step of getting the meditation space ready. Scrub scrub.

And I probably shouldn't even say "first", because there is so much community and meditation involved in good, physical work.

First step of getting the meditation space ready. Scrub scrub.

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.

Getting the meditation space ready.

But soon it is done, and the mattresses and cushions are out, the floor is clean, and we're ready for another season together.