A Lenten Devotional

Our Lenten Devotional provides a weekly reading and reflection based on a variety of lectionary texts for this liturgical season.

This devotional is taken from Meal From Below—A Five Course Feast With Jesus, in which we explore the Eucharist as a spirituality of mission and what it means to be formed and shaped by the Jesus meal.

Feel free to download this devotional by clicking here:

Read
(Read online)
Download
(Download PDF)
Request A Copy
(Print version)

 

About Meal from Below

This devotional is drawn from our book, Meal from Below, which is a companion guide to a 40 week spiritual formation experience that includes daily, weekly, and monthly practices patterned after communion at the Lord’s Table and the Eucharistic shape of mission. For more information On Meal from Below, or to purchase the book, click here:

Learn more about Meal from Below
(Available in paperback or Kindle)

Meal from Below

mfb-iTunes-cover

Jesus not only makes room for “the least of these” at his table of blessing, he gives them preferred seating. Sitting at the table with those who are most vulnerable and hungry, we discover ourselves anew. We are returned to ourselves as ones taken, blessed, broken, given, and spoken in God’s love, that we might re-member the body of Christ for a hurting world.

Drawing from years of practice and reflection with the poor, Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey’s devotionals guide us through a 40-week spiritual formation experience that includes daily, weekly, and monthly practices of communion with God, each other, and our world. Depending on your appetite, these weekly devotionals can be enjoyed as appetizers, five-course meals, or even desserts.

Buy the book
(paperback or Kindle)

 

ENDORSEMENTS

“Seldom do you find such good theology, good writing, and good social analysis in the same book or program. This is indeed ‘food’ for an age and a church that expects nothing new and yet is tired of the old menu.”

[Fr.] Richard Rohr, O.F.M.
Center for Action and Contemplation, Albuquerque, New Mexico and author of Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer and The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See.

“This fine and deeply soulful book reminds us to re-member the exquisite mutuality to which God’s kinship calls us all. It connects us to the communion that is of most interest to God: the kind that erases margins, welcomes the poor, and includes those left out. Be fed by this book.”

Gregory J. Boyle, S.J.
Founder of Homeboy Industries and author of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.

“A monumental achievement! Clear vision, sound theology, and above all the fingerprints of God are everywhere to be found between the pages of this book. Reading through my copy I could feel God’s power and healing peace flowing from head to toe. Well done, good and faithful servants.”

Robert Farrar Capon
Episcopal priest and author of 35 books including his first book, Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection and a trilogy on Jesus’ parables.

Meal From Below is the most thought-provoking and insightful look at Christ’s Eucharistic five course meal I have ever read. Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey touch our deep human longings in this book. The longing to know we are chosen and blessed, to know our brokenness can be a gift to the world, and to believe we can live as a spoken word of God addresses the pain and hope of every human heart. The best part of their message is that the real teachers in understanding these truths are those from below. This is a journey you don’t want to miss.”

Nancy Black
Therapist, counselor, and spiritual director

Advent and Christmas Devotional

Advent and Christmas Devotional

Click here to read or download

 

 

Our Advent and Christmas Devotional provides a weekly reading and reflection based on a variety of lectionary texts for this liturgical season. Feel free to download this devotional by clicking here:

Advent and Christmas Devotional
(Free downloadable PDF)

About Meal from Below

This devotional is drawn from our book, Meal from Below, which is a companion guide to a 40 week spiritual formation experience that includes daily, weekly, and monthly practices patterned after communion at the Lord’s Table and the Eucharistic shape of mission. For more information On Meal from Below, or to purchase the book, click here:

Learn more about Meal from Below
(Available in paperback or Kindle)

Baptism

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

We begin the new year with baptism. It’s God’s outlandish promise that we are passing through the watery grave of death (in all its forms) into new life. It’s the promise that God is with us, calling forth life from death, always.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…” (Is. 43:1-2).

Unfortunately, baptism is often reduced to a ceremony of moral cleansing and an initiation rite into the institutional body of a particular church. If we get stuck at this level we will miss the greater significance of baptism. It is a sacrament of the paschal mystery – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. To be baptized into the paschal mystery is to be initiated into much more than institutional morality (which always oppresses, especially the most vulnerable who can’t measure up). It is to be initiated into a new humanity – one that knows itself as God’s beloved: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Baptism is an initiation into our most sacred vocation – to become fully human and know ourselves loved by God. No moral system, no matter how good, can produce this vocation. We become human, not through morality, but by receiving and giving mercy. The moral cleansing model leaves us forever judging, evaluating, excluding, and existing as something less than human. But when we experience the paschal mystery we find ourselves in a much larger space where judgment gives way to joy.

Each day I renew my baptism with this prayer:

Lord of Life, baptize us again in the sea of your love where we release our useless fears and relax into your mercy. Inside this new love we die to all that is false. By your power made perfect in weakness, awaken us to the mystery of life. Speak to us again the truth of our deepest identity hidden in you: “You are my child whom I love, with you I am well pleased.”

I am convinced that our world, especially the vulnerable urban communities we serve, is longing for the baptism of its own belovedness. The moral cleansing model is being crushed under the weight of its own condemnation. We are desperate for joy in place of judgment. When we are baptized in the sea of God’s love and relax into God’s mercy, all that is false dies and is buried in the watery grave, and we are resurrected into a new humanity – one that knows itself and all of creation as God’s beloved. This is the sacramental sign of baptism. This is what the world is dying to receive. Jesus transformed a ceremony of moral cleansing into a sacrament of life and he is calling forth a new generation of baptizers who are ready to do the same!

In 2016, may we swim, splash, relax, and, yes, even die inside the sea of God’s love so that we might know ourselves and this world anew and fall madly in love with life again.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

Image: Baptism of Christ 10 by Waiting for the Word (CC BY 2.0)

Joy

“Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:29-31

I recently heard an acronym popular among church youth groups for helping shape their understanding of faith: J.O.Y., which stands for Jesus, others, yourself. It’s a memory tool used to help young Christians in their understanding of discipleship.

Although I wasn’t familiar with J.O.Y., its general meaning was something drilled deeply into my young faith as a Christian. Having attended church all my life, I had been conditioned to see my spirituality through the following lenses: 1) put God first in your life! 2) love your neighbor, and 3) your own needs are not as important.

Much of the notion of placing God first in our life comes from this week’s crucial text. Jesus sure seems to communicate the weight of this message when he adds in a parallel Gospel passage, “All of the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt. 22:40).

Here’s what Jesus says the entire law and message of the prophets hinges on:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'” (Mark 12:30) and “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (v. 31).

This was his response to the question asked by a Pharisee within the larger audience of pious religious gatekeepers, “Which commandment is the first of all?” (v. 28) Considering his audience, getting the answer wrong would have surely fast-tracked the process of his crucifixion.

In order to meet their rigid requirements, Jesus begins by quoting what is known as the Shema, the centerpiece of traditional Jewish prayer: “‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength'” (v. 29-30).

This was the response that saved his neck from immediate lynching. We see Jesus cleverly sidestep similar deadly traps many times throughout the Gospels. He really he wasn’t asked to offer anything more than this simple answer. But Jesus takes the risk to expound and expand on his response. Seemingly without taking a breath, Jesus continues, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Through the filter of Greco-Roman translation, many current-day Christians in America shape this message into the three-fold checklist I referenced at the beginning: 1. God 2. neighbor 3. self.

But was Jesus really offering us an orderly spiritual checklist?

In order to answer that question, it’s crucial to see two pieces of ancient context. The first, Jesus wasn’t Greek or Roman. He lived and breathed from an integrated and holistic perspective. He simply wasn’t shaped by categories and lists in the manner my western (Greco-Roman) paradigm has shaped me.

The second piece of context comes down to the section that The New Living Translation interprets as “the second is equally important” (v. 31, emphasis mine), echoing the parallel passage from Matthew. This translation captures the essence of the original language, through which Jesus conveys that healthy neighborly love mirrors healthy self-love, and this translates into worship of the one true God.

In other words, there is no ordered list. Perhaps a healthier image would be of three concentric circles pointing to the reality that everything is connected. It’s far less about practices of personal piety and far more about our collective participation in God’s expansive design for harmony and wholeness.

As Jesus says, all of the laws and messages of the prophets hinge on this way of integrated seeing and being. There is no area of my life, my work, or even my leisure and play that is not an intimate encounter with God’s love. Coming to terms with this allows me a sense of liberation from the cosmic checklist as I’m drawn forward and deeper into the experience of joy.

Peace,
Ryan Taylor
Street Psalms friend, director of spiritual formation community Access and co-director of Network, a drop-in coffeehouse for the chronically homeless in Denver.

Image: “joy!” by atomicity (CC BY-ND-NC 2.0)

Saper Vedere

“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly”

Mark 10:48

Our lectionary text this week invites us into one of the principal issues for us at Street Psalms – knowing how to see. Ironically, our teacher this week in learning how to see is actually a blind man. Many Biblical scholars have placed this text at the end of a portion of Mark’s Gospel that begins with the healing of a blind man, thus the section starting with Mark 8:22 and ending with Mark 10:52 is bookended by the healing of blind men. In between these two miracles, Jesus is trying feverishly to get the disciples to see and understand what he’s saying about his death and resurrection, but they are blind to his teachings.

In the text (Mark 10:46-52), we are introduced to a blind man sitting by a roadside begging. As far as the art of begging is concerned, this occasion holds the potential for significant income because it’s during a great religious parade of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. Bartimaeus cannot physically see anything as the people pass in front of him, but he discerns something with his heart that seizes his attention. He asks those around him what is occurring and learns that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.

To the embarrassment of those around him, Bartimaeus yells and screams until Jesus stops to invite him to a meeting in the street. Those around Bartimaeus had tried desperately to shut him up in an attempt to save him from impending shame. Bartimaeus, however, relentlessly pursued an audience with Jesus.

Considering the absurdity of his actions, he becomes a living metaphor that embodies the heart of the conclusion to Last Lovers, a novel in which author William Wharton writes that “perhaps sometimes it is best to be blind, so one can see the way things really are, and not be blinded by the way they look.”

During this encounter in the middle of the street, Jesus asks a beautiful question of Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” This kind of beautiful question animates our work at Street Psalms as we explore together what it means to have the ability of Bartimaeus to see with one’s heart the presence of Jesus of Nazareth in unexpected people and surprising places. This is the ability first to discern the presence of the Divine and then the courage to not let the sacred moment pass by without hearing one’s personal “beautiful question” from the lips of Jesus. It is the art of knowing how to see.

In his book entitled Summoned to Lead, Leonard Sweet described a 1999 Panasonic ad campaign called “Leonardo de Vinci: The Art of Seeing.” It centered on da Vinci’s philosophy, summed up in two words: saper vedere, or “knowing how to see.” As a scientist, philosopher, inventor, and artist, da Vinci enlisted the concept of saper vedere to engage the world around him. To him, life was measured by one’s ability to see correctly. He described the almost mystical process of artists as not simply painting what they see, but their ability to see what they paint.

While the folks on that road to Jericho were blind, Bartimaeus was able to see using the eyes of his heart. The temptation to move ahead without saper vedere – before knowing how to see – is strong. But usually when we cave to that temptation, we cause more problems than we solve. Then it is easy to miss the beautiful question rolling off the lips of the Master who speaks through some very unexpected people and in some very surprising places.

As poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in “Aurora Leigh”:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms

p.s. Explore a pop culture illustration of saper vedere, or read how it shapes Street Psalms’s vision trips.

Image: “Christ Giving Sight to Bartimaeus” by William Blake (c. 1800)

The Gift of Losing Control

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Mark 10:13-16

During the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States, one optic stood out: his daily embrace of children. Cynics might dismiss this as calculated media strategy or worse. An online commenter sneered, “Imagine that, another priest hugging and kissing children.” But Pope Francis, the “pope of the periphery,” makes cynicism difficult with his transparently genuine delight among the vulnerable. He often references the life of Jesus as the model for his own life and leadership.

In the gospels we find Jesus among children – taking them into his arms and blessing them. People brought children to be touched. As with others, including those considered “untouchable,” Jesus engaged body and spirit as inseparably whole in his welcome and blessing. As we have seen, children in the Jesus stories are yet another embodiment of the outsider – the scorned, the rejected, the powerless, the victimized, the vulnerable.

For Jesus it is a teaching moment. In the previous chapter, children prompted teaching about exclusion and welcome (Mark 9:36-37). Following up here, Jesus connects his favorite metaphor – “the kingdom of God” – to the precarious social standing of a child.

Now, however, the Rabbi does not simply present a cerebral analysis of metaphorical parallels. He is incensed! Seeing how his own disciples “spoke sternly” to exclude, a fire rises. We can imagine him red-faced. His rebuke must have set the disciples aback. “Whoa… where did that come from? Just trying to help keep things under control here.”

Control is the issue. The disciples have been wrestling with issues of power (Mark 9:34), which they associate with control. And they have come to imagine themselves to be privileged insiders – gatekeepers managing entry for outsiders.

Jesus finally blows a gasket. Right in front of the children! How badly his words have been misunderstood. “The kingdom of God [will] come with power” (Mark 9:1). But how very strange a power. He has begun to speak of his coming humiliation and execution – utter loss of control, utter ostracism. So also he speaks of children – without power to manage or control, dependent on others to even plea on their behalf for a touch of blessing.

In the last chapter, Jesus’s point is that the children should be welcomed. Here he goes further, proclaiming the powerless outsider-ness of children to be the prerequisite condition for any of us to experience the realm of God at all. It comes as a gift, to be “received” (v. 10). Tough gift, because we’re not inclined to take loss of control easily. Given such resistance, Jesus elsewhere compares it to a death march to the gallows (Mark 8:34), or the dark passage of childbirth (John 3:3). A gift much more readily received by people powerless and ostracized already, than by those with much to lose.

In short order Jesus will leave, trusting these very disciples to lead – with power! But not before they will lose all imagined ability to manage and control their own fates, let alone manage the good news of God.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Photo: Pope Francis greets children from Maryland’s Catholic Coalition for Special Education (CCSE) (photo credit: Mary Frances LaHood of St. Joseph’s House)

 

Child in the Middle

He was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him…. Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Mark 9:31-32, 36-37

Children are overbearing, supercilious, passionate, envious, inquisitive, egotistical, idle, fickle, timid, intemperate, liars, and dissemblers; they laugh and weep easily, are excessive in their joys and sorrows, and that about the most trifling objects; they bear no pain, but like to inflict it on others; already they are men.
Jean de La Bruyère (Les Caractères, 1688)

“Their innocent unconsciousness is very beautiful,
and gives one a feeling of reverence,
as at the presence of something sacred”
Lewis Carroll (Letters, 1865)

Reading Jesus’s comments about children, we are prone to overlay modern notions of the innocence, wonder, and simple delight of childhood. Social historians tell us that at least in the West, this conception especially arose and flourished with the “cult of the child” in post-Enlightenment Victorian times. Romanticized, idyllic images of the child abounded in books and on tea towels. Wordsworth would gush, “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!”

Whether childhood was actually so in the Victorian age was another story. Then as now, and in the ancient world, children bore the downstream impact of every social evil. Roman rulers particularly delighted in children, having no qualms owning them as sexual playthings. In Jesus’s time children had no legal protection except as property, to be treated well or poorly at the whims of others.

In the gospel texts there is no evidence of Jesus making reference to the innocence, wonder, and delight of children – worthy as those qualities truly are. Nor any reference to the potential and possibilities embodied in childhood that developmental psychology has given us, or democracies where supposedly “you can be anything you want to be.”

Rather, children in the Jesus stories are clearly yet another embodiment of the outsider – the scorned, the rejected, the powerless, the victimized, the vulnerable. This is simply taken to be so.

Jesus does not put the child “among them” knowing the disciples will instinctively bounce her on their knees and play pattycake. Elsewhere this rough bunch is not nice around children. At this very moment (Mark 9:33-35) they are men grappling for power, which is never a safe space for the vulnerable. The child is located “in the middle” – precisely the most terrifying place for those who are marginalized to find themselves on display – among scorners.

It is precisely the place Jesus will find himself soon, as he has been trying to teach: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands” (v. 31). Now he shows. Strangely (how un-Victorian the image!), it is his most ominous and unflinching picture yet of the cost of discipleship.

Precisely here, Jesus shows tenderly, is the welcome of God.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Photo: “Warning Children” by Cosey Fanni Tutti (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Outsiders and Insiders: A Tale of Two Daughters

“Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
“… Your daughter is dead, why trouble the teacher any further?”
Mark 5:34-35

The Gospel writers are masterful storytellers, and in our Gospel lectionary text this week, Mark weaves together a narrative of two daughters. The comparison and contrast between the two is striking:

* One has been bleeding for 12 years while the other has been alive for 12 years.
* They both are afflicted with serious, life-threatening physical conditions.
* The elder woman is permanently infertile, while the younger is on the eve of puberty and child rearing potential.
* One is completely alone and forgotten, while the other has a doting father of high prestige taking great personal risk to try to save her.
* One has to muster up faith by herself, while the other has one who possesses faith for her.
* One is an outcast (outsider) and the other a “princess” (insider).
* The “outsider” is healed – the “insider” dies.
* New life comes to both.

The passage begins as a very important ruler of the synagogue named Jairus comes on behalf of his 12-year-old daughter who is sick and near death. In doing so, Jairus is throwing away his reputation and quite possibly his career at the feet of Jesus. The text, shedding no light on the conversation between the two men, simply says, “So he went with him.”

Along the way, amid a throng of curious onlookers bumping up and against Jesus, a woman with a perpetual bleeding condition steps through the crowd and shuts the parade down in its tracks. Jesus stops everyone, demanding to know who has just “touched” him because he suddenly sensed a release of healing power. It was a touch bathed in the faith-filled waters of God’s abundance; a gesture of belief that just a tiny touch would be sufficient for a new lease on life.

Consider for a moment the condition this woman was in. A chronic menstrual disorder would be a catastrophic situation for any woman, but for a first century observant Jewish woman, the implications were great –  she was unable to have sexual relations with her husband, unable to give birth, unable to fulfill domestic responsibilities, and unable to enter the Temple because everything she touched would be contaminated by her “uncleanliness.” Not only had the established medical system failed her, its corruption and incompetence had robbed her of everything she had. Life had been slowly bleeding out of her for 12 years, so in one final act of desperation she reaches out to touch her last remaining vestige of hope: the edge of the robe of a great teacher in whom she would now put all the faith she had left.

Note here that Mark emphasizes the woman’s faith rather than Jesus’s power. The woman models courage to step up out of the crowd – a move away from the cycle of violence and rejection that has imprisoned her for the past 12 years. Inside that cycle, the woman bathes in blood; when she leaves it by boldly touching the hem of Jesus’s garment, her bleeding stops.

The scorching truth of the matter is that outsiders are uniquely familiar with the rejection, shame, and scandal at the core of the Gospel story. Not only do they tend to connect more quickly, they have the stomach for it. For example, the women at the cross were able to stand and watch what Jesus went through because they knew Jesus’s experience of pain, suffering, and rejection – they had lived it. Like the bleeding woman in Mark 5, shame and marginalization had shaped their entire lives.

We have no idea how long this episode “distracted” Jesus from the mission at hand, but immediately after Jesus healed this nameless bleeding woman whom he calls “daughter,” the report comes from messengers that the other daughter (the far more important one in the eyes of society) has died. Jairus’s mission has failed, and thus there is no need to continue troubling the teacher. While an “outsider” was receiving new life, the “insider” had died.

Perhaps the injustices in society had been rightfully reversed? The poor and forsaken are now healed while the rich and honored are made to feel poor and forsaken? This conclusion makes perfect sense through the lens of a tit-for-tat, dual-consciousness world of “insider” versus “outsider.” Indeed, this could easily be understood as the message of the story, had it ended at verse 35. However, the story does not end there, because Jesus has a second daughter to heal.

Jesus continues the journey to Jairus’s home, rejecting the admonition of the messengers, and makes the bold claim that this daughter is not dead – she is simply asleep. Jesus enters the “dead” daughter’s room not with words about her (as would be expected at a funeral), but with words for her. Taking the child by the hand, he says to her, “Talitha cum” (Little girl, I say to you, arise).

Here we see Jesus mirroring the risk that Jairus earlier had taken in throwing himself at the feet of Jesus, for it is now Jesus’s turn to break the rules: touching a dead body would have rendered Jesus spiritually “unclean.” And again we see risk pay off as Jairus’s daughter awakens and walks.

These two daughters represent the entire spectrum of society, from impoverished to privileged. By weaving these two encounters with Jesus together, Mark confronts us with how the healing path for the daughter of privilege must detour to engage suffering in the crowd. Only in the light of a rejected woman’s restored “daughterhood” can the daughter of privilege be restored to true life. That is the faith the insiders must humbly learn from those who are typically scorned as outsiders. It is the courageous faith required for a genuinely healed and peace-full society with room for all.

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America

P.S. The same voice that awoke a boy near Nain, that stirred the stilled daughter of Jairus, that awakened the corpse of Lazarus – is the same voice that speaks today.Questions for Contemplation: 

  • Jairus risked his secure, prestigious job because he loved his daughter more than his career. Jesus risked his reputation as a teacher in order to bring the daughter back to life. Whom do you love enough to risk your career and reputation?
  • Who does the bleeding woman represent in your life? How about the 12-year-old girl?

 

For further reading about the Spirit’s dance among insiders and outsiders – including incarcerated gang members in Guatemala City and sex workers in Santo Domingo – we invite you read chapter 7 of Geography of Grace, “Insiders and Outsiders.” Available here.

 

Photo: Kat_Leo_4295 by Stefan Schmitz (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Riding the Waves of the City

And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
Mark 4:35-41

I spent my formative childhood years in wilderness. Every day prompted a new foray into the woods with my dog Bessie leading the way. This was actual wilderness, not the national kind with streams of visitors. Bessie and I were the only outsiders; our hosts were cougars, bobcats, coyotes, bears, owls, skunks, and rattlesnakes. We imagined ourselves insiders, and learned to read signs of every sort. We climbed cliffs and forded streams. Any given day the wilderness might injure or kill us, and nobody would know until at least dinnertime. My pocketknife would be flimsy defense. That awareness sobered and exhilarated me. I vowed never to live anywhere near a city.

Everything changed when I turned 18. My college outside Chicago was multiple days’ drive from wilderness, and I was left staring at mountain posters on my dorm wall. How would I not shrivel?

One night some new friends and I decided to head downtown and catch a Bulls NBA basketball game. We knew nothing about the city but we’d figure it out. We got off the train in the “Loop” business district and asked around for directions to the old Chicago Stadium. “You can’t walk there from here” was everyone’s reply. What? Five miles, ten miles – we didn’t care, we got legs. Shortly we were in the heart of the Near West Side, surrounded by forces that might injure or kill us. I doubt I am exaggerating, given various verbal greetings that came our way along the streets. I had never seen so many buildings that appeared bombed out, or such impressive rodents. How we made it to Chicago Stadium I can’t say, or how we made it back.

I fell into bed that night knowing we had been foolish and naïve – and very lucky. That awareness sobered me. In a strangely familiar way, it also exhilarated me. There was a wild and formidable energy to the city, to crowds – forces fantastically larger than I might control. At best I might eventually learn to see, to read the lay of things, and to navigate. The next weekend I was in Chicago again, walking.

For peoples of the ancient Mediterranean world and nearby desert regions, water was both absolutely essential and terrifyingly wild. Water held enormous significance in life and in imagination. Of course water had practical significance, as it does today. Life doesn’t happen without it. But water transcended the practical, surging into the mythic. Fickle and forceful, “the waters” held the possibility of life and death – divine and demonic (more on this here). “And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat,” our scripture says. Hmmm, talk about out of the frying pan into the fire! From the swirling and unpredictable crowds, to the fickle and fearsome waters. What follows is a nature miracle story – one of the few miracle stories in the gospels that does not involve Jesus healing sick or demonized people. “He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm” (Mark 4:39).

For many modern readers this episode stretches belief. Jesus’s moral example and influence is widely recognized. But supernatural, divine power over untamed natural forces? The ancients were similarly incredulous. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (v. 41).

Having spent time deep in both nature and crowded communities, I’m not sure what might be the greater challenge: peacemaking in a storm squall or peacemaking amid the great energies churning within gathered humanity. I might put my money on humanity for downright impossibility. Though I’ve learned a bit of navigation in cities since my college days, large urban realities can still make me feel foolish, naïve, and small. Stories from our global network are daunting. Seeing what we’re all up against, I grip the sides of the boat.

Yet Jesus speaks peace, proclaims blessing on peacemakers, and opens imagination for the impossible. He shows compassion, not disdain, for crowds. Moving among masses of humanity, Jesus is at home in creation and makes creation at home with itself – shalom. This is divine work, amid the disordered and chaotic. Even this nature miracle is more about human fear and its effects (“Why are you afraid?” v. 40) than meteorology. It speaks to the work of peace we are invited to, even amid our smallness and fear.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “Chicago 8/28/2011” by atramos (CC BY 2.0)