Explore and sign up for our series of weekly emailed reflections, which follow the Revised Common Lectionary liturgical calendar of readings from the Old and New Testaments. These reflections have been drawn from, and lend themselves to, sermons for preachers as well as private devotionals. All are rooted in perspectives “from below” that embrace abundance and peacemaking.

A Change of Heart for Jesus?

She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:22-28

Can I say that I find this story the single most intriguing account of Jesus in all the gospels?

Taken at face value, it would seem to portray Jesus undergoing a complete change of mind and heart toward this foreign “Caananite” woman he encounters. As it happens, there are a number of ways to read this story – each revealing at least as much about us as readers, as it does about Jesus. I’d like to highlight three ways possible to read the story.

First, some readers are not bothered by Jesus’s apparent condescension toward the woman or her request. She is in fact not worthy of Jesus’s attention. Nobody is. Humanity is entirely unworthy and undeserving of any divine mercy whatever. The few who get it should be grateful and the rest can’t complain. I’m troubled by the picture of both God and humanity in this view, but some form of it seems common. In any case, Jesus takes note of her faith and “throws to the dogs” a token of his goodness.

Fr. Robert Voyle introduced me to another reading of this passage, highlighting what he calls the “mischievous” energy of compassion Jesus employs. (Voyle identifies three essential energies of compassion: fierce, mischievous, and tender.) Jesus sees in this woman low self-esteem and high potential. He could say, “You poor little thing, let me grant your wish” (tender voice of compassion) – fixing her perceived problem but likely reinforcing her core issue of shame. He could also rebuke his disciples for their prejudice and take her under his wing, sheltering her from emotional harm (fierce voice of compassion). But he discerns a mischievous, though quite risky, tactic for empowerment in this moment. “Why should I do anything for a dog like you?” Wow. Jesus. What? From deep within, the woman’s blood boils. A dog? Did he just call me a dog?? She squares her shoulders, raises her head, and looks Jesus in the eye. “Even the dogs,” she sputters, her own fierceness rising – “Even the dogs get crumbs!” Whoa, THAT’S what were’ talking about, Jesus exclaims – NOW we see what you got, baby, bring it! Let’s have some more of that. Now I can really get to work with you!

I love Voyle’s reading here, and I love reading through all the gospels watching these three dynamic energies of compassion at work. But there is a third reading I also find not only possible but compelling, introduced to me by Dr. Vie Thorgren. In Thorgren’s reading, this is primarily a story of Jesus himself learning, growing, and re-centering in his mission and call.

For Thorgren, solitude and presence with the poor were Jesus’s two essential teachers during his adult life. He was continually aware of his need for both, as keenly as his need for bread and water. Solitude and the poor both centered him. Both created space for him to hear the voice of his Father and the music of the Spirit. Both allowed him to grow into the fullness of his humanity and the fulfillment of his mission. Some people find the notion of Jesus learning and growing in his adult life offensive, which I in turn find odd. He surely grew, learned, and developed as a child in multiple ways (Luke 2:40, 52). How strange and inhuman it would be if he did not learn as an adult. What a shame if he could not be a model of open-hearted and open-minded growth for us as adults?

This returns us to the most face-value reading of all. Was this in fact a critical, transformational learning moment for Jesus? If so, what did he learn? How did he listen? What shifts was he open to? In a similar way as his times of desert solitude, how did he allow this encounter to stir his spirit and open his eyes for steps ahead?

We who wish to be apprentices of Jesus would do well to let our imaginations roam with this. Reading the full passage, we notice that for a time as the woman was pleading, “He did not answer her at all.” What might Jesus have been wrestling with internally, as he allowed her cries to echo in his soul? What did he allow her to teach him?

Might we grow and change with Jesus as well?

Peace,
Scott Dewey
The Street Psalms Community

Photo: Jean-Germain Drouais – The Woman of Canaan at the Feet of Christ (1784) 

Theoretical Considerations of Walking on Water

He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.
Matthew 14:29

I can say from experience that there is a difference between reading a book about childbirth and being present for one. I’m told there’s a difference between being present for a childbirth and actually bearing a child. I’m assuming, though don’t quite remember, that it’s still another thing to be born.

This week’s gospel reading, about Jesus and Peter walking on water (Matthew 14:22-33), clearly makes for better armchair reading than firsthand experience. For instance, there is a tiny little narrative gap between verses 24 and 25. Into that gap slides hours of terror. In the evening, the disciples’s boat was battered by waves and wind, unable to reach shore (v. 25). Skip to the morning, same conditions (v. 26). Can you imagine the night? I can – but conveniently, without retching up my breakfast.

I have also read, in fairly detailed study, about the concept of “the waters” in classical Middle Eastern imagination and mythology. In many ancient literary works, including the Hebrew scriptures, the waters represent untamed chaos and overwhelming danger. True, there is healing and life in water. But the same water when deep and windblown will turn and devour you like a monstrous force. In fact the ancients named an array of terrible sea creatures with supernatural power (Leviathan and Rahab, to name two in the Bible that are mentioned in other regional literature). It makes for interesting reading.

Reading this passage, we can see images and hear echoes of the Genesis creation story – where God moves over the surface of the waters, bringing order and life from chaos. And the terror and rescue of the flood and the ark, and the Exodus story of salvation in the Red Sea. Our story places Jesus precisely on the angry waters, against this backdrop of a God who prevails amid a cosmic battle of powers. Jesus is divine victor and peace-bearer. Not so many chapters later, Jesus will be submerged by these same powers, descending to the depths, with his followers scattered and wrecked. But our story foreshadows resurrection triumph and solace.

On we might go with study and reflection on the nature of miracles and faith and fear and doubt and risk, which is all genuinely fascinating, but the narrative hinges on the moment Peter GOT OUT OF THE BOAT.

Transformation begins when we do too.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
The Street Psalms Community

Lavish For Whom?

“Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.”
Matthew 14:8 

He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
Matthew 14:19-20

The fourteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel tells of two lavish feasts, back to back. The juxtaposition is startling – clearly arranged by the narrator in vivid contrast.

The first feast takes place in a likely setting for extravagance – amid wealth and power. Herod Antipas, a Roman surrogate “King of the Jews,” was known for a level of royal excess only perhaps surpassed by that of his father Herod the Great (mentioned at Jesus’ infancy). What Herod Antipas desired, he typically got. Not in line for the throne? An execution or two fixed that. Upgrade on a wife? Out with the old, in with the young. New palace? Sure, and a new city to put it in.

We can only imagine what a birthday party for such a man might entail. Most of it is left to our imagination, except for a few lurid details we are not spared here. Seems Herod had a fondness for young skin and became particularly enthused with his stepdaughter’s dance performance for the occasion. Probably well lubricated by that point, a gleeful Antipas makes a wild oath to grant the girl any wish. Prompted by the queen, the girl asks for the macabre appetizer of John the Baptist’s severed head. Why not? Past a certain point in the night, anything goes.

Almost anything, apparently. Even Herod has to stifle a gag reflex at this proposition. There is a backstory. In Jewish prophetic tradition, John has been the moral conscience of his people – publicly opposing the king’s new marriage arrangement. Prison fixed the “public” part. Ruthless as he was, Herod wasn’t ready for the death penalty for his critic – out of sight and earshot was enough.

On this night, however, no extravagance was too much. To save face in front of guests (rather than, surely, to maintain any integrity of his word), he ordered the gruesome platter to be served.

“When Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” It wasn’t deserted for long. Any mournful reflection and action would have to be done in the company of five or ten thousand of his closest friends and followers. Jesus might have preferred a fast, but would soon host a feast. And what a feast it became! The story is familiar, starting with five loaves and two fish and ending with baskets of leftovers.

Less familiar, and worth pondering, is the contrast in the extravagance of the two feasts. For starters…

Motive: Narcissism – Compassion

Venue: Personal palace for royal hubris – Springtime grassland, natural beauty for the refreshment of all

Invitation: Exclusive to royal guests – Welcome to all

Serves: Lusts of the host – Nourishment of guests

Empowers: One wealthy family in depraved, fearful way – All participants and families, especially servers and especially the poor

Leftovers: Revolting, useless, limited – Savory, abundant, available

Outcome: Violence – Shalom

I would invite you to think of more comparisons and contrasts, and to reflect on the two stories on a number of levels – particularly the level of public life and leadership.

Many of us are accustomed to reading the Bible with privatized application to our personal spiritual lives, which is vital. But I would like to ask an equally vital question here: What do these two stories say about urban public policy? There is lavish abundance in all of our communities. But lavish for whom?

To the extent we exercise our public leadership opportunities and responsibilities, how do we best foster a life-giving mix of:

Urban spaces: Private vs. publicly shared

Recreation and celebration, festivals: Privately vs. publicly enjoyed

Economic opportunity: Pathways for a few vs. many

Basic resources: Health care, education, nutrition, legal representation, public safety, communication systems, transportation – for people across ALL economic and social lines

Differing political and social ideologies will certainly suggest very different approaches to these ends. We should welcome the dialogue; complex urban realities defy single-ingredient recipes. While it would be a misuse of scripture to find ready-made “answers” for the challenges of our cities in its pages, gospel narratives such as these two lavish feasts can frame contours of the conversation for those of us who desire to follow Jesus in both a private and public way.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
The Street Psalms Community

 

Photo: Moveable Feast by Charles Roper (CC BY 2.0)

Riddles of Grace

“The shortest distance between a human being and the truth is a story.”
-Father Anthony de Mello

Our lectionary Gospel reading continues where we left off last week in Matthew 13. This time Jesus’ riddles (parables) focus on mustard seeds, yeast, pearls, and fishing nets.

In a supersized, Big Box culture where dimensions rule, the parable of the mustard seed is often interpreted with the assumption that its meaning is about the Church, and the conclusion is that God wants the Church to be big. The story is familiar. What starts as a small seed becomes the largest of trees. However, if growth is Jesus’ main point, he chose a poor metaphor – so perhaps here again is proof that Jesus was certainly more carpenter than farmer. The farmers in the crowd would have been shocked by this story. It simply makes no sense.

Robert Farrar Capon points out that the mustard tree is a weed no farmer wants in his garden. It may start off as a small seed, but even at full height, it only stands six feet tall. It could hardly compete for splendor with the cedars of Lebanon that filled Solomon’s temple. If Jesus is after size, he picked the wrong shrub. And this is the point he is trying to make. He probably did know, after all, that the mustard tree is a “shrub” – a weed that farmers spent their days trying to eliminate because these weeds grew into homes for birds that destroyed crops. If the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, then who would want it?

In a world where clean and efficient megachurches are often celebrated as clear evidence of God’s special anointing, it is important to consider that not all growth is good growth and not all growth leads to unity. It is reminiscent of what we call the ‘mustard seed syndrome’ that afflicts so much of the church – the unexamined belief that God delights in bigness and that somehow the growth of the Church automatically equals blessings to the world. As a result, we often project our desires onto the Gospel and squeeze into the text interpretative calisthenics that satisfy those desires.

Jesus presses on with another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matthew 13:33). This one sentence capstone of Jesus’ teaching is the stone that Israel rejected, and so do we – for good reason. Yeast is a mold that was considered unclean in Hebrew culture. With Jesus using a weed and a mold to illustrate the kingdom, what is he suggesting?

Could it be that the Kingdom of God in our cities appears in forms that our culture, our ideologies, and our theologies have conditioned us to reject? Could it be that the weeds and molds that we have systematically tried to get rid of are the very things that reveal the presence of God and are the keys to genuine community and unity? These texts invite us to move toward a kind of unity that makes room for the “other,” particularly the “other” that we are most conditioned to reject.

Jesus continues his riddles with the image of a fishing net (v. 47-48). The fishing net of that day was a dragnet, which interests me as a wannabe fisherman. When I “pretend” to go sport fishing, I attempt to use specific lures of just the right color and size, and choose just the right test-line for certain conditions – all to land a specific fish during a specific season. (At least this is what I imagine real sport fisherman do).

The fishing culture in Jesus’ day was markedly different. The dragnet was tied to a weight that would go down to the bottom and scrape up everything – from bottom feeders to the fish on the surface and all the sea life that comes in-between. It’s really a crazy, dirty way to fish.

Are we sport fishing for the fish we desire, or laying the dragnet that brings in all kinds? Are we worshiping size and “bigness,” wrongly assuming that growth in numbers automatically corresponds to blessings for the world? Have we become blind to the possibility that the yeast (mold) that we have systematically tried to get rid of might be the very thing that reveals the presence of God and is the key to genuine community and unity? Are we trying to sort our crops before the harvest, or are we trusting the sower to do the harvesting? If we dare to enter such riddles of grace, then mustard seeds, yeast, and a dragnet ministry with a wheat-and-tares discipline can radically broaden access to the one whose cross welcomes all.

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Director for Latin America
Guatemala City, Guatemala

 

Photo: Mustard Seedlings by Tess Watson (CC BY 2.0)

Dazzled

Imagine that it’s 1633 and you are hearing for the first time that the sun does not revolve around the earth. This bit of insight is being promoted by some odd guy named Galileo, who has just been branded a heretic by the Church:

We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the said Galileo… have rendered yourself in the judgment of this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely, of having believed and held the doctrine – which is false and contrary to the sacred and divine Scriptures – that the Sun is the center of the world…
Papal Condemnation of Galileo, 1633

In spite of this judgment, Galileo continues to share his vision. You can tell that he really believes in what he’s saying. There is an intuitive sense in you that he might be right, but it demands an entire re-wiring of your own vision of the universe, and it carries the brand of heresy.

Now just imagine – what if after hours of making his case before the skeptical and unreceptive audience, Galileo had changed tactics entirely. Instead of continuing to argue for what was true, imagine that he gave the audience what it wanted (what it knew) – and he did so in a way that highlighted the consequences of their “orthodox” view.

As if he said, I’m revealing a liberating truth, but if you insist on seeing things your way, then at least look carefully at your orthodoxy. Your truth makes you the center of the universe. If all you want is your own truth, you can have it; but you will need to spin a lot of large lies to maintain it. 

Perhaps something like this is happening in the parable of wheat and tares. Jesus begins by illustrating God’s truth and ends by mirroring back to us our own. He serves up two dishes and invites us to dine as we please, knowing that in the end we all eat our own judgments.

Jesus begins the parable by illustrating a wildly permissive God who lets the wheat and tares grow together. He invites us to do the same. A tare is a particular kind of weed that looks a lot like wheat. The farmer says, “Let both of them grow together. Don’t rip it out.” The implication here is that there is a way to sort all this out, but not with our methods of sorting things.

Paul Nuechterlein points out that the key word in the parable is “let,” aphete. It means “permit,” or “suffer.” It is also translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “forgive.” Whoa!

Yes, God permits evil, suffers evil, and forgives evil. This is the way of Jesus. This is the way of the Cross, and it paves the way for true justice – restorative justice. God’s judgment upon evil is… (are you ready for this?) mercy! The point is clear: attacking evil/tares will ruin everything, including the good/wheat. Using violence to cast out violence is like Satan casting out Satan. It doesn’t work.

Realizing that his teaching is a strong cup of coffee, Jesus changes tactics. Robert Farrar Capon suggests that in the second half of the parable, Jesus mirrors back to the crowd their own bloodthirsty orthodoxy. He gives them what they want (or think they want). Jesus makes it painfully clear to the disciples that the crowd’s truth ends in “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We experience God the way we express our judgments. To people who are bound by their own judgment, God’s liberating truth seems like heresy.

P.S. Even in the face of overwhelming proof, it took 359 years for the church to recant its judgment on Galileo. It’s been more than 2,000 years and we are still struggling with the mercy of Christ. We should not be too hard on this. As Emily Dickinson said,

The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind – 

May we dine on God’s judgment, not our own.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

Photo by Ronnie Pitman (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Deficiencies

And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow…  
some seeds fell on the path…  
rocky ground… thorns… good soil.
Matthew 13:1-9

This week’s text proves it: Jesus was definitely a carpenter, not a farmer. No farmer worth his or her salt would indiscriminately sow precious and expensive seed on all kinds of soil – the good, bad, and ugly. It’s wasteful. It’s bad farming. It is also bad storytelling – unless, of course, the point of the parable is that God is a lousy farmer.

In our eagerness to rescue the farmer from his own incompetence we are tempted to focus primarily on the soil (the soil illustrates our receptivity to the Gospel). But shifting our attention too quickly from the sower to the soil is a dangerous move. Moralism is the death of Christianity. The world has many moral management systems, but only one Gospel, and Gospel is always crazy stuff to those of us who manage morality.

I am reminded of a good friend who tells the story of his visit with a Benedictine monk. He asked the monk what he’d been thinking about lately. After a lengthy pause, the monk replied, “I’ve been contemplating the deficiencies of God.” He offered a few examples. God has a bad memory; God is always forgetting our sins. God is terrible at math; God leaves the 99 to save the one. God is wasteful; God scatters precious seed everywhere.

When seen through the lens of scarcity, God appears to us as the wasteful one. Another word for wasteful is prodigal. Yes, God is the “Prodigal Father” whose squandering makes the “prodigal son” look frugal by comparison.

Bad memory, bad math, wasteful. Imagine if we patterned our lives after the deficiencies of God. Imagine if we were a little worse at remembering the score with those who have wronged us. Imagine if we were a little less calculating with our lives. Imagine if we were a little less frugal in how we give our gifts. Imagine how much better the world would be if we shared the holy deficiencies of God.

I find it interesting that all of the heresies of the early church bent in the same direction… toward fashioning a loftier, higher, and more holy God than the one Jesus reveals to us. I get it. The picture of God that Jesus paints is a portrait (self-portrait) that just doesn’t seem very flattering at first glance and at times is downright offensive. Mercy and grace look like a deficiency to a fearful and violent humanity… until, that is, it is experienced, and then it is the only thing that really matters.

Like all heretics, I too am tempted to “improve” on the picture that Jesus paints. But let’s be clear: with every improvement, the God of our own creation becomes increasingly unreachable, impassable, and unknowable. That God becomes increasingly angry, judgmental, and violent – and ends up looking a lot like us. We are simply incapable of inventing the prodigal God of mercy that Jesus revealed. That’s why we call it revelation!

So, along with the “prodigal” leaders we serve, who are sowing seeds of love with reckless abandon like mad farmers, we invite you to contemplate the deficiencies of God this summer.

Waste more, want more!

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Seeds of Geranium Flower by Jose Eduardo Deboni (CC BY 2.0)

My Well-Fitting Yoke

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:16-18, 28-30

On a terrace just off a smoky Kathmandu street, I sat in a circle with fellow aid workers gathered from across Asia. It was called a retreat – and for a number of us, it indeed felt like we had waved a white flag. We were beat. Wrapped in a blanket against the fog and chill, I stared into my little glass of chai. Vaguely I heard the visiting chaplain read some words of Jesus about yoke and a burden and felt my own gut sink brick-heavy with the sorrow and stress I had hauled to Nepal from many months in Bangkok slums.

“Churning, churning,” I wrote a friend later, of my stomach – which proved to be a wry premonition of the parasite I’d pick up later in the week. At the time though, the churning was set off by the words so jarringly dissonant from my recent experience: “easy” and “light.” BS, I thought. Nothing about what Jesus had invited me into had been remotely easy or light. I had been baited and switched; promised bread and given this stone. I pulled the blanket tighter and slumped further. The chaplain from Seattle was a good soul with an impossible task; we were too far gone to be cheered.

Over the course of the week our little group wandered along the streets and alleys of that extraordinary Himalayan town, sharing conversation over bowls of dal-bhat and snapping pictures like the tourists we didn’t quite admit we were. We talked with scraggy-bearded holy men and brightly-dressed market women. I bought a Tibetan prayer wheel, gave it a few spins, and wondered aloud whether it worked. As the days passed with my companions I noticed myself relaxing and even laughing. These were people carrying their own stones from hard places, but a lightness was rising among us.

What a gift, that week together! It would be years before I would find much better ways of weaving that communal gift of lightness into the fabric of all my days, rather than grasping for it as a patch of desperation after everything was in tatters. I would find it not only possible, but essential.

Later also, I would learn that “easy” is a particularly misleading translation of how Jesus described the yoke he offers. Scholars tell us a much better rendering would be “good,” even though it’s not the usual Greek word for good. It is good in the sense of “fitting” and “pleasingly useful.” “Christ’s yoke is like feathers to a bird; not loads, but helps to motion” (Jeremy Taylor). Unlike a poorly-fitted shoe, or dull knife, or bad eyeglasses, this yoke doesn’t strain. It suits. It befits its wearer. It outfits and equips the bearer for far greater service. Sure a person may need to grow into it, but with good growth it will fit better and better.

Such goodness of yoke and lightness of burden is cultivated in communities learning from Jesus that “the glory of God is humanity fully alive” (St. Irenaeus). In such community, we may come to discover that heavy stones we mistake for bread might not be what God intends us to carry at all. At the very least, we learn that burdens of any kind are not to be carried alone. We find rest for our souls and strength for good and fruitful work.

Coming to learn from Jesus, we see children in the streets of our cities playing make-believe. As kids do in their games, they imagine all the great range of human experience. Let’s make a funeral; you play dead and we’ll play the music. C’mon now, weep and wail everybody! Ok, now a wedding. You two be the bride and groom. Dance everybody! Hands in the air!

But some of us have quit dancing, or never did. We shuffle about in ill-fitting yokes carrying stones we mistook for something God dumped on us. We learn our ways of numbness and dissociation – lashing ourselves by addiction to an array of baggage straps that constrict and constrain. We grow dead to the music of the Spirit and to the life in our bones, neither dancing nor wailing. Anyone who dares to disrupt such addiction will suffer our cynicism or worse.

Jesus dares. Wear your own humanity as vibrantly as I wear my own, his story says. Freely open yourself to sorrow and joy, to life! Yes you’ve hurt – go ahead and wail. You’ve tasted happiness – sing! Dance when the music says dance, fling your limbs and shake your hair. Sure you’ll be called a demon or drunkard – but you’ll be in good company with that. You’ll survive and thrive. You will find this burden light – so much lighter than dreary numbness borne alone.

Your fully human self will suit you just fine, Jesus’ story says. Check in the mirror, you’ll see! Take a few steps. My good yoke will fit you so well that burdens you thought would crush you will not. Work you thought impossible, you will do. This fine yoke will harness you to others – and to me as your heart’s companion – in fruitfulness and delight.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
The Street Psalms Community

 

Photo: Nepal by Scott Dewey

Hospitality Among the Flies

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,
and whoever welcomes me
welcomes the one who sent me.”
Matthew 10:40

I could tell that every moment of Diane’s hospitality was painfully dissonant for her. I sat on a piece of ragged cardboard and ignored the smell wafting from bags of tenants’ trash piled high in the corner. This room was meant to house an apartment building’s trash, not a human – not Diane. A bag of her clothes, a sleeping bag, her cell phone and charger, and a book or two were all she kept there.

Diane and I lived on the same Cincinnati street. But we might as well have arrived by way of separate solar systems. I had moved from the white, middle-class suburbs to Over-the-Rhine, the downtown neighborhood infamous for its 2001 racial uprising. At the time I was working as a reporter for a local paper. Diane was mostly homeless and long addicted to crack. She scraped by any way she could.

We met through a street writing initiative. She turned out to have a soaring written voice, the kind that can’t be taught. After that, we’d run into each other on Main Street where it turned out we both lived – me in a charming, renovated apartment, and Diane in the trash room two blocks south.

On this occasion, in that room, she read me her poetry. Her voice and her stories, singing of humanity, lifted us above the stuffy air. I think the visit also lifted us both above our narrow ideas of friendship, intimacy, and hospitality.

This week’s lectionary gospel verses speak of hospitality. I have recently been invited to join the Street Psalms staff, and the job description contains this: “As Street Psalms staff, Stephanie will be expected to evidence in her working relationships, both within the organization and with other partners, the ‘manners’ of Street Psalms: generosity, hospitality, simplicity, and vulnerability.”

I have taped those words – generosity, hospitality, simplicity, vulnerability – next to my desk at home. Three of those I grasp naturally and practice imperfectly, but as an introvert, even wrapping my head around “hospitality” can work me into a pretzel. I’d always understood hospitality to mean nice table settings and appetizers before dinner parties, and sometimes that is what it means. But now, I realize it is much broader than that.

I remember that visit with Diane and the reverence I felt for this invitation into her world. Flies buzzed around trash bags as grotesque symbols of her shame. It was not so unlike my own shame, just less hidden. This invitation into her home, however temporary a home – into her all-too-permanent world – was more intimate and vulnerable than any dinner party I’d ever attended. In turn, my role was to appreciate her hospitality, regardless of setting. Luckily, in that moment, appreciation came easily.

I remember, too, a string of days those years ago when I walked home from work sobbing openly. One day when I turned onto Main Street, Diane found me like that.

She put her arm around me and, moving as a pair, she walked me home.

Peace,
Stephanie Dunlap
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Two Women in the Park by Evan Bench

Pain as Gateway of Transformation

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
Genesis 21:19

Our Old Testament lectionary reading this week in Genesis 21:8-21 submerges us into a desert of pain for a woman named Hagar: “She went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, I cannot watch the boy die. And as she sat there, she began to sob.”

At Street Psalms we recognize our own pain and the pain of others as the primary gateway of transformation. We are wounded healers; we recognize that, as Richard Rohr says, “if we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” The way of the cross demands disorientation and loss on the way to renewal and life, both for individuals and communities.

In the “desert region” of Guatemala there is a men’s prison with a surprising group of residents. In what used to be the dining hall, a ragtag group of girlfriends, wives, sisters, and mothers of a hated group of Central American gang members sleep under and on top of cement slab tables. After an altercation in their previous “home,” the only option the prison system could find for the women was a converted dining hall in this out-of-the way facility.

One of the chaplains in our network began receiving requests from the gang members with whom he worked to please go and check on their “girls” for fear of their safety. After one visit, he could not stay away and started taking the three-hour ride every other week. On one of those trips he invited me to tag along, and I will never forget what I saw and experienced that day.

We entered the men’s prison and had to pass down a long corridor lined with shirtless, tattooed men looking out from locked cells. We came to a locked gate, and from the hallway could see several bed sheets hanging from the ceiling, visually blocking the former dining hall, now home to a couple dozen women – most of them guilty only by association to the incarcerated men they called brothers, boyfriends, or husbands.

We were allowed to enter and meet with the women. After a couple hours of small talk, we began a conversation centered in Hagar. The women quickly saw themselves in the story. They could relate to being unnamed and used as property by people who held positions of authority and power over them. They knew what it felt like to live in “deserts” of loneliness caused by rejection and marginalization. In Hagar’s story, they found their own, and they were captivated by surprise and wonder when they learned that Hagar was the first to name God.

A few weeks after our visit, the chaplain was able to complete the first phase of a prison remodeling project to build a cement block wall that physically separated the women from the men. Upon completion of that wall, the idea emerged to paint a mural. A discussion ensued as to what the women wanted to paint. They unanimously decided on the story of Hagar with the words, “El Dios Que Me Ve” (“The God Who Sees Me”) as the focal point.

As relationships with these amazing women have continued, it is clear that the desert of pain where these present-day Hagars find themselves has allowed them to see the great El-roi in a profound and unique manner. Ironically, the institutional church in Latin America often attempts to avoid pain – and in so doing, marginalizes the very people, like these women, who can provide the vision and sight the church so desperately needs.

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms partner in Guatemala City

 

Photo: 

The Manner of Going

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”
Matthew 28:16-20

At Street Psalms we talk about the message, method and manners of mission. Our message is the transforming love of God. Our method is incarnational, or as we often say, “from below.” And our manners have to do with a particular way of loving the world. Mission without manners is not just impolite – it sows seeds of violence.

This week’s lectionary text is the classic missionary text, especially for protestant mission. Many call it the “Great Commission,” as though Jesus himself coined the term. He didn’t. It was made popular by William Carey in the early 1800s. Carey was the founder of the Baptist Missionary Society and the father of modern protestant missions.

But let’s face it, our manner of mission has not always been so life-giving. History is littered with examples of missionaries who felt empowered by God to “make” disciples by any means necessary. Perhaps this is why Jesus warned us about our manners. “You cross sea and land to make a convert only to make them twice the sons and daughters of hell” (Matthew 23:15).  Clearly the Great Commission has been the occasion for much good.Many of the Western world’s great social concerns such as schools and hospitals originated through mission. A shining example of a well-mannered missionary is Bartolomé de las Casas, who was one of the first missionaries to the “New World.” He spent nearly 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the violent colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. Our Street Psalms network is filled with modern day Bartolomés.

Street Psalms practices four manners of mission that imitate the manners of Jesus. “The Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does in like manner” (John 5:19). These manners are our version of “please and thank you.” True to form, we are learning our manners most powerfully from the vulnerable themselves – they who are the face and grace of Jesus, returning us to ourselves, clothed and in our right mind.

Generosity: “Enough for all!”

A largeness of vision derived from God’s abundance – a willingness to risk big, fail often, forgive much, share much, and act freely in ways that transform our lives and the city.

Hospitality: “Room for all.”

A largeness of heart that sets welcoming and open tables for all and gives preferred seating to those at the margins – a willingness to welcome, invite, gather, network and serve others in ways that nurture ever-widening community.

Simplicity: “Limits for all.”

A largeness of soul that trusts, honors and discerns the limits and healthy boundaries of our gifts, call, roles, and responsibilities. We are free to say yes AND no to opportunities. This discipline is born out of deep trust in the boundless love of God and the Spirit’s unwavering commitment to bring all things to completion.

Vulnerability: “Risk in all”

A largeness of strength and courage that risks on the power of vulnerability. Martin Buber said, “All real life is meeting.” Such “meeting” is born of vulnerability that feels a lot like weakness. And yet vulnerability calls forth life, or as Brené Brown said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

Go, therefore…

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Dresden to Go by Martin Fisch (CC BY-SA 2.0)

All Flesh Is One

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”
Acts 2:1-21

This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost – the gift of the Spirit poured out on “all flesh” (vs. 7).

The primary miracle in Acts 2 is a miracle of the ear, not the tongue. The word “hear” shows up three times in this passage. Yes, the real miracle is the ability to “hear” one another amidst all the differences, and to celebrate that which is held in common. Pentecost is the celebration of a new humanity, a new kind of community made possible in Christ.

In our increasingly pluralistic world, difference is seen as the primary threat. This, of course, is the great lie of our age. The modern marketing machine naively implores us to “celebrate our differences,” as though difference were the issue. Difference is not nearly as threatening (or liberating) as sameness. Yes, it is sameness that we fear, and celebrating sameness is precisely what the Spirit makes possible. In the Spirit we can embrace our sameness without dissolving into an undifferentiated glob or devolving into violent chaos.

At the Tower of Babel, God scattered humanity because the threat of sameness had become too great. The only kind of unity imaginable at Babel was a unity born of fear and violence in which “we” could not exist without an enemy – “them” – to hold our “we”-ness together. Seen this way, dividing and scattering humanity by language was a mercy to protect humanity from destroying itself. At Pentecost the Spirit of Jesus offers a new mercy – a new open source language system by which we can hear one another. She gathers us and makes a new kind of unity possible – a unity that is over and against nothing, but with and for all. It is a unity of “us” that is not dependent on the enemy “them” to hold us all together.

Yes, sameness is the issue! Consider the people that irritate us the most. Almost always the thing that irks us in the other is the thing that we can’t stand about ourselves. Of course, this remains largely hidden to us, but the people we struggle with the most are most like us. Our enemies are more like us than we imagine: they are mirrors of our own soul. This is why Jesus calls us to love our enemies. To press the point further, consider that fact that twins were seen as threats in most ancient societies and were often banished, killed, or sacrificed. Think of the twins (Jacob and Esau) in Scripture. They are depicted as rivals from birth. Consider the fact that King Herod descended from the line of Esau and Jesus from the line of Jacob. Herod and Jesus twins? Yes, Jesus is our twin brother who is completely unthreatened by what we hold in common.

At Pentecost we celebrate that we are all created in the image of God. In Christ, the artificial and heavily-defended boundaries of race, culture, and even religion that seem sovereign and impassible are loosened. Instead of forging community over and against others, in Christ, we are free to form community with and for others (even our enemies). This is the miracle of Pentecost. Inside the Spirit, the artificial differences that we use to separate and divide are gone. In the Spirit, the borders are opened, made passable. We are free to come and go in peace. As the psalmist said, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Psalm 16:6). Yes, in Christ, we can enjoy a new kind of unity.

This is why Paul can say, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

To be centered in Christ is to hold our boundaries loosely. When we are centered in Christ we can occupy the edges in new and fresh ways. No wonder this week’s lectionary text says the people were, “amazed and perplexed” (vs. 12).

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Unity by Luz_Spy (CC BY 2.0)

Union

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
John 17:1-11

To be one “as we are one.” Yes, this really is the heart of it! To become one. Union. Intimacy. The Gospel of Jesus opens us up to the possibility of becoming one in a way that seems utterly impossible – to enjoy unity without being in rivalry with anyone or anything. It is unity with and for everything – over and against nothing, not even death. This is the kind of unity that God enjoys and makes available to us. Impossible, but this is the promise of Jesus. This is Shalom.

This may sound heady and abstract, but let’s remember these words were uttered to good friends when facing imminent death. Jesus’ prayer was anything but an abstraction. It was his dying wish. People facing death don’t utter abstractions. They speak their heart’s desire.

I am writing this in my father’s bedroom. He is dying. He will likely be dead by the time you read this. (Update: Dad died Friday the 23rd at 3 p.m., just he and I together… holy intimacy… it is the closest thing to giving birth that I will know.) Two months ago, we moved my parents into our home. We wanted to share this holy time with them and they with us. It has been a hard but huge gift. We will be sharing holy communion in about half an hour from now. Yes, communion… co-union. This is my Dad’s heart’s desire. As Dad’s body wastes away, his heart is being renewed and ours with his.

Union… Mom came into our bedroom this morning and woke us up. It’s not easy for her to be with Dad. So she knocked on our bedroom door, wrapped in her blanket, and asked if she could come in. She got in bed with us. Yep, kinda weird for people like us. We held her. She too wants union, even as her grief overwhelms her.

Holy moments indeed, and not entirely sad or without humor. No time to reflect. Presence is what’s being asked for, but allow me this…

Intimacy, which is God’s desire, seems to flourish in the presence of naked vulnerability and deep trust – two gifts being given now. Not sure if this is exactly the heart of the Gospel, but I suspect it’s close.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Hands with Story by Hapal (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Advocate or Accuser

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever….”
John 14:16

The lectionary Gospel text this week from John 14 was brought to life for me in a very special way through a recent conversation with a ministry mentor here in Guatemala City.

Pastor William Quiñonez visits a maximum security prison once a week to spend time with members of a notorious street gang who have been incarcerated for unimaginable acts of brutal violence. Pastor William literally has to speak with them while he perches atop the cages where they are held in groups of 10-15.

He visited regularly for over a year, never being allowed to have any physical contact with the “basura“* in the cages below. Week after week he looked into the eyes peering up at him from the floor below and his heart softened toward these young men who had heard and experienced only the voice of condemnation and accusation their entire lives. William longed to find a way to represent for them a different reality.

He approached the guards one day and demanded an opportunity to get into the cages instead of having to be on top of them. To be in shared space as opposed to being above and looking down. His request was denied on multiple occasions but he persisted relentlessly. Eventually he was granted permission, but on terms that he would not come into physical contact with any of the young men and that there would be one group, the “ring-leaders,” who would be denied the opportunity.

William took what was offered and approached the appointed day with great anticipation. The day William was allowed to enter shared space, the young men were forced to stand against the far side of the cage, where they were stripped naked and humiliated with cavity searches performed right in front of their waiting visitor.

William had the opportunity to be with 4-5 different groups of young men, with the exclusion of the “ringleaders.” Eventually, perhaps because the previous group times had gone so well, the guards agreed to allow engagement with even the final group, provided it would be for half the time allotted the other ones.

Until this moment the rule of no physical contact had been observed, but upon conclusion of the time with this last group, the leader of the pack asked to give William a hug. The guards adamantly refused but the visiting pastor insisted.

As William recounted for me what happened next, his eyes welled up with tears. The guards were afraid the young man would suddenly try to strangle William during the hug, but instead he whispered into William’s ear, saying, “Thank you for coming every week to the prison to be with us when no one else will. On behalf of all the homies, we want to thank you from the bottom of our hearts.” One by one, in front of stunned guards, each of the young men in this most notorious of groups passed by and embraced William in an act of tender gratitude.

In John 14:16, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit as Advocator for his “imprisoned disciples.” The word parakleitos, in Greek, is the exact equivalent of “advocate” or the Latin advocatus. The Paraclete is called on behalf of the prisoner, the victim, to speak in his place and in his name, to act in his defense. The Paraclete is the universal advocate, chief defender, and destroyer of all representations of persecution. With a personal defender by one’s side, there is no need to feel scandalized or live a life always trying to defend oneself.

There is something profoundly significant to be harvested from John 14 in the distinction between Advocate and Accuser. The Spirit NEVER accuses. Could it be that the difficulty in “knowing” the Spirit is because we are so easily inebriated by the desire to accuse? The normal way of seeking peace is through violence, but the Advocate (Spirit) teaches another way… a way of pulling out of the violence altogether and moving into a totally new pattern of desire that is not based on rivalry. God is not in rivalry with anyone or anything, EVER.

Joel Van Dyke
CTM Guatemala
Street Psalms partner

*The term “basura” means garbage and is the word often used by the guards to refer to the prisoners.

Way, Truth, Life

“Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father  except through me.”
John 14:1-14

Do you remember Mark Twain’s famous experiment? He placed a cat and a dog in a cage and to his amazement they became friends. Encouraged, he added a rabbit, a fox, a goose, a squirrel, and even some doves and a monkey. They too became friends and lived in peace.

In another cage he put an Irish Catholic. When he seemed tame enough, Twain added a Scotch Presbyterian. Next he added a Turk and a Greek as well as an Armenian Christian, a Methodist, a Buddhist, a Brahman, and finally a Salvation Army Colonel.

“No one comes to the father except through me” (vs. 6). For many, Jesus’ statement raises one of those “theological details” that produces “a chaos of gory ends.” With all due respect to Mr. Twain, at Street Psalms we think real peace is possible, not in spite of the Christian faith, but because of it. We are exploring ways of lifting up Jesus without putting others down. We are practicing ways of following Jesus without excluding those who don’t. We are learning ways of being inclusive without diluting the Gospel into some milquetoast, undifferentiated, lukewarm soup. This is the genius of the Gospel Jesus preached even if it is not the Gospel we always practice.Twain left both cages for two days. When he came back, he found the animals still at peace. But in the cage of religious leaders he found, “A chaos of gory ends, of turbans and fezzes and plaids and bones and flesh, not a specimen alive.” Twain concluded that the religious leaders disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.

Sadly, when the Gospel of Jesus is treated as if it were some kind of exclusive real estate owned and occupied only by Christians, we reduce the faith to a Christian ghetto. And when we reduce it to specific creeds and doctrines, the ghetto shrinks even further to the size and shape of our particular denominations – most of which are dying. And when we reduce Jesus to merely a “personal Lord and savior,” the ghetto shrinks again to the size and shape of our own lives. The smaller the ghetto, the more we feel the need to defend it and fight for it. Such an approach produces a self-perpetuating cycle of violence born of scarcity.

Thank God, Jesus is not interested in Christian ghettos or any other kind of ghetto. The Gospel of Jesus is not the property of anyone. It is like an ever-growing, radically open and utterly free operating system that is making it possible for us to be fully human. Yes, Jesus is calling forth a new humanity, not a new religion. St. Irenaeus said it beautifully: “The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” This new humanity is born of God’s abundance and is brought into fullness by the way, and the truth and the life of Jesus. But what does this mean?

When Jesus says he is the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me, he is not offering us an exclusive formula for salvation. He is stating a fact. Our way to the Father is the way, and the truth and the life of Jesus. And as it turns out, this way, truth, and life is God coming to us. Can we see? No one come to the Father. No one! Not Christians, not Jews, not Muslims, not Hindus, no one comes to the Father! The Father comes to us! God has come, is coming and will always come to us – This is the way, and the truth and the life of Jesus. There is no other way. The Gospel is the relentless download of love from the Father, who is always coming to us. We are all on the receiving end of a great gift.

God’s coming to us frees us from our gated ghettoes. It frees us from the rivalries that fuel violence. The way, truth and life of Jesus sets us free to become fully human and live in peace.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms
Photo: Sixth Day wood engraving by Elfriede Abbe

Mercy Gate

“Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.
John 10:1-10

“I am the gate.” These words are confusing, if not downright terrifying, especially if you are a sheep near a temple. No wonder the disciples “did not understand” Jesus’ teaching in this passage.

The Sheep Gate (see John 5) was the gate in the wall of Jerusalem through which the sheep were led to the holding pens where they would await their turns to be killed inside the gruesome sacrificial slaughterhouse of the temple. I’ve seen animal sacrifices at a temple. It is loud. It is anxious. Flies are everywhere. People are packed in. It smells of blood, defecation, and death.

The sheep metaphor shows up throughout the Gospel of John. The first words spoken to Jesus in the Gospel of John are, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” In this week’s passage (John 10:1-10), Jesus extends the sheep metaphor by referring to himself as both the “good shepherd” as well as the “gate.” Lamb, shepherd, gate. If we are caught inside the sacrificial system and the sacrificial logic that makes it work, this whole passage seems to be condoning the very thing it is dismantling. Yikes!

Consider the possibility that Jesus is actually subverting rather than affirming all forms of the sacrificial system. To enter that system as such (we all do) is to be a thief who “steals, kills, and destroys.” At the most basic level this is precisely what sacrificial systems do – whether on religious or social grounds. Just ask a sheep whose blood feeds it. Ask any modern day victim of societal injustice if we still practice sacrifice.

In the sacrificial system, each of us plays both a victim and victimizer role. We are both sheep and thief. The Good News of Jesus is a severe mercy that unmasks our participation in both roles, and points to our salvation.

In John 10, Jesus is turning sacrificial logic on its head. He transforms the very gate through which he invites us to walk. It is no longer a gateway of sacrifice. Through his own act of passage, it becomes a gateway of mercy. “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13/Hosea 6:6). Those who enter through the gate of mercy are good shepherds. Instead of locking vulnerable sheep inside holding pens of false righteousness, the good shepherd set us free to “come in and go out and find pasture” (vs. 9). Ahh, this is abundant life!

At Street Psalms we are learning to read Scripture and see our faith through the lens of mercy – not a sentimental kind of mercy, but a mercy forged in the harsh realities of our world hell-bent on sacrifice. Yes, we are sheep among wolves and yes, we’ve seen, helped build, and still benefit from far too many “sheep gates” built and maintained by wolves. Systems of sacrifice still thrive in all cultures and in our own hearts. Let’s face it, the best way to justify evil is to wrap it in righteousness. In fact, righteousness (false righteousness) is the preferred hiding place or “holding pen” of evil, ALWAYS.

And so, the Good Shepherd walks through the sheep gate transforming it into a gateway of mercy. He exposes the system from the inside. The Good Shepherd reveals the system of false righteousness that in the end “steals, kills and destroys” not only weak sheep, but even God. Each time we feed the sacrificial system with one more sheep, this is precisely what we do.” Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

Jesus removes the lynch pin that holds it all together – the belief that the system itself is God’s own design and God’s own desire.

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.”
(Isaiah 1:11)

“Whoever slaughters an ox is
like one who kills a human being;

    whoever sacrifices a lamb, 
like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
whoever presents a grain offering,
like one who offers swine’s blood;

    whoever makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
     and in their abominations they take delight;”
(Isaiah 66:3)

Thought Experiment:

Imagine there is a very rich white man who owns an NBA team that is in the midst of a playoff run. Imagine that he is exposed as a racist by his mistress, who is, herself, a person of color. Imagine that he makes a lot of money off the very people he can’t stand and has been known to treat people of color unjustly through his other businesses that have also made him a lot of money. For a culture that is trying to distance itself and wash itself clean of its own racism, it would be very tempting and quite convenient to call for this man’s head – to lead him through the sheep gate to the slaughter house, throw him in a holding pen, strip him of his team, make a public spectacle of him, and crucify him. We’d be worked up into a frenzy, “Crucify him, crucify him!” We’d be justified, wouldn’t we? We’d celebrate our own righteous indignation, wouldn’t we? In doing so, it is also quite possible that we would be feeding the very sacrificial system that we abhor – a system that will one day call for our heads too. That’s what these systems do.

Thought Experiment #2:

Imagine there is a local chapter of a national civil rights organization that has chosen the rich white NBA owner for a lifetime achievement award based on local philanthropy for its causes. After it is revealed that the rich white man is a barely-closeted racist, the organization is in a bind. The chapter president releases a statement referencing Christian values of reconciliation and forgiveness, and suggesting the door might be open for a way forward together. By the end of the week, the chapter president is out of office. From many corners, there has been blame for the organization’s hypocrisy in accepting money from such an appallingly unworthy source for its worthy causes.

Thought Experiment #3:

Might there be a way through the Mercy Gate for the disgraced NBA owner, the disgraced organization president, and the rest of us who carry our own closeted disgraces? How might the Good Shepherd lead?

“Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice”
Matthew 9:13 / Hosea 6:6

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Herod’s Gate in Jerusalem circa 1940

Open Our Eyes to the Stranger

“Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Luke 24:13-35

Here at Street Psalms, our most transformative experiences have happened while walking the streets with urban leaders (“on the road”) and fellowship around a meal (“breaking of the bread”). This week’s lectionary text highlights both the road and the table as gateways to Gospel sight.

The road to Emmaus in Luke 24 begins in confusion and ends in communion. Along the way, there are a series of twists and turns and holy reversals that are the normative pattern of life inside the Resurrection.

Theologian James Alison points out that scholars have not been able to pinpoint the village of Emmaus. Perhaps Luke is artfully suggesting that Emmaus is the metaphor for all the places in our lives that exist at the edge of Jerusalem. And perhaps Cleopas’s unnamed companion is Luke’s way of inviting us insert ourselves in the story alongside Cleopas as if to say, we are all on the road to Emmaus.

It’s also striking that Jesus appears to Cleopas and his companion as a stranger, or as Mother Teresa would say, “the distressing disguise of the other.” God has come, is coming, and will continue to come as the stranger among us. He reveals himself most brightly in the face of the forgotten and those who are least likely to be seen as God-bearers. This is the relentless truth of the Gospel.

Equally striking is that Jesus joins the journey to Emmaus as a student. He listens to the disciples “discussing” the events of the crucifixion. The word “discussing” in vs. 17 is the Greek word antiballo. Quite literally they were going “ballistic,” arguing intensely with each other.

It’s not long before the student becomes the teacher. Jesus re-narrates the entire law and prophets. Re-interpreting sacred texts is risky business, but this strange rabbi with strange interpretations makes their “hearts burn within” (vs. 32). After a mind-blowing Bible study, Cleopas and his friend insist that the stranger be their guest for dinner. Then, true to Gospel form, the strange guest turns out to be a familiar host. Wow!

As host, Jesus uses precisely the same language that he used in the feeding of the 5,000 and the last supper.

“He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (vs. 30-31). Yes, all of life is being taken, blessed, broken, and given in love. This is the Eucharistic shape of life.

In liturgical traditions, the word “host” (as in the “host” offered at communion) comes from the Latin wordhostia, which means victim. This is the interpretive key that unlocks Gospel sight and allows Cleopas and his friend to recognize Jesus. It is the victim who comes to us in the resurrection, forgiving us. It is the victim who walks with us on the road to Emmaus and becomes our teacher. It is the victim who hosts the meal of our salvation. It is the victim who reveals the Eucharistic shape of life by which we see Jesus and all the other strangers among us.

Jesus, like the disciples who were blind to your presence until they dined with you in the Resurrection, we too are blind to your presence until you dine with us. You are the stranger among us, revealed as the loving host of the meal of our salvation. Open our eyes, Lord, to the stranger among us. We want to see and celebrate you at work in the world – creating, sustaining, and uniting all of creation in the meal of our salvation.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: fresh baked bread by surlygirl (CC BY 2.0)

Creation Through Forgiveness

When we think of creation as an event that happened a long time ago in a garden far, far away, we can easily forget that creation is the ongoing activity of God, here and now, made visible through the resurrection.

In this week’s lectionary text of John 20:19-31, we see Jesus, the resurrected murder victim, re-creating the world and inviting us to participate in the ongoing act of creation.

1. “The doors… were locked… Jesus came and stood among them” (John 20:19).

The murder victim lovingly breaks into the locked prison of his disciples. Jesus returns as the Good Thief intent on taking only one thing. He comes to take away the sins of the world. This is not a violent break-in. It is a peaceful presence – a coming among us in a way that makes it clear Jesus has always been with us.

2. “Peace be with you” (vs.19).

Peace is the first word of new creation! Jesus doesn’t begin with a rant about how the disciples abandoned him and were complicit in his murder. Jesus begins by declaring peace.

3. “He showed them his hands and his side… then the disciples rejoiced” (vs. 20).

The murdered one shows his wounds. It is through Jesus’ wounds that the disciples recognize him. What’s odd is that they rejoice… not in the wounds themselves, but in the way Jesus becomes visible through them. Jesus is ALWAYS revealed as the wounded one. Jesus bears his wounds without resentment, vengeance, or wrath, and it’s in this way we recognize Jesus as the Christ. The wounded one does not shame us. Instead, he calls forth our deepest joy.

4. “Peace be with you” (vs. 21).

Jesus declares peace again. Wow, still no hint of resentment! The murdered one is filled with one reality… PEACE.

5. “As the Father sent me so I send you” (vs. 21).

Jesus commissions his disciples. He sends them out of their fear-filled prison the same way he entered – peacefully, as a Good Thief. We are commissioned to enter the prisons of this world in the same way Jesus enters ours.

6. “He Breathed on them and said, receive the Holy Spirit” (vs. 22).

God animates creation with God’s breath. The Spirit (which means breath) breathed life into the watery chaos in Genesis. On the cross, Jesus released his last breath into the violent chaos of this world. And now in the Resurrection he breathes again into the disciples’ prisons of shame. Jesus breathes on us, in us, and through us the breath of life that we might become fully human and be one with God.

7. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (vs. 23).

The breath of life empowers the disciples to do what God does. This is the clincher. This is the whole point of receiving the Spirit. It is the whole point of the Gospel revelation. This is the reality that has been hidden since the foundation of the world (Matthew 13:35). It is so utterly simple that it is easily missed. God forgives! And we are invited to do the same.

Creation advances one way – through forgiveness! When we forgive, we participate in the ongoing work of Creation. To make the point more emphatically, Jesus reminds us that when we withhold forgiveness, we interrupt and diminish creation.

8. “But Thomas…” (vs. 24)

Thomas missed the big show. The absence of Thomas invites an encore presentation from Jesus. So, a week later Jesus breaks into another locked room, and once again declares peace, and once again shows his wounds (vs. 26-27). Once again there is sight.

Thomas comforts those of us who just don’t seem to get it, who are always late to the party, who refuse, reject, doubt, and deny. Such blessed ones call forth yet more grace and mercy from God. Interestingly, it is Thomas, the late-coming doubter, who not only touches the wounds of Jesus, but also offers the clearest, most personal declaration of Jesus in Scripture, “My Lord and my God” (vs. 28).

This passage is a foundational passage for us at Street Psalms. It has shaped our community as well as our training for many years now. We are ALL being re-created in Christ, especially the “least of these.” May this bring you joy.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “Doubting Thomas,” painting by Caravaggio

Good Friday

Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Mark 15:37-39

Like the centurion who “stood facing” Jesus on the cross, may we stand and face the face that faces us. May we see what we see. May we truly see the One who sees us. May we see the particular “way that he breathed his last.” May we see Jesus inhale our fear-filled violence and exhale God’s blessing, and in this way, come to know Jesus as God’s Son. May his final breath move over the chaos of our lives and call forth life from death.

A human being is essentially a spirit-eye.
Whatever you really see,
you are that.
– Rumi

 

Photo: peter castleton (CC BY 2.0) 

Maundy Thursday

Jesus calls us friend today, knowing we will betray him tomorrow. If there is an order to salvation, this is it.

God is love” is a theological statement that is true to the core. But “God is friend” – this is the deeper mystery made real in Jesus.Friendship is salvation. All else is theological pretense and drivel. The Friend who dines with us and washes our feet today will lay down his life tomorrow. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends…. I have called you friends” (John 15:13-15).

“You, heart closed up in a chest, open,
for the Friend is entering.”
– Rumi

Hear afresh these words at the meal of friendship,

On the night that Jesus was betrayed [by his friends from below, and arrested by his other friends from above], he took bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper, he took the cup, blessed it, and gave it for all to drink, and said, ‘This cup is the blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance of me.’

Dear friends of Jesus, who will soon be enemies, we are forgiven – now – completely! May the great befriending of God break our hearts wide open.

 

Photo: By Giotto di Bondone from Ruslan’s Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gospel of Rejects

I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation. 

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone. 

This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 
Psalm 118:21-23

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Matthew 21:6-9

We select and reject, every minute. I am selecting and rejecting words as I type. I pay attention to this task and push others away. We sift and sort by the second and the hour and the year, consciously or not. You filtered a hundred bits of data in the moment it took to click on this email or click away.

In this most essential human process of sorting there are, obviously, rejects.

Scripture abounds with rejects, which is unremarkable in itself. The world abounds with scrap heaps also, which we often do our best to ignore. If the scraps prove hard to overlook, we push them out of sight more forcefully. If they won’t be pushed, they may need to be crushed.

What bears remarking is how rejected scraps in Scripture find their ways to the center. This image recurs: the discarded stone becomes the chief cornerstone. The castoff rock is strangely employed as the most important structural element – either to square off the building or as the capstone of an arch. This week’s lectionary Psalm (for Palm Sunday) depicts an unlikely king of ancient Judah expressing incredulous joy after an even more unlikely escape from military defeat and death. The lyric of the cornerstone becomes the chant of the victory parade in Jerusalem. The language is later picked up by Jesus about himself (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17) as the one both rejected and chosen.

The stories of Jesus double down on this theme of castoffs. He tells stories of a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. The gospel writers have him with rejected, overlooked, and even crushed people – proclaiming the realm of God to be among them. Nicodemus, one of the rare admirers with actual respectability, snuck in to see Jesus by cover of night.

Ok, but we builders know what we are doing. We are adept at selecting and rejecting to best effect. We construct our personas and societies and religion from the bright and beautiful as well as we can, with what is at hand. We can at least see when things are trending, lay palm branches in the road, and shout hosanna. We hitch our fortunes to what is winning and celebrate incredulously down the home stretch. As of course we should! Those were giddy days of acclaim in Jerusalem – both for David, and a millennium later for “the Son of David.

There is no mention that Jesus protested the fanfare, such as it was. But in a very short time, all that was overlooked in the jubilation would be bluntly revealed. The donkey, for starters, instead of a war horse. Within a week, desolation and death. This too is the “Lord’s doing,” the mercy, the marvel: precisely that after all shatterings, there is no shard so remotely cast off that it will not be reclaimed. Even death.

This gospel of rejects is the “way of salvation” hinted from the early pages of Scripture and revealed fully in Jesus. It’s at work in the world and in us. In our busy-ness building, are we paying attention?

Peace,
Scott Dewey
The Street Psalms Community

 

Photo: Palm Sunday 11 by Waiting For The Word

Voice from the Bones

As I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.<
Ezekiel 37:7-10

The dead still speak – at least they do in Guatemala. In our Street Psalms network we are learning to listen intently to the breath and voice of God even among the dead.

One of the most powerful listening places for us has been with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG). The FAFG uses forensic science to investigate human rights violations that occurred during Guatemala’s 30-year internal armed conflict. Forensic anthropologists exhume mass graves, identify the bodies through interviews from witnesses and DNA samplings, and then determine the cause of death to create the possibility for criminal prosecutions. FAFG has exhumed more than 5,000 of the more than 200,000 skeletal remains of victims of the war, 20% of which are children.

As the bones of each “case” are carefully laid out on tables and the skeletons reassembled, they slowly take the shape of a person. The bones begin to speak and tell the story of what happened until they eventually are reconnected to their names, faces, and histories. Their stories are honored, and they are then ultimately returned to their families for burial.

Once the bones have said all that they can say, Rob, the FAFG photographer, comes to document the findings with photographs, which are archived for evidence in case of a future trial. Rob is meticulous about his work. He needs to be. He shared that one of his greatest joys of his work is when the Foundation finally returns the bones to the family members – most of whom are Maya campesinos (peasants) who live in the hill country.

When they return the skeletal remains to the families, the FAFG staff engages in a process called “dressing the bones.” The image is as intense as it is intimate. The family insists on re-dressing the skeleton with clothing – a painstaking process, as you might imagine. What used to be just a pile of unidentified bones in a mass grave, denied the dignity of name and story, let alone their very lives, are now not only reassembled and named, but they are carefully clothed. It is a process exploding with theological significance.

The significance of this work takes on further importance when considered in light of elements of Mayan culture so poignantly described to us by the FAFG staff. The Mayan peoples, we are told, believe that the elderly, children, and female victims are still crying because they weren’t buried with dignity. Mayans believe that as long as their dead relatives are not at peace, the living cannot be at peace either. In Mayan culture, the dead are brought to the church to be before God, not to be prayed for as in other cultures, but to face God in person, to tell God of their angers, tears, and indignation, and to make their cry for justice in hope that God will adopt their cause. While lying dismembered in mass graves like forgotten animal carcasses, this healing process was not possible for the victims or their families.

Furthermore, when a body is taken out of the church after such a “God encounter,” the open casket is taken out into the daylight to publicly honor the deceased. To the Mayan families, the re-burial of the remains is more important than the exhumation. The re-burial is a public proclamation by the deceased of their ordeal, pointing to the need to make amends.

It is impossible to forget the deplorable loss of so many innocent lives, but the memory and dignity of a wounded people is being restored to a life-giving voice. The FAFG has its work cut out for them as they continue to find Guatemala’s missing sons and daughters so they can be named, their stories told, proper burials given, and justice served – all necessary steps to forgiveness and healing of a wounded nation.

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America

Adapted from Geography of Grace, chapter 14

Formed Among Thorns

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?”
Exodus 17:1-7

We are now in the third week of Lent, a season that commemorates Jesus’ forty days in the desert wilderness. It was a hinge event in the timeline of his life, a liminal transition space, a solitary gateway of passage that immediately preceded his years of public ministry.

The geography of “desert” and the duration of “forty” bears unmistakable spiritual connection to the forty years the Hebrew people spent in the wilderness after their liberation from Egypt. The ancient location name “Sin” in this week’s lectionary text refers either to “clay” or “thorny” (rather than English meaning of “transgressions”). It evokes images of parched soil where only the toughest, prickery, stickery brambles manage to eke out life – and by their own stubborn force of nastiness, ward off any critter seeking nourishment.

We also recognize Jesus’ desert sojourn as foreshadowing his journey to the cross – which culminated in another sort of desolation. Amid the Jerusalem crowds, all would abandon him. As he cried out in his last lament of forsakenness, his head was crowned with thorny desert vines.

This week’s scripture yanks us out of idyllic notions that wilderness space always provides delight for the soul. We hear that Jesus sometimes withdrew to solitary places. We figure if we do the same, we will be rejuvenated! A little breather and we’ll perk up. Yes it works that way sometimes, like it should. Like the freed slaves of Egypt should have been perky, now with a breather after 400 years.

Instead, open space often exposes all that is thorny, fearful, and troublesome. It surfaces ugly shadows of desire. For the people of the Exodus, quarrels and panicky demands quickly erupted out of their hunger, thirst, and fears for the future. Trust in God’s abundance and guidance evaporated in the desert glare.

So maybe we have finally taken a personal retreat. Or experienced new freedom from a stressful grind; for instance, a transition from school to work. Or on a social level, an organization or community may find itself in “in-between” space. Here in the open, where we expected to be led to green pastures beside still waters, there seems to be nothing but clay and thorns. Even taking ten minutes of quiet prayer and reflection, we may find our thoughts clamoring and demanding rather than at peace.

In these spaces we may undergo what the medieval mystics called spiritual purgation. Like physical purgation, which ain’t pretty and clogs the toilet, spiritual purgation is a messy process of disgorging false urges and identities. It is a cleansing and clarifying of the true identity into which we are being called and into which we are being formed. The Exodus wanderers were exposed, and so are we.

Our Lord and brother Jesus has gone before us even into this geography. Here in a place of clay, among thorns, Jesus underwent strenuous formation for his mission. Exposed to the natural elements and deprived of basic needs, he was especially vulnerable to the haunting and taunting voices that preyed on his deepest sources of desire.

Exposure to the extremes of the desert was an essential part of Jesus’ journey, as it was in the epic history of God’s people in the scrolls from which he read. Sooner or later, the desert will be an essential part of our journey, too.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Lenten Blessings

“I will bless you… so that you will be a blessing.”
Genesis 12:1-4a

In the second week of Lent we turn to Abraham’s blessing in Genesis 12.

As we consider Abraham’s blessing, let’s remember that the Lenten journey is not only about our journey with Jesus to the cross. It is also an annual dress rehearsal for our own death. In this sense, Lent is about the practice of “letting go,” dying little deaths so that we are ready for the big one.

These dress rehearsals help us relax into the final “letting go” with the same deep trust that Jesus demonstrated on the cross. Jesus models for us that there is goodness at the base of it all and that God is in no way ruled or run by death, which is why we can pass through death unafraid.

Unfortunately, for many in our network every day of the year is a relentless dress rehearsal. This is why the primal blessing given to Abraham is so essential. Without it we are lost in a sea of anxiety and crippling fear that disfigures and distorts our own mortality. It is in this context that we consider our Lenten blessing.

First, in Hebrew the word “blessing” is berakhah. It means to bow on bended knee and adore something. In the first two chapters of Genesis, God kneels in adoration of three things: the sea creatures (vs.1:22), humanity (vs. 1:28), and the Seventh Day (vs. 2:3). Yes, three primal blessings: creation, humanity and the Sabbath, which is the restful realization that all is good – nay, VERY GOOD. God kneels before all of creation that we might one day do the same.

In this week’s lectionary, God blesses Abraham in the context of a call. God says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Notice how God’s blessing invites Abraham to let go in two directions – the past (country, kindred, and home) and the uncertain, un-seeable future (“a land that I will show you”).

God’s blessing is a bridge for Abraham. It holds the space between what was and what will be. God’s blessing is the sacrament of the present moment that redeems both past and future. During Lent we are especially attentive to this sacrament.

Several years ago in Guatemala I was a guest at a Bible study on the outskirts of the city. The Bible study leader leaned over and whispered into my ear, “The young lady in the corner wants you to bless her eight-year-old daughter.” He also whispered that the little girl’s father was recently killed and they both were grieving (a horrific past and uncertain future). Her father had been a notorious gang assassin who had murdered more than 200 rival gang members.

We gathered around the young mother, bent our knees, and laid hands on her daughter. Completely untethered from all except the sacrament of that present moment, we blessed the little girl. We blessed her with the same blessing I give my kids at night as I sit on their bed, tuck them in, and trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads, saying,

Christ be with you. Christ within you. 
Christ behind you. Christ before you. 
Christ beside you. Christ to win you. 
Christ to comfort and restore you. 
Christ beneath you. Christ above you. 
Christ in quiet and in danger. 
Christ in hearts of those who love you. 
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. 

~ St. Patrick

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

Photo: Phil Whitehouse

You’re Invited to Desire

“Do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to…be seen by others…. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Christians world-wide will enter into a heightened time (40 days) of prayer, reflection, and spiritual companionship with Jesus to the cross. At Street Psalms we are grateful for this annual pilgrimage that awakens our heart to its own true desire.

In today’s lectionary text Jesus tells us not to give, fast, or pray like the “hypocrites” who put on a public show. This may sound harsh to our ears, but if we suspend the tone of judgment, Jesus is making a profoundly liberating observation.

The word hypocrite does not refer to a morally deceptive, hard-hearted person. Hypocrite means “actor.” In other words, don’t play to the crowd in your heart. If you do, the crowd will reward you as only crowds can. Crowds by their very nature are fickle and unstable. They shout “Hosanna” one day and “crucify him” the next. The capricious energy of the crowd is an intoxicating reward, which is why Jesus looked on crowds with compassion. But knowing and desiring far more nourishing rewards, he withdrew from crowds often – and invites us to do the same.

Who of us is not living our lives (to some degree) as if we were on stage, playing a part, locked inside a role we can’t seem to get out of? Some of us play the role of victor, others play the role of villain. Both are stuck and bound to the other in mutually destructive ways. This is why C.S. Lewis said the most fundamental prayer in life is, “May the real I meet the real Thou.” This is exactly what Jesus is getting at in this passage.

So, how does the real I meet the real Thou? How do we get off Broadway and into reality?

Mercifully, Jesus tells his disciples to go to their rooms and shut the door. What insight! What kindness! The inner room in the ancient Middle East was the equivalent of a pantry or larder where food was stored and preserved. It was located in the inner part of the house with no windows, only a door to seal it off.

In the inner room, we are free of the crowds who so easily rule and run us like puppets. In the inner room, we stop feeding on the unstable and fickle desires of the crowd and learn to borrow our desires from the One who desires us. The inner room is like a detox center that sobers the heart and awakens it to its deepest desires. It awakens us to the truth that our deepest desires are hidden in God, like a treasure. Yes, desire IS prayer! This is why Jesus wants us to follow it. He says, “Where your treasure is (think desire), there is your heart also.” So trust your desire and follow it come hell or high water to its origin. You will not only find God, but your own heart as well.

Lent is the invitation to the larder – to meet with God in the inner room of life and locate our heart’s desire inside the heart of the One who desires us. And our reward? The answer is already at work in us – all of us.

“trust your heart  
if the seas catch fire
(and live by love
though the stars walk backward.)”
~ e.e. cummings, from the poem “Dive For Dreams

Peace,
Street Psalms

The Greatest Loser

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Matthew 17:1-9

How strange. After the brightly-lit meeting on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, Jesus orders the disciples not to say a word about this until after he is raised from the dead. What an odd command. Why are they free to tell the story after the resurrection, but not before?

Jesus is revealing something truly revolutionary here. Only when we see life through the eyes of the Crucified One can we see reality clearly. Until then we’re stuck inside a broken narrative that needs a new interpreter. Only the Crucified One can reveal what Moses (The Law) and Elijah (The Prophets) have been trying to tell us. It is the Crucified One who reveals that which has been “hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35).

Of course, the problem with crucified ones throughout history is that they don’t get to tell their side of the story. History is told by winners, not the losers – until, that is, Jesus is resurrected. In the resurrection Jesus comes to us as the greatest loser in history. The Crucified One re-narrates all of life – from below. In doing so, He tells for us a story that we can’t quite tell for ourselves. He re-tells the ancient tales of Israel and our hearts burn within us to hear them as liberating rather than damning. In the retelling – in the new light of resurrection – the Law and the Prophets reveal God’s desire for “mercy, not sacrifice.” The hard-to-see truth is revealed; God is not mad. All is forgiven. We are God’s beloved with whom God is well pleased (Matt. 17:5). We are free to shout it from the mountain top.

At Street Psalms we are learning to see life through the eyes of the Crucified One. We are learning to read Scripture with the damned. We are learning to see Church through the eyes of the vulnerable. The crucified ones of this world are helping us re-narrate the Law and the words of the Prophets to reclaim a Gospel of grace, mercy, and peace in a violent world.

Next week we enter Lent. It is the annual journey into the resurrection by way of the cross. It is the sober reminder to the world-wide church that we do well to remain silent until spoken to by the Crucified One. This is the authority we so desperately desire today.

Peace,
Street Psalms

Photo: Michele Clemo, Jesus the Homeless statue

The Enemy of Perfection

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:48

Argh! I knew it. Underneath Jesus’ expansive, merciful heart lay a trigger-happy moral cop itching for us to straighten up and fly right – to be as morally perfect as God… or else!

The word “perfect” used in this week’s lectionary text (Matt 5:38-48) is perhaps the most toxic of all religious words for those who live fractured and imperfect lives – especially for those who have been beaten down so long that they can’t seem to do even the most basic things of life without messing up, over and over and over.

In a flourish of prophetic insight, Alcoholics Anonymous wisely came out from the Oxford Group because one of the tenets of the Oxford Group was a zero-tolerance policy for failure. They demanded “perfection” of those in recovery. This proved to be debilitating to recovering alcoholics who need a huge safety net of grace and countless second chances, not a “one-and-done” policy.

Nothing is more toxic to those who suffer from addiction (all of us) than the standard of perfection. None of us can live under that kind of pressure. Failure and imperfection are not the evil we imagine them to be. They are built into the fabric of life itself. As singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen famously said, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

The word, “perfect” that Jesus uses is the Greek word telios. It is not a moralistic word. It means “complete” or “whole.” It has to do with the final end or goal of something. It forms the root of our word for telescope. Jesus uses this word in the context of a larger teaching (Matt. 5:38-48). Jesus is telling us that the epicenter of the law is for us to “love our enemies.” Yes, the purpose of the law is to lead us to this place… to our enemy who completes us or makes us whole. That is why we are to love our enemy. Can you see? We can’t be fully who we are without our enemies. Perfection is not about some arbitrary standard that God demands. It’s about God wanting us to be fully human, and God knows that our enemies hold the key to our humanity.

When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, He is revealing perhaps the deepest secret of all: that we are mirror doubles of our enemies. We are more alike than different. Bloods and Crips, Palestinian and Israeli, black and white, men and women, gay and straight: we are mirrors of each other. We complete each other.

Imagine if we lived as if this were true? It takes all the moral superiority out of it. I love my enemy not because I am better or higher or morally superior, but because I am incomplete without my enemy.

Enemies cannot be loved from a place of moral superiority. Loving our enemies is born of humility and leads to humility. In the end, our enemies are God’s invitation to wholeness. Telios. So be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Peace,
The Street Psalms Community

Photo:

Have You Heard?

“You have heard it said… but I say”
Matthew 5:21-37

In this week’s lectionary text, Jesus is doing something truly remarkable. He is re-interpreting Scripture. He’s meddling with the Law – the sacred center of an entire people. “You have heard it said…but I say.” What a beautiful vision of Jesus at work inside the holy of holies – reinterpreting what cannot interpret itself.

If we jump too quickly into the specifics of Jesus’ interpretation (which is tempting), we lose sight of bigger truth – that Scripture, even life itself, needs an interpreter. It seems obvious, but reality does not interpret itself. It can’t. It always comes to us through someone’s eyes. The question, then, is through whose eyes do we see? Who are our interpreters?

Learning to see through the eyes of Jesus is a life-long process with at least two parts at work simultaneously.

Part 1 – “You have heard it said”

This is the part where Jesus helps us acknowledge the interpretive lenses that shape the way we see. Much of our work at Street Psalms is helping leaders recognize their own lenses. Several come to mind: culture, ethnicity, gender, denomination, a long list of European theologians and pop culture gurus… Even things like scarcity, fear, and violence are lenses that profoundly shape the way we see.

These lenses create their own blind spots, or what others call fixations, attachments, shadows, and false-selves. Exposing these to the light of day can be as frightening as it is freeing. Over the years, we’ve had leaders walk out angry and frustrated, never to return. Others bend their knees in gratitude.

Part II – “But I say”

This is the part where Jesus is our rabbi, our teacher who re-interprets all of life. Learning to see through the eyes of Jesus begins with a deep intuition that there is goodness at the base of it all and that there is alwayssomething more going on than we can see on our own. The “something more” is always better than what we imagine. This holy intuition gives way to holy doubt, which is necessary for new sight.

When we see through the eyes of Jesus, cataracts fall like scales. No longer do we see from the outside looking in, as though we are separate from reality. We begin to see from the inside looking out. We no longer look behind, but within. What we see is New Creation, at play everywhere.

Rabbi Jesus, teach us to see through your eyes.

Peace,
Street Psalms Community

A Solitary Light

“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.”
Matthew 5:13-14

In this week’s lectionary Gospel reading (Matthew 5:13-20), Jesus reminds us that we are salt and light. These are twin gifts of our deepest vocation – to be human. As salt we preserve humanity, especially among the dehumanized until they can occupy their own humanity more fully for themselves. As light we expose dehumanizing darkness by reflecting the glory of God. Isn’t this what Jesus does for us?

The public brief of David’ story is a 36-page litany of abuse and relentless trauma since childhood. There is no question that David is a danger to himself and perhaps sometimes to others, but solitary confinement multiplies his danger and further robs him of his humanity.Mary, a good friend and aspiring lawyer in Denver, has been working on a civil rights case with David. David is a 28-year-old mentally disabled man who is incarcerated at Colorado’s Centennial Correctional Facility, where he has been in solitary confinement since 2009. Mary and her team are challenging penal system’s inhumane treatment of David.

That declaration, which David signed just this past December, describes the mandatory physical restraints that lead him to anxiety-fueled self-harm behaviors, which in turn have kept David relegated to solitary confinement for the past five years.

“It’s hard for me to walk unrestrained already due to back pain, and ‘cuffing up’ forces me to take smaller steps and thus it’s hurting my back due to it’s an unnatural walk to me,” David says in the brief. “I wobble when I walk, i.e. nonlinear steps. This makes me feel like a dangerous animal that has no control, and that will attack anything that dares to glance at me. Which I’m not. I’m not sub human at all.” “It’s hard for me to walk unrestrained already due to back pain, and ‘cuffing up’ forces me to take smaller steps and thus it’s hurting my back due to it’s

Mary and her legal team are a beautiful example of salt and light. They are working to preserve David’s humanity, and also the humanity of individuals who detain him, while shedding light on the system of darkness that overwhelms David and others like him. In doing so, Mary and her colleagues are recovering their own humanity.

We often use the phrase that “the vulnerable are the face and grace of Jesus who return us to ourselves, clothed and in our right mind.” This is the gift of David. In preserving his humanity, he sheds light on our own.

Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Yes, Jesus is not merely concerned with shedding light, but also with how we shed light. We preserve our humanity and the humanity of others by mirroring the humanity of Jesus. Perhaps this is why the most frequently used title for Jesus in the Gospels is simply “the Son of man” – or more literally, “the human one.” To be fully human is to be salt and light, or as St. Irenaeus said, the glory of God is humanity fully alive. Yes, we reflect God’s glory (light) by being fully and completely human. Thank you David and thank you Mary for showing us the way.

Breaking Into Prison

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Matthew 11:3

In the first week of Advent we were in the Apocalypse. In the second week of Advent we joined John the Baptist crying out in wilderness. Here in the third week of Advent we find ourselves in prison with John (Matthew 11:2-11). John is about to lose his head and he is having second thoughts about Jesus. He’s having a crisis of faith when he asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Apocalypse, wilderness, prison. This is the geography of Advent hope – not the cheap hope peddled by a fear-filled culture of excess, but the deep hope that holds us in our greatest moments of despair. Whatever else the Incarnation means, it surely means that God is eager to occupy this geography WITH us and transform it by His presence. The Incarnation transforms Apocalypse into the great unveiling of mercy. Wilderness becomes a garden of grace, and Prison becomes the graduate school of faith where we discover ourselves set free.

Yes, Gospel freedom happens to us while we are still in prison. The Divine Break-In leads to the Great Escape. We do not escape prison and then know freedom. We know freedom that we might escape. This is the shape of the Gospel. Nelson Mandela reminds us of this. He spent 27 years in prison. It was there that he received the gift of freedom that changed his life, his country, and the world. It was in prison that he learned to love his enemies and pray for those who persecuted him. It was in prison that he was set free from his oppressor. Mandela was FREE long before he walked out of prison.

Jesus replies to John’s crisis of faith with news of a divine break-in. Yes, the good thief strikes again! And because of the divine break-in, there is a great escape: “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised.” Notice the use of passive verbs. The blind, lame, etc. all receive their freedom. They don’t take it, or make it.

All those who have been set free, no matter how hard they work for their own freedom and the freedom of others, experience freedom not as a reward, but as a gift. And this is precisely what Jesus is giving John – a gift. As if summing up this whole business of the divine break-in, Jesus adds, “The poor have good news brought to them. Blessed is anyone who is not offended by me.” (Matthew 11:5)

Can we see? The tables have turned. John, who is the greatest of all the prophets, is one of the poor who is in soul-shaking need of the Gospel for which he is about to die. Mercifully, Jesus is smuggling a message into the messenger. Jesus is bringing good news back to John who is held captive by his own expectations of the Gospel. Jesus asks only one thing of John – that he not be offended by the crazy, reckless, wildly unconditional gift being given to ALL.

“Blessed is anyone who is not offended by me.”

Advent Prayer
Spirit, prepare our hearts for the Divine Break-In of the Incarnation. Pass through the prison walls that hold us captive. Set captives and captors free to delight in the gift being given.

Peace,

The Street Psalms Community

Mission: Transformed

Street Psalms’ theology and community are born from the experiences of local leaders whose journeys have led them to find “good news.”