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.

Whispers in the Dark

 
 
27“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”

Matthew 10:24-39

“God who are you and who am I?” St. Francis once prayed this simple prayer all night. He set the world ablaze with what he heard in the dead of night.

Jesus whispers in the dark. As this week’s text suggests, it’s his preferred mode of communication. These covert conversations deal with the elemental essence of things; in that sense they are life-giving, world-changing and, yes, quite dangerous. The whispers are dangerous because they uncover secrets that have been “hidden since the foundations of the world” (Matt. 13:35). These secrets are killing us, which is why Jesus says, “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known”(v.26).

So what are the secrets Jesus is uncovering? Our moral failures? Our shameful acts? Our lustful thoughts? No, Jesus has bigger fish to fry. In my experience, St. Francis’ prayer can be trusted to attune our ears to the whispers in the dark and the secrets that Jesus uncovers there.

Who Are You?
The first whisper has to do with who God is. Jesus whispers the secret
name of God. It seems obvious enough to say that God is good and God is love. So, let me phrase it differently to try and recover something of the shock of this first whisper. God is non-violent. There is no violence whatsoever in God. God is not who we thought God was. Jesus whispers the delightful news that we got it wrong. He whispers, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13). Of course, if we’ve read much of the Old Testament or been raised in a theological tradition that insists that God can and does use violence, or even if we are just being honest about our view of God, we can see why this might be a little disorienting and hard to hear. It might even raise questions about which Spirit is whispering in the darkness. Can we really trust what we are hearing?

Who Am I?
The second whisper has to do with who we are. Jesus whispers our secret name. We too are good and loving in as much as we are created in God’s image. We are the embodiment of original blessing. Jesus whispers, “You are God’s beloved in whom God is well pleased (Mark 1:11). It may be the hardest of all the whispers to trust. But here is where things get tricky and a bit more complicated. Yes, we are beloved ones, whose belovedness is being revealed, but we are also violent ones whose violence is being revealed. It’s no secret that when pushed we are all capable of great violence.

What remains hidden to us are the ways we are constituted in violence and have projected that onto God. In fact, we are so blind to this pattern that it goes unnoticed. We are easily convinced that certain forms of violence are necessary acts of righteousness sanctioned by God himself. Jesus whispers our complicated full name in the dark, and it’s here that I pause to say thanks for the whisper, for when our belovedness meets face to face with our complicity in violence, the results are deafening, soul shaking, and hard to endure no matter how soft the tones. Some fall to their knees asking for mercy. Others rise in anger ready to defend.

Perhaps now we can understand why Jesus warns his disciples that proclaiming in the light what they heard whispered in the dark is not only the salvation of the world, but it is also quite dangerous. For example, Jesus is called Beelzebul. Jesus warns us that we can expect the same. There is simply no way to bear this cross unless we’ve heard Jesus whisper in the dark.

So here is my prayer. May we share in the light what we’ve heard in the dark. It’s the hope of the world.
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Breathing With The City

 
 
1The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.

Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)

 

I can’t take it y’all, I can feel the city breathing
Chest heaving, against the flesh of the evening
Sigh before we die like the last train leaving.
– Black Star, “Respiration”
 

Lenny leaned securely against the darkness of the night. His jet-black figure perfectly matched the evening’s moonless flesh. It was much too late for socializing but there he stood, on 6th Street, gazing toward Ferry Ave., as I made my way home after dropping guys off from midnight basketball. After three hours of ball with fit and speedy teens, my legs and back showed my age; I needed to get home quickly for rest and pain relievers…but there was Lenny, poised in the solitude of the dark empty street. My reputation could not survive the slight of passing without shouting out to him, but I feared being dragged into 6th & Ferry’s continuous drama. Risking a delay in my homeward journey, I lowered the window of the well-worn ministry van and yelled, “Yo Lenny! What up man?”

 

Homicide or suicide, 
Heads or Tails
Some think life is a living hell, Some live life just living well
I live life tryna tip the scale, My way, my way, My way, my way
-The Roots, “My Way”

 

I loved Lenny’s potential, his destiny derailed by dysfunction, terror, travail, and despair, but still evident in the brilliant points of character that involuntarily poked through his foreboding façade. Lenny bore an image molded by evils visited on Black men in America. Hell’s troubles accompanied his deep-dark skin — pure aesthetic beauty to an artistically conscious eye but pure dread for many Americans. Suspicious eyes were constantly upon him: on the streets, in the mall, the bank, and even church. He was the brother told to take a plea in court, not because of guilt but because the public defender advises, “The jury will take one look at you and you’re done.” His fate had been sealed as his ancestors stepped foot on the shores of Jamestown Virginia in 1619, or on shores just down the street where Camden’s ferry stations auctioned slaves during the 18th century. Be it from Virginia or just down Ferry Ave., somehow the homicide/suicide deed had been prefabricated centuries before and 6th & Ferry just happened to be the place on that night.
 

Through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand,
 and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. – Romans 5:2

 

I just wanted to bear hug Lenny and carry him off to a wholly different historical and personal narrative. But I couldn’t. I was left only with the power of a simple greeting. Lenny quickly responded, “Hey, Mr. Tim!” He hard-walked toward the van. Reaching the opened window, Lenny exhaled his words as if he had held his breath throughout the evening, “Glad you stopped. I don’t know why but I just feel like just killin’ somebody tonight, like just killin’ somebody.” He spoke with a deeply driven yet oddly rational passion, as if contemplating the deed within a homicide/suicide moment he had worked through on the corner. Ill prepared to address such a pronouncement, I could only look at him as a friend and calmly suggest he go home and sleep away his frustrations, promising him things would look different in the morning. With this, he again thanked me for stopping, turned homeward, and slowly made his way through the early summer heat — his life, my life, and an intended victim’s life all intact.

 

Desperate brothers hanging on dark street corners often seek for God to make his presence known. They may never experience the type of divine physical visitation we see with Abraham in our Genesis 18 reading, but the incarnation is rich and full of abundant surprises — surprises even placed within our small humble words.

 

A downwardly-mobile, street-level, incarnational witness calls out to those living within homicide/suicide propositions, connecting people to the living, moving grace of God; it shows up in the most unexpected places and at the most unpredictable times. The good news about this, the work we are all called to, is that no heroes, formulas, or superpowers are needed to apply. The incarnation simply inspires us to continue hanging around dark streets and dark moments, risking some drama on our way home, and stopping to say, “What Up!” as we breath with the city.

 

Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja

The Great Commission(s)

 
 
19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

Matthew 28:16-20

The command to “go” and to “make” disciples has defined Christianity for centuries and has probably been one of the most formative parts of our Christian narrative. We are supposed to share our faith. We are supposed to lead people to Jesus. We are commanded to “go and make.” Period.

I wish I could hear how Jesus “sounded” when these words were spoken. I’d like to believe there was nuance in his voice — and that it didn’t sound as harsh as it reads…Or as harsh as it was taught to me by my bible study teacher; a white male encouraging us to “pray and consider Africa as a place to ‘do’ mission.”

Even back then, when I was a “new” believer, and a young leader, something didn’t feel right about this passage to me. It felt, and still feels…well…it feels violent.

Before everyone calls me a heretic, let me explain.

I am a Pacific Islander. My family comes from the islands of Samoa.
The London Missionary Society sent missionaries to the islands in the South Pacific in the early 1800’s.

In I832, the missionary John Williams landed in American Samoa, in the village of Leone. The First Christian Congregational Church in American Samoa was founded here. In front of the church, a monument was erected in honor of John Williams. HE was responsible for bringing Christianity to the Samoan Islands. I had mixed feelings about Viliamu (Williams). The Samoan Christian Congregational Church of Samoa was the denomination of my parents and grandparents. Several years ago, I visited Leone and the site where Christianity came to us through the missionary movement. I saw this monument erected in honor of Loane Viliamu (Missionary John Williams). I remember standing in front of this monument with a million questions, totally conflicted and with tears in my eyes. Not all of them were happy tears.

What did they see? How did they view my people? Did they see us as uncivilized? Savage? Did they did they discern the indigenous ways of knowing God that were there long before they arrived — put in us by the God they were sent to proclaim? Did they know of our values of aiga (family), tautua (service), tausiga o va (love of neighbor) and could they recognize this as God’s grace already present with us, to us, among us? In reading journal entries from missionaries sent to the South Pacific islands, I found the following entry from John Williams:

“The more hideous their depravity, the more urgent was the need to lose no moment in bringing to them the means of salvation. Not merely was it to be a message to save the soul, but the missionary was also to teach useful arts and crafts and all the blessings of civilization, from arithmetic to plastering houses.”

That’s how they viewed my ancestors.

I’m sure these missionaries came as a faithful response to the Great Commission. By the way, Jesus never called it that. It was a branding idea that came about in the late 1700’s to get people interested in foreign mission. It worked. Thousands of missionaries were sent out to all corners of the world. I suppose I should be grateful for them coming. It resulted in my family — great-grandparents, grandparents and parents, becoming Christian — along with the rest of the islands.

It is difficult to reconcile feelings of being “acted upon,” which is how I read Williams’s journal entry, AND how I read Matthew 28. Perhaps the writer of Matthew is assuming that after 27 chapters of seeing, hearing, and being with Jesus, the disciples will know the “way” in which mission should happen. Their “mission” should’ve been informed by beautiful parables of the Kingdom of God where Jesus is constantly turning expectations upside down — where those in power are called to sacrificial service. Where the first are last, and the last are first. Where prostitutes, lepers, religious outsiders, INCLUDING women, are elevated by Jesus as examples to religious people of what it means to truly know and worship God.

For many years, I avoided this passage altogether. I wasn’t motivated to share the Gospel in this way — by going to them, making them into disciples, baptizing them, teaching them, etc….it all felt too…”colonizing.”

Imagine how relieved I was when a colleague shared with me a different commission from John 21: “As the Father has sent me, so I send You.”

It turns out that the most important, instructive missional word in all of scripture is a tiny: AS.

It’s an incarnational word, like another small incarnational word: WITH.

To run out the door with good intent and fervor, armed only with a Matthew 28 charge and zeal does damage. It diminishes people. It creates a power dynamic between “us” and “them” — those who have the Good News and those who “need” it. Matthew 28 needs John 21 in order to give us, not just the “what” of mission, but also the “how.” If we don’t hold those together, we risk bearing witness, often through our deeds, of a disincarnated God. And that couldn’t be further away from the truth of Jesus that we are commissioned to share.

Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms

Commencement

 
 
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you…. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

John 20:19-23

For many in the United States, the end of May is full of graduation parties for aspiring high school seniors — a transition into a new life as adults. While exciting, for student and parent alike, the season can also be filled with fear and doubt.

We are six weeks removed from the narrative journey of Holy Week that led us through the crucifixion, the disorientation of Holy Saturday silence and the unbridled joy of an empty tomb. “The resurrection is God’s Amen to Jesus’ statement, ‘It is finished,'” writes S. Lewis Johnson.

While the tomb that had held Jesus is now empty, our lectionary text introduces us to disciples who are staring at a very different world than the one they were comfortable with. There has been a “graduation” of sorts, and now they feel paralyzed, incapable of moving forward, self-entombed behind walls of fear, doubt and disillusionment. They have not yet experienced the truth of the resurrection; they cower in fear behind locked doors and covered windows.

Here, in the midst of that darkness, Jesus shows up to his group of graduating seniors and delivers a commencement address — life’s great forward-looking ceremony. He slips into the room as the forgiving victim and vividly creates the experience of Easter. His delivery may be more important than the message because the resurrection cannot be explained; rather, it must be experienced. When it comes to life’s deepest mysteries, experience trumps explanation every time! When it comes to the resurrection, the Gospels offer no explanation as to how it happened. Instead, we are given a series of personal encounters with the risen Christ delivering mini commencement addresses that forever change the world.

The first word from the resurrected God, in a locked room of “graduating” disciples drowning in doubt and shaking in fear, is “Peace be with you.” He then lovingly shows them his wounds, and commissions them to be ambassadors of forgiveness for the world — the very forgiveness they are now experiencing. And then, the risen/wounded one performs a stunning act of intimacy. He “breathes” on them.

The breath of God is the kiss of God that remakes the world. In this divine kiss Jesus is modeling the very core of mission, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” In kissing us into existence Jesus empowers us to do the same — to forgive as God forgives, in a courageous act of union and communion. This is the meaning of the kiss. This is how creation and re-creation unfolds. The disciples have been “commenced.” They are kissed into the world anew, addressed to be a blessing to the waiting world around them.

Sadly, many of us have yet to experience the kiss of the risen Christ. We have perhaps heard the “words” of commencement but have avoided the terrifying, life-giving experience of encounter with the commencer. As a result, we “retain” (bind up) the sins of others and spend precious time and energy justifying our self-destructive behaviors of rivalry, bitterness and resentment. Jesus addresses us all with these forward-minded words and actions of this commencement address.

Mercifully, the risen Christ continues to deliver his commencement address even today by entering the locked rooms where we, like the disciples before us, self-entomb. He gently and gracefully (with a kiss) enters the doubt, fear and disillusionment of our lives. All he asks is that we allow ourselves to be breathed upon, knowing full well that the person kissed by the risen Christ will naturally and eagerly participate in the ongoing act of Creation itself.

This is the glorious truth of what it means to be “commenced.” We have been addressed with the kiss of the resurrected Jesus and are invited to leave the rooms of self-locked doors that have previously held us captive. The world awaits the touch of graduates who have been kissed into life by the resurrected Lord.

“Oh God, hear our prayer!! Easter yourself within, around and between us that we might receive your kiss and thus, as bright-eyed graduates, experience you as the dayspring that dissipates our dimness.”

Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

The Crime Scene

 
 
“…’Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’… While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy…” (Luke 24:49-52)

Luke 24:44-53

Imagine the victim of a violent crime asks you to return to the scene of the crime-a crime that you were (in part) responsible for. Now imagine that this experience becomes the animating center of your life, which, despite your dread, fills you with great joy, and clothes you with a power that transforms you and the world. This is the miracle we celebrate in the final week of the Easter season as Jesus ascends into heaven.

After the crucifixion, the disciples fled Jerusalem in fear. The crucified risen Christ appears to them in the resurrection and instructs them to return to Jerusalem. A rag tag band of frightened and confused disciples return to the scene of the crime (the fingerprints of guilt are everywhere). They “stay in the city” and become a joy-filled community of courageous leaders “clothed in power.” It’s from this new center of existence that the world is transformed.

Joseph Campbell writes, “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave, that was so dreaded, has become the center.”

Campbell beautifully describes the counterintuitive journey of our faith! The dreaded thing that has us fleeing in fear is the very center of our existence, if we can only turn and face it.

The bestselling novel, The Shack, by William P. Young, is a great illustration of this. A man is invited to return to the scene of a horrific tragedy that involves the brutal murder of his daughter (it was not his fault, but he feels responsible); there, he is given a new center. His view of God, himself, the world, and the tragedy itself is transformed. He discovers a joy that is big enough to hold and honor all the pain that he’s endured. His wound becomes a womb of new creation, bearing seeds of new life.

Is there a greater, more beautiful mystery than this?

One more thing. The text has this odd line, “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them.” How does one bless while withdrawing?

Three years ago, while my father was on his deathbed, he blessed me. His blessing was wordless. He couldn’t speak. He simply laid his hand on my head and blessed me. His body was withdrawing from this world, but without a doubt, his spirit had never been more present to me. This is true even today. Perhaps this gets at what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “It is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7). Yes, the risen Christ is available to us in way that the bodily existence of Jesus doesn’t allow. The absence of Jesus makes room for the presence of Christ, who “is all and in all” (Col. 3:11).

It’s true; the presence of the crucified risen Christ is in all things, calling forth life. It’s with this blessing, which fills our hearts with love’s confusing joy, that we return to the scene of the crime again and again to discover the very center of our existence. It’s from this place that our cities and our world are transformed.
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms
 
P.S. Whether you’re the victim or the perpetrator, it’s only wise for us to return to the scene of the crime (whatever that is in our life) when we have some sense of being led there by blessing. While the “dreaded thing” is the center of our existence, it will only be a life-giving center when we are ready to receive it. Until then, even the best gifts are experienced as curse. Go as you are blessed…

I bless you in the name of the Father who is for you, the Son who is with you and the Spirit who unites us all in the never-ending dance of love.

The Promise of Presence

 

4“But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”  

Since my father passed away some years ago, I’ve had a fascination with the last words and days of a person’s life.

My father struggled with lung cancer–breathing was a chore. Every breath he took was measured, had meaning, and was intentional.

His final words to each of my siblings were very thoughtful. On his last day, I was next to him on his bed. He motioned me to move closer to him so that I could better hear him. He said, in almost a whisper, “Promise me one thing.”

“Sure dad, anything,” I said. And I waited for some important, life-changing words to come from his mouth.

He drew a long breath, as deep as he could.

Then he said, “Please promise me that you are going to take better care of your car from now on. I’m not going to be here to do that for you anymore.”

I thought to myself, “Really? That’s it?” So, for lack of better response, I said, “Ok Dad. I promise.”

I’ve thought about that conversation thousands of times since. His last words to me mattered a great deal to him.

Here we are, nearly 6 weeks past Easter. The gospel lectionary passage will not let us forget the days before Jesus’ death…and the words…the last words he spoke to his disciples. Jesus is measured and intentional with what he wants them to know and remember…and here it is…

“The Spirit will be with you and is in you.”

In other words, you will not be alone in this world.

This promise of solidarity seems to be the tone of Jesus’ last conversations with his disciples.

That’s quite a promise, Jesus… we will never be alone. You will be with us? How does that actually play out anyway?

How does the Spirit work and move in our personal lives? How about in the lives of people and communities where everything would suggest exactly the opposite? Sometimes it feels like God is not present, or at the very least, very hard to find.

Here’s what I continue to discover. The Spirit needs a Body. The Spirit of God needs to be embodied–in a person, in a people.

God’s presence, Jesus’ promise to be with us, is embodied now through the very imperfect, very conflicted, very frail Body of those who are called CHURCH. He is with us and in us. Ironically, it’s the presence of God at work in the church that frees us to see God’s presence outside the church as well: especially in the marginalized, outcast, and forgotten corners of the world.

There is plenty in the Gospels that suggests this “presence” within God’s people will be messy. The Incarnation was anything but neat and tidy. It was unpredictable. It crossed boundaries. It created tension. It was counter-cultural. It was scandalous.

It was beautiful.

The deeper we move into our communities’ stories, the further we move away from the things that give us privilege and control. The further we go, the more awkwardly beautiful the whole notion of presence becomes. I don’t understand how that works. But, it seems to be the way God prefers to be in the world. He became fully present to us only when he died. That’s a mystery I’m not sure words will ever explain.

But, we know it when it happens through us and we know when it happens to us. Perhaps the best we can do is quietly and humbly acknowledge that God is keeping His promises.
 
 
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms

The Queen of 8th Street

 

 

57“But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.”

Acts 7:55-60

With a quick glance at Taina’s bushy hair, one knew they had entered a wholly unique experience. As other students sat awkwardly on secondhand office chairs, Taina perched herself high against the opposition, sitting like an 8th Street Queen, atop one of the secondhand computer desks. The African, the Arawak, and the Taino all met at the center of Taina’s cute, baby-like face. But one should be warned that her charm and her bushy ponytail belied her true nature as a warrior queen. Taina was determined to stay one step ahead of a system determined to vanquish all within her realm and to hold them under the grip of common ghetto oppression.

My first encounter with Taina was on a North Camden street corner as I waited to pick up some young people for a field trip. I saw her, bushy ponytail in full display, running all activity going on at the corner. I thought, “Look at this cute little brat, out here bossing all the thugs around.” The brilliance I suspected that day was confirmed when she joined our alternative education program. Taina possessed the distinct qualities of Camden’s warrior class: a piercing street apologetic, an anger born of the crisis state within the immediate environment, a determination to hustle into survival, and a fervent longing for something real. These street soldiers are known for their keen intuition, smartly tuned BS detection skills, and their insistence on justice. With them, one had better come with the correct story or risk accusations of fakeness. Sitting atop the secondhand desk, Taina was about to unleash the real story on the local Libertines gathered in opposition to her.

Libertines were one group identified as having seized Stephen, the central character in our reading today from Acts chapter seven. The Libertines have only one biblical mention: a sect comprised of Jews carried away as prisoners of war who had been emancipated. They resettled in Jerusalem and built a synagogue there. Though still clutched within the tortures of Roman imperial domination, the Libertines embraced an illusion of being “Freedmen,” as their name indicates.

Such illusions of freedom, surviving within systems of oppression, are established upon carefully fabricated stories that seek to obscure and misemploy details of an authentic narrative. An authentic narrative threatens the comforts earned within sacredly held illusions. False notions of reconciliation, inclusion, acceptance, fairness, and fraternity are all put at risk as the true story spills out from boldly inspired lips. This was the Libertines problem with the Stephen and his detailed retelling of God’s redemptive history with Israel and its culmination in the person of Jesus the Christ. Stephen’s reliance on God as the only refuge for Israel, and Jesus as the path to redemption, certainly threatened those reliant on systems of power, domination, and empty religion. They seem to echo the call of those in the Prophet Isaiah’s time who urged him

“Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions.”
– Isaiah 30:10

But Stephen, like the truth-tellers throughout history, would not speak of inauthentic pleasantries. He spoke of God’s work from below, through Jesus.

“When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord”
– Acts 7:54-57

Taina sought neither pleasantries nor illusions as she listened to Camden’s Libertines. These were the officials who had gathered, attempting to sooth tensions after an incident between the police and a fellow student. The student was pencil thin and no more dangerous than an average canary. Yet, he had been harassed, abused, and arrested by burly police officers for the mere crime of waiting outside the corner store as his cheesesteak sandwich was being prepared. The police brass and police chaplains gathered there to proclaim a narrative of good policing and neighborly relations in a city known for rampant police corruption and abuse.

Taina would have none of this and, rising from her secondhand throne, she challenged Camden’s Libertines, first recounting the many incidents of police abuse in her neighborhood and then declaring, “Some of your policemen run the drugs in our neighborhood. You want to know their names?” With this, the police chaplains’ faces turned red and their teeth gnashed. Some of the brass ran to quiet her while others yelled “Woooo, Woooo, Heyyy, Heyyy,” in attempts to drown out the authentic narrative. If Libertine eyes had the striking force of stones, Taina would have met the same fate as the martyred Stephen. In some ways, her continued isolation, alienation, and targeting cloak her in daily-lived martyrdom.

“In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.”
– Psalms 31:1

The witness of the martyrs should move us to respond within the systems we live among. In a world where social climbing, compromise, and adoption of false notions of peace and righteousness seem the safest route to success and abundance, I find special beauty in those spaces where God is working to provide refuge for the challenge of an authentic and life-changing narrative. Would that we worked with God to create such spaces within oppressive systems where the voices of the martyrs and the street queens can speak the truth to the powers on behalf of the powerless and survive the stones.

Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja

Shadowlands or Pastureland

 

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and will find pasture.”

John 10:1-10

Street Psalms leads a collaboration of 13 training hubs (UTC) in cities around the world; together, we seek to develop incarnational leaders who love their cities and seek their peace. We have a strong sense of what UTC Hubs are called to do on a communal level. But, we can sometimes lose sight of where we, as individual leaders, are guiding people to on a personal level.

This short poem arrived in my inbox the other day. It has haunted me ever since:

“I lost my identity trying to fit into your shadows,
until I realized you reek of an emptiness no one can fill.”
Tasneem Kagalwalla

While the poet here wrote as one deeply disappointed in the emptiness of the other (likely a failed romance), it left me considering my legacy of leadership as a spouse, father, pastor and ministry leader. How many people do I erroneously lead down a path into the emptiness of shadow? While our UTC Hubs are successfully calling forth incarnational leaders for their cities, what is the destination for those close to us who follow the trajectory of our lives on a personal level?

Richard Rohr wrote a very compelling book exploring a spirituality for the two halves of life entitled, “Falling Upward.” He writes, “your shadow is what you refuse to see about yourself, and what you do not want others to see….We never get to the second half of life without major shadowboxing and I am sorry to report that it continues until the end of life.” When I live my life out of an alignment to misplaced desires (what Ignatius referred to as “inordinate attachments” or “disordered loves”), I lead others to a destination filled with shadows — the fake news of my own invention.

A key for authentic leadership is the ability to confront your shadows. Failing to do so leads others to a destination of falsehood and emptiness. Authentic leaders, often rising out of personal suffering and failure, learn to embrace the necessary courage to shadowbox with an acknowledged foe.

I have sat with this week’s lectionary text from John 10 on many occasions. What struck me this week, in light of the piece of poetry above, was verse 9, where Jesus says that the sheep he leads will find pasture.

Much has been written about the Biblical imagery of shepherd and sheep. Sheep, as has been well documented, are dumb animals that can only live under the care and protection of a shepherd. There are no “wild” sheep. They have no sense of direction, cannot feed themselves, have no way of protecting themselves and cannot get up if they fall over. Thus, the image of sheep portraying humans living in shadows is an ample picture indeed.

The Good Shepherd, in comparison, leads his sheep in a very different way and to a very different destination. He enters with his sheep, calls them each by name, leads them out (as opposed to driving them with a whip), goes on ahead of them to protect them from any danger, and all the while creates the perfect scenario for sheep to follow. What is the destination of all this leadership (shepherding) activity exemplified by the Good Shepherd? Where are the sheep invited to follow the shepherd to?

Pastureland.

The pastureland represents the sustenance of life, where one can eat to his/her heart’s content. It is the place representing the abundance of God’s love, provision and protection — the only place where sheep can thrive.

Pastureland, as a destination, is the antithesis of the destructive whims of the shadowland. In pastureland, one is able to embrace life as a liturgy of abundance. Shadowland, as destination, is the blind allegiance to the myth of scarcity. From the destination of pastureland, I can be fed and I can feed. I can release instead of hoard. I am free to proclaim peace as opposed to living incarcerated behind the bars of rivalry and fear.

In the conclusion to C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, there is a striking conversation ushering in the “farewell to Shadowlands.” Lewis writes,

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is over: this is the morning.”

The leadership of the Good Shepherd invites us out from under the darkness of shadows and into the new morning of abundant pastureland. As his sheep, we are invited to follow; what an incredible privilege it is to encourage others to do the same.

Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

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, 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 to 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 Godbearers. 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 a strange hermeneutic 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 word “hostia,” 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.*

 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

*This Word From Below was originally posted on 5/2/2014.

From Back to Front

 

When it was evening on that day…and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you…As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven…”

John 20:19-31

The Christian story begins at the end, at the resurrection. It is by the light of the resurrection that we begin to see what’s really happening. Until then, we are shrouded in what T.S. Eliot calls “hints and guesses.” It’s only when we see through the eyes of the risen Christ that we begin to make sense of Jesus’ life and our own.

This takes time, usually a lifetime.

Perhaps this is why it took so long for the Gospels to be written. Most scholars date the earliest Gospel (Mark) around 50. A.D., and the last Gospel (John) around 100 A.D. In fact, the Gospels were written after most of Paul’s letters had begun circulating. Why the long wait for something so important? If I’ve learned anything by experience, it’s that it takes years to be formed by the reality of the resurrection so that we can re-narrate life in a way that is faithful to the reality of the Gospel.

Let’s be honest, our lives are not a simple sequence of events, one thing unfolding after another. That’s not how we make sense of our existence. We don’t narrate our lives in the order we live them-front to back. We narrate our lives in reverse-back to front. The problem arises when we don’t have a point of departure, a place of discovery, an awakening, an interpretive key that unlocks the mystery of our life.

James Alison makes a distinction between what he calls the “order of logic” and the “order of discovery.” This distinction is critical to how the spiritual life unfolds.

The order of logic is all too familiar. We begin at the beginning. We faithfully tromp through life in chronological fashion till we reach the end. When we apply the order of logic to our faith, we begin reading the Bible in Genesis and end in Revelation hoping it will all make sense. It doesn’t! To read the Bible front to back is to die a slow and painful death. I’ve tried it many times. We get to Leviticus or Numbers, and if we haven’t given up because of sheer boredom, we give up because of the bloody, gory mess. We dutifully claim the Christian story, but if we are honest, when bound by the order of logic, the story lacks coherence or life.

The order of discovery is different. It begins, not at the chronological beginning of the story, but at a point of departure-a point at which something happens that awakens us, and changes how we see. It’s from this point of departure, or what is classically called “conversion,” that we re-narrate the past, but now from a whole new perspective. It’s from this place that we make meaning. It’s from this place that our lives are re-membered. The past becomes present to us in a whole new way.

The resurrection is the Christian point of departure. That is why, if we are to read Scripture Christianly, we read it through the eyes of the resurrected Christ. If we are to live our lives Christianly, we begin here, in the resurrection.

So, here we are in the first week of the resurrection with the disciples, locked in a room, filled with fear, unable to make sense of the events that have taken place. Suddenly, there is a divine break-in-the risen Christ enters into our prison and stands among us, completely and utterly at ease and unconcerned with all the ways we’ve betrayed and denied him. Not a hint of resentment! In fact, the first word of the risen Christ is “Peace.” He says it three times in this week’s passage!

Easter Peace is the place from which we begin to make meaning. It is the place from which we can see things as they really are. Easter Peace is the ground from which we begin to discover the truth of who God is. It’s from this place that Jesus breathes on us and we discover ourselves being forgiven. To give and receive forgiveness is what it means to bear witness to the resurrection. This is how we participate in the ongoing act of creation.

Perhaps now we can see why, for most of us, it takes a lifetime to faithfully narrate the gospel story at work in our lives. I am so glad the Gospel writers waited as long as they did to put pen to paper. Imagine how differently the story would have been told if they had written too soon, only half formed by love and mercy.

T.S. Eliot said it this way, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Maundy Thursday

 
 

34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

It’s Maundy Thursday. We are entering the passion of Jesus by way of the love Jesus shows us today: a love that frees us to fail, desert, betray and still be called friends.

Our Lenten journey began with Jesus coming down the mountain of transfiguration. He told us not to say anything about the mountain top experience until after the resurrection. (See, Don’t Speak Until You’re Spoken To). Lent is about listening for the voice of the crucified/risen one.

So, I’ve been listening.

I just returned from Guatemala City where we heard from the crucified/risen ones of that great city, particularly the 41 orphan girls burned alive last month; I’m listening. Last week we heard the news of the tragedy in Egypt where 45 were killed; I’m listening. And what about the dozens murdered by chemical weapons in Syria; I’m listening.

As we enter the passion of Jesus, hear the words of the French Catholic monk, Christian de Chergé, who was executed in Algeria by terrorists in 1996. Anticipating his death, Father de Chergé had left a testament with his family to be read upon the event of his murder. The testament in part read:

“If it should happen one day, and it could be today, that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.

My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down . . . .

Obviously, my death will justify the opinion of all those who dismissed me as naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us what he thinks now.” But such people should know that my death will satisfy my most burning curiosity. At last, I will be able, if God pleases, to see the children of Islam as He sees them, illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of God’s Passion and of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to bring forth our common humanity amidst our differences.

I give thanks to God for this life, completely mine yet completely theirs, too, to God, who wanted it for joy against, and in spite of, all odds. In this Thank You, which says everything about my life, I include you, my friends past and present, and those friends who will be here at the side of my mother and father, of my sisters and brothers; thank you a thousand fold.

And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too I wish this thank-you, this “Adieu,” whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father. Amen! – Father Christian de Chergé. Excerpt From: Brian Zahnd. “Beauty Will Save the World.”

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Click to read Meal from Below: A Lenten Devotional

Ishmael, Isaac, and Palm Sunday

4-5 This is the full story of what was sketched earlier by the prophet:
Tell Zion’s daughter,
“Look, your king’s on his way,
poised and ready, mounted
On a donkey, on a colt,
foal of a pack animal.” 

Matthew 21:1-11

Between 1979 and 1981, twenty-nine young black people fell victim to a serial murderer in Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t know any of their names. I do have the name of JonBenét Ramsey indelibly sketched in my mind. Unlike the black children in Atlanta, JonBenét was a white American child of promise; thus, obsession with the drama surrounding her murder swept the nation in 1996. As news ratings soared, and reporters gained new levels of fame, those of us in ghettos across the nation pointed frustratingly to the contrast in the coverage of these two tragedies.

It took twenty-nine murders for the country to notice Atlanta’s missing children, while the theater surrounding JonBenét emerged immediately and was sustained for years. Shouldn’t the death of all children be treated as equally tragic and heartbreaking?

The contradictory responses drive me to the story of Isaac and Ishmael, and ultimately to our Gospel for today. Isaac was a child of promise. Ishmael was not. Abraham, Isaac’s father, seems to have given little thought to sending Ishmael and his mother into the wilderness to die. I rarely hear much drama attached to the deportation of this young man and his mother. Like the children of Atlanta and so many of today’s deportees, Ishmael’s horrors seem obscured by the drama of a child of promise.

Meanwhile, Isaac’s impending death by sacrifice has garnered much theological attention throughout history, attracting the interest of biblical voyeurs, hungry for ever-increasing intrigue. Perhaps it takes a lowly ghetto-based theology to connect the story of the banished child to that of the child of promise. I imagine that Abraham was forced to confront the question, “If you think it’s OK to let kids die, then why does it feel so bad to see your own child of promise on the alter.” Like so many today, it seems Abraham needed the dramatic spectacle of his own son, being bound and dressed as a sacrificial offering, to be shocked into consciousness about oppression, injustice, and privilege.

“The Lord is God, shining upon us. Take the sacrifice and bind it with cords on the altar.”

Psalms 118:27 (NTL)

In this week’s Gospel, we read about Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem. He comes representing the marginalized Ishmael, the children of Atlanta, and also the children of promise, akin to Isaac and JonBenét. His entry signals the truth: that injustice and iniquity certainly devour the disregarded but also sacrifice the children of promise. The makeshift path of honor and shouts of Hosanna certainly marked the Savior as a child of promise. But, his chosen chariots, a beasts of burden, surely fixed him among the most lowly esteemed, those whose horrors can’t compete with Hollywood headlines. His entry is a setup, intended to shock us into the reality that even highly favored children of promise are sacrificed at the altar of power-lust and injustice. Jesus seems to be crying out, “Take note of the praises but prepare to see what they do to your child of promise.”

There is a myth; it says that going along with oppression or maintaining a posture of silence in the face of it will somehow insulate us from the damages of injustice. The triumphant entry of the Blessed One “who comes in the name of the Lord” lays bare this myth. His celebrated procession toward the cruciform alter calls us to watch, reflect, and move to righteous action. We must, because iniquity continues its mission to devour all children, be they the forgotten ones living among the world’s trash heaps, slums, and ghettos, or those cloistered behind gated communities.

In the case of Ishmael, the problem child survives, as does Isaac, the child of promise. Jesus, on the other hand, the one who represents both children, does not. We are thus left to respond to the everyday spectacle contained within the drama of humanity; sin continues to devour forgotten problem children in ghetto streets and children of promise in addiction centers. We have much before our eyes to shock us into consciousness. May the crucified one help us to see through his eyes.

Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja

Click to read Meal from Below: A Lenten Devotional

Freedom from Fear

 

 

44Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

John 11:1-57

“The living Jesus is a problem in our religious institutions. Yes. Because if you are having a funeral, a nice funeral, and the dead person starts to move, there goes the funeral! And, dear brothers and sisters, Jesus is moving.”

Juan Carlos Ortiz

We trudge along this Lenten season towards the horror of the cross. Just two weeks away, Good Friday marks the day when the shadow of death will completely shroud us in darkness and despair. As the body of Lazarus lies entombed, wrapped in the grave clothes of death, we find ourselves also shrouded in darkness, wrapped in the grave
clothes of sin: fear reigning in our hearts.

There are certain men and women in the Gospels whom I long to meet one day. Not the individuals whose names are most famous in the New Testament text, but people like Bartimaeus, the woman caught in adultery, the friend of Cleopas on the road to Emmaus, and the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well. These are all folks who, after life-transforming encounters with Jesus, walk off into anonymity. I want to know the rest of their stories.

And then there’s Lazarus. Perhaps his (post) post-mortem story is the one I’d be most interested in hearing. In John 11, Lazarus has died and his body lies entombed for four days before Jesus finally shows up. Both Mary and Martha share their remorse that a quicker response from Jesus could have spared their brother’s life. The fact is, however, that death has won and swallowed up yet another victim. This time, the deceased is their own dear brother-a man Jesus himself deeply loved.

Jesus came to Judea, ostensibly, to “wake up” his friend Lazarus. But, there is something even more significant at play. The verbs used in the text (verses 33 and 38) reveal that Jesus’ initial emotive response is that of bitter anger and indignation. Theologian James Alison suggests that Jesus’ anger was directed at the culture of death around him. A culture evidenced by the professional mourners who wail as a choir in tribute to death as master and king. Jesus heads to Judea on a mission; he will revive his friend, redefine death, and in the process, erase the suffocating fear that has created a culture of death.

Jesus knows that awaking Lazarus has officially initiated his own journey into the darkness of the tomb. After he’s buried, will his surviving friends and family fall into the same paralyzing fear of death’s power that surrounded Lazarus? Or, is Jesus here to reveal an ethic of life in place of the paralyzing fear of death?

What Augustine referred to as “timor mortis”(Latin for the fear of death) does more damage than any other phobia. We respond to it by burying our head in the sand or running away, both of which cause great harm and hold us back from the experience of unbridled freedom.

When we are free from the fear of death, we are free to live generous lives in service to the other, even our enemies. On our Lenten journey, we, alongside Lazarus, are dressed in grave clothes. But we will soon be called out of the relentless fear of death and into the intoxicating freedom of life. Lazarus’ miracle is our miracle. Death is conquered both for him and for us.

I cannot imagine what the rest of Lazarus’s life must have looked like. He had been to the grave and back again. And now, unhinged from the fear of death, he spends the rest of his life in the freedom of the resurrection.

The movie Of Gods and Men illustrates this kind of freedom beautifully. One scene in particular captures the crux of the film and the human predicament. Luc is a doctor who has been treating rebels wounded in the Algerian Civil War. The abbot, who is working through his own fears, warns Luc to be careful. Luc responds to the abbot:

“Throughout my career I’ve met all sorts of different people. Including Nazis. And even the devil. I’m not scared of terrorists, even less of the army. And I’m not scared of death. I am a free man.”

That’s Gospel freedom. Freedom from the fear of death as we, like Lazarus, will soon hear the glorious words of Jesus:

“Take off the grave clothes and let him (them) go.”

 

Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

P.S. “To learn to follow Jesus is the training necessary to become a human being. To be a human is not a natural condition, but requires training. The kind of training required, moreover, has everything to do with death. To follow Jesus is to go with him to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. To follow Jesus, therefore, is to undergo a training that refuses to let death, even death at the hands of enemies, determine the shape of our living.”

Stanley Hauerwas

Click to read Meal from Below: A Lenten Devotional

The Judgment of Mercy

 
 
39“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (9:39-40)

John 9:1-41

Stanley Hauwerwas said, “You can only act within the world you can see.” In this week’s text, Jesus sees what others can’t. He acts and his actions give new sight. This is the hope of the world.

The story begins with the disciples speculating theologically on who is to blame for a certain man being born blind; they are convinced God is punishing him. Jesus refuses this interpretation and heals the blind man…an act that “divides” the unstable community; he robs them of their scapegoat. Blinded by their own dim judgment, and in an effort to preserve the status quo, the community “drives out” the healed man from their midst.

Jesus follows the exile to the margins where the two of them establish the possibility of a new community, one founded upon mercy, not the blind guide of sacrifice. This is the “judgment” for which Jesus came into the world-the judgment of mercy.

There are four groups that appear in this story: the disciples, the neighbors, the parents and the Pharisees. None of them celebrate the healing of the blind man, not the disciples, not even the blind man’s parents. It’s a stunning note of absence. Instead, all are eager to distance themselves from the blind man, even in his healed state. His very presence is a threat to the community, which stands over and against “the sinner.”

To celebrate the blind man’s healing would be to jeopardize the fragile solidarity maintained by a steady stream of scapegoats. To celebrate the blind man’s healing is to side, not only with a “sinner,” but with Jesus, who himself had become known as a “sinner.” In fact, the religious power structure had already agreed, “anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (9:22). Lest we rush to judgment and render ourselves blind, we do well to remember what a scary and dangerous thing it is to be locked out of the only community we know by standing with those who are despised. Mercy comes at a price; we are wise to count the cost.

This story is layered with irony; all of the actors are blind to the blind man. He is invisible to them, a non-person. The only one who actually sees him is Jesus. “He saw a man blind from birth” (9:1). The man is the source of endless speculation about everything except his own healing and humanity. In fact, while the community argues about who he is, the blind man tries in vain to be noticed and get a word in edgewise. “He kept saying, ‘I am the man'” (9:9). It’s a scene straight out of a Monty Python skit. They, not the once-blind “sinner,” are oblivious to God’s active presence in their midst. As a result, once healed, he is expelled from the very community that exists for healing and wholeness.

Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart, talks frequently about the “community of kinship” that Jesus makes possible. He invites us to visualize a circle of compassion and then to imagine that no one is standing outside that circle. Finally, he invites us to act…to walk to the edge of the circle and stand with those who have been demonized in order to stop the demonizing. What a beautiful way to describe what Jesus does in this text.

In our Lenten journey we are nearing the cross, the place where Jesus will change the way we see forever and make visible that to which we are blind. Soon, we will find ourselves driven out to the extreme edge of the circle of compassion, where we will discover that the love and mercy of God widens yet again to include the excluded. This is God’s judgment of mercy; may he use the forty days of Lent to prepare our hearts for it.

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Click to read Meal from Below: A Lenten Devotional

Why are you talking to me?

 
6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”

John 4:5-42

 
I was 24 years old, sitting at a youth camp, counseling a cabin full of girls. One of the speakers shared about the Samaritan woman at the well and her encounter with Jesus. I’m sure you know the story well. Jesus met her at the well when the sun was high. She was performing her daily task of drawing water-alone. According to our speaker, she had been ostracized by her community due to a bad reputation; she had been married 5 times after all, and was now living with a man who wasn’t her husband.
 
It was unheard of, he told us, that Jesus was having this conversation. Culturally, he shouldn’t have been speaking to her. Even if you put aside the issue of her prior marriages, her gender should have made her off limits.
 
Regardless, Jesus struck up a conversation with the woman, asking her to draw him a drink from the well. As youth workers, we were trained to see this request as Jesus’ way into a conversation with her.
 
She is very well aware that there are all kinds of boundaries that are being crossed in this interaction-“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
 
So many boundaries…
 
If you’ve ever been marginalized, or experienced prejudice or bigotry, then you can instantly relate to her question. It’s not second nature; it’s first. She knew, deep in her bones, all the reasons this conversation shouldn’t be happening.
 
You see, marginalization makes you think twice about where you can go, who you might run into, what awkward conversations you could find yourself in, and what battles you’ll have to fight. You become an expert at code switching-the practice of alternating between the hidden social rules and norms of your culture and the rules and norms of the dominant culture.
 
Her question stands out to me…even more than the dialogue about living water. It stops me in my tracks. She essentially asks him, “Why are you talking to me?”
 
I hear fear, limitation, frustration, irritation, exhaustion and judgment in her question. I can feel the years of knowing, and being raised to know, her “place” in society.
 
As the conversation moves along, Jesus ends up challenging her understanding of worship and where/how it happens. I’m struck by the context of the conversation; it happens between two individuals that, for all intents and purposes, are enemies.
 
This shouldn’t be happening.
 
The idea of “worshipping God” in spirit and in truth cannot be separated from this holy conversation ; it is connected to the kind of worship where boundaries and walls come down. Jesus’ presence with this Samaritan woman is an authentic expression of the kinds of conversations that lead to transformative worship.
 
Jesus challenges her cultural expectations of worship-where and how it happens. The Incarnation will do that. In fact, he teases out the idea that TRUE and AUTHENTIC worship cannot be contained in a place, but in the hearts of a people who are seeking God earnestly. Part of this seeking happens when we engage with our enemies, or at the very least, those whom we judge or despise.
 
Every time I heard this story, it was preached by a man. They always stopped at verse 26 where Jesus let her know that indeed, he was the Messiah: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” That is AMAZING good news, but stopping at this point implies that Jesus is the only significant actor to come out of this story. The news that liberated me happens just 13 verses later:
 
4:39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”
 
This is what I thirst for-bold proclamation that Jesus’ interaction with those who are marginalized, including women, is on the front edge of God’s Kingdom work. Worshiping God in Spirit and in truth includes telling the whole truth about a God whose conversations begin in the margins. Jesus empowered a Samaritan Woman to do this “telling” of the Good News.
 
The Incarnation is unique in this sense. It crosses over and through boundaries, and it produces transformation in the hearts of individual people and communities. It incarnates, if you will, in the most unlikely of people and places. And it’s contagious.
 
As we continue our Lenten journey, may God bless us with opportunities to engage, and be engaged, by those we consider to be the “other”…especially those that are marginalized. That may be our best chance to receive the unexpected “telling” of the Good News…it may be the testimony that helps us believe in him.
 
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms
 
Click to read Meal from Below: A Lenten Devotional

The Transfiguration of a Skinny Geedy

 
 
4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Matthew 17:1-9

 
Geedy was just one word in the neighborhood’s descriptive lexicon for crack cocaine addicts. Sometimes called fiends, geezers, crack heads, or traps, crack addicts once dominated American’s blighted urban landscapes, representing a black, brown, and tan urban plague long before opioid addiction became a more respectable white crisis in healthcare.
 
As for me, I stood solidly situated like Nicodemus in my understanding of how life’s laws interacted with drug addiction. I held the firm and sincere conviction that such character flaws were remedied by exposure to the gospel truth of God’s free gift of salvation, confession of sin, and turning in repentance to a new life of faith. This was my message to the neighborhood crack addicts, a solid approach to redemption-orthodoxy as exact as algebra. Then I encountered a tall, skinny geedy.
 
I never got his name and unlike the usual stream of addicts and alcoholics that normally hit me up for spare change, I’ve only seen him once, on a balmy summer South Camden afternoon as I was rounding up neighborhood kids for an adventurous outing. There, amid the organizational chaos of lining up wildly energetic preteens, he called out in a voice that spoke much more of what he could have been than what he had become, “Excuse me my brother. I don’t mean to bother you but can you spare a couple of dollars?” The uninitiated may have mistaken him for some wandering aristocrat who had fallen to an incident of bad luck. I was solidly initiated and could see his true condition from miles away, or so I thought. His request, no matter how polite, was something I had heard so often, in so many dialects, attitudes, and in every denomination.
 
The tall, skinny geedy’s request was especially annoying because this man seemed to ignore the fact that I was working in the sacred space of children, who should never be mingled in among drug infested environments. I was building tabernacles and this tall, skinny geedy was interrupting my righteous labors. Instead of reaching into my pocket and giving enough change for him to proceed on his way, I determined to lay down the law. I offered a graciously firm reply to his request for change, “Brother, more than money, what you really need is to stop using those drugs.” I guess I told him. Then God spoke.
 
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Matthew 17:5
 
Though we often neglect, miss, or dismiss it, the core of the incarnation is the startling, unpredictable, and serendipitously disruptive voice of God as it constantly emerges among us. Be it through Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22:21-38), a mysterious finger writing on the wall (Daniel 5), the voice of silence that spoke to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12), or the voice from heaven in this week’s gospel reading, God’s call arises, pointing to a reality that takes us far beyond our human confidence in neatly crafted laws and conventions. The transfigured Jesus stood on the mountain, face shining and clothes gleaming, engaged in God’s eternal conversation. Peter, unnerved by serendipitous disruption, had a similar reaction to mine-to build lawful tabernacles within the realm of what we know and can control-suitable for containing any possible serendipity or divine disruption.
 
Having spoken truth to the tall, skinny geedy, I figured my task was complete. God didn’t need to speak because I already had. My disposition neglected any possibility of divine utterance; I faithfully turned my back and resumed tabernacle construction, loading kids onto the bus. The tall, skinny geedy anxiously called to me again, “Brother.”
 
I turned to see him suddenly transfigured, though in dingy grey clothes, with his espresso colored face gleaming with the sweat of a 90-degree day.
 
I’m not sure if it was a prayer, a rebuke, a sermon, or an injection into the eternal conversation but something in the words he sternly spoke to me opened my eyes to realities far beyond my neatly crafted laws and conventions. “You need to know crack calls me by my name at night,” he said with his burning eyes piercing right through me. And then he left, leaving me with the disorienting realization that my laws, conventions, and precise orthodoxy were no match for an addiction that held alluring conversations late at night.
 
His words left me imagining a world where we suspend our tabernacle building long enough to hear God graciously broadcasting assurances of his love and favor, long enough to see Christ mystically transformed into the image of the least among us-even in the person of a tall, skinny geedy, and long enough to see the power of God’s eternal conversation centered on showering gifts of abundance on captives begging for change in our streets. As the tall, skinny geedy made his way to the next possible donor, I realized that Christ once again had come to save me-that God had indeed spoken.
 
 
Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja

Click to read Meal from Below: A Lenten Devotional

Wilderness Wander – Setting out from where you are

 
 
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

Matthew 4:1-11

 
After an encounter with the shadowlands of Ash Wednesday two days ago, we now sit silently in front of an opened curtain revealing the five-week theater that is the Valley of Lent. As is so often the case, the Gospel narrative for the first Sunday of Lent is that of the desert temptation.
 
Each of the synoptic Gospels signals the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry against the backdrop of an unnamed Middle Eastern desert. In biblical parlance, the desert is that place in Scripture where we go to figure out who is who and what is real. It is the place where souls are revealed.
 
Imagine Jesus after a long fast and a lonely walk in the desert. He sees a barren landscape, a wasteland-no gardens, or streams, no milk or honey, only rocks and sand and the occasional desert fox. The scenery matches his interior. The land is as empty as his stomach.
 
The introduction to the Lenten season that we received on Ash Wednesday culminated with the exhortations and questions that today, in the desert, animate our journey forward:
 
“Join me now in the wilderness. Taste now only dust. Learn with me what only hunger can teach. Pay attention to the empty regions you have busied yourself to ignore.” Can we accept this invitation, entrusting ourselves to the One who delivers it? Will we enter this long journey patiently and with openness?
 
After traveling forty long days and nights without food, Jesus rests. Exhausted and hungry, he meets the devil and so do we, for this is not Jesus’ story alone; It is our story, too. Jesus carries the fullness of humanity into this divine appointment with the Devil. We are thus invited to a pilgrimage down, into and through the dark night of the soul. It is an invitation to wander in the wilderness, to come face to face with the blurred contours of our own battered souls as we journey with Jesus to the cross.
 
I am reminded of a quote touching on a crucial element of pilgrimage that fueled the beginning of Lent several years ago for our Street Psalms community.
 
“The truth is that when someone sets out on the road it’s never in the name of an abstract idea. Ultimately, there’s only one path; to take another is merely to wander. But the voyager is the only one who knows it. Set out from where you are; otherwise, you’ll never arrive anywhere.

Jean Sulivan – Morning Light

 
The last line speaks loudly to my soul this year. I am fighting the temptation to embark on the Lenten journey this year from a false place in search of a space that is not mine to occupy. Jesus’ path into the desert and his encounter with the Devil shows the way forward. We are compelled to begin the journey to the cross from where we actually reside…not from where we prefer to be. This, indeed, is invitation into grace-filled adventure.
 
Lest we be overwhelmed by images of Jesus’ desert temptation beckoning us forward into solidarity with his hunger and loneliness, it would do us well to remember what immediately precipitated the Spirit’s leading him into the wilderness. Jesus entered the desert “full of the Holy Spirit,” according to Luke’s account. The “filling” occurred because he had just received the commissioning words of his baptism, “And a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
 
Thus, commissioned in love, we journey forward with Jesus, from the place “right where we are,” fueled by what Mary Jo Leddy calls “radical gratitude.” This is what fills the heart of Jesus while wandering in the wilderness; from that space we experience our own invitation for the journey with him to the cross, where all of life is re-imagined once and for all.
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City, Guatemala

P.S. The desert temptation centers around the symbols of bread, temple, and crown. For a detailed look at these symbols and their significance for the Lenten journey, read an excerpt from Geography of Grace HERE from which this Word from Below reflection was partly adapted.

Click to read Meal from Below: A Lenten Devotional

Don’t Speak Until You’re Spoken To*

 
So why does Jesus tell his disciples to remain quiet until they meet him in the resurrection? Here’s my guess. Until we hear from the Crucified One we, like Moses, are only half-converted to the love of God. Puffed up with vision of grandeur, the disciples descend into the chaos below. Very soon, their hearts will burn hot with anger, convinced their righteous indignation is from God. This mess will have them scaling another mountain. On that mountain, they will witness original speech from God that not even Moses or Elijah fully heard. They will hear the heart of the Crucified One say to his murderers, “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing” “

Luke 23:34

 
After the brightly lit meeting on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, where Jesus is transfigured, he 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 speak after the resurrection but not before?
 
This week’s text calls to mind Moses’ meeting with God on the mountain. Remember that? Moses ascended the mountain to speak with God. He came down with the 10 Commandments. Upon his return all hell had broken loose. There was the “noise of war in the camp” (Ex. 32:17). Chaos had gripped the community and they had turned to the golden calf. “Moses’ anger burned hot” (Ex. 32:19). In a fit of rage he then speaks rashly. Violence escalated (as it always does). He orders the execution of more than 3,000 men in God’s name. A gory frenzy of fratricide ensued that was much worse than the original sin. Yikes!
 
In the wake of the violence Moses returned to the mountain to speak to God. He fully expected to meet a God whose anger burned hotter than his own. Instead, God spoke words never uttered before, I am a “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Ex. 34:6-7). Who is this God? In my view, Moses was spoken to by the Crucified One whose heart, like the stone tablets Moses had dashed, lay broken before him.
 
In his book Deep Memory and Exuberant Hope, Walter Bruggemann argues that each major failure in the life of Israel (beginning with this Exodus crisis) calls forth “original speech” from God that Israel had never heard before. In each case we hear something completely unexpected — not the anger and wrath that mirrors the human heart, but the intensification of grace and mercy that originates in the heart of God. To be sure, there are troubling regressions in the language that are attributed to God, but there is no doubt about its direction. God’s ever-increasing lexicon of grace unfolds in Scripture until it finally culminates in Jesus. Perhaps we can only hear good news a little at a time.
 
So why does Jesus tell his disciples to remain quiet until they meet him in the resurrection? Here’s my guess. Until we hear from the Crucified One we, like Moses, are only half-converted to the love of God. Puffed up with vision of grandeur, the disciples descend into the chaos below. Very soon, their hearts will soon burn hot with anger, convinced their righteous indignation is from God. This mess will have them scaling another mountain. On that mountain, they will witness original speech from God that not even Moses or Elijah fully heard. They will hear the heart of the Crucified One say to his murderers, “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Three days later in the upper room (think mountain) the heart of Jesus will speak again when he declares God’s “peace” yet again.
 
Next week we enter Lent. It is the annual journey into the resurrection by way of the cross. It can’t come soon enough. The “noise of war” is rising and golden calves abound. Bold speech is needed like never before, but like the disciples on their way to Calvary, we do well not to speak until spoken to by the Crucified One. Perhaps a Lenten vow of silence is in order.
 
I have a hunch that when the Crucified One whispers words of peace in our souls, it will be some very highly personalized version of what Jesus heard on the mountain of Transfiguration in this week’s text, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Matt. 17:5). Having internalized the original speech of God and our own belovedness, we are free to shout, sing and dance our own version of original speech in a hurting world.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms
 
*James Alison has a chapter with this same title in his book series called Jesus, The Forgiving Victim. I highly recommend it.
 
Click to read Meal from Below: A Lenten Devotional

Becoming Perfectly Human

 

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

Matthew 5:38-48

 
I use to think that the Sermon on the Mount was easy and beautiful. I use to think, “yeah Jesus, tell ’em what they are missing.” The Sermon on the Mount was clear and way better than the law. Plain language. No questions. When I learned that Jesus was actually the fulfillment of the law, it made so much sense. The law was not just words; it was Jesus. His life is the concrete picture of what God intended. Let me get my WWJD bracelet right now.
 
Well, I’ve realized the Sermon on the Mount, in spite of its beauty, is no picnic. It’s not easy. In fact, Jesus is calling us to account. He’s telling us that these teachings were actually going to do something the law was incapable of doing-bringing humanity into the picture. Jesus, in the flesh, was going to humanize the law; he would put flesh on it.
 
When I took my ordination exams, one of the questions was about the depravity of humanity. I will admit, that is still a hard one for me. Are we depraved? Perhaps so-but the depravity isn’t humanity per se…it’s our version of humanity. We’ve got the wrong picture.
 
Humanity is actually beautiful when understood in the light of Jesus-God becoming flesh to show us the power of love and humility. We don’t get there by focusing on the evil of humanity, but instead by remembering, by believing and seeing, that God made us HUMAN in the IMAGE of God’s own humanness and it is Good!
 
With that as the backdrop, the Sermon on the Mount and all that Jesus teaches us about what it means to be human is simply this-He is calling us to our original, intended selves. He is calling us forth into abundant life found in a new way of being. Jesus is inviting those who will follow to shed those things that de-humanize us and invites us to rightly claim what is already within-put there by our Creator.
 
I just got of the phone with a friend of mine who is serving time-again. We’ve had many conversations about this. He is coming into his true HUMANITY-and though he has lived a lifetime, or what some might call a waste of life, I choose to believe that the image of God still resides there. Why? Because, as marred and scarred and unrecognizable that it seems at times, his humanness belongs to God and it’s there. I know it. As people who are called to proclaim the Good News in hard places, this is perhaps one of the most difficult things we must do-persist in finding the God-HUMAN ness in all.
 
Back to my statement of faith in my ordination exams-someone pushed me on the question of the depravity of humanity. To be totally honest, it is hard for me to put those two words together in the same sentence. Why? Because humanity belongs to God. It was God’s idea. We’d be better served to start with the assumption that humanity is good because it was created by God. As a pastor, this is my constant tension-to look for the humanity in others and begin there. First. That’s not easy.
 
To forgive and love your enemy is true humanity.
To give generously to others is true humanity.
To turn the other cheek when someone has wronged you is true humanity.
 
Depravity of humanity in this context isn’t some “evil” that is different and distant from us. Depravity of humanity is unforgiveness. It’s greed. It’s retaliation. It’s inhospitality. It’s hating your enemy. It’s “othering.” These are all motivated by fear AND by some need we have to ensure that our own humanity is protected. Depravity is all that works against our ability to see and believe and trust that God is in the other.
 
The call of the disciple is to the OTHER. It is to love the OTHER. It is to find peace with the other. It can’t be done without the simple truth-GOD became HUMAN and showed us how to BE truly HUMAN to one another.
 
May God grant all of us eyes to see his image in those where we least expect it.
 
 
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church

A Happy Baptism

 

22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Matthew 5:21-37

Denise stood nervously at the edge of the deep end of the Herman’s scandalous inground pool. I saw her out of the corner of my left eye, never imagining her plans. The Hermans lived amidst the towering spruce and maple trees and Victorian homes of little Collingswood, New Jersey. Denise and her 14 friends gathered at the pool lived amidst the towering crime rates and low regard of nearby Camden. This was the scandal—black, brown, tan, and yellow kids diving in a place long preserved as a sea of whiteness. The Hermans gloried in the scandal, which was certainly the talk of the town. The spectacle of this color spectrum splashing about on hot afternoons was in full view for neighbors and passing cars; less visible were the curious graces that always seemed to find their way into the Herman’s pool—graces called forth through faithful adherence to God’s commandments.

Commandments seem difficult in our age of unprecedented privilege. The very word “commandment” invokes notions of restriction, limitation, and boundaries. Surely enough, the world’s systems use commandments for such purposes, but God’s Kingdom moves in the opposite direction. God’s commandments are crafted for us to fully enjoy the immeasurably mystical and liberating gifts of grace. We hear the ensuing joys of such mysteries ringing out in the Psalmist’s voice.

Happy are those whose lives are faultless, who live according to the law of the Lord. Happy are those who follow his commands, who obey him with all their heart. Psalms 199:1-2 (Good News Translation)

The Hermans embraced the scandal of God’s commandment to extravagantly love black, brown, tan, and yellow kids from America’s most dangerous city. Though their neighborhood was known for its scarcity of grace, the act of opening a backyard pool to a group of suspect kids from a despised city affected a movement of inclusion and the emergence of abundant grace among those who dared to take a closer look.

Denise had not figured out all the stuff about commandments and grace. Lots of nouns floated above her head: Jesus, Christian, church, Baptist, Methodist, and heaven. But Denise lived in a world where verbs were much more important than nouns. At home, she was much more concerned about what the people around her did, not how they named themselves. She was bright, young, beautiful, and much too shapely for a 13-year-old. Her father was nowhere to be found and her mother’s boyfriend was an absolute lecher. Denise was the kind of girl who needed some assurances that people like the Hermans and myself took God’s commandments seriously—that our “yes” truly meant “yes” and our “no” meant “no.” Thus, after telling her “yes, we love you” and “no, we will not cast you out,” she still stood on the edge at the deep end of the pool.

God’s commandments call us to profound relationships, both with humanity and with him. This is the point of the litany of commandments Jesus gives us in our Gospel reading, taken from Matthew 5:21-37. These commandments guide us to be profoundly connected to our sisters and brothers, our friends, enemies, and spouses…and to skeptical teenage girls living in danger. Denise, having made a point to announce she could not swim, waited until my gaze was solely on her, with all the shock of seeing her at the edge of the deep end, and then she jumped. She knew if my yes was true and if I was serious about all God’s commandants I professed to follow, I would have to plunge in with all I had—eyeglasses, street clothes, wallet, watch, shoes, dollar bills and all—but only if I was serious about salvation. I’ve rarely seen such an act of faith or a more impassioned challenge to take God’s commandments seriously. So, there in the Herman’s pool the mystically abundant waters of God’s grace once again showed up as a soggy youth worker emerged from the bottom of the pool with a new believer named Denise.

Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja

Salt and Light

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”

Matthew 5:13-20

This past Sunday morning I attended a unique worship service with some friends. It was called “Street Church;” all the parishioners are homeless youth from a particular area of Guatemala City.

Street Church is coordinated by a ministry called Sigo Vivo, founded by Pastor Rudy Hernandez, his wife Tatiana and their teenage daughters. Rudy pastored an established church in the neighborhood for 16 years before they “let him go;” the leaders of the congregation were not happy about the presence of street youth attending services, using their bathrooms, receiving medical care from Tatiana (a family physician), and eating on the premises.

As part of their ministry, the Hernandez family and street youth now meet every Saturday and Sunday in a park down the street from their previous church. Ironically, the pastor’s former parishioners pass by on the way to their own sequestered service every Sunday.

As I sit with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:13-20, which immediately follow the listing of the Beatitudes, I can imagine Jesus having the Hernandez family and their young friends in mind. Church on the Street was a beautiful expression of the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The homeless youth led the worship music and the pastor’s daughter, Taty, preached. The young people repeatedly and politely raised their hands peppering Taty with questions, giving testimony by making application of the text to their everyday lives and, while quoting Scripture, exhorted their friends and street family to consider the power of the undying love of Jesus in the face of unspeakable obstacles, hardship and pain.

A lot of ink has been spilled trying to decipher what Jesus meant by the images of salt and light. Countless sermons and Sunday School lessons refer to salt as a purifying or cleansing agent, a seasoning for flavoring food/life, a mode of conviction (salt in a wound) or even the cause of thirst. Based on the context of Jesus’ audience, however, the most plausible application was salt as an agent of preservation. Salt slows down the rotting process, not by being nearby in a salt container, but by being rubbed into that which it is intended to preserve. The image of “being rubbed into the lives of others and having the lives of others rubbed into us” is a striking picture of the incarnation. An image so beautifully painted for me this past Sunday morning by the Sigo Vivo team. An image repeated on a daily basis by incarnational leaders all over the world that we at Street Psalms have the blessing of serving.

Salt and light are not moral platitudes that one can try to reach. Jesus is not suggesting or commanding that his hearers attempt to become salt and light; rather, he was commissioning them then, and us today, to live into the core DNA of our created being: “You ARE the salt of the earth, you ARE the light of the world.” Therefore, live up and into the fullness of what you have been created to be. Those who embody the heart of the beatitudes are the SALT of the earth to retard corruption, and the LIGHT of the world to reveal truth. We are commissioned to be both subtle salt and conspicuous light. As the Hernandez family so masterfully illustrates this on the streets of Guatemala City, so hundreds of Christ-following peacemakers seek to do the same in the current political landscape in the United States.

Our passage concludes with Jesus explaining how he has come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them as preserving salt that preserves and light that illumines. His followers are invited to follow into the great vocation of incarnational leadership.

Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City, Guatemala

The Inauguration

 
2“Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…'”

Mathew 5:1-12

 
We are told that the three most important words in real estate are: Location! Location! Location! I don’t think God got that memo when, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood,” (John 1:14).
 
When God goes looking for a home, God does not pick the high rent district of humanity. God moves into what most of the world considered a cursed ghetto in the backwaters of the Roman Empire.
 
If the Incarnation means anything it is about the relocation of God’s blessing from “up there” to “down here.” It’s God’s Yes and Amen to this world. It is a blessing from below, in the most unexpected way-in and among that which we call cursed. This always comes as a shock to us.
 
In this week’s text, Jesus is doing a riff on the Incarnation. He is peering inside the reality of God’s Kingdom and how it works. He is teaching that God’s blessing is not where we think it is. The ones that we see as cursed turn out to be the ones on whom God’s favor rests. Is this because the poor, the mourning, the meek, and the hungry are more deserving than the rest of us? Not at all! God’s kingdom is not a meritocracy where favor is a reward for good behavior. Jesus is helping us see what has always been true though hidden. Namely, the “cursed” are not the object of God’s scorn as we thought; they are the objects of OUR scorn, which is why Jesus locates himself there and does the unimaginable. He blesses the world through that which is cursed! In a way, this is his inauguration speech that ushers in the upside-down Kingdom of God.
 
If we look into the face of the cursed one long enough we see two things. First, we see ourselves, or what Ronald Rolheiser calls our own “cursed consciousness.” A cursed consciousness is one that has internalized the curses of others and sees the world through the lens of self-hatred, bitterness and rivalry, projecting it outward. As a result, we see things, not as they are, but as we falsely see ourselves. Second, we see the face and grace of Jesus who returns us to ourselves, clothed and in our right mind. Isn’t this what happens on the Cross? The Cursed One, who is the object of our scorn (not God’s), breaks the cycle of violence with this life-affirming, world-healing blessing, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He returns curse with blessing and in doing so returns us to ourselves. We become who we are, blessed ones.
 
Because of this, we can take the difficult and lifelong journey into our souls and those dimensions of our lives that feel cursed. We can even relocate ourselves and gladly be numbered among the transgressors. We can do this with confidence that God has pitched God’s tent there, and called it blessed and beautiful. It’s there that the Spirit transforms our “cursed consciousness” into one of delight. Only then can we bless the world. Whenever we see this happening we can be sure that the Kingdom of God is near.
 
Last week at the presidential inauguration here in the United States, rain began to fall during the ceremony. One minister saw this as a sign of God’s blessing on this administration and its “only America first” vision. In a sense, he was right. God’s blessing falls on all of us. God “sends rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). However, given the up-side-down kingdom that Jesus makes visible in this week’s text, we also do well to remember that the “last are first and the first are last” (Matt. 20:16).
 
O Cursed One, who is our blessing, return us to ourselves with delight that we might do the same for all the cursed ones who have long since forgotten their blessedness.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

What About Church Out Here?

 
18“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.”

Mathew 4:12-23


 
One Sunday afternoon, I was driving through the neighborhood with a car full of local kids that were a part of our ministry. We pulled up to a four way stop. Now mind you, at the time this neighborhood was deemed an “at-risk” area and had all of the trappings that come with that label-gang activity, violence, drugs, etc.
 
On two of the corners were churches. It was a Sunday afternoon at about 2:30 and both congregations were just letting out. People were filing out of the church doors. On the third corner was a park that was notorious for some not-so-great activities. On this particular Sunday, a group of men were hanging out drinking 40’s. On the 4th corner, a group of young men were shootin’ dice.
 
The conversation that went down in my car as we pulled up to the corner went something like this:
 
Kid: See Lina, look at this.
 
Me: Look at what?
 
Kid: Look at what’s goin on here. This is crazy…(all the other kids agreeing and adding their two cents).
 
Me: What do you mean?
 
Kid: All these people getting outta church-just finish prayin, gettin’ their praise on — and they walk out…totally ignoring what’s goin’ all around them. They don’t even talk or look at these other people. Wassup with that?
 
Me: What do you think is up with that?
 
Kid: They (pointing to the church folk) don’t care. They don’t get it.
 
Me: Don’t get what?
 
Kid: Don’t get THIS! (as he points to all the corners…) Their Church ends inside there (points at the buildings). But what about church out HERE?
 
What about Church out here?
 
I’ll never forget that day. These kids intuitively knew that church isn’t about a building. How they understood, I don’t know. But they nailed it.
 
In the matter of a few minutes, I got schooled by a bunch of unlikely, theologically untrained teenagers
 
What about church out HERE? This question still challenges me…
 
In this passage, Jesus is beginning to gather his disciples. Typically, formal education for Jewish boys ended at age 15.
 
For boys who were bright enough, wealthy enough, theirs was the privilege of higher education, which meant they found a local rabbi they wanted to study under. They would search for a rabbi so they could follow him and learn from him. If that rabbi did not accept them (it was a bit like an application process), they would enter into the work force. In many cases, they went into the family business-like fishing.
 
Jesus actually went looking for people to follow him (that was different)! And he didn’t go looking for the obvious choices-the kids with good grades. He went to the “second tier”-the ones who maybe got rejected, or maybe even the ones who didn’t want to pursue more training-the ones that decided they didn’t care much for school and just wanted to go to work.
 
Jesus went looking-in unexpected places. Our God included the voices, perspectives, and life experiences of unlikely people from the start of his public ministry.
 
What about church OUT HERE?
 
Jesus went to the “streets” (in this case, by the seaside) to find those to which he would eventually entrust his message and his mission.
 
And what about Church out here? Addressing questions of mission demands that we take seriously how we see and understand leadership that comes from unexpected places.
 
Theology and discipleship aren’t only “formed” in a classroom, or in seminary, or in a church sanctuary. They are formed in the everyday traffic of our lives-at street corners, at four way stops, and in conversation with very unlikely theologians.
 
“What about church OUT HERE?”
 
 
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalm

What’s in a Name?

 
42“He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).”

John 1:29 – 42

 
I ask people, especially young people, about their names. I fill up with joy when Maisha tells me her name is Swahili for “life,” or when Cinqué explains how his parents named him for the freedom fighter who liberated fellow Africans during a rebellion aboard the slave ship Amistad. These names reflect parents that apply thoughtfulness and destiny as a gift to their children. The Prophet Isaiah boasts of God’s investment of destiny and thoughtfulness to all the listening world.
 
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. Isaiah 49:1-7
 
Like Cinqué and Maisha’s parents, God is seen here giving serious forethought concerning Isaiah’s naming and its connection to his calling. This is wonderful news for those with thoughtful parents. Perhaps the Apostle Peter did not have the advantage of such a visionary father or mother. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we witness this odd encounter:
 
One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). John 1:40-42
 
 
Not much talking here, only a deep gaze into Simon’s eyes and the pronouncement of a new name. The text doesn’t even give Simon Peter a chance to respond. Across the centuries, there has been intense conversation about the meaning of this story. Jesus’ conversion of Simon’s name from “one who hears” to “rock” is truly mystical. And, like Peter, we are left to sit with the mystery. Rather than focusing on the “meaning” of the name change, I am much more intrigued by the mystery of God’s eternal stare and imagination on behalf of this young, confused soul.
 
It’s significant that this odd encounter takes place shortly after the baptism of Jesus. Some historians argue that Jesus received his divine nature during his immersion in the Jordan, as the heavenly dove descended upon him. Others, myself among them, believe he was born into divinity and that his baptism and the symbol of God’s anointing presence, the dove, was for us to see. It’s a reminder that as we join him in baptism we also join the fellowship of his gracious, divine anointing-his journey to the cross, his suffering, his resurrection, and his way of seeing.
 
When we join in Christ’s baptism, God’s spirit moves upon us. It creates an unavoidable compulsion to gaze deeply into suffering souls. God’s grace, the gift that uses us, grants us the privilege of seeing others through Christ’s eyes and sharing his bespoke vision for their lives: They are loved deeply; they are valued immensely; and they are called to a life of abundant grace. For those blinded by neglect, pain, and various forms of abuse, this is certainly good news! It works for the other kids in my community, the ones named after perfumes, Luxury Japanese cars, and alcoholic beverages. God is able to redeem their names, or sometimes even rename them, based on how he sees them and their calling. And for Peter, after being sifted, sorted, and subdued, a new name, thoughtfully conceived, and with destiny in mind, seems to have had quite the effect.
 
I pray you are blessed to hear God’s name, his calling, for you, and to share that blessing with all around. The world can always use a few more people who see through the eyes of Christ’s abundance. It can always use a few more “divinely inspired name-callers.”
 
 
Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja

The Word in the Temple

 

27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God…

Luke 2:25-35

 
We’ve had a week to digest the Nativity Feast. The magic of Christmas finds its way into even the most resistant of souls because it comes so unobtrusively and with such openness, vulnerability, and without the slightest demand. Our souls leap almost involuntarily in the presence of the Incarnation. In it, we see our true selves mirrored in the true One who comes to greet us with complete delight.
 
One Christmas text (Year C) tells of Simeon in the temple. With Simeon, our souls leap for joy as we hold Jesus in our hands. To hold the One who holds us is the mystery of this day. It is no accident that Simeon is in the temple, which is the sacred center of his people. It is the place where God is worshipped, infusing life with new meaning, but it is also the place that represents all the ways we use God to sanctify our deceptions.
 
In holding salvation, Simeon rejoices and realizes he is now free to depart. When we find ourselves in the presence of God, life as we know it, with all our striving, is no longer necessary. While some of us strive by grasping for what we cannot obtain, others strive by withholding what we fear to lose. It is the same thing. In Christ, we are not only free to live, but also free to die. This is what Simeon teaches us.
 
Persuaded by unbounded goodness, Simeon then turns to Joseph and Mary and helps them understand that the gift he holds in his hands will cause the rise and fall of many-and will even pierce their own souls. Salvation is free, but it is never easy to accept, especially for a fearful humanity clinging to its own wounds. There is no salvation without the piercing. What is being pierced is not the true essence of who we are-God has nothing but blessing for the true self. One way to understand what Simeon called “piercing” is to recognize what happens when Jesus begins to touch the wounds that have come to define us in such deceptive and destructive ways. These wounds go deep and are usually formed at such an early age that we hardly recognize them, or we’ve organized our lives to protect them and avoid them. They rule us at deep levels.
 
Jesus comes to free us from our habitual, addictive, over-identification with our own wounds-whether real or imagined. Such freedom first feels like a piercing and it scares the hell out of us. How else are we to explain the “rising and falling”?
 
Allow me (Kris writing here) to speak a bit more personally to make the point. As the youngest of four kids, one of my great wounds is the wound of powerlessness or at least the perception of being powerless. My perceived inability to affect change and get what I want has created an overinflated impulse to force, manipulate or cajole my way into getting what I fear I would not get otherwise. These behaviors are ruled by fears that lay beneath the surface of my consciousness. They are habitual. I am Jacob in this regard. He is my patron saint. The “piercing” is the awakening of this wound in ways that help me recognize how I have let this wound run my life. More often than not, there is the feeling of absolute terror at the thought of giving up my well-crafted strategies to protect the wound. Who will protect me if I don’t? When Jesus touches this wound in me, and gently but firmly calls me to live free of the wound, it feels very much like a piercing-perhaps worse, a crucifixion.
 
Like Kris (Scott speaking here), my family experience shaped my own experience of woundedness. As the oldest of ten children, I developed a powerful sense of responsibility, or at least perceived responsibility, that persists to this day. I didn’t get into much trouble, and when I did, I worked almost frantically to justify my actions. More often, I tried to keep others out of trouble or harm. One ordinary night at home as a boy, I happened to hear my sister in the next bedroom gasping. She was suffering a major seizure, and stopped breathing. She was okay in the end, but the cause was unclear. For months and even years, I awakened each night and sat in the hallway, listening for anything unusual about my sister’s breathing as she slept. Much later as a young man, I moved overseas to work among the poorest of the poor in an Asian slum. Amid the shacks in the squalor of open sewers, mothers would bring me their dying babies and beg me to save them. I was overwhelmed, aghast and grief-stricken that I could not. I began to unravel, crushed by the hopelessness I had given my life to alleviate.
 
But Jesus comes to remind us that we are not our wounds! This is our salvation. Yes, our wounds may shape us and, yes, we may have come up with perfectly reasonable strategies in our life to survive them, but we are not our wounds and we do not have to live lives that are run by them. This dynamic is true at a personal level, and even within communities and nations. We are free in Christ.
 
Modified Excerpt from “Meal from Below: A Five Course Feast with Jesus”
by Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Copyright © 2012 by Street Psalms Press. All rights reserved

The Word Revealed

 

Joy is the purest form of gratitude, and gratitude is the most genuine gift we can give to God. The secret of our salvation lies in Jesus who is the joy of our desiring. The revelation of a God who has always been with us in the Waiting Rooms of Christmas is the joy at the heart of things hidden since the foundation of the earth (Matt. 13:35). Today (Christmas) we celebrate that revelation. We are living inside a great mystery. We are already inside the joy that we so desperately long for-the joy of our salvation. Yes, this is the miracle we celebrate today.
 
Joy can be noticed, celebrated, honored, enjoyed, or even refused, but it cannot be had or possessed. It is not an object. It is the subject and the secret of our life in Christ. All attempts to own it will prove impossible, and our attempt to do the impossible is damnation, is hell!
 
Christmas is the reminder that joy is not so much in us, as we are in it. The One who is born to us, gives birth to us, and turns out to be the One in whom we move and have our being. As the scriptures affirm, we are “in Christ” and “Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11).
 
Seeing and celebrating Jesus at Christmas is like seeing the Milky Way galaxy on a clear night. We are looking at something as though it were a reality outside of us when, in fact, we are on the inside of that which we are seeing. This is the miracle we celebrate today! We are looking at the life that is hidden to us and in us. We are on the inside of that which we long for-Immanuel, God with us.
 
Until we come to see ourselves within God’s joy, who is Jesus, we will forever be trying to manufacture our own-and doing so at great cost to ourselves and those around us. In this light, we consider the words of William Blake:

 
He who bends to himself a joy
doth the winged life destroy
but he who kisses the joy as it flies
lives in eternity’s sunrise

 
Modified Excerpt from “Meal from Below: A Five Course Feast with Jesus”
by Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Copyright © 2012 by Street Psalms Press. All rights reserved

The Word at Home

 
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”
John 1:14
 
We began this year’s Advent series by exploring The Waiting Rooms of Christmas. We waited in the Apocalypse and peace found us. We waited in the Wilderness and a garden of grace grew in our midst. We waited in Prison and we discovered ourselves set free. Finally, we waited with Mary in the shameful spotlight of Public Disgrace, which calls forth the most precious gift of all-Emmanuel, God with us, who transforms the waiting room, the waiter, and even the waiting itself by God’s very presence.
 
The Incarnation of the Word is indeed a revelation, a dawning of light “for those walking in darkness” (i.e. In the Waiting Rooms of Christmas) (Isaiah 9:2). But what is being revealed, and what has arrived? Certainly not the invention of some new reality-as if God has been absent among us and now has shown up. The Incarnation is not so much about the relocation of God as it is about the relocation of humanity’s understanding of God. The Incarnation is calling us to something that was always there but we couldn’t see.
 
The unimaginable mystery of the Incarnation is that God is not the foreigner that we thought he was. “God is at home,” Meister Eckhart said. “We are in the far country.” As it turns out, God is quite at home here and always has been. We are the strangers in our own land. The One we thought was the Great Outsider turns out to be the Ultimate Insider. It is we who live on the outside of our own existence, not God. The Incarnation invites us to make the journey home within our home.
 
In a story recounted in the book of 2 Samuel, God’s Word comes to King David through the prophet Nathan. God corrects David’s misguided assumption that it is David’s job to build God a house. “Are you the one to build me a house to live in?” (2 Sam. 7:5). God is trying to help David understand that God is at home in this world in a way that cannot be housed by David’s efforts. God lives a free, dynamic, unending, and ever new existence that cannot be housed in anything other than the home of authentic relationship. God goes on to say that if anyone needs a house, it’s not God. Instead, it’s Israel who needs a house and God offers to build it himself: “The LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house” (2 Sam. 7:11).
 
Similarly, in Scripture’s final vision of reality, we are reminded again of the great reversal of the Incarnation: “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3). This is the mystery of the Incarnation. In Christ, heaven has always been coming to earth. In Christ, God has always dwelt among us as one who is perfectly suited to the land that we find so strange. The place that so much other-worldly religion tempts us to forsake as foreign is the very place that God occupies as home-so that we can too.
 
 
Modified Excerpt from “Meal from Below: A Five Course Feast with Jesus”
by Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Copyright © 2012 by Street Psalms Press. All rights reserved

The Waiting Rooms of Christmas – Public Disgrace

 
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. The husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”

Matthew 1:18-25

 
We began this year’s Advent series by exploring The Waiting Rooms of Christmas. We waited in the Apocalypse and peace found us. We waited in the Wilderness and a garden of grace grew in our midst. We waited in Prison and we discovered ourselves set free. Finally, we wait with Mary in the shameful spotlight of Public Disgrace, which calls forth the most precious gift of all-Emmanuel, God with us, who transforms the waiting room, the waiter, and even the waiting itself by God’s very presence.
 
Public disgrace, and the shame that fuels it, is perhaps the hardest of all the rooms to occupy. Shame disfigures the soul. It dehumanizes both the shamed and the shamer. It is the evil art of the Accuser. Guilt works on us at the level of our actions. But shame attacks us at the level of who we are, our identity, like a hungry pack of jackals gnawing at our very soul.
 
In this week’s text, Joseph refuses to expose Mary to public disgrace over the confounding terms of her conception. This is no small act in a culture where public disgrace (especially for women) is certain doom. Knowing the danger of her situation, I imagine Mary turned to the great grandmothers of Christmas for courage and comfort. Of course, I am speaking of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, who are mentioned in the genealogy of Matthew. Each of them represents a story of public disgrace that nearly cost them their lives, and yet they were the progenitors of Jesus-the grandmothers of Christmas.
 
These four are the only women included in Matthew’s list. They stand out in bold relief. They are also the only foreigners, which makes Jesus a mixed-race savior. For many centuries, the Church deemed their stories unfit for preaching because they were too scandalous (as if the other Old Testament stories were any different?).
 
Grandmother Tamar, a Canaanite, abandoned by Judah’s family, who failed to care for her as a widow. She became a prostitute to survive. She hid her identity from her father-in-law Judah, and cunningly exposed him as the father of her child.
 
Grandmother Rahab, a Canaanite, ran a brothel in Jericho. She harbored the Jewish spies, saving Israel from disaster. How did those spies know about the brothel anyway?
 
Grandmother Ruth was a Moabite, the tribe that resulted from the incest of Lot. No tribe was considered more scandalous than the Moabites, who were seen as cursed. Ruth, a widower, survived a great famine by winning the affections of Boaz, making her the great grandmother of David.
 
Grandmother Bathsheba, a Hittite, was the object of King David’s adulterous desires. David had Bathsheba’s husband murdered to cover up the affair.
 
I imagine Jesus as an adult, sitting around the campfire with his disciples, retelling these stories that he had heard so often as a boy. I imagine him telling the stories with the same wry humor and deep affection and without the slightest hint of shame. I can hear him ask the disciples with a glint in his eye, “Certainly you’re not ashamed of my grandmas, are you? You wouldn’t forget to include their stories in salvation history, would you?”
 
The late Robert Farrar Capon said it beautifully, “Shamelessness is the supreme virtue of the Incarnation.” There is no shame in God-none! God occupies our shame shamelessly, without judgment; this changes everything! Think about it, there is not a hint of shame in Jesus for being associated with the most “shameful” elements of humanity. He is completely at ease in being “numbered among the sinners” (Is. 53:12).
 
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us'” (Matthew 1:23).
 
That’s it! Emmanuel. God with us in all the waiting rooms of life.
 
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

The Waiting Rooms of Christmas – Prison

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

Matthew 11:2-11

 
This year, during Advent, the Gospel of Matthew invites us to sit in what we are calling The Waiting Rooms of Christmas. In the first week of Advent we were waiting in the apocalypse. In the second week we joined John the Baptist in the wilderness. Here, in the third week, we find ourselves waiting with John again, but this time in prison.
 
Apocalypse, wilderness, prison. These are the waiting rooms 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 wait with us and transform our waiting by God’s presence. The Incarnation transforms Apocalypse into the great unveiling of peace; wilderness becomes a garden of grace. And Prison becomes the graduate school of faith where we discover ourselves set free.
 
John is about to lose his head to King Herod’s crazed soul and he is having second thoughts about Jesus. He’s having, what we call, a crisis of faith. He sends a messenger to Jesus and asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Notice the verb “wait!” John has lost the prophetic vision and great confidence he once had in the Wilderness. Jesus sends a message back to John in prison. We don’t know for sure, but my hunch is that Jesus’ words liberated John to face his own death with a renewed sense of freedom-the kind that transcends all the unjust prisons of this world.
 
This week’s text is the reminder that Gospel freedom happens to us while we are still in prison. The Divine Break-in of the Incarnation 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 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! He sends word back to the captive, “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. They receive 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, not only by a crazed maniac but also 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.” This is true freedom!
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

The Four Waiting Rooms of Christmas – Wilderness

 
1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Matthew 3:1-12

 
This year during Advent the Gospel of Matthew invites us to sit in, what we are calling, The Waiting Rooms of Christmas: Apocalypse, Wilderness, Prison and Public Disgrace. These strange and frightening waiting rooms mirror the all too familiar experience of vulnerable urban communities throughout our network, and are timely reminders of the challenges facing contemporary society. Each waiting room yields its own gift. This week we see how the wilderness yields the garden of grace growing in our midst.
 
The prophet cries out from the wilderness, “Every valley will be filled and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough ways made smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Is. 40:3-5). It’s an outlandish claim that borders on delusion given the difficult conditions that people were enduring at the time.
 
Like all the prophets, John the Baptist recognizes the massive upheaval that God’s Word induces and calls forth from humanity. It is not always obvious in the moment, but when viewed from the long arc of history, we see God’s Word at work in the world doing “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:21). And this abundance is happening now!
 
Really?
 
Advent hope is unflinching. It names the cruelty and injustice we inflict upon each other without hesitation. It also names a deeper truth. There is a great leveling taking place. Valleys of injustice are being filled. Mountains of cruelty are being brought low. Crooked deals are being set straight. Rough paths of poverty and oppression are being smoothed out.
 
But let’s be honest, there is still cruelty and injustice on a massive scale and many millions are suffering torment that is impossible to express or tolerate, much of it fueled by religion at its worst. We can and must see this. We can and must work for justice regardless of the cost. But as the poet Jack Gilbert says, “To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” We multiply the cruelty exponentially and give twisted praise to evil itself, if we deny the spiritual evolution that is taking place in our midst-one that I believe is made possible by the Incarnation.
 
As the prophet suggests, in order to see this we must repent. The word “repent” in this week’s text invokes images of moral cleansing, but the word actually means to change one’s mind, or to change the way we see. In other words, if we are to celebrate the upheaval happening in our midst we will need to “repent” and change the way we see-to see as Jesus sees.
 
The process by which all this is accomplished is easily missed because the massive transformations that are happening in our midst are occurring in the most understated and counterintuitive ways. Transformation is achieved not through might, but largely through weakness. The power of a vulnerable life is its openness to the inevitable risks that life carries. To walk in this kind of vulnerability requires a primal trust. New life is sowed in vulnerability, brought forth in vulnerability, and sustained in vulnerability. How else are we to understand the Word made flesh? What is sown in vulnerability is harvested in the power of the Gospel itsel-the power that is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
 
The garden of grace is growing in our midst. Can you see it?
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms
 
Click here for our free Advent and Christmas Devotional
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The Four Waiting Rooms of Christmas – Apocalypse

 
40“Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left…41Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

Matthew 24:36-44

 
It’s the first week of Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical year. It’s the season of longing, expectation and preparation for the coming of Jesus. Given the challenging times in which we live, perhaps repentance is also in order.
 
Over the next four weeks the Gospel lectionary texts explore what we are calling The Waiting Rooms of Christmas: Apocalypse, Wilderness, Prison and Public Disgrace-not exactly Hallmark rooms of pleasantry and warmth. These strange and frightening waiting rooms mirror the all too familiar experience of vulnerable urban communities throughout our network, and are timely reminders of the challenges facing contemporary society. Each waiting room yields its own gift. Apocalypse unveils the gift of peace. Wilderness yields the garden of grace. Prison unleashes the gifts of faith and freedom. Public Disgrace calls forth the most precious gift of all-Emmanuel, “God is with us.” Yes, God is with us in all the waiting rooms of life, transforming the waiting room, the waiter, and even the waiting itself by God’s very presence.
 
This week we sit in the first waiting room of Christmas-the Apocalypse.
 
If we use Tim LaHaye’s method of interpretation popularized by the Left Behind series (more than 63 million sold), then in this week’s passage Jesus is saying that when he returns to judge the world, the good guys will be “taken” away to be with God (i.e. raptured), and the bad guys will be “left behind” to suffer untold torments. Therefore, WATCH OUT! In other words, Jesus is coming back and boy is he mad!
 
There is another way to read this text.
 
Apocalypse means “unveiling.” It’s about seeing things as they really are. That’s what apocalyptic literature is trying to do-name the stuff that we want to deny! When we see this passage through the eyes of Jesus, perhaps being left behind is not such a bad thing. Here’s what I mean.
 
Jesus begins the passage by recalling the stormy days of Noah when “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). It seems clear to me that the flood that Jesus is referring to is more than a flood of water. It’s the flood of violence that “swept away” the people. Noah and his family were not taken by the massive outbreak of violence. They did not drown in the ever-descending spiral of retribution and vengeance. Instead, they were left behind in the ark of peace.
 
In Christ, we too are left behind. We are called out of the violence that so easily sweeps us away. The phrase “left behind” can also be translated as “forgiven.” This is the key to the text. It is through forgiveness and the gift of mercy made real in Jesus that we escape the growing contagion of violence that is flooding the world, and our hearts, at the price of our own humanity. It is only as we come to discover ourselves as forgiven that we are set free to seek peace and reclaim the humanity we have forsaken.
 
Jesus then shifts the image of the flood to the image of a thief who comes in the middle of the night. This is an equally terrifying image unless, perhaps, we are talking about a good thief. Unlike Satan, who is the thief who comes to “steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10), Jesus is the good thief who comes to take away only one thing-the sins of the world. He breaks into our waiting rooms of doom with the gift of grace. The good thief comes quietly, humbly and without fanfare, as a child, or perhaps like a Hobbit, while we are asleep to what’s really going on. He is the good thief who smuggles mercy into the apocalyptic prisons of our own making, that we might wake up and discover ourselves left behind (forgiven) and set free.
 
Can we see? The apocalypse is not God’s wrath poured on us. It’s our wrath poured out on each other and projected onto God. It’s Jesus who unveils this craziness and gives us the gift of peace. This is the promise of the Incarnation and the gift being given in the first waiting room of Christmas.
 
Wait and see.
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms
 
Click here for our free Advent and Christmas Devotional
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The Way of the Cross?

 

35″If he is the Messiah, let him save himself.”

Luke: 23:33-43

 
“Build that wall! Build that wall”
“Go back to where you came from.”
“Pack your bags! Pack your bags!”
 
On the heels of a divisive and highly contested election season in the U.S., we are seeing mocking and taunting on a grand scale: on playgrounds, college campuses, airports, shopping malls, in social media and the streets.
 
I was taught that the way to fight playground mockers was to recite this: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I hate to say this, but it’s a lie. Words and name-calling do hurt. The intent behind the words hurt. They diminish the humanity of everyone involved-including the mocker.
 
This passage of scripture, if nothing else, is a snapshot of the mocking and taunting experienced by Jesus while he was physically vulnerable, hanging nearly naked on a cross.
 
“The leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”…
 
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine,
and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”
 
And finally, one of the criminals who was hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
 
In this passage, there are more details about the mocking than the actual crucifixion itself.
 
Each of these taunts challenges Jesus’ identity. They mirror Satan’s temptations in the desert that begin with: “If you are the Son of God.”
 
At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and at the end of his life, his identity, who he was, was mocked and challenged. Ironically, at precisely the same moment, his identity was revealed-through his response.
 
Jesus was the Messiah-the one who DOESN’T save himself SO THAT he can save others, including those who mocked him. His identity isn’t shaped by what the mockers say about him. Neither is it shaped by putting himself over and against them. Instead, he paves a holy third way outside the bounds of hate and rivalry-a way that is for both the mocked and the mocker.
 
Now it’s important to point out where Jesus is positioned in the midst of all this. He has taken sides; he is hanging on the cross next to other victims. He stands firmly on the side of the oppressed. What’s unique about his response is that, while he’s on the side of the mocked, and against mocking, he is not over and against the mockers. In a miraculous way, he has sided with the victim while forgiving the victimizer.
 
I don’t know how to do this. Sometimes I don’t even want to. I was taught that to stand up for myself and those being marginalized means to stand against oppression. I still firmly believe this. To demonize the oppressor makes this task even easier. But I also know that the call of the Gospel requires us to seriously live with this tension-to love your enemy and even to forgive them. People who oppress and marginalize others feel like enemies to me. My question and journey brings me to this: Can I stand against and still forgive?
 
As people who closely identify with Jesus, what authenticates our identity is clear. It’s how we enflesh the love of God-how we stand on the side of the oppressed, even unto death, while not standing against the oppressor. Jesus says, “Forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Is Jesus really advocating for them? Really? I’m not sure how that is even possible and yet, there it is in black and white. Can we advocate for and defend the marginalized, even while forgiving the marginalizer? Let us pray that Jesus continues to show us the way.
 
 

Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms

Stone by Stone

 
“Do not be terrified…This will give you an opportunity to testify.”

Luke: 21:5-19

 
This week’s text is difficult. It is the reminder that peacemaking is not for the faint of heart.
 
The text begins on a positive note. “Some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” (v. 5). Jesus beholds the beautiful edifice that overlooked the city, but he sees a darker side. He says, it will soon fall, “not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 6).
 
And he was right. In 66 CE the temple did fall. It was destroyed at the hands of the Romans only three years after it had been completed. More than 3,600 Jewish people were killed, including children. The entire city went into a riot. The priesthood and the council were abolished and all Jews were expelled from the city. It was a bloodbath.
 
But clearly Jesus has more on his mind than the fall of the temple in a physical sense.
 
Keep in mind that the temple was not only beautiful, it was also a voracious sacrificial machine, which consumed thousands of innocents (animals) each day to atone for the sins of the people-all of it based on the assumption God wanted these sacrifices. The smells and sounds were not pleasant. It was a giant abbatior-a sacred slaughterhouse. Jesus had come to transform the temple into a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17). James Warren writes in Compassion or Apocalypse? “Eighty percent of employment in Jerusalem depended on the temple…The twice-daily official sacrifices on the vast ever-burning altar consumed thousands of animals and forests of wood. There were cattle pens on the north side and sometimes the water of the Kidron stream where the blood was flushed became so thick that it was sold to farmers as fertilizer. Over it all hung a pall of smoke from burning flesh.”
 
Such carnage and religious butchery is odious to God, which is why Jesus repeats the prophets, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Matt. 12:7). For Jesus, it is mercy that dismantles the temple stone by stone, showing us a new way of being human. However, there is one very large problem. We don’t know how to live without our sacrificial machines that require a constant and fresh supply of victims. Without a way to ritualize violence society becomes highly unstable and we turn on each other.
 
Without sacrificial systems to contain our violence there will be “wars and insurrections” (v. 9). “Nation will rise against nation” (v.10). Even the earth will suffer. There will be “earthquakes and famines” (v 11). It’s in the context of this chaos that followers of Jesus will be arrested, persecuted and imprisoned. Parents will betray children, friends will become rivals and some of us will be put to death (v. 12, 16). Jesus does not mince words and strips away any naïve romanticism about reality.
 
Now, here’s the truly crazy part and it is filled with the transforming power of the Gospel. In the midst of all this violence Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” (v. 9). He even goes further and says, “This will give you an opportunity to testify” (13).
 
Are you kidding me? Testify to what?
 
In the midst of escalating violence we are called to bear witness to another way-the way of mercy revealed on the cross. The Crucified One reveals to us that there is no violence in God whatsoever. In other words, there is no such thing as redemptive violence. There is only redemptive suffering that refuses to return violence for violence. That is our witness!
 
In the end, mercy transforms the temple of our hearts from stone to flesh (Ez 36:26). This confounds the world. Jesus says, “none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict” (v. 15) such a witness. If we take the long view, it’s true. Stone by stone, hearts are turned to flesh. Love wins!
 
This is the hope of the world and God knows our world can use a little hope right about now.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Children of the Resurrection

 
38“Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”

Luke 20:27-38

 
The Gospel not only empowers us to see, but to see from a particular vantage point-through the unconstrained eyes of a child. It is an invitation to see from within the reality of the resurrection.
 
Jesus is now in Jerusalem. On the way, he stops to weep over Jerusalem before taking time to cleanse the temple. He then engages in a series of controversies with Jewish leaders who are attempting to usurp his authority. At first, they tried to do this by confronting the source of his authority. Later, they turn to the matter of paying tribute to Caesar. In our text this week, they utilize yet another angle-a question about the resurrection of the dead.
 
Neither this question, nor the preceding ones, is launched from a place of genuine, altruistic motive. The goal, rather, is to trap Jesus-to compromise his authority and sow seeds that inflame rivalry. The Sadducees are baiting Jesus with an impossible “what if” question. Anyone who has been targeted by similar religious questions-the kind raised by persons with no intention of being influenced by the answers-can empathize with the frustration of Jesus’ situation.
 
The questions come from religious leaders whose vision is limited. The Sadducees, “those who deny that there is a resurrection,” are trapped in a two dimensional world. In comparison, Jesus sees from a three-dimensional reality. Thus, he responds by contrasting life in this current age with life in the next. Marriage, he says, is necessary for the current age because mortality necessitates the need to perpetuate life. There is another age to come, however, and those who live life from the vision that springs out of that dimension are “children of the resurrection.”
 
What starts out a question about marriage moves to an image of childhood. Children do not see life through a vision constrained by adult concerns such as marriage, preoccupations with legacy, or the violent pursuit of possessing one another as property for selfish ambition. It seems that Jesus is using the simplicity of childhood as a descriptor for what seeing life from the dimension of the resurrection is like.
 
Whatever the nature of the age to come, there is invitation to a different way of relating that sets us free from “owning” or “grasping” one another. It is the gift of relationship without ownership. From two-dimensional reality, the woman in this text is a piece of property to be owned and manipulated for the benefit of the seven men. In the three dimensional reality of life lived in the reality of resurrection, there is liberation from the need to “grasp” or “possess” the other.
 
Seeing the resurrection requires a second look. Jesus says we gain that vision when we look through the eyes of a child and thus become “children of the resurrection.” It takes a while for our eyes to adjust to the light of the resurrection but when they do, all of life looks radically different. In this sense, it is not so much seeing something that did not exist before, but seeing an old thing in a new way through a new lens. Such is the miracle of gospel sight-to see what has always been there in such a radically new way that it becomes a new thing. Easter eyes are young eyes.
 
Robert Barron captures something profoundly important for us at Street Psalms in his book “And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation.” He writes,
“Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing. Everything else in Christian life flows from and circles around the transformation of vision. Christians see differently, and that is why their prayer, their worship, their action, their whole way of being in the world, has a distinctive accent and flavor.”
 
The Gospel not only empowers us to see, but to see from a particular vantage point, through the unconstrained eyes of a child. It is an invitation to see from within the reality of the resurrection. It might be the greatest invitation we ever receive…regardless of our age.
 
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

Zacchaeus: A Wee Little Man Was He (Not)

 
“He was seeking to see Jesus but on account of the crowd he could not….”

Luke 19:1-10

This week’s Gospel text is a narrative some people grew up singing in Sunday School:
 
“Zacchaeus was a wee, little man, and a wee, little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”
 
The lyrics focus on the smallness of his physical stature, a fact that presumably forced him to climb a tree to fulfill his desire to see Jesus-a desire borrowed from the crowd around him. The problem was, as the boss of the hated tax collectors, he was the disdain of the very crowd whose desire he shared. Thus he “climbs,” a manipulative act that has become his normative pattern of life, in attempt to forcefully get “above” those around him.
 
Zacchaeus, driven by desire, wants to see Jesus, but his line of sight is impaired. From what we know about tax collectors, physical attributes were likely the least of his concerns. While Zacchaeus looks down from his perch above, Jesus looks up from below. He calls Zacchaeus by name and invites himself over for dinner. As often happens in the Gospel narrative (think Emmaus Road), the supposed “guest” becomes, in actuality, the “host.” And this shift in roles is embraced at great cost. Jesus transforms from the celebrity the crowd gathers to “see” into the their scapegoated object of disdain (“And when they saw it, they all grumbled, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.'”)
 
At great personal expense, Jesus publicly expresses an urgent need to dine with the hated tax collector-to enter relationship exactly where the corrupt opportunist is perched. Invitation into home was invitation into life. There is no need for a preliminary action on Zacchaeus’ part. Jesus simply stops, looks up to Zacchaeus, and publicly declares him friend instead of foe; his time of isolation, shame and seeing the other as rival is no more. Jesus “must” stay at his house this day.
 
Salvation comes to Zacchaeus and his response, bathed in unexpected vulnerability, is beautifully captured in verse 8. His actions reveal the tangible effects of Jesus’ transformational declaration and loving presence. He is free from the rivalry of “needing to climb” and is invaded by liberating joy.
 
“Zacchaeus received him joyfully…and stood and said to the Lord, Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
 
The contrast to last week’s lectionary text is striking. Instead of a Pharisee looking down in judgment upon a tax collector, we have Jesus literally looking up in mercy at a tax collector. Instead of a tax collector going to God’s house seeking salvation, we see Jesus going to the home of the tax collector, proclaiming salvation through the sacredness of his presence. Jesus doesn’t point Zacchaeus to a way of salvation, his invitation makes it clear that He himself IS salvation.
 
That same invitation is extended to us all-to climb down from our perches of rivalry and violence seeded by misplaced crowd desire. Those desires indeed make us “wee little men and women.” From that precarious perch, Jesus catches our eye and publicly calls us to “hurry down.” He introduces us to a liberated vision of life untethered to popular crowd desire, manipulative posturing and eventual scapegoating.
 
The “wee little man,” through encounter with Jesus, is transformed and “re-narrated” into a new reality that is anything but “wee” and “little.” Such is the invitation to us all.
 
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

Superhero Spandex

 
11“The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”

Luke 18:9-14

 
Superhero movies are all the rage recently. I’m sure there are a variety of reasons why…such as an affinity for spandex.
 
A more likely reason might be the attraction of a clear-cut good guy/bad guy dichotomy. In our world of gray, there’s nothing more satisfying than the clarity of Captain America. When he’s around, we know who to cheer…he is the “good guy.”
 
“Good guys” are righteous…and not just in 80’s California slang. In biblical Hebrew, the word “righteous” (tsaddiq) means “straight”…like a properly shot arrow that doesn’t deviate to the right or the left. Straight shots hit the bullseye.
 
On the surface, this story looks like a classic good guy/bad guy dichotomy. Right off the bat, we’re introduced to a Pharisee. This group of leaders often gets a bad shake in the New Testament. Historians don’t know a lot about them, relatively speaking, but we are aware that in many ways they were role models for a covenant lifestyle. They were committed to God.
 
In our story today, we run across one such Pharisee. He pays his tithes and participates in the important spiritual activities of the community. He’s a “good guy.” And I’m not being sarcastic. It’s easy to dismiss him as prideful, but we miss the point if we do so. In every measurable way, he was the “good guy” in the story…and the people of his day would have recognized it. His activities were righteous and benefited the community.
 
His counterpart on the other hand, the tax collector, was not a “good guy.” In all likelihood he was a hired hand of the empire. He probably bought tax-collecting contracts from the Romans, and charged people extra for his own gain. It’s safe to bet his behavior most adversely affected the vulnerable in his community. He wasn’t a “good guy” by any exterior measure. We do ourselves a disservice if we try to romanticize him.
 
The traditional reading of this text is pretty straightforward. The Pharisee was prideful and didn’t recognize his brokenness; he was blind to the immensity of his need for God. The tax collector, on the contrary, cried out for mercy; his brokenness was painfully evident to himself and all around. His confession of brokenness and need paved the way for God to declare him “justified.” What’s more, this story fits snugly into the theme of chapter eighteen. In almost every story, our concept of good person/bad person is flipped on its head. Somehow, in God’s economy, the openly broken are drawn near to God.
 
But if we stop at this traditional reading, we risk falling into the same trap as the Pharisee. We walk away from the story with an upside-down version of good guy/bad guy. And it’s exactly the act of creating and imposing moral categories-good guy/bad guy-that led to the problem in the first place.
 
Notice the posture of the Pharisee in the story. His failure to openly embrace his brokenness not only leads to a diving distancing, but puts him in rivalry with the tax collector (his neighbor) as well; the bulk of his prayer is spent judging his neighbor on moral grounds. His categories of good guy/bad guy place him in a “holy” competition with everyone around him, and become an obstacle to human and divine relationships.
 
The tax collector’s posture, on the other hand, is open. He never points the finger at his neighbor. The act of owning his brokenness strips rivalry of its power. There is no good guy/bad guy in his scenario; there is just a holy honesty that occurs at the foot of the cross. There is no competition. There is nothing to lose by being openly honest. The result is clear: the door to real relationships, both vertical and horizontal, opens wide. He is free to love and be loved. He is liberated from the slavery of good guy/bad guy categories.
 
“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified…” N.T. Wright calls these the most “comforting words in the Gospel.” May God grant all of us the mercy to lay bare our brokenness, to find comfort in a creator who can deal with it, and enjoy the liberation of the real relationships that follow.
 
 
Justin Mootz
Interim Director of Communications
Street Psalms

Faith from Below

15” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?

Luke 18:1-8

This is a familiar parable Jesus uses to teach us about the nature of prayer. The widow shows us what it looks like to persist in prayer: to keep praying, believing and acting like God will answer our prayers because God is just and merciful.

Even though it is familiar, this parable has always left me a little frustrated. Not so fast Jesus. I struggle with the fact that the picture of prayer is one that pits extreme power (the judge) against extreme powerlessness (the widow).

If we slow this story down a bit, we see a woman who is at the end of her own resources. Widows were the symbol of extreme vulnerability-without means to support themselves.

Her struggle and her need are very public. We get the picture that she comes before this judge repeatedly, asking for his help. She acts on what she needs. She has nowhere left to turn. She comes before the judge and her request is this: “Grant me justice.”

Can you feel her desperation? She has nothing and he, the judge, has everything. He holds power over her.

This is a horrible scenario if you ask me. It feels like a lost cause for her. I can’t get past the idea that she kept coming back to ask for help-even though he’s told her “no” many times. What kind of inner-strength and resolve must it have taken to do this? His indifference toward her is unbearable. This judge didn’t respect God-or respect people for that matter. Don’t expect this guy to do anything good or just on behalf of this widow.

And yet she is persistent with her plea. “Grant me justice.”

It’s almost too hard to watch.

I have a friend who is a single immigrant mother. She moved to this country and into our community a year ago.

She navigates complex systems, every day, that are set up to assist, but ironically, actually make it extremely difficult to access resources she needs for herself and her child. I’ve witnessed her go to “the judge,” the systems that hold power over her life-immigration, justice, public transportation, housing, healthcare, education, insurance, employment-and plea her case. “Grant me justice.” “Grant me what I need, please, in order to live with dignity.”

She persists in the face of systems that can say “no” one day and “yes” the next.

I’ve asked her how she keeps doing it. What keeps her from throwing in the towel?

That’s the obvious question I have for the widow, too. What keeps them both from saying, “forget it!”? What is behind this persistence?

Her answer? “God is good. God is faithful.”

It is a difficult thing to watch. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

She, like the widow from the parable knows, and even more importantly, believes and acts on something that we often forget: God is on the side of the vulnerable and has a special affection for widows, orphans and aliens.

And so, they pray and persist. They pray and believe. They pray and they act.

They know God is not like the unjust judge. They believe God hears and answers the prayers of those who cry out, “Grant us justice.” They know and believe, like their life depended on it, that God is with them and is on their side.

Some of us may never know what this kind of utter dependence on God feels like. The point of this parable is to get us to move toward that kind of dependence. Those who are vulnerable and powerless can be our teachers. Their lives invite and challenge us to a relationship with God that is predicated on God’s goodness and faithfulness-especially in the face of adversity.

Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalm

The Salute of Grace

 
15“One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him -and he was a Samaritan.”

Luke 17:11-19 

 

Our text this week is a common narrative engaged by preachers at Thanksgiving time in North America pleading for “attitudes of gratitude.” A narrative whose essence can be seen in the triviality of the closing scene of this children’s version of the story where the last frame exclaims, “Don’t Forget to Thank Jesus.”
 
In such simplified, moralistic versions of the story the other 9 lepers who don’t return to Jesus are vilified as ungrateful. However, we shouldn’t rush to cast judgment on them. Were not all ten collectively calling out to Jesus for mercy, keeping their appropriate distance while doing so? Did not all ten immediately set out in obedience after receiving the exhortation to go show themselves to the priests…even before they saw evidence of healing? Moreover, Jesus never creates an expectation that they return to him with thank-you notes. One assumes they were ecstatic to return to their families, friends, and jobs, to which the healing restored them. Wouldn’t you do the same?

Jesus had encountered all ten marginalized lepers in a marginalized place-the border between Samaria and Galilee. This is a no man’s land-a liminal space. Importantly, it is here where the long-distance relationship begins and ends with 9 out of the 10 who call out for mercy. Jesus tells them all to go and show themselves to the priests. All ten go. Only one returns. Luke makes sure to mention that one is a Samaritan.
 
The despised Samaritan was “unclean” from both sickness and ethnicity. When he is made whole, lying prostrate in gratitude before Jesus, it is not just leprosy alone from which he is healed. The business about “going and showing oneself to the priests” was an act of conformity to a system that had ostracized and declared all ten unclean in the first place. The Samaritan is healed from conformity to such a religious system of violence that divides and separates between clean and unclean, Gentile and Jew. The Samaritan, unshackled from such allegiance, freely comes to Jesus, understanding him as both a source of physical healing and a giver of social restoration.
 
The verbs Jesus uses in this story reveal the progression. The ten were all initially “cleansed” (tharizo- “to be made clean or healed of a disease”). But the Samaritan, upon returning to Jesus, was “made well,” (sozo- “to be healed of spiritual disease and death”).

The other nine return to have their physical healing certified by a priest. They return to participate in the same system that had excluded them-it was the source of their religious identity prior to being cast out, and now they returned to its exclusive boundaries. It was the Samaritan (previously excluded from that system to begin with) who sees that Jesus, by healing him at the same time as the other nine, also offered liberation from the oppressive order that created the marginalization in the first case.

In pondering the intimate moment of the story when Jesus and the healed Samaritan are together, I am reminded of poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s description of “the love that consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” Their encounter becomes recognition of two outcasts hungry for authentic community that is scapegoat free.
 
It is not just a distant plea for mercy from the group, the dutiful obedience to go show oneself to the priests, or even an expression of heartfelt gratitude that captures the heart at the salute of God’s scandalous grace. The salute happens in the intimacy of two outcasts seeking and longing for a new kind of community-a place where foreigner becomes friend. The appropriate response to such a salute, displayed by the foreigner, is the complete vulnerability illustrated by throwing oneself at the feet of Jesus. The salute of grace is given and love heals all wounds.
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

Becoming Human

 

5“The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. “

Luke 17:5-10

 
This week’s text is a difficult one. The disciples want Jesus to increase their faith, which is the very thing Jesus is eager to do.
 
At first glance, however, Jesus seems to berate the disciples for their lack of faith. Then he compares the disciples to “servants” who are only doing what they ought to do. It’s confusing, to be sure.
 
And yet, a more careful look reveals that Jesus is giving his disciples a bit of a pep talk, “Hey, guys, you can do this! It’s not as hard as it seems. In fact, it’s quite easy when you get the hang of it.”
 
The disciples are distraught because in the verses preceding this text Jesus tells them to forgive. He uses the number seven. Elsewhere he says 70×7 (see Luke 17:4, Matt. 18:22). The disciples are stunned.
 
From their perspective, what Jesus is saying seems impossible. Who can forgive like that?
 
Jesus is helping his disciples discover something about the nature of God (God forgives 70×7) and the nature of humanity (We become human by forgiving one another-that’s the very essence of what it means to be human). Jesus is inducting the disciples into their own humanity, and as with all induction processes, it seems impossible at first.
 
Jesus is revealing a very practical process that we all go through: that which first seems impossible, will over time and with some practice, not only become possible, but actually quite normal-a way of life. In other words, what Jesus is asking the disciples to do is not as extraordinary as it sounds. Within the Kingdom of God, it’s really quite ordinary to forgive 70×7. It’s a bit like a servant doing a very simple and rather mundane task that does not deserve a ton of fanfare.
 
Consider for a moment something that once seemed impossible to you and now is quite normal-so normal you hardly give it a second thought: walking, riding a bike, playing the piano, raising kids, even surviving the death of a loved one or forgiving your enemy. The normative pattern of becoming human is that over time and with some practice (and most importantly with someone to show us that it’s possible), we end up doing things we didn’t think we could do.
 
It’s as if Jesus is saying to his disciples,
 
“Come-on guys, you got this! It’s not a crazy as it sounds. In fact, it only takes a mustard seed of faith. You already have that seed at work inside you now…I am giving it to you. I know it seems impossible (like telling a mulberry tree to throw itself into the sea). What I’m telling you is not only possible, it will actually become quite normal…no big deal…70×7-a way of life! One day I will breathe the Spirit of forgiveness into you and you will do the impossible (John 20:22). You are created to do this! You are created in my image and the deepest truth of what it means to be human is to forgive one another.”
 
Finally, Jesus casts the disciples in the role of “worthless servants” (v.10). It’s harsh, but important language. Jesus is comparing his disciples to himself. Jesus is the rejected one, who is seen as worthless, and yet it’s he who forgives. In other words, the one who has been most wronged is the one most empowered to forgive. Wow. Lord, increase our faith.
 
All of us, especially the leaders in our network who serve vulnerable urban communities, are facing what seem like utter impossibilities: injustice, violence, and broken relationships. Jesus is showing us how to do the impossible-forgive our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He’s doing it for us until we can do it for ourselves. It’s the only way to become human and stay human…and it’s the only path to a world of shalom.
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Not Even Abraham

 
27“I beg you to send him (Lazarus) to my father’s house”
Luke 16:19-31
 
This week’s text is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man lives a life of plenty, while Lazarus lay at the threshold of his gate “covered in sores” suffering the indignities of wretched poverty. “He longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” (v. 21).
 
The rich man lives in a gated community that protects him from Lazarus. The gate in this parable is an important detail. It separates and divides insiders from outsiders, the blessed from the cursed.
 
Another important detail is that Jesus calls Lazarus by name. It is the only parable in which Jesus names one of the characters. To honor the name of someone, especially someone like Lazarus whom the dominant religious culture sees as cursed, is to recognize their humanity and bless them. To name Lazarus is to make him real. This pretty much sums up the ministry of Jesus.
 
I confess that I am often tempted towards abstraction. It’s a form of protection. I’d rather deal with the poor in theory than in reality. Relationship opens the gate to reality and keeps us dealing with real people in real places. This is not a parable about the rich and the poor in some general sense. It’s an invitation to open the gate to the one who lives at the threshold of our lives in a concrete sense. It’s here that we discover the action of mercy at work in our lives.
Lazarus lives at the threshold of the rich man’s life in a very specific way. The rich man continually refuses to “satisfy the hunger” of Lazarus, whom he sees every day at his gate. This is a story about two people who know each other.
 
Eventually the rich man and Lazarus die. They trade places. Lazarus is in heaven and the rich man is in hell. It’s tempting to turn this parable into a story about heaven and hell, but we miss the larger point if we do that. What’s happening here is that Jesus is messing with people’s image of God. Jesus shocks his hearers by suggesting that Lazarus is the blessed one. Jesus is challenging the popular meritocratic notion that the rich are rich because God is blessing them, and the poor are poor because God is cursing them. Jesus flips the script.
 
Finally, the parable ends with an odd reflection on whether or not the living will repent if the dead man (Lazarus) returns to tell the truth about God’s blessing. The rich man wants Father Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers. Father Abraham doesn’t think it will work. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (v. 31).
 
This is clearly a play on Jesus’ own resurrection. We are invited to imagine that Jesus is Lazarus who lives at the threshold of our existence–the one who lives outside our securely gated community–the one who seems cursed by God. And this is where the parable begins to fall apart in the most gracious way. Not even Father Abraham could imagine the great news of the resurrection. In Christ, God answers the rich man’s prayer, and ours too. Jesus returns from the dead. The risen Christ is not an angry Lazarus who comes to haunt us. He is the bearer of Good News–declaring God’s blessing where we imagined only curses. For the last 2,000 years the Spirit has been opening the gates that divide and separate. We are learning to call each other by name, rich and poor alike.
 
The gates of mercy are opening wide!
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

The Gospel Hustle

8“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”
Luke 16:1-13

In my neighborhood, this would be called a hustle. I see it every day.

This parable sounds like a contemporary situation — a person is about to get fired for mismanaging resources that were given to him to steward (this sounds familiar doesn’t to the prodigal son story just verses before?). Of course he should be fired.

The steward admits to himself that there’s no way he can do manual labor. He can’t dig ditches. And he’s too proud to beg.

So the hustle begins.

Immediately, he starts to strategize about what he can do now, so that when the time comes and he needs help because he is unemployed, he will find favor and good will in the community. And so, he makes a list of all the debtors who owe money to his boss, and he reduces their debt — building his friendships in the community. They’re happy. He’s happy.

My indignant self is offended already. This guy is a total opportunist!

But the Boss actually commends his actions — calls him shrewd/wise. Jesus, in an underhanded way, actually encourages his followers to think a little more like the shrewd man. Jesus commends the way of the hustler and says they are more “shrewd/wise” than “children of the light”.

First, I was offended by the hustler. Now, I’m offended by Jesus!

Some commentators think the reduction offered to the debtors is what the steward would’ve taken in commission. Reducing his commission results in a great deal for everyone — the Master gets his share, the debtors get a reduction (which makes the Master look good), and the steward finds favor (builds friendships) in the eyes of the debtors…all part of the hustle.

This story reminds me of someone I know.

I think of a particular young person who is known by ALL as a hustler in our community. He is always flipping what he has and making more money — and sometimes, it seems a little sketchy. We all know this. People call him a hustler behind his back and to his face. He knows he’s a hustler. How many times have we heard him say, “I got to get my hustle on.”

But here’s the thing about this young man. There is not one person in this community who wouldn’t give what they have to help when he is in trouble.

And here’s why. Because while he hustles a system, a way of doing things, he always helps others whenever he can. He gives away money and time. He actually has a commitment to relationship and friendship that is part of his hustle ethic.

I think Jesus would commend him: he looks after himself and his family, creatively leverages his resources and builds friendships.

This seems like a very odd way to create relationship: make friends, and use your privilege and your resources to create community… a community that takes care of each other.

Resources that were once only used to create wealth for one, now were used to create a more reciprocal way of living in community. The steward used his position and power to lower their debt. And he hoped that out of gratitude they would extend the hospitality when he needed help. I believe that is what Jesus was commending. This kind of reciprocity of relationship and exchange of “services” is a new way of living as Children of the Light.

And what’s more, the hustle all depends on the graciousness of the Master whose money it is in the first place. The steward cannot live in this new way unless he is willing to risk on the graciousness of that Master. That is the real Gospel hustle — God’s mercy.

Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalm

The Math of Mercy

2“The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable…”

Luke 15:1-10

Fifteen years ago this Sunday (9/11) something awful happened, and I do mean aw-full. Most of us were filled with awe. We let ourselves be awed by evil, and it consumed us. Four planes were hijacked–the Twin Towers destroyed. 2,996 were killed, which includes the 19 men who carried out the absurdity and whose loss was no less tragic. Such a meaningless act is evil for sure, but it is our response to evil that I’m talking about here–the immediate and collective sense of unanimity that was created in its wake. Our collective grief made our oneness feel all the more sacred and real.

We became one, like the 99 sheep huddled together in this week’s text (but notice that one sheep is missing–the oneness is incomplete). We were desperate for a good shepherd to protect us (The President’s approval rating soared to 86%).

The unanimity we experienced after 9/11 is understandable and has been repeated throughout history by all political stripes. But, as the last 15 years has demonstrated, it was largely a false and highly combustible unanimity. In our collective fear we lost what God never loses–the capacity for mercy. Our mouths called out for justice but our hearts nursed vengeance.

Violence did what violence does. It escalated! In the aftermath of 9/11 we’ve seen 31,000 military casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that does not include 200,000 civilian casualties and many more tens of thousands who died indirectly because of the war.

This week’s text goes to the heart of the Gospel and is an antidote for the kind of sacrificial logic that so easily possesses us and fuels violence in times of crisis.

In the first parable, the shepherd leaves the 99 for the sake of the one. With all due respect, God is not only a lousy shepherd, but also a lousy mathematician. What kind of shepherd leaves what are presumably 99 good sheep for one bad one? It just doesn’t add up. The good shepherd looks a lot more like a bad shepherd, especially to the 99 who now feel abandoned and vulnerable. I can imagine the 99 grumbling amongst themselves. Perhaps one of the sheep baa-ing the words of the high priest Caiaphas, “It is better to have one sheep die for us than to have the whole herd destroyed” (John 11:50). That’s the sacrificial logic that so easily grips the 99.

Perhaps now we can see that this text is not about a flock of good sheep and one bad one. It’s about a good shepherd who recognizes what’s really going on. He sees a lone sheep who has become a scapegoat. Let’s call it a “black sheep” who, in the mind of the 99, is getting what it deserves.

Jesus inverts the sacrificial logic and stands with the one. He recovers the excluded one in a way that unifies the whole flock. This is cause for a great celebration. Gospel logic sees the whole flock in its entirety. There’s no good sheep or bad sheep–there’s just sheep. They are the same. There are 100 of them and they belong together.

If we follow Gospel logic to it’s Spirit-filled conclusion then the good shepherd does not leave the 99 at all. He invites them to join the effort to include the excluded one. The 99 are invited to joyfully celebrate what they were so blindly ready to sacrifice for their own survival. The lost sheep is now seen, not as a scapegoat but as kin–a vital member of the flock. Of course, this kind of celebration demands a radical conversion by both the 99 and the one. And this is the whole point of the text!

The second parable of the lost coin takes the theme of celebration even further. Others have noticed that the woman who finds the lost coin spends more money on the celebration than the coin was worth by itself. The joy of the Gospel is not simply about recovering what was lost. No, the Gospel actually inflates the value of what’s lost. Why? Because it’s the lost one who can bring life and healing to the whole.

God’s math is mercy. Now that’s cause for celebration!

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Invitation of Love

 
26“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:25-33

Throughout the course of life we often engage Scripture through the lens of present circumstance. In my case, the engagement with our text this week comes on the heels of the most painful, yet sacred experience of my life — the passing of my dear mother.
 
In the last days of her life, I had the incredible honor of helping her with her meals, brushing her teeth, adjusting her oxygen, kissing her each time I left the hospital not knowing if it would be the last time I saw her. During the intimate encounters of those precious moments, I experienced a love far deeper than I had ever known. The kind of love, I learned, that works like a spiritual smelling salt, awakening mind, heart and soul to an entirely new level of consciousness around the priorities of life.
 
That experience, like the words of Jesus in Luke 14, serves as a call to sobriety— a re-ordering of priority and purpose, a fierce calling to clarity about what is at stake in life. St. Augustine taught that the key to transformed character was wrapped up in the correct “ordering of one’s loves.” In the final stages of my mother’s discipleship plan for my life, she made sure to put me on the tracks of re-ordered love. She invited me into a space where I’d never been, an encounter with love that shattered the hypnotic trance of misplaced desire that, at times, has me shuffling through life.
 
Reeling in this newfound encounter with the power of human love, the words of Jesus sting: “if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother…..”. How in the world can I bring myself to now “hate” my mother after finally arriving at a place where I’ve experienced the reckless abandonment of raw human love? What in the world is Jesus trying to teach about discipleship with such a raucous statement? Is the invitation to be his disciple worth that cost?
 
The word “hate” is jarring, but only because we sometimes shuffle through life half asleep and don’t like rude awakenings. Perhaps it helps to know that the word “hate” here is a comparative term. Jesus is not saying to “hate” one’s family in the sense of standing against it or wanting its harm. Certainly Jesus did not “hate” his own family in that sense. Rather, Jesus seems to be suggesting a reordering of love. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “I will offer you a love that orders all other loves — one that makes all love, even the love of a child and parent fruitful and life-giving for all.” Jesus orders our disordered loves that so easily masquerade as good but are often self-serving. This reordering transforms mere sentimental love that diminishes us into the kind of captivating and intoxicating love that affirms our most cherished relationships.
 
Poet Mary Oliver wrote a beautiful poem entitled “When Death Comes” that has been a balm to my soul the past several weeks. In it there is a stanza that captures the essence of the beauty of Jesus’ invitation of love in Luke 14,
 

“When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

 
Jesus’ call to discipleship in Luke 14 is, in fact, a wedding invitation. An invitation to be “married to amazement” and to live life “taking the world into one’s arms.” Thanks Mom for the lesson of your life that has allowed me to understand and embrace Jesus’ call to discipleship-a liberating invitation to the ultimate re-ordering of love.
 
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

Sabbath Prayer: Week 6

“Lord, teach us to pray…”
(Luke 11:1)
 
As we mentioned four weeks ago, each summer we take a Sabbath break from the Word From Below reflections. Instead, we are inviting you to pray with us. (We will resume our normal Word From Below reflections in September).
 
Here are two prayers that have been helping form us in our call to develop incarnational leaders: The Prayer of Vocation grounds us in our particular call, and the Prayer of Discernment helps us discern the move of the Spirit at work in us and our network.
 
We invite you to pray one or both of these with us.
 
Prayer Request (Each week we offer a new prayer)
This week we are praying for the Street Psalms Community. There are nine ordained members from our network. We share a common call to develop incarnational leaders, though we each express that call differently. Our gift is the way we see and celebrate good news. It energizes all we do.
 
Our community originated in the basement of a church in north Philly 10 years ago. We were formally founded in 2008, and have shared deep friendship and tremendous hardship along the way. We’ve witnessed the growth of a global network around our call and we’ve confronted the possibility of dissolving the community altogether. We are not an end in ourselves. Our community nurtures the charism of our work. Pray that we steward the gift well.
 
Ordained members include: Tim Merrill (Camden), Ruben Ortiz (Philadelphia), Gideon Ochieng (Nairobi), Mario Matos (Santo Domingo), Ron Ruthruff (Seattle), Scott Dewey (Denver and Marghitta), Joel Van Dyke (Guatemala City), Jeff Johnsen (Denver), and Kris Rocke (Tacoma).
 
Praying
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
 
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
 
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
 
– Mary Oliver, Thirst
 
Peace,
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Sabbath Prayer: Week 5

 

“Lord, teach us to pray…”
(Luke 11:1)

As we mentioned four weeks ago, each summer we take a Sabbath break from the Word From Below reflections. Instead, we are inviting you to pray with us. (We will resume our normal Word From Below reflections in September).

Here are two prayers that have been helping form us in our call to develop incarnational leaders: The Prayer of Vocation grounds us in our particular call, and the Prayer of Discernment helps us discern the move of the Spirit at work in us and our network.

We invite you to pray one or both of these with us.

Prayer Request (Each week we offer a new prayer)
This week we are praying for our good friend and colleague Joel Van Dyke and his family. Joel’s mother passed this week. We at Street Psalms are captivated by a big vision — developing incarnational leaders — but we also have personal lives to live. That’s why we pause and give thanks for our good friend Joel and his family, and especially for the life of his mother. We talk a lot about being “midwives to the holy.” Joel stepped into that vocation this past week.

Jesus insists that death is not a dead end, but a birthing process that brings forth new life. Like any birthing process, some are harder than others. Mrs. Van Dyke’s passing was a hard one and Joel was deeply involved. He was midwife to the holy. It’s a high calling for sure and it’s not for the faint of heart. Thanks to Joel for modeling our vocation with such grace and courage and prayers for all of us who find ourselves in similar situations.

Praying
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”

– Mary Oliver, Thirst

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Sabbath Prayer: Week 4

 
“Lord, teach us to pray…”
(Luke 11:1)
 
As we mentioned three weeks ago, each summer we take a Sabbath break from the Word From Below reflections. Instead, we are inviting you to pray with us. (We will resume our normal Word From Below reflections in September).
 
Here are two prayers that have been helping form us in our call to develop incarnational leaders: The Prayer of Vocation grounds us in our particular call, and the Prayer of Discernment helps us discern the move of the Spirit at work in us and our network.
 
We invite you to pray one or both of these with us.
 
Prayer Request (Each week we offer a new prayer)
Next week, the City of Tshwane, South Africa’s administrative capital, becomes an urban studio for grassroots leaders, scholars and students. Key leaders from the Urban Training Collaborative are participating in the 11th annual Biennial Consultation on Urban Ministry. The theme is #WeMustRise: healers-dreamers-jesters. Please pray that this gathering empowers incarnational leaders in cities throughout Africa.
 
Praying
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
 
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
 
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
 
– Mary Oliver, Thirst
 
Grace and peace,
 
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City, Guatemala

Sabbath Prayer: Week 3

“Lord, teach us to pray…”
(Luke 11:1)

As we mentioned two weeks ago, each summer we take a Sabbath break from the Word From Below reflections. Instead, we are inviting you to pray with us. (We will resume our normal Word From Below reflections in September).

Here are two prayers that have been helping form us in our call to develop incarnational leaders: The Prayer of Vocation grounds us in our particular call, and the Prayer of Discernment helps us discern the move of the Spirit at work in us and our network.

We invite you to pray one or both of these with us.

Prayer Request (Each week we offer a new prayer)
This week we are praying for the grassroots leaders whom we serve around the world in the 10 cities that are part of the Urban Training Collaborative. Their lives are like roller-coaster rides, as evidenced by the life of Pastor Erwin “Shorty” Luna. Two weeks ago, he buried a young man, Nery, who had become like a son to him. Nery and two of his friends were shot while attending a funeral in rival gang territory. The two friends made it through surgery, but Nery did not survive the night. A few days after the loss of his “adopted” son, Pastor Erwin held his two daughters in his arms at the Guatemala City airport. It was their first hug in the 15 years since he had been deported from the U.S.

Pray for the hundreds of grassroots leaders in the Urban Traning Collaborative that are loving their cities into greatness around the world. Like Shorty, they often live life strapped to a roller coaster of emotion ranging from paralyzing pain to unbridled joy.

Praying
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”

– Mary Oliver, Thirst

Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City, Guatemala

Sabbath Prayer: Week 2

 
“Lord, teach us to pray…”
(Luke 11:1)
 
As we mentioned last week, each summer we take a Sabbath break from the Word From Below reflections. Instead, we are inviting you to pray with us. (We will resume our normal Word From Below reflections in September).
 
Here are two prayers that have been helping form us in our call to develop incarnational leaders: The Prayer of Vocation grounds us in our particular call, and the Prayer of Discernment helps us discern the move of the Spirit at work in us and our network.
 
We invite you to pray one or both of these with us.
 
Prayer Request (Each week we offer a new prayer)
This week we are praying for the Urban Training Collaborative. We currently have 9 hubs, which are training more than 1,500 leaders. In addition, we have several new cities interested in becoming hubs.
 
Praying
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
 
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
 
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
 
– Mary Oliver, Thirst
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Sabbath Prayer:  Week 1

 

“Lord, teach us to pray…”

 

Each summer we take a Sabbath break from the Word From Below reflections. Instead of writing on the Gospel lectionary text in the month of August, we will invite you to pray with the Street Psalms community. We will share two prayers in particular: Prayer of Vocation and Prayer of Discernment. For several years now these prayers have been helping form us individually and as a community in our common call to develop incarnational leaders.
 
This week’s lectionary text provides a wonderful transition into a month of prayer.
 
One of disciples asks Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Jesus begins by teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. But notice that in Luke’s version Jesus gives them the short form of the prayer. Perhaps that’s because he knows the real power of prayer is not primarily in the contents of the prayer itself. He refuses to give the disciples a formula as if God were the great ATM machine in the sky and prayer was the secret pin code. Instead, Jesus gets at the real essence of prayer by telling a story.

 

Jesus shares the account of a man in need of bread at midnight. The man persistently knocks on his neighbor’s door at the most inconvenient hour, until his neighbor gets so fed up and frustrated that he gives him the bread. This is not about a poor man who can’t feed himself. It’s about a careless and clueless man who did not plan well. He comes to his neighbor’s house late at night for something that he should have handled on his own during the day. The neighbor, who is a “friend,” is understandably frustrated, but finally agrees to give his friend the bread, if only to get rid of him.

 

Jesus compares this scene with God. It’s meant to be a false comparison. If we, who are imperfect, know how to give good gifts to clueless neighbors in the middle of the night, not to mention our own children, then how much more does God?

 

C.S. Lewis said the prayer that precedes all prayers is: “May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.” St Francis once prayed all night, “God who are you, and who am I?” Martin Buber said, “All real living is meeting.” The point is that authentic prayer has little to do with the specific content of the prayer, which is why Jesus doesn’t bother reciting the long form of the Lord’s Prayer. No, the real essence of prayer is not about the “what.” It’s about the “who.” To whom do we pray? That’s the real question. Who is this God who is not bothered in the least by being inconvenienced late at night over something that is completely the problem of our own making? Who is this God who is so eager to meet us face to face regardless of how clueless or careless we have been?

 

By highlighting the persistence of the man, Jesus is also pointing out the other key ingredient of prayer, which is simply, showing up. Regardless of what we pray, or even why or how we pray, God can do wonders if we just keep showing up. That’s it! That’s the big secret —    showing up until one day the real “I” meets the real “Thou.” The Prayer of Vocation and the Prayer of Discernment are our way of showing up. It’s our way of being formed and shaped for mission and becoming like the one who calls us.

 

I pray these prayers daily and have for several years. I can say with some confidence that God is giving me a new heart. I can see the faint outlines of that for which I long —    the heart of Christ. God’s words through the prophet Ezekiel come to mind, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (Ez. 36:26).

 

Praying
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”

– Mary Oliver, Thirst

 

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

The Mystery of Mercy

 

36 “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:25 – 37

This week Jesus tells the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan.

A religiously unclean outsider (Samaritan) does for a half-dead victim in the ditch what the ritually pure insiders (priest and Levite) won’t. The half-dead victim receives mercy from the half-Jew, who is seen as one cursed by God. Welcome to the Good News of Jesus!

According to laws of ritual purity, the priest and the Levite are forbidden to touch the dead without defiling themselves. Given that the half-dead man probably looks fully dead from a distance, their decision to steer clear and “pass by on the other side” (v. 31, 32) is justifiable by the letter of the law. On the other hand, having no purity to maintain, the cursed Samaritan “comes near” (33). He gets the half-dead man to safety and covers the healthcare costs to boot, thereby fulfilling the spirit of the law.

We can manage moral purity from the “other side” of the road, but mercy “comes near” and gets involved in the mess of life.

Jesus tells this parable in response to a lawyer who, like the priest and the Levite, is eager to “justify himself” (v. 29) through the law. The lawyer asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (v. 25). In other words, What does the law require of me? It’s a moral management question that keeps him safely on the other side of the road.

Jesus comes near and meets the lawyer on his own terms. In good rabbinic fashion he returns a question with a question. “What is written in the law?” (v. 26). The lawyer wisely sums up the law — love God and love neighbor (v. 27). But the lawyer is unsatisfied and wants to “justify himself” by parsing things further. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” (v. 29). Jesus tells the parable in response.

At the end of the story Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, (the priest, Levite or Samaritan) do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (v. 36). The lawyer answers correctly, “The one who showed him mercy” (v. 37). Notice that the lawyer avoids mentioning the identity of the hated “Samaritan.” At this point, I imagine Jesus comes very near the lawyer when he says, “Go and do likewise” (v. 37).

Can we see it?

We can only give to others what we have first received. Jesus shows mercy on the lawyer and says, “Go and do likewise.” The point here is that we are all half dead. We are all ditch dwellers long before we are Good Samaritans. This is not some do-gooder tale of moral heroism. It’s the reminder that we are helpless to save ourselves and that mercy comes from the most unlikely source — from the one who is seen as cursed by the law and God.

Of course, the irony here is that the mercy is not opposed to the law. It is the fruit of the law. Mercy is at the heart of the law, and that’s the whole point. It’s the law that makes mercy visible. As James Alison says, “Mercy is how we participate fully in the life of God.”

If we are intent on justifying ourselves through the letter of the law, mercy is received as a threat, but if we are half dead and facedown in a ditch, it is the very breath of life itself. And the one who comes near is the face of God to us. If, by chance, we are privileged to be the Good Samaritan and happen upon a half-dead ditch dweller, the nearer we come to the victim, the more clearly we see, not only ourselves, but the face of the One who has mercy on us all.

That’s the mystery of mercy.

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

First Say Peace

 

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go.”
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

 
As we saw last week, Jesus has resolutely “set his face towards Jerusalem” and in preparation he sent messengers ahead of him into a Samaritan village to get things ready. In this week’s text, we again read of messengers with a responsibility to go ahead of him (“before his face”) on an urgent mission of preparation.
 
Seventy-two others are sent on a grand mission to the world in preparation for the Kingdom of God that will soon be “coming near.” They are instructed to go in groups of two so as to model vulnerability and transparency. Both last week and this week, we see a Jesus completely in control of all that is happening around him, but there seems to be an emphasis on the crucial role of the messengers, those sent “before his face” to prepare for his coming.
 
The training for these messengers includes instruction on the challenges that await them, the luggage (or lack thereof) that they are to bring with them, how they are to respond to potential distractions and what to do when they enter towns and houses. But most importantly, at the heart of the training for their journey is the declaration around the one, central message that they are being called to proclaim:
 
“First say, ‘Peace to this house.’”
 
Does this not hit at the heart of the ministry of Jesus, the reason that travelling light and avoiding distractions is so necessary? This is a message of critical importance to be pronounced in every place we find ourselves. Karen Wilk, pastor at NEW (Neighbourhood Engagement Workers) Community in Edmonton, has found this passage from Luke crucial in helping to move her congregations out into the neighborhoods around them. She writes, “Our offer of peace—acceptance, welcome and a sense of belonging to every neighbour—is another counter to the modern ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. We seek to be present by listening, being attentive and available, without judgment or presumption. Jesus does not send us with rehearsed speeches or ‘salvation plans’ but with peace.”
 
Jesus’ message of shalom, introduced by those sent to go in preparation, is at the heart of Gospel truth. It is the reason for the incarnation and the climax of the narrative of Scripture. What is this central message? “First, say Peace!”
 
Pastor Thomas Truby, in a sermon on Luke 10, states the following: “The proclamation of peace is the sum and substance of Jesus’ message. Jesus wants to give us his peace, and it is a peace qualitatively different from any we have known. It’s not like the world’s peace, built as it is on exclusion. This is a peace that includes all and takes away our fear of being cast out. He doesn’t want us to be afraid any more. When we have this kind of peace, even when we are as vulnerable as lambs among wolves, we are ok. This is the kind of peace he wants to give every home he enters, and we bring it too when we go ahead of him. This is the reason he sent the seventy out in the first place.”
 
So we are messengers of peace—agents of world transformation sent out into the everyday adventure of two by two interactions in homes, work places and neighborhoods. Jesus has set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem, and he sends us forth as peacemakers to help prepare the way for the Kingdom of God.
 
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City, Guatemala

Family Matters

 
He set his face to go to Jerusalem…On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans.”
Luke 9:51-62
 
In this week’s text Jesus turns toward Jerusalem where he will confront the brutal reality of sin head on. On his way to the city that he loves, he takes time to address some unresolved family matters that had been festering for a long time.
 
The rift dates back to 722 BC when the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel. The invasion resulted in intermarriages, the fruit of which was seen as unclean by most Jews. Samaritans were considered half-breeds, infidels, and impure.
 
Instead of going around Samaria on his way to Jerusalem, as all good Jews would do, Jesus insists on taking the direct route. Jesus walks through the heart of Samaria. In doing so, he walks through 700 years of hurt and the very heart of humanity. The disciples are incensed and want to call down the fire of judgment to consume the Samaritans.
 
The path to peace runs through a whole lot of pain. There is no way around it. We can deny it, numb it, avoid it, suppress it or try to expel it, but these strategies only increase its power. Jesus insists that we must pass through it if we want to transform it. And if we do not transform it we will transmit it, as Richard Rohr suggests.
 
Remember Jacob and Esau-twin brothers in rivalry? Their unresolved conflict festered and became a national conflict between the Israelites and the Edomites. The Israelites are from the line of Jacob. The Edomites are from the line of Esau. In fact, the shortest book in the Old Testament, Obadiah, is all about this conflict.
 
Fast forward. We should not be surprised to discover that King Herod is an Edomite and Jesus is an Israelite. They are siblings! We could frame the whole of human conflict as sibling rivalry. Consider Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Bloods and Crips, Christians and Muslims, black and white, gay and straight, democrats and republicans. The list goes on. When seen this way, all large-scale conflicts begin as small-scale sibling rivalries. It makes me pause to consider the implications of my own unresolved family matters.
 
Jesus makes it clear. The only path to Jerusalem is through Samaria. We must go through it. There is no way around Samaria without compounding the problem. Believe me, I’ve tried! But there are real risks. The Samaritans do not receive Jesus (v. 53), and the disciples want to rain down fire (v. 54).
 
Jesus shows us another way through Samaria. Jesus reveals the hated other as kin. That’s what the Incarnation does. It reveals that we are all brothers and sisters. Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart, says it beautifully. “Mother Teresa diagnosed the world’s ills in this way: we’ve just ‘forgotten that we belong to each other.’ Kinship is what happens to us when we refuse to let that happen.” Kinship, for Boyle, is the deepest truth of human relations. We are all kin.
 
Jesus shows us the way through Samaria. He passes through it as kin who has come to reconcile and is eager to forgive. It’s a hard but liberating call especially in an age when there are so many unresolved family conflicts festering in our cities today. Perhaps that is why Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 62). Jesus speaks with great urgency, knowing what lies ahead in Jerusalem.
 
It’s a sober ending to a difficult passage, but it’s the hope of our cities and it’s our call as kin.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Seized By Fear

29“So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”
Luke 8:26-39

The man in the tombs we see in this passage is tormented by demons that will not go away. They have “seized” him. They have overpowered his life and isolated him from the community. They had taken up residence in his mind, body and soul.

When Jesus casts out the demons from this man, we are left with a picture of someone who has been restored. Now he’s fully clothed and in his right mind. The before and after photos are compelling. Naked to clothed. Homelessness to stability. Isolation to community. Torment to peace. Legion to Messenger.

The exorcism was a success.

At least in part. When the community around him sees what has happened, they are “seized” with great fear. They become captive to the fear in their hearts.

I find it interesting that freedom for one produces fear in the other. Why? What is the threat? What is the rivalry?

Fear is internal, but it manifests externally. And once it’s fully blown, it escalates into the tragic violence that occurred in cities like Orlando. Or San Bernadino. Or Ferguson. Or Baltimore. Or Miami. Or Virginia. Or Paris. Or Syria.

I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that even those of us who follow Jesus are befuddled by the sheer amount of violence that has come to define our lives. Just last week, I was in a meeting discussing youth violence that occurs in my community. Of the 15 murder cases currently filed in our county, 8 of them were committed by young people from our school district.

If you are a regular reader of Word from Below or have been connected to the work of Street Psalms for awhile, then the phrase “proclaiming the Good News in Hard places” will be familiar to you. Street Psalms exists to help us consider and proclaim a Gospel that we know brings Good News-especially in hard places and during hard times.

As a preacher, this has become increasingly more challenging. I have lost track of how many times over the past 5 years that I’ve had to stand before our congregation on a Sunday to “Proclaim the Good News of salvation” following some horrific act of violence in the world, in the country or in my own community.

What is the Good News exactly?

The current political rhetoric in this country would suggest that the good news will come when we name and identify the “enemy”, i.e. the person or group, the religion, or the country responsible. Once we can do that, we can restore our peace by killing them, locking them up, taking away their guns, or kicking them out of our country.

I’m sure that is oversimplified. But oversimplification is a core characteristic of scapegoating. It helps us heap our anger and violent thoughts and desires upon something else. It gives us someone or something to blame. And it feels good and right. It feels justified.

But there is a problem with scapegoating.

The peace it brings is false and temporary. It is deeply rooted in fear, which is never, ever a stable foundation for loving and peaceful relationships. As hard as it is to say, we should not be surprised that violence keeps happening-in us, to us and by us. I wonder if we too have been “seized by fear” and rivalry.

Where then is the Good News in hard places and during hard times?

The answer at least begins with the exorcism of our demons. It begins with the act of confessing that we are fearful people who inflict violence on ourselves and to one another in big and small ways everyday through our words, our thoughts, and through our actions and even inaction.

The exorcism cannot be done by us either. The “fear demon” is too strong for us. Only God can cast it out. Perfect Love casts out fear.

May God help us to receive, proclaim and be a vessel for Perfect Love in our world.

Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms

A Gospel Turning

 

Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?”
Luke 7:36-8:3

 
The Gospel is alive and well, but there is an exodus from the Church in North America. My hunch is that it has something to do with the fact that, very often, the “world” is a more hospitable place than many churches, and that’s saying something given our culture of polarization and rivalry. People are hungry for a Gospel of forgiveness and inclusion. Sadly, we continue to pedal a gospel of judgment and exclusion instead. We are desperate for a Gospel like the one revealed in this week’s text, especially in vulnerable urban communities.
 
This week we encounter “a woman in the city, who was a sinner” (v. 37) She finds her way inside an exclusive dinner party. There she anoints Jesus. The host of the dinner is deeply offended by her behavior. It’s a volatile situation given her social status. Jesus diffuses it. She becomes the subject of transforming grace rather than the object of religious scorn.
 
The phrase “a woman in the city, who was a sinner” (v. 44) is suggestive. She lacks personal identity. She is a public figure. She belongs to many, which is probably why she is referred to as a “sinner.” The label strips her of her humanity. And yet she finds her way inside the private dinner party. She brings expensive ointments, probably acquired by her very public profession, through which she not only earned her living, but also her reputation.
 
It would have been expected that servants would wash the feet of favored guests at the home of the social elite,
so it isn’t unusual that she is washing Jesus’ feet. It is her effusive anointing of Jesus and her shameless display of affection that offends the host. She becomes a source of scandal. The host outs her as a “sinner” (how did he know?). Jesus diffuses the situation by telling a story of two people: one who is forgiven little and one who is forgiven much. He asks Simon, his host, “Who will love more?” Simon correctly answers, “The one who is forgiven much.” There is more than a little irony here. Simon has no idea how much he is being forgiven.
 
“Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?” Notice the delicate and daring turn of phrase. Jesus is addressing Simon, but he does so by “turning toward the woman.” It is a Gospel turning.
 
Along with Simon, we are invited to turn towards that which we are tempted to turn from. In that turning, we are invited to see through the eyes of Jesus— to see without judgment. To see and be seen without judgment is to be transformed. In seeing this way we witness others and ourselves as we really are. We are all sinners undergoing forgiveness. Simon and the “sinner” are the same. Both are being forgiven much. That is the Gospel.
 
Jesus is also making a very practical point. Forgiveness precedes repentance. If there is an order to the Gospel, this is it! We are forgiven so that we might love. The woman shows great love because she has been forgiven. Those who have been forgiven much, love much. The fruit of having internalized forgiveness is the shameless outpouring of love. The fruit of having internalized judgment is a shameful outpouring of scorn.
 
In the end, it’s the experience of being forgiven that saves us. This is the “faith” that Jesus praises in the woman. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (v. 50). That’s the whole point of the story. The only faith that saves is the faith of one who is undergoing forgiveness by the One who sees without judgment. The fruit of this is a shameless outpouring of love. That’s gospel turning!
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Clash of Crowds

 

…and a large crowd went along with him (entering the city)…and a large crowd from the town was with her (leaving the city).”
Luke 7:11-17

A collision at the city gate!! A crowd of death is leaving the city while a crowd of life is entering – they collide at the city gate. The first crowd, serenaded by the haunting melody of a death dirge, huddles under the cloud of despair surrounding a broken woman. The second, high stepping to the drumbeat of life, is lead by Jesus.
 

La Limonada, Guatemala

La Limonada, Guatemala

The two crowds could not be more distinct and they proceed on a collision course – a clash between the forces of death and life. They meet at the city gate, a place of battle in the ancient world. Here, a place for hand-to-hand combat as invaders try to storm a city while the residents try to defend it, is where Jesus and the parade of life come face to face with death and despair. Something had to give. Someone had to move.
 
The followers of Jesus stop and step aside as the procession shadows by. The shroud of pain muffles the laughter of the disciples. No one speaks. What would they say if they did?
 
When Jesus first saw the woman at a distance, his heart breaks. As the procession carries her near to him, he speaks – “Don’t cry.” Startled, she is shocked as she looks into this stranger’s face. What kind of irresponsible statement is this to a woman who has just lost all hope?
 
The parade screeches to a halt while Jesus stares at the lifeless body on the stretcher. The crowds (both of them) become deafly silent. Overwhelmed with emotion, Jesus turns his attentionto the dead boy, “Young man,” his voice calm and confident, “I say to you, rise.”
While the living look on breathlessly, the dead son begins to breathe.
 
Jesus then “gives the young man back to his mother.” Jesus not only raised the young man, but he also gave back to the woman her only chance of survival. For a woman of the ancient world, security was based on having a large family, especially sons. In the case of this widow, the only two men in her life were now dead. She was the epitome of vulnerability; the parade of death would surely scoop her up next. However, Jesus, the giver of life, collides with this procession of death and is filled with profound compassion for her.
 
What weapon of combat did Jesus use to disarm the power of death at the city gate? What sword does he wield? Nothing. He comes to do battle armed with only one thing – compassion. Any boot camp officer will tell subjects in training that this is the worst possible thing to do in battle, claiming that the moment you begin to have compassion in the face of an enemy will likely be the moment you get yourself killed. Compassion makes us vulnerable, doesn’t it?
 

Tita felt led to lead weekly prayer walks

Tita felt led to lead weekly prayer walks

One year ago in Guatemala City, Tita Evertz sat in despair, seeing life being snuffed out of the largest slum in Central America known as “La Limonada” – a place and a people for whom she had poured out her life for almost 20 years. A parade of death in the form of extortions, turf wars, rivalry, sexual abuse, domestic violence, a barrage of killings and environmental disregard were sucking the breath out of the lungs of the community she loved. During a period of desperate prayer fueled with love and compassion, Tita felt lead to begin weekly prayer walks down the alleys, into the homes and through the streets of La Limonada. They began Wednesday morning prayer walks in May of 2015 and haven’t missed a Wednesday morning since. A ragtag “crowd” of life began humbly meandering through La Limonada on a direct collision course with the brazen crowd of death.
 
They set out to confront the crowds of death not as conquerors with clenched fists and matching t-shirts on a mission to “take back the streets for Jesus,” but instead, in the Spirit of Christ, they went armed only with compassion and love. There were no immediate, dramatic results – miraculous resurrections of the dead or immediate cease fire agreements between rival gangs. However, after only one year, the gradual surge of change resulting from the persistent Wednesday morning prayer walks has been nothing short of miraculous. Life is conquering death while sons and daughters are being given back to their mothers.
 

Life Wins

Life Wins

The people of La Limonada, as a result of seeing the “crowd of life” walking and praying in their midst, have been empowered to lay hold of a new reality as opposed to the one they thought they must endure. The violence has dramatically decreased, an the marches of prayer and song have given hope, bolstered faith and fostered a unity of purpose unlike anything they had previously experienced.
 
Residents of the community, while initially choosing to stay shut up in their homes, now open their windows and come to their doors when the singing and praying reaches their ears. They join the parade as the choir of life slowly but consistently grows. Some even take turns leading, directing the ensemble to the broken, hidden places of the community where neighbors and family members are drowning in despair. In both the town of Nain thousands of years ago and in La Limonada today, when the compassion-filled crowd of life lead by the resurrected Jesus clashes with that of the crowd of death, the melody of life dispels the dirge of darkness and…
 
Life wins.
 
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City, Guatemala

The Marvel of Saving Faith


When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him.

Luke 7:9

There are only two places where the Bible tells us that Jesus is amazed. In our lectionary text this week, Jesus marvels at the faith of a Roman centurion. In the other occasion (Mark 6:6), Jesus is marveling at the unbelief that he experienced in Nazareth.

Our text this week introduces us to a soldier who understands that God’s power is at work in Jesus. He understands that Jesus is not limited by time or place. And we learn that Jesus is amazed. “When Jesus heard these things, he marveled at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9).

What amazes Jesus about this soldier’s faith?

At first, the “elders of the Jews,” approach Jesus on the centurion’s behalf. They plead for the healing of his beloved servant, and implore Jesus to act based on the deservedness of the man. “This man deserves to have you do this because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” The elders, it appears, appeal more to the righteousness of the centurion than the goodness of Jesus.

The centurion, however, takes a different tact. He realizes that he cannot traffic in the currency of merit, and instead appeals directly to God’s goodness. “Therefore I didn’t even think myself worthy to come to you” (v. 7a). The centurion pronounces himself unworthy, to the point of contradicting the elders’ pronouncement of deservedness a few verses earlier. He has not sent messengers to Jesus because he is too proud to make his plea personally, but rather because he feels unworthy to have Jesus come under his own roof. The mediated message comes to Jesus in the form of “but say the word now, and my servant will be healed” (v. 7b). While it takes faith to believe that Jesus’ touch has healing power, it takes even greater faith to believe that his word has healing power— that he can heal from a distance.

As an afterthought, it seems, Luke reports simply that the servant is healed. When the messengers return, they discover a healthy servant. There’s no mention of what Jesus did to perform the miracle because that’s not the focus here. Luke wants us to be amazed by the centurion’s faith, just as Jesus was. Comparing the perspectives of the religious elders and the centurion, the Episcopal Priest Robert Capon refers to the “war between dullness and astonishment.”

In the light of the astonishing faith of the centurion, a religious outsider receives the grace of healing. What is earth shattering (happening over and over in the Gospel narrative) is that Jesus is engaged here again by a religious outsider. This man is a Gentile and has no claim to the God of Israel; however, he displays the kind of saving faith that causes Jesus to marvel.

The late Mike Yaconelli writes of a longing towards this kind of saving faith in the introduction to his book Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith,

Five years ago I decided to start listening again to the voice of Jesus and my life hasn’t been the same since. He has not been telling me what to do; He has been telling me how much he loves me. He has not corrected my behavior; He has been leading me into his arms. And He has not protected me from the dangers of living, He has lead me into the dangerous place of wild and terrifyingly wonder-full faith. Everyday I want to be in dangerous proximity to Jesus. I long for a faith that is gloriously treacherous.

At Street Psalms, we are privileged to serve incarnational urban leaders who, against all odds, live in dangerous proximity to Jesus and display terrifyingly wonder-full and gloriously treacherous faith. What they have taught us throughout the years is that God is neither limited nor limited by faith. It’s not the strength or perfection of one’s faith, but the object of faith that saves.

Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City

Love in Motion

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.
John 16:12-15

This week we celebrate the Trinity.

Cynthia Bourgeault describes the Trinity as “love in motion.” Love in motion is the “inner big bang” of God that creates the “outer big bang” of creation. I like that. It’s not only a great way to describe the Trinity, but also a great way to describe mission. Mission is love in motion.

In this week’s text Jesus graciously spares us a theological explanation of the mystery we call Trinity. Jesus knows that our souls want experience more than anything, not explanation, even if it comes from the mouth of God! Instead, our rabbi says, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” What kindness! I wish some of my professors had shared that disposition.

Instead of explaining the mystery, he sends his Spirit to “guide” us (v. 13). The Spirit is our companion as we experience life. Jesus’ approach matches reality. We undergo life long before we understand it, and even then, it’s mostly by hints and guesses. Unfortunately, our educational system is often at odds with this notion. It prioritizes theory over practice. We do the calculations, draft a plan, and then apply it to the problem we are trying to solve. This approach works well when building a bridge, or a skyscraper.

However, most of life does not work that way. We don’t figure it out and then live it. We live it and then maybe, just maybe, little by little, we start to figure things out. That’s the way of love in motion. We
undergo it!

What follows is a bit of a leap. Bear with me. In my experience, love in motion is a lot like laughter. There is nothing quite like a good laugh— the kind that comes in waves and is shared with friends. It is a full body experience that involves our whole being— body and soul. It involves community too, for we rarely laugh alone. I imagine that the outer big bang of laughter begins with the inner big bang of joy. That’s love in motion. Far fetched?

Perhaps this week’s Old Testament lectionary text will help. Proverbs 8 gives a privileged look inside the inner big bang of God. “Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence,” (Prov. 8:30). The word “rejoicing” is the Hebrew word sachaq, which means “to laugh.” Quite literally, we are created in laughter, and laughter is born of “delight.” The word “delight” is shaashuim, whose root meaning is “playful joy!” Yes, joy is the inner big bang of creation. We are God’s laughter in the world, born of joy. If we must be formulaic: The Father smiles with abundant joy in our soul. The Son giggles with delight in our body. The Spirit laughs with contagious love in the world. Or maybe it’s the reverse. All I know is that laughter is love in motion. It involves our whole being, and once it starts, it is difficult to stop.

Here’s the challenge. As Voltaire said, “God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” Who can blame us if we lose our sense of humor, especially when confronted with great suffering? And yet, even in the midst of great suffering, joy is at work calling forth new life. There is a great line in King Lear that puts it this way, “The worst returns to laughter.” I’ve witnessed it. I’ve experienced it. Every once in a while, even as things fall apart, we see joy revealing itself in the soul of things. We smile. Perhaps it’s a broken smile, but we smile. As joy becomes incarnate we get the giggles. The giggles give way to laughter, and we fall madly in love with the world again.

That’s love in motion – the inner big bang in the midst of suffering produces the outer big bang of abundant life.

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Pentecost Unity

 
17I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.
Acts 2:1-21
 
This week we celebrate Pentecost, which some call the birthday of the church. The Spirit is “poured out” on all flesh, just as the prophet Joel had prophesied. This is the same word Jesus uses to describe the cup of salvation at the Last Supper, which is “poured out” for all (Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20). In Greek it’s ekcheo, which is to “gush, or run greedily out.” That’s our model for church. We are the “poured out ones.”
 
But in what way are we poured out? Is there a shape to our poured-out-ness?
 

Each week at church growing up, we recited the Nicene Creed (325). Perhaps you did too. Do you remember the rough outline? “I believe in one God, the Father…I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ…I believe in the Holy Spirit…” And then these words, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”
 
“One, holy, catholic and apostolic.” This is the shape of our poured-out-ness. It is the shape of the new humanity— in Christ. Missiologist Charles Van Engen turns the adjectives into adverbs in order to draw out the implications for mission. We are one (reconciling), holy (sanctifying), catholic (unifying), and apostolic (sending) church. I like that, especially when I consider our rapidly urbanizing world, which is eagerly looking for just such
a sign.
 
One: Because we are “one,” we reconcile. It’s good to remember that our denominations are the many different ways in which we are one. We love our ecclesiastical tribes, or perhaps hate them. Either way, there is only one church, expressed in many forms. Denominations are not the Church, rather they are like clothes to the body. There is only one body— the body of Christ, clothed in many ways, with many styles. In the later stages of faith development, style gives way to substance. We become aware of our oneness, and the heart for reconciliation grows in us. In the end, we can see that we are being reconciled into one body, clothed only with the love of Christ.

Holy: Because we are “holy,” we sanctify. The word holy carries heavy overtones of moralism. Whatever else the church is, it is not morally superior to the rest of the world. Studies consistently show that churchgoers have the same rates of moral failure in every category as do non-churchgoers. What makes us holy is not our moral superiority. We have none. As catholic theologian James Alison suggests, what makes us holy is that we are being forgiven. That is our holiness. It is what unites us with all of creation, which is also undergoing forgiveness. When we participate in the giving and receiving of forgiveness, we are a sanctifying presence in the world.

Catholic: Because we are “catholic,” we unify. I was raised in the Catholic Church, so naturally, I thought the Nicene Creed was our creed. It’s not! The word “catholic,” has nothing to do with the denomination. It means “according to the whole.” In other words, we are all catholic. To be catholic is to be a sign of unity— a unity, as we discussed last week, that is not “over and against” anything, but always “with and for” everything. We are a unifying presence in the world torn apart by division.
 
Apostolic: Because we are “apostolic,” we send. The word “apostle” comes from the Greek word apóstolos, whose root is stéllō, “I send.” The Latin equivalent is missio, from which we get mission. We are sent-ones. An apostolic church is sent into the world as a sign of God’s love made visible.
 
Our cities and their most vulnerable eagerly await a new humanity poured out in the shape of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Unity Without Enemies?

I ask…that they may all be one…as we are one….that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me…
John 17:20-26

My favorite scientific experiment is the one conducted by Mark Twain. 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 confined an Irish catholic. When he seemed tame enough, he added a Scotch Presbyterian. Next he added a Turk, a Greek, as well as an Armenian Christian, a Methodist, a Buddhist, a Brahman and finally a Salvation Army Colonel. He 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…not a specimen alive.” Twain concluded that the religious leaders disagreed on a theological detail and carried the matter to a Higher Court.

It’s the seventh and final week of the Easter celebration. As you might expect, the seventh week is the full unveiling of what Easter is all about. On the eve of the crucifixion, Jesus prays for unity in the world. Yes, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is so that we may “become completely one” (v.23). That’s what Easter is all about!

Jesus’ prayer is a horizontal prayer concerned with human flourishing. It is not primarily about mystical union between God and humanity. It’s a horizontal prayer about humans learning to be in community in the same way that God enjoys community. What’s more is that Jesus is not praying to God that we might create some new reality that’s never existed—as if we aren’t one but maybe someday if we try really, really hard we will become one. That’s moralism, which always leads to death. Instead, Jesus is praying that we might one day know what has been true since the “foundation of the world” (v. 24) that, in fact, in Christ, we ARE one, and this has been true from the beginning if we can only see it.

Modern science is catching up to theology in this regard as it “discovers” that everything is connected in an ecological dance of relatedness. We are discovering the deep relationality of the universe at both the quantum level (infinitely small) and the cosmic level (infinitely large). I think of naturalist John Muir’s (1838-1914) famous quote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” We ARE one, which is why Jesus prays that we might wake up and become one. Even so, the question still remains. What kind of oneness or unity is Jesus praying for?

Jesus’ prayer draws a distinction between God’s unity and ours. God’s unity exists over/against no one and is in rivalry with nothing. God is always “with and for” never “over and against.” God’s unity seems impossible to us who are forever forging unity over and against the other, compulsively producing enemies and scapegoats to maintain our fragile sense of community. In this sense, our enemies hold us together. We don’t know how to function without them. God’s unity is born of love that calls forth peace. Our unity is born of fear and is based in violence. Jesus prays, “Be one…as we are one.”

Jesus’ prayer is particularly relevant in our urbanized world. Cities are filled with every kindred, tribe and nation bumping into each other. The stakes are high. We are desperate for a unity that mirrors the unity of God. Jesus’ prayer is not just a nice idea. It’s our only hope.

Unity, community, oneness, that’s it! That’s our Easter witness! That’s the sign that God is with us. It’s the only way the world will know that Jesus was truly sent by God.

 

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Do you want to get well?

 
When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
John 5:1-9
 
As we approach the sixth Sunday of Easter, we are continually being challenged to see life by the light of the resurrection, through the eyes of our resurrected Lord. As we read in last week’s WFB post, looking through the eyes of the resurrected Jesus reveals the whole world as a burning bush ablaze with God’s glory. The resurrection is the beginning of our faith journey, not it’s end. The empty tomb invites us to see a life filled with potential and purpose.
 

The Gospel text this week puts us in the midst of a Jesus encounter pregnant with implications for resurrected living. Jesus approaches a man sitting by the pool of Bethesda with multitudes of other “invalidated” people. A place, the text alludes, where this particular man has been lying in wait for healing (resurrection) for 38 years.
 
The man, before and even after the miracle, seems to have no idea who Jesus is, much less an expectation that Jesus himself is the fountain of living water — the one to provide his long-awaited healing. Jesus singles him out of the crowd and asks a seemingly obvious question, “Do you want to get well?” The man’s response reveals the limitations of his vision. He does not answer Jesus’ question; instead, he simply seeks help getting into the waters of the pool at the appointed time. He is certainly open to “partnership” with the able-bodied man standing in front of him if that “partnership” guarantees his immersion in the water – the source of his perceived salvation.
 
I remember once awakening from a dream in a cold sweat. In the dream, I had been walking on the beach of an abandoned island with Jesus. It was a beautiful respite from the rigors of life as a pastor, ministry director, husband, friend and father. However, I found myself getting restless in the dream because I had determined the time of “respite” was concluding, and I needed to get back to the insurmountable importance of my “real world” tasks. The “cold sweat” occurred because, in my dream, Jesus asked me to consider why life on this island with him, in uninterrupted friendship, seemed like such a distraction from what I had determined was the real significance of my purpose on earth.
 
Like the invalid at the pool of Bethesda, I had determined what body of “water” held my healing and salvation. I was willing to partner with Jesus, even to take a walk together on an abandoned beach, if it meant that our partnership would help me to immerse in the waters of ministry success, the feeling of being needed, and the affirmation from others in my role as a caring husband, friend and father. In other words, my relationship with Jesus became a willing partnership of manipulation; Jesus became for me a means to an end. I used him to accomplish what I had determined would save me instead of seeing the fullness of salvation in him alone. I was, and remain, haunted by the words of Thomas Merton who wrote how easy it was to “spend ones whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to discover that when we get to the top, our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”
 
Jesus seeks to teach the man in Bethesda to open his eyes to a new vision of reality. He rejects the man’s idea of partnership — being helped into the pool. Instead, he says “You do not need help immersing into the water of that pool. Look upon me, as I am the never-ending fountain of Living Water” – “Get up, pick up your mat and walk.”
 
The Gospel not only empowers us to see, but to see from a particular vantage point. It invites us to see from within the reality of the resurrection. From this new perspective, all of life comes into focus and we see and hear the resurrected Jesus.
 
As you move into the sixth Sunday of Easter, do you understand who is directly in front of you, asking the question at the heart of living a resurrected life? Are you learning to see from within the reality of the resurrection? Do you hear the invitation to participate in the ongoing work of creation that results from such empowered living? It takes a while for our eyes to adjust to the light of the resurrection, but when it happens, all of life looks radically different.
 
 

Joel Van Dyke
Director of The Urban Training Collaborative
Street Psalms

Seeing the New Jerusalem

 
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven…and the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’
Rev. 21:1-6
 
The poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said, “That only which we have within, can we see without.” If we see hope, love and beauty “out there” it’s because we have those same gifts at play “in here.” If we see the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven it’s because it’s rising up in our souls. If we see all things being made new its because we are being made new.
 

When we see through the eyes of Jesus the whole world is a burning bush ablaze with God’s glory, and our cities are playgrounds of God’s grace. This is not pie-in-the-sky optimism or denial of the brokenness and suffering. It is Gospel hope, and Gospel hope is always experienced as a divine break-in. In Christ, the future breaks into our present reality transforming it from the inside out. The city of our dreams is coming down out of heaven, NOW! It harbors in our heart so we can see it at work in the streets.
 
The final vision in Scripture of the Heavenly City is Good News, given that more than half the world now lives in cities. The urbanization of the world mirrors the narrative arc of Scripture. It begins in a garden and ends in a city. The words “city” and “Jesus” each appear exactly 953 times in Scripture. God loves cities and so do we; we must, because we keep building them. Whatever else cities represent, they also represent our impulse to be together, in community, which is the very nature of the triune God. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream religion is still steeped in “garden theology” where the garden is idealized and the city is demonized.
 
The movement from garden to city is not a contest between rural and urban. It’s not as if God changed his mind somewhere along the way and started loving cities more than gardens. The city develops when we “tend the garden” of creation. As co-creators in Christ, we are vested partners in the ongoing act of creation, and cities are the fruit of this partnership. When the partnership is going well the biblical metaphor is Jerusalem — the city of life. When it’s going badly, it’s Babylon — the city of death.
 
Here’s the rub. For as long as I can remember, I have desired to see things whole. I want to see the big picture, connect the dots and work towards completeness. Unfortunately, my desire to see things whole also makes it easy for me to see what’s missing. I can easily get stuck and fixate on deficits. Instead of looking through the eyes of love and seeing the New Jerusalem, I look through the eyes of fear and become overwhelmed with Babylon. The deficits I see “out there” have more to do with my own brokenness, “in here.”
 
I am grateful for the spiritual genius of Ms. Jones. At 68 years old she was the president of the tenants association in the projects of Newark, the very place where her son was murdered. She said these words to a young Cory Booker (future mayor of Newark) who moved into the projects intent on rebuilding the community.
 
The world outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. If all you see is
problems, darkness and despair, then that is all there is ever going to be. But if you are one of those stubborn people who every time you open your eyes you see hope, you see opportunity, possibility, you see love or the face of God, then you can be someone who helps me
(and my city).
 
“See, I am making all things new.” Can you see it?
 
 

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Dis-appointment?

 

9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.
John 21:1-19

Have you recently been disappointed by someone, or have you been the source of their disappointment? In a week’s time, those following Jesus went from a deep experience of the first to an almost tragic level of the second. Other than Judas, the disciple who likely experienced this shift the most was Peter.
Remember Friday night, standing in the courtyard with the smell of a charcoal fire wafting through the air. Not once, or twice, but three times Peter not only denied being a follower of Jesus, he denied even knowing him. This was certainly related to fear, but it was more than that. When the guards came to arrest Jesus, Peter courageously stepped forward and slashed an ear. Had Jesus yelled “Charge!”, is there any doubt Peter would have been at the front of the attack? Instead Jesus says, “Put your sword away…” and an emotion stronger than fear crept into Peter’s heart—disappointment. “We had thought,” another disciple would later say, “he was the one to redeem Israel….” All those following Jesus believed he was the Messiah, the appointed one. In their eyes, his arrest, crucifixion and death both disappointed them, and “dis-appointed” Jesus from his role as Messiah.

I wonder which Peter smelled first, the food or the fire? The first whetted his appetite while the second killed it. An-tha-kia, the word for charcoal fire, is used only twice in the Bible. Both usages are in the gospel of John, with one being here on the beach, while the other is in the temple courtyard where Peter failed. The beach smoke undoubtedly transported Peter back to that night and perhaps prepared him for punishment. Like a child in trouble waiting in their room for their parent to dole out the consequences, Peter waited. What would Dad bring? Stern words, a paddle or the disappointment speech?

I have been grounded, spanked, flipped off, yelled at, berated and threatened. But the worst punishments of my life sounded nothing like these. Instead, they came in cool, measured tones only one sentence long, “I’m disappointed in you.” Decades removed from those instances and I still feel a little stab in my gut thinking about them. There is incredible power in disappointment. We will move worlds to avoid it and dig our own graves as a consequence.

Peter eats and waits and dreads. Finally Jesus speaks, “Simon son of John…do you love me more than these?” Although scholars disagree on what Jesus pointed to when he said, “these,” I tend to agree with the theory that Jesus was pointing to the fishing net and boat, asking Peter if he loved Jesus more than his old profession. Did Peter love Jesus more than his previous appointed way of life? To which Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.” Then Jesus continues…

 

Simon, son of John, do you love me?
Yes.
Tend my sheep
Simon, son of John, do you love me?
Yes, Lord you know it.
Feed my sheep.

 

Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus and three times Jesus asks Peter where his devotion now lay: in the boat or in Jesus. The word disappointment comes from a 14th Century French word which means to “dispossess of an appointed office.” Peter believed Jesus was disappointed in him and would therefore dis-appoint him from his office. What does he get instead? An invitation to love and a re-appointment to serve. “You did not choose me,” Jesus said earlier, “but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit— fruit that will last.” (John 15:16) Nothing Peter, the disciples, us, or even Judas for that matter, have done can change that appointment.

Is God ever disappointed with us? Many stories in the Bible seem to indicate so, and perhaps it is the case. In friendship, relationship and discipleship, the fear of disappointing is a powerful force. Martin Luther King once said, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” And yet, Jesus’ approach with Peter leads me to wonder if there is an even deeper truth beyond Dr. King’s words. Could it be that it is only deep love that is able to redeem deep disappointment?

Ken Sikes
Board Member, Street Psalms
Pastor, Manitou Park Presbyterian Church

What It Means to be Eastered

 

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you….”
John 20:19-31
 
“Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us.”
 
These are the words that English Jesuit Priest and Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins uses in the last stanza of a his poem entitled “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” He wrote the poem in tribute to five Franciscan nuns who died in a shipwreck fleeing persecution from Germany in 1875. It is striking to note how Hopkins engages the idea of Easter as verb rather than noun.
 
We currently find ourselves just a week removed from having passed through the narrative arc of Holy Week that lead us through the crucifixion, the disorientation of Holy Saturday silence, and finally the unbridled joy of an empty tomb. “The resurrection is God’s Amen to Jesus’ statement, It is finished” writes S. Lewis Johnson. Yet, while the tomb that had held Jesus is now empty, our lectionary text introduces us to disciples who have become self-entombed behind walls of fear, doubt and disillusionment. They have not yet experienced the truth of the resurrection, so they cower in fear behind locked doors and covered windows.
 
It is into that darkness that Easter becomes a verb. Jesus slips into the room as the forgiving victim and vividly creates the experience of Easter. The “verbness” of Easter is essential because the resurrection cannot be explained; rather, it must be experienced. When it comes to life’s deepest mysteries, experience trumps explanation every time! When it comes to the resurrection, the Gospels offer no explanation as to how it happened. Instead, we are given a series of personal encounters with the risen Christ who forever changes the world.
 
In a locked room full of discouraged disciples drowning in doubt and shaking in fear, the resurrected God’s first words are “Peace be with you.” He then lovingly shows them his wounds and commissions his disciples to be, for the world, ambassadors of the very forgiveness that they are now experiencing.The risen one then performs a stunning act of intimacy. He “breathed on them.”
 
The breath of God functions as the kiss of the Creator that remakes the world. With this divine kiss, Jesus is modeling the very core of the mission that flows from resurrection, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” In kissing us into existence Jesus empowers us to do the same, to forgive as God forgives in a courageous act of union and communion. This is how creation and re-creation unfolds.
 
Sadly, many of us don’t live in the perpetual experience of the kiss from the risen Christ. As a result, we “retain” (bind up) the sins of others and spend inordinate amounts of energy justifying our self-destructive behaviors of rivalry, bitterness and resentment.
 
Mercifully, the risen Christ continues to practice the “verbness” of Easter by entering the locked rooms that we (like the disciples) self-entomb ourselves within. What are the closed places of your life? What keeps you entombed today, a week after gazing into the empty tomb of the Easter story? Unexpected, uninvited and sometimes even unwanted, Jesus gently and gracefully (with a kiss) enters our closed lives, minds and hearts. Standing in front of our doubt, fear and disillusionment, he offers peace and breathes new life into us. All he asks is that we allow ourselves to be breathed upon, knowing full well that the person kissed by the risen Christ will naturally and eagerly participate in the ongoing act of creation itself.
 
This is the glorious truth of what it means to be “eastered.”
 
“Oh Lord, hear our prayer!! Easter yourself within, around and between us that we might receive your kiss and experience you as the dayspring that dissipates dimness.”
 
 
Joel Van Dyke & Kris Rocke
Street Psalms Staff
 
Inspiration garnered from Michael K. Marsh with his “Interrupting the Silence”

Resurrection Sunday

 
5Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen
Luke 24:1-12
 
Christ is risen!
 
This week we have tried to recover some of the shock of Holy Week and the truly odd narrative elements that are wildly liberating, but sometimes buried and lost.
 

On Maundy Thursday, Jesus forgives us in advance of our sin. On Good Friday, Jesus declares himself our mother on the cross. On Holy Saturday, the Word goes forth in silence, and wounds become wombs of new creation.
 
Today, Jesus is risen.
 
The women come to the empty tomb, but the Gospel text says the risen Christ cannot be found “among the dead.” The risen Christ has nothing whatsoever to do with death. But there is more. The risen Christ cannot be found at all. No one finds the risen Christ, ever. Nowhere in any of the resurrection accounts do any of the disciples discover or find the risen Christ. The risen Christ always finds us. It is not the disciples who find Jesus. It is Jesus who always finds the unsuspecting disciples. They can make no
claim on being found and neither can we. This is a critically important detail.
 
Moralism is the heavy burden of having to find Jesus. It is like “looking for the living among the dead.” The Gospel is the reverse. It is the inexpressible joy of being found and counted among the living.
 
Confession: I sometimes find Easter the hardest of all the celebrations. Amidst all the cheery hoopla, I sometimes feel the need to engineer my own resurrection encounter. It is a deadening burden. Thankfully, the Gospel is the reminder that the hard work of Easter is on God, not us. It is God’s job to find us, not our job to find God. And when we discover ourselves found, our only burden is the very light and easy burden of joy itself, which is no burden at all. Anything heavier than joy is simply not the Gospel of Jesus.
 
So, relax. The risen Christ is eager to find us and will not stop until he does. Our task, if we can call it that, is simply to be found by the one who is knocking at our door…even now!
 
He is risen indeed!
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Holy Saturday

 
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Psalm 19:3-4
 
Today the world falls silent. The psalmist says there is no speech and there are no words. And yet in that silence a voice goes out; a Word goes forth and that Word will become flesh again in the resurrection. All of this is happening beneath, behind and even within us now! The Spirit is hovering in chaos. New creation is about to be born, from below.
 
The deepest mystery of the Gospel is that our wounds and the wounds of this world are wombs of new creation, bearing seeds of new life in Christ.
 
New life awaits! The mystery unfolds, but today we are encouraged to taste enough of the hopelessness to be truly stunned by the joy that will soon discover us.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Good Friday

 
27Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’
John 18:1-19:42
 
In the Beginning, on the sixth day, on the very first Friday, God created humanity and called us “very good.” Today is another Friday. We call it Good Friday. Today, Jesus recreates humanity in God’s image once again. Creation and the cross — the two are inseparable .
 
I mentioned yesterday that I wanted to recover something of the shock of the passion narrative. Yesterday Jesus insisted that we are forgiven before we sin. Today on the cross, Jesus compares himself to a mother giving birth. I am not making this up.
 

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”
 
(John 19:25-27)
 
Of course, the most obvious interpretation is that Jesus is saying to Mary, “Mom, John is now your son, take care of him.” And then he turns to John and says, “Here is your mother.” In other words, “My mother is now your mother, please take care of her.” It is a beautiful act. The cross reconstitutes and recreates the family. We are all family at the foot of the cross. This is a good and fruitful interpretation, but texts like these have many layers.
 
Theologian James Alison points out that when Jesus said, “Woman, here is your son,” he is referring not only to John, but to himself.” In other words Jesus is saying, “Mom, look at me. I am your son, the one to whom you gave birth.” And then Jesus looks at John and says something truly stunning: “John, behold, I am not only my mother’s son. I am not only your friend and brother. I am your mother giving birth to New Creation.”
 
It is not far fetched. Jesus had already compared himself to a mother hen longing to gather her chicks (Luke 13:34). And let’s not forget the first day of creation in Genesis when the Spirit of God (which is the feminine noun “Ruach”) hovers over the deep, like a mother hen brooding her chicks, calling forth life (Gen. 1:2). Yes, the first image of God in Scripture is the image of a mother giving birth!
 
In Jesus’ final act on the cross, “He bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (v. 30). He released the same “spirit” that swept over the face of the deep in the beginning. Jesus released his spirit into darkness and chaos. For three days Jesus’ Spirit hovers and broods like a mother hen, calling forth life from death. In fact, the Gospels tell us, “darkness came over the whole land” at the crucifixion (Luke 23:44). We are back to the beginning!
 
Can we see it now?
 
Today, while we are at our worst, God is at her best — a mother giving birth to New Creation.
 
Behold, here is your mother.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Maundy Thursday

 
34Love one another. Just as I have loved you.
John 13:34
 
The result of these next four days ultimately becomes the hope of the world. But today, just today, I want to try and recover one of the most shocking aspects of this hope.
 
Today is Maundy Thursday. Jesus issues a “new commandment.”
“Love one another. Just as I have loved you”(John 13:34). He demonstrates this with holy theater, and in doing so, radically reorders the entire narrative structure of life, and the way we tell the story of the Gospel.
 

Jesus washes the disciple’s feet (gives them a bath) and then breaks bread (feeds them a meal). They don’t get it. They resist it. They reluctantly accept what makes sense only later, after
the resurrection.
 
As Philip Yancy says, “Some stories only make sense in the end.” This is one of them. We can only make sense of Maundy Thursday in reverse, which is what I am doing now. I am retelling this story by the light of the resurrection.
 
By the light of the resurrection we can see Maundy Thursday, not merely as the moralistic prelude to the main event, but as the cornerstone which makes the next three days possible. By the light of the resurrection, we can see the bath and the meal as an act of forgiveness that precedes the looming darkness. If we see it this way, the Gospel narrative becomes a stunning, wildly liberating, completely free act of grace, played out in full during Holy Week.
 
Imagine that forgiveness precedes our sin — precedes repentance. Imagine that forgiveness is built into the DNA of creation. Imagine that creation unfolds and comes into being through mercy. Imagine that! If this were true, it would change everything, wouldn’t it? It would change the way we teach, preach and bear witness to the Gospel. If what I am suggesting were true, somebody ought to shout it, show it, celebrate it and live it as if it were true, because it’s life-altering good news. Yes, it messes up the order of things as we see it — repentance first, forgiveness second. But what if Jesus is re-ordering our disordered view of the Gospel? What if we are forgiven so that we can repent and not the other way around?
 
Try it out this week; think about it in this re-ordered fashion. On Thursday we are forgiven. On Friday we kill God. We are forgiven for what we are about to do. We are forgiven before we do it. Forgiveness is in the beginning, just as Jesus was. Indeed, it is before the beginning. It is how creation unfolds. We are forgiven before we are born. Today, Jesus is giving us a glimpse into the mystery of reality itself. We are forgiven and always have been.
 
It is by the light of forgiveness that we come to know where things have gone wrong. This will become evident on Resurrection Sunday. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
 
Today Jesus gives us a bath and a meal. We are forgiven!
 
“Love one another as I have loved you.”
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

The Gift of Shattered Expectations

36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was
now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen
Luke 19:28-40

Laying down cloaks was an act of homage for royalty. By riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, Jesus was making a public declaration that in fact he was the King and the Messiah that had been prophesied about. People were out of their minds with excitement. They put a cloak on the donkey, put Jesus on its back, and laid cloaks on the ground. As the crowd swelled, people were swept up in the celebration and they shouted,
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”

Their day had come. Finally!

Except that one problem still remained. Who they thought He was, and who He actually was were two different things. Don’t you hate that? Isn’t it frustrating when things don’t turn out the way you thought, or when people aren’t who you expect them to be? The people’s expectations of their Messiah King were going to be completely crushed. He wasn’t going to miraculously free them from Roman rule. In fact, He was about to fail miserably according to their most long-held, dogmatic expectations.

And that was only Day 1 of Jesus’ last week. Every day that follows, Jesus continues to disappoint by turning expectations upside down.

In his last week, Jesus likens the temple to fruitless fig trees, calls out the hypocrisy of temple leaders during the moneychanger’s drama, and lifts up the Samaritan as the example of hospitality and neighborliness over religious leaders who ignore someone in dire need. To top it all off, he affirms the woman who anointed him with expensive perfume as the only disciple in the room who actually knew what was happening; her act preceded Jesus’ washing of the feet. And the list goes on!

When I read the scriptural account of Jesus’ final days, I am left with one prevailing thought— that Jesus was making sure His followers would embrace the “outsider,” the “marginalized,” and the “powerless” as those who have gifts necessary for the community of faith. Jesus put them right in the middle of the discussion— he brought the “margins” into the center of the faith dialogue. And it bugged people. More than once, the religious folk were described as indignant when Jesus went down this road of honoring the dishonorable. This way of thinking is just too threatening and upsetting.

A friend of mine calls it “deconstructing” the status quo. CS Lewis called it “shattering expectations.”

I first heard this CS Lewis quote here at Street Psalms.

“My idea of God is not a divine idea,” CS Lewis says in A Grief Observed. “It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.”

Lewis sure was right about that one! The idea of a Messiah who empowers marginalized people by bringing them into the center of the community of faith ruins everything. It could get you killed.

Nobody likes having their ideas about God, faith, or church shattered. Yet, perhaps, we should hold things loosely and consider that maybe, just maybe, these moments of shattering are gifts of God’s grace. They can serve as reminders to not be misled by our own best ideas of who we think God is. In humility, we know that we only see in part. God help us if we think we see it all.

“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, who comes to save us.” Save us, Jesus, from our own best ideas of who you are. Shatter what keeps us from seeing you.

Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms

Inventing Scapegoats

 
8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.
John 12:1-8
 
We are approaching the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Things are heating up. This week Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfume. Judas (who will betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, the cost of a slave) rebukes Mary for her wasteful extravagance. Judas protests that the perfume could have been sold for a year’s worth of wages and given to the poor. Jesus tells Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (12:7). Mary gets what Judas denies.
 

Jesus ends with this, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8).
 
Why? Why will we always have the poor with us, and why must Jesus die? The two are intimately connected.
 
When Jesus says the poor will always be with us, he is not making a simple economic observation. He is naming an anthropological reality about how we create community. Humans tend to build community by defining ourselves over and against others. We want clear boundaries between “us” and “them.” When these boundaries break down and are threatened, communities disintegrate into chaos. In an attempt to save the community, we look for someone to blame – some individual or some group to bear the sins that we refuse to bear ourselves. We create scapegoats.
 
Scapegoats perform a vital function. It’s why we keep inventing them and why they will always be with us. They not only bear our sins, they unify us. They keep the community from falling apart. It’s a false unity to be sure, and it only lasts temporarily. But let’s be honest, it works!
 
Caiaphas, the high priest, understood the scapegoat mechanism. At a secret meeting of the Sanhedrin, where the chief priests and the Pharisees conspired to silence Jesus, he said, “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).
 
One more point, which is crucial to the scapegoating process, is that in order for the scapegoating mechanism to work and to justify the terrible things we do, we must see our scapegoats as cursed­ — truly deserving of whatever wrath we unleash. At the highest levels of scapegoating, we enlist God in the process and convince ourselves that they are cursed
by God.
 
In this week’s text, Mary knows the conditions are ripe for the next scapegoat. She anoints Jesus, who will bear the sins of an unstable community that is frantically trying to save itself. Jesus will soon be crucified on what James Cone calls the “Lynching Tree.” There he will do something unimaginable. The scapegoat of our own invention will forgive us the sin we forcibly refuse to bear even while we are lynching him. He will found a new community — one that is scapegoat free. It’s called the Church.
 
May it be so.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Scandalously Wasteful: The Prodigal Dad

 

31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
 
We continue our trek this Lenten season toward the Cross and our journey this week takes us into a very familiar narrative.
 

Perhaps the most dramatic example in Scripture of God’s abundant, effulgent love is found in the parable of the prodigal son. The word “prodigal” means reckless, extravagant and wasteful spending. When told in its cultural context, however, it is actually the father who emerges as the reckless, extravagant, and wasteful
one – it is the story of a father’s scandalously shameful display of grace.
 
First, the father shames himself when he acquiesces to his youngest son’s request for his inheritance. In Middle Eastern culture, to request an inheritance from one’s father while he lives is tantamount to wishing your father dead.The only thing worse is the father’s willingness to grant the son’s request.
 
The father’s shame becomes community shame in a culture whose strength is derived from the dignity of its elders. Therefore, when the father shames himself for not standing up to the son’s insulting request, he is also shaming his entire village. One of their leading citizens has lost face and his authority as a man of great standing. Consequently, his whole community must unwillingly take on his shame.
 
The father shames himself a second time in front of his village when he rushes to meet his son who, after having exhausted himself on his wild binge, returns to seek refuge in his father’s house. No head of a household worth his manhood would go out to meet his son, let alone run to meet him. Worse yet, he throws himself upon his son with such effusive affection that again his authority and that of the community is completely undermined. No dignified man would kneel to his son’s transgressions. No man would cut short his son’s explanation in order to give his own cloak, ring, and sandals to such a scoundrel. This scene is more shameful than
the first.
 
The father shames himself a third time by throwing a party for his son. The father asks for a fatted calf, which would have fed about one hundred people. In Middle Eastern village culture, the entire community would have been expected to attend such a feast. Refusal would have been an offense. And so the whole village is pulled further into the delusions of a father who refuses to save face and deal with his incorrigible son in the privacy of his own home. This party is not only a shameful party, it is a party for shame itself. By now, even the most calloused and wasteful of sons would have been embarrassed, not for himself, but for the outlandish behavior of his father. There is music and dancing at this party, but it is probable that the father is the only one enjoying himself. The heart of the community turns inward as the father’s heart is poured out.
 
The final act of shame is when the father “comes out” for the second time in this story, but this time it is to meet his oldest son. He does this in full view of the villagers who are likely trying hard to look as if they are enjoying themselves. While the music plays, the oldest son comes in from the fields to discover, to his surprise, a huge party. A young servant tells him about his brother who has come home. True to form, the eldest son is filled with rage at his father’s idiocy. Jealously burns as he hears of his younger brother’s stories. He refuses to enter the party, but stands outside and waits.
 
The party stops. All eyes turn toward the father. We can imagine the guests whispering to one another, “What will he do now? Will he finally demand some dignity and tell his oldest son to show some respect?” But the oldest son stands resolute and we with him. The party, as well as the story, now takes its most awkward turn. The whole community looks on. Even the youngest son, by this time, can hardly watch his old man completely strip himself of all dignity. Heads fall as the father rushes out to meet his oldest son, shaming himself yet again in front of the whole world.
 
Jesus does not tell his hearers the last line of the story. The end of the parable is missing. It is what Jesus fails to say in the story – the missing conclusion – that fully and finally sticks in his listeners’ minds. Like the original audience, we are left to wonder if the eldest son ever goes into the party. Suddenly, we are the eldest son, standing face to face with God’s prodigal grace. We are scandalized by such extravagance and not at all sure we want to attend such an awkward party, let alone befriend such a shameless, prodigal God. It takes courage to celebrate such extravagant grace and build communities that reflect and revel in it.
 
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director of The Urban Training Collaborative
Street Psalms

*Adapted from Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below by Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke (Chapter 16)

Towers and Trees

 

4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.
Luke 13:1-9
“God hates me!” wailed Reba. Her outburst was a result of losing her husband of 40 years. Just days before he fell down the stairs, hit his head, and died within a few hours. In a society where we are taught to keep our grief civil and to ourselves, a woman openly wailing and blaming God in the middle of our worship prayer time made for an awkward situation.

Yet, although she expressed her emotions more publicly than most would, Reba’s reaction to God is not uncommon. Searching for someone to blame is often our response when we don’t understand why life can bring unfair situations, pain, and grief. When the people in Luke 13 approached Jesus and told him “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” Jesus’ response indicates that these folks, too, were looking for blame. Were these Galileans hated by God?

No, Jesus says, no more so than the eighteen who died when the tower fell. Neither the car accident nor the miscarriage, the stomach cancer or the untimely death of Reba’s husband were judgments from God. “Rain,” Jesus might have said, “falls on the righteous and unrighteous.”

It would have been easier if Jesus had left it at that, instead he turns the tables on his listeners and uses the tragedies as warnings. “…unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” The Galileans and tower victims weren’t to blame, but unless you change, you will be. What is Jesus doing? Isn’t he contradicting what he had just said?

Jesus knows the mind of God just as well as he knows the minds of those he created. Though God does not hate us or want us to suffer, the same can’t be said regarding the intent of all humans. If, Jesus seems to be saying, you persist in your militant approach towards Pilate, if you engage in the cycle of violence, your blood will become a sacrifice. If you persist in your violent response to your enemies, the towers will fall on you, as they have in the past. Violence leads to suffering for all involved.

And yet, in the midst of this conversation debating judgment and blame, we have the curious image of a tree caught in a persistent cycle of unfruitfulness. After three years it was still barren so the owner said to cut it down. “I can heal the tree,” claimed the good gardener, “but the process is going to stink.” So he dug, watered, taught and prophesied for another year. When no apparent fruit appeared, the people grew irate; demanding something, the Galilean gardener was nailed to its boughs so his blood mingled as their sacrifice. Such strange fruit. And three days later, such a strange seedling.

Back to Reba. Despite the shock, no one told her to quiet down or quit crying. Instead, a couple people moved closer and gently laid a hand on Reba’s heaving shoulders. Another and another and another hand followed. And then, we prayed to the very God who she claimed hated her, raising the possibility that just maybe there was fruit in that tree after all.

Ken Sikes
Board Member, Street Psalms
Pastor, Manitou Park Presbyterian Church

A “Hens and Chicks” Spirituality

 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.
I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Luke 13:31- 35

Jerusalem was in trouble, and she didn’t even know it. Jesus’ prophetic words here in chapter 13 are dripping with sorrow and regret. Corruption in the temple, spiritual unfruitfulness and willful disobedience cause Jesus to weep when he looks over the City of Peace and laments its impending destruction.
Jesus has a clear picture of what is in his heart for his people, and he reaches for an image to adequately describe his feelings. The metaphor he chooses is instructive— a mother hen whose heart longs for her children.

Here’s what I’ve learned about
mother hens.

When they gather their chicks under their wings, like Jesus is talking about here, it’s usually about protection. Often in the face of danger, hens open their wings, and their chicks instinctively know that’s where they go for safety. No harm will come to them there. This is a surprisingly powerful image Jesus has chosen; it conveys his yearning for a relationship with his people. He longs to save them and protect them from what is coming; oddly, he is acting to save and protect his people from their own ignorance.

Typically (or stereotypically), the God-like attribute assigned to women is that of a “nurturer,” not a “protector.”

This passage suggests something different. Mother hens protect.

I’ve seen this first hand. I’ve seen women fight — physically fight — with men to protect themselves and their children. They’ve hovered over their little ones when violence erupts in their homes or on their streets. This narrative of “women/moms as protectors” is empowering and affirming, though it is probably not the norm in most Christian circles.

This is the kind of protection that Jesus wanted to provide Jerusalem and her children. They were unwilling to receive it because they didn’t know they needed it.

I have come to realize there are people who are willing to receive help and people who are not. I continue to sit in conversations with people about opportunities for job training, drug rehab, a chance to finish high-school, advocacy with health care, etc. After 30 years, it still surprises me when people are unwilling to receive real support and help.

Here’s the thing…

Sometimes I am unwilling, too. I’m unwilling to surrender what makes me comfortable, what gives me affirmation, what gives me power and what gives me security – even if it’s faulty.

I have to remember this paradox. We are all like mother hens – protecting and gathering.
We are also like chicks – scattering and unwilling to receive the grace, acceptance and
safety of Jesus.

Street Psalms is uniquely positioned to help deepen the kind of spirituality that can hold the tension I just described. I am not either/or. Instead, I’m both. The church is also both – called out to protect, love, and shelter, and also called to humbly confess our pride and unwillingness to act in obedience to God’s commandments.

Lent calls us to a deeper reflection on these things as we make our way toward Resurrection Sunday. May God meet you in the journey.

Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms

Symbolic Universe

 
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

Luke 4:1-13
 
Friend and mentor, Dave Hillis, president of Leadership Foundations, tells the story from his days as a camp counselor when he was asked to lead a seminar for urban youth. A young lady walked in just as it was about to start and asked Dave what the topic would be. When he told her it was about how to survive in the city, she immediately replied with attitude, “Oh, that’s easy! You only need three things–a gun, a condom and a Bible.”
 

The woman was expressing what Ben Beltran calls the “symbolic universe”–the narrative structure of the soul that holds us together and makes meaning of life. In fact, the Latin word symbolum literally means, “to hold together.” If we can resist judgment and listen, the young woman is saying something profound. She lives in a world where guns, condoms and bibles are equally valid tools of survival depending on the situation. We need a gospel that can speak into this reality and transform it.
 
As we enter the first week of Lent, Satan meets Jesus in the desert to discuss the symbolic universe of Israel. Satan chooses the elemental symbols of life–bread, crown and temple. If we step back to see the bigger picture, it becomes clear these symbols represent the economic, political and religious systems by which society functions. When seen this way, the temptations are about the narrative structure of life itself.
 
Bread: From Scarcity to Abundance
Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus resists and insists that God’s economy is one of abundance not scarcity. Even though he is alone in a desert filled with nothing but sand and rocks, he does not react in fear; Jesus knows there is more than enough bread for all if we could only see it. In fact, later in the Gospels Jesus feeds five thousand to prove the point, and ultimately he is revealed as the bread of life that we celebrate at communion–a table open to all. There is more than enough. That is God’s economy.
 
Crown: From Domination to Doxology
Satan offers Jesus a crown, if he will “worship” Satan, but the crown that he offers is really a crown of thorns. Satan’s politics of domination and coercion, of might-makes-right and bigger is better, always ends with someone being sacrificed. Jesus exposes Satan’s twisted view of power and insists on a new kind of power–one that is perfected in weakness and is given away. That is God’s power worthy of “worship,” which is an important verb in this temptation. In Greek, the word is “doxa,” from which we get the word doxology (i.e. Praise God from whom all blessings flow…). The point here is that God’s power flows out, not in, and down, not up. Those are God’s politics.
 
Temple: From Sacrifice to Mercy
Jesus is taken to the temple, which is the sacred center of Israel. The devil tempts Jesus to throw himself into a religious system built on the sacrifice of innocents. Jesus resists, and in doing so, reimagines the entire premise of religion itself. In fact, he tears down the temple system and builds a new temple (himself) that is founded on mercy, not sacrifice. “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). That is God’s religion.
 
The Lenten season is a reminder that we are desperate for a faith that reimagines our world through a lens of abundance, of blessing, and of mercy–a world that reflects God’s very heart. That is the promise which awaits Jesus, and us, on our way to Easter.
 
Adapted from Chapter 7, Symbolic Universe, in Geography of Grace – Doing Theology from Below.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Who is this?

 
And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
-Luke 9:29
 
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being….
-Hebrews 1:3
 
When my daughter Sofia was seven years old, she once unabashedly told me that I was the “best Papi in the world.” In a selfish effort to boost my fragile ego, I asked her why she thought this to be true. She simply smiled at me and said, “because you’re mine.”
 

Our Gospel text this week (Luke 9:28-36) stands as a profound signpost in the narrative accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke. On the mountaintop where the Transfiguration occurs, we are presented with a definitive answer to a question that is repeatedly posed in the aforementioned Gospels. The question is: Who is this man that wind and waves obey? Who is this man that heals the sick and forgives sins? The Transfiguration becomes the place in each Gospel where the answer to these questions is proclaimed. It is where Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem, opening the first chapter in the final act of his life on earth.
 
The images we see in Luke 9, of lightning, clouds, glory, and the voice of God, act as a recapitulation of the scene at Mount Sinai during the Exodus; Moses came down from the mountain with his face aglow. He was shining with a reflected light-a reflected glory. Just as the moon radiates with the light from the sun, Moses was reflecting a light from
somewhere else.
 
However, in the brilliance of Jesus’ appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration, there is no glory that comes DOWN on Jesus; rather, glory comes OUT of him. It emanates from him as opposed to being reflected upon him from some other source. Jesus is the source of his own light. The Glory Cloud in the Old Testament was a partial representation of the glory of God, but Jesus IS the glory of God. Hence, the writer of Hebrews states “the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being….”
 
As a witness to what is unfolding on the mountaintop, Peter is starstruck when he rubs the sleep from his eyes and sees Jesus standing in conversation with two heroes of the faith–Moses and Elijah. The three are discussing the fulfillment of Jesus’ departure. In Greek, the word “departure” is actually “exodus.” The death and resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate exodus. While Moses liberated God’s people from economic and social oppression, Jesus will soon liberate them from sin, and even death itself.
 
As always, the reliably impulsive Peter blurts out his proposal to build a shelter (tabernacles) for each radiant hero, as if the three were equally prominent. However, the voice of God shatters that idea from within the cloud that envelops them. He declares, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”
 
Jesus is NOT one more prophet in a long history of great prophets headlined by Elijah. He is not one more prophet trying to get near to God; instead, he is the God that all prophets are trying to get near. He is not a new and better lawgiver simply taking over where Moses left off. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the law and the prophets. He is utterly unique!! Jesus doesn’t reflect glory; he IS glory. He is the chosen Son of God, and as such, worthy of total and complete allegiance.
 
My seven year-old daughter never doubted the core identity of the man standing in front of her, nor did she question to whom she belonged. The voice of God in the cloud of glory proclaims who Jesus is-Son, Messiah and the perfect and final representation of God. A transfigured Jesus, a supernatural Jesus, is the only Jesus. You either utterly reject him or totally build your life around him. It’s all or nothing as his face, and ours with him, now turns to what awaits in Jerusalem.
 
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director of Urban Training Collaborative
Street Psalms

The Mystery of Incarnation

 
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing…They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
-Luke 21:30
 
Last week we heard Jesus’ first sermon. This week’s lectionary text keeps us in the same passage, but it focuses on the end of the sermon when things turn ugly.

 

In the first half of the sermon Jesus lifts up the expansive nature of God’s grace, which is why “all spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words” (v. 22). In the second half of
the sermon Jesus lifts up two outsiders – the widow and the leper. The congregation becomes so enraged at Jesus’ application of grace that they drive him out of the synagogue and attempt to throw him off a cliff.
 
I’ve given plenty of sermons – many of them very bad, but none of them have ended with the congregation driving me out of the church to the edge of a cliff.
 
At Street Psalms, we train urban leaders to see and celebrate good news in hard places. It’s tricky business because it’s easy for leaders to become puppets of the crowds we serve, or be filled with resentment and become bullies. Jesus is neither a puppet nor a bully. He speaks from a different place altogether. It is the place of the Incarnation – mystery of the Word made flesh.
 
Here are three beautiful mysteries of the Incarnation surfaced in this week’s text.
 
Today
“…Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). Notice the first word of Jesus’ first sermon, “Today.” Yes, today is the day of our Lord. The Gospel always comes to us in the present moment. That’s the promise of the Incarnation. The present is pregnant with God, waiting and wanting to be born. Because of this, we are midwives to the holy in all things. Today, this moment, now, is the fulfillment of Word made flesh!
 
Grace and Truth
Grace is truth, and truth is grace. They are one, not two, but if we must have an order, grace precedes truth. Grace (when we relax into it) takes away fear of judgment and opens us up to truth. Without grace, our truth becomes very small and even dangerous. Jesus’ sermon demonstrates this order, and he maintains the Gospel order to the end when he declares on the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is only forgiven people who can see the truth of things. If we see at all, we see by the light of forgiveness. That is why forgiveness precedes repentance. The Apostle John named the mystery of the Incarnation beautifully, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). It’s the Gospel order of things.
 
Passing Through
Unfortunately,instead of relaxing into grace, the congregation is scandalized by it. They want to kill Jesus, but he does not return violence for violence. Instead, “He passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (v.30). Only God can pass through the flames of violence without being consumed by it. This too is the mystery of the Incarnation; it does not return violence for violence. It forsakes the myth of redemptive violence and shows us how to pass through the violence that consumes us. The Incarnation makes another “way” possible – the way of peace.
 
 
Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

Anointed for What?

 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

-Luke 4:14-21

Last week we witnessed Jesus’ first miracle (water becomes wine). It ends well. This week we hear Jesus’ first sermon. It ends horribly.

His text is Isaiah 61:1-2a. His sermon is electric. It charges the crowd with a confusing current of wonderment and fierce anger. In the end, they drive him out of town to throw him off a cliff. That’s a tough first sermon.

I think about this when I consider that the Street Psalms Community anointed me with these very same words at my ordination. I have anointed many leaders throughout our network with these words. I pray these words daily as a reminder of my anointing. They were traced on my forehead with oil and they are written on my heart and the heart of the Street Psalms Community. Of course, the words are ten sizes too big for my soul, but they are so graceful and true that I will happily spend an eternity growing into them.

A Balm to the Soul
Isaiah’s words are balm to the soul, but it’s what Jesus doesn’t say that turns the screw. He doesn’t finish the quotation from Isaiah. Jesus leaves off the bit about announcing “The day of vengeance of our Lord”(Is. 61:2b). This could not have been an oversight. The gathering was stunned, which is why all the eyes of the congregation were “fixed on him” (v. 20). At one level, it warmed their hearts and they were “amazed at the gracious words” (v.22). But Jesus’ selective reading of the text and his sermon illustrations of two outsiders upon whom God’s favor rests (widow at Zerephath in Sidon and Naaman the Leper from Syria) ultimately filled the crowd with rage. They drove Jesus out of town to the edge of a cliff.

It reminds us of Leviticus 16 when, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of a scapegoat (in effect, anointing the scapegoat with the sins of the community and the vengeance of God). The goat was then driven out of town to the edge of the cliff while it was jeered and mocked by the community. Ultimately, it was forced to jump to its death, taking with it the sins of the community, presumably all this under the approving (and vengeful) eye of God.

Living without Scapegoats
Jesus’ sermon turns Leviticus on its head along with the religious establishment. It is we who want vengeance, not God. It is we who want scapegoats, not God. Jesus comes to show us how to live without scapegoats. Heck, he becomes the goat so we can finally see what we’ve been doing in God’s name – persecuting God.

So, how do we know when the Spirit of the Lord is upon us?

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us whenever we bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us whenever we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Jubilee) for ALL, friends and foe, insider and outsider, until there are no more scapegoats, none!

Perhaps this is why Pope Francis declared this a year of Jubilee – a year of mercy. Now, that is an anointing that will set creation ablaze with love.

Kris Rocke
Executive Director
Street Psalms

 

Water to Wine: Saving the Best for Last

“Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
-John 2:1-11

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase as you went to your first job interview or went to your first day at school. Researchers in the social sciences tell us that it takes a tenth of a second to form a first impression and longer exposure doesn’t significantly alter the first impression.

In our Gospel lectionary text this week, we see the “first” of Jesus’ miraculous signs. Of all the miraculous signs Jesus could have chosen to give a first impression, why does he choose a simple wedding and the situation of a young couple desperately in need of avoiding social embarrassment? Jesus’ first miracle is to keep a party going. As far as first impressions are concerned, wouldn’t it have made more sense to give sight to someone born blind, or cast out some demons?

An extravagant feast for all peoples

The prophet Isaiah helps paint a picture of a Messiah who will bring unbridled joy through displays of extravagant abundance, “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines” (Isaiah 25:6). Over and over throughout the New Testament we encounter Jesus turning the tables on scarcity by means of extravagant abundance. The miracle of water to wine is a beautiful example of this oft repeated theme.

It is no mistake that Jesus chooses the vessels of ceremonial cleansing to become the containers of liquid delight. The stone jars were used for ritual washing and it is notable that they were empty and in need of filling. Jesus does not reject the jars and what they stood for; he is re-purposing them for a different use. You might say that he is replacing the “water” rituals with “wine” meaning. Purity laws controlled by the Temple divided humans arbitrarily into designated categories of clean and unclean, but Jesus’ actions now serve to liberate that empty purification process into truly life-giving possibilities. The “water” from the containers of the Old Testament sacrificial system are replaced with the “wine” of Jesus’ love.

New wine, new guests

Dostoevsky makes poignant use of this story in the Brothers Karamazov. The great spiritual father Zossima has just died. When his decomposing body begins to create a stink, many of the people are disoriented, including Zossima’s follower, Alyosha. Late at night, the distraught Alyosha is praying in the hermitage near the body. Another monk happens to be reading the story of the marriage of Cana. The scene unveils a vibrant celebration and Alyosha see’s the elder monk rejoicing. Perplexed by what he sees, Alyosha confronts the monk in a spirit of disdain. The monk replies, “We are rejoicing….we are drinking new wine, the wine of great joy. See how many guests there are? He (Jesus) became like us out of love, and he is rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests might not end. He is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests.”

Jesus scandously invites us all to the party, the party that transforms the body and blood of Jesus into the bread and wine of unbridled joy and feasting. It is a lavish party full of delight….Jesus indeed saves the best until last.
 
Joel Van Dyke
Director of the Urban Training Collaborative
Street Psalms

Given in Love

Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” …Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
John 18:33, 36

Most of us in the Street Psalms network don’t live in autocratic political regimes. We catch glimpses in the news every day – Syria, North Korea, ISIS. Given the options we’re glad to live in our democracies, however corrupt and dysfunctional, instead of dictatorships.

I’ve lived in Thailand under the longest reigning monarch in the world, Bhumibol Adulyadej, referred to by subjects as Phra Bat Somdet Phra Chao Yu Hua (“His Majesty the Lord Upon our Heads”). Everyone I knew adored him as a wise ruler, and I did too, which was a good thing because Thailand has among the strictest lèse majesté (violating majesty) laws in the world. Never a hint of critique in the local or foreign press. A biography on my own bookshelf is banned, tourists overheard in bars have been prosecuted, and hundreds of citizens are incarcerated for indiscretions of speech. I met the king once, on his birthday, on my knees. He caught my eye. People around me fainted.

This coming Sunday is Christ the King Sunday as observed in many churches around the world. It is the last Sunday before Advent. The timing is interesting and worth reflection: How did our Lord and King enter this world, and move through his life in it? How on earth does he actually rule?

Closely woven with his way of being among us, Jesus taught us. His central metaphor was the “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven” – used 99 times in the New Testament. For those of us who don’t live under military occupation, the imagery can fall a bit flat and abstract – a theological term to be unpacked. For Jesus’s hearers the term “kingdom” must have elicited a visceral response, and not necessarily a pleasant one. Jesus’s hearers went about their lives under the rule of an emperor, governed by a vassal king, policed by soldiers not shy about brutality, and shaken down by slimy local tax agents. The image of “kingdom” stirred vivid thoughts and emotions.

In this week’s scripture passage Jesus is on trial, exposed. But the tables are being turned. Jesus has come bearing witness to the truth (John 18:37). In so doing he exposes the dominant – and domineering – world system for what it is. The Roman Emperor’s way of power is violence and control, and Pilate is his local stand-in. If that were this prisoner-king’s way of power – the sovereign who arrived in a manger and upon a donkey – his followers would be fighting. If his authority derived from dominance, his crown would not be woven from thorns.

“But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (vs. 36). The key word is “from,” a translation of the tiny Greek word “ek.” Other translations have it “of” – which makes it sound otherworldly, removed. But Jesus has made it clear that his kingdom is very much for this world: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Interestingly, “ek” is most commonly translated elsewhere as “out of.” So: “My kingdom is not derived out of the ways this world rules itself.”

“God so loved the world” (John 3:16) in such a way that the world, and humanity, could be shown a different way of constituting itself. Not just shown, but loved to life! Such life will have an enduring and eternal quality, not derived from the world systems of power, control, and violence against rivals. Such systems permeate every level of human co-existence. A biblical word for this is sin. As such, the Roman Empire is exposed as humanity-destroying… but that’s hardly the extent of it. Social systems, religious systems, economic systems, the workings of our inner psychology that rely on dominance and exclusion – all are revealed to be death-dealing and false, in light of the embodied Truth being revealed in this courtroom drama.

A kingdom not from this world, but given in love for this world. Christ the King, Immanuel, enfleshed with us in breathtaking majesty and power.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Image: “Headstone at Ingham Norfolk”  by mira66 (CC BY 2.0)

Mercy or Sacrifice?

“Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down…. Nation will rise against nation.”
Mark 13:1-8

A community without sacrifice is a really good thing. It is also a really dangerous thing, as this week’s text suggests.*

When Jesus told his disciples that the temple would fall, he was right. It was destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans. But there is another, more important, sense in which Jesus saw the temple falling. He saw the sacrificial logic that sustains the temple beginning to crumble, and when this happens the entire system falls apart – slowly but surely. This is what Jesus set in motion on the cross and it’s truly great news, but let’s be clear, it also creates an unstable and dangerous situation in which “nation will rise against nation.” How can this be?

The temple was the religious heart of Jerusalem. It was also the single largest economic engine organized around an elaborate sacrificial system. As James Warren writes in Compassion or Apocalypse? “[The temple] overshadowed Jerusalem and dominated life in the city. Eighty percent of employment in Jerusalem depended on the temple, not only on its day to day ritual needs but also on the periodic pilgrim festivals and the ongoing building project which it constituted. Nine thousand priests and Levites worked there, although not at the same time, operating what was in fact a giant abattoir (slaughterhouse).

“The twice-daily official sacrifices on the vast ever-burning altar consumed thousands of animals and forests of wood. There were cattle pens on the north side and sometimes the water of the Kidron stream where the blood was flushed became so thick that it was sold to farmers as fertilizer. Over it all hung a pall of smoke from burning flesh….”

Sacrificial logic is convinced that God needs innocent blood to be satisfied – and ultimately only the blood of God’s own son can appease his holy wrath. This has been the dominant view for the last 1,000 years. Tempers often run hot when this view is questioned, but I’d like to suggest the possibility that, like the temple and the sacrificial logic that sustains it, the dominant view is falling apart (whether we like it or not). When Jesus was crucified, he made a “public spectacle” (Col. 2:15) of the sacrificial system and the logic that holds it together. The minority view I am lifting up reverses the polarity of sacrificial logic. In other words, it’s our wrath, not God’s, that needs to be satisfied. It’s we who are angry, not God. At the cross, we became like violent gods and God became a peaceful human. The real abattoir is not the temple of God’s heart, but ours. God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

This view sees Jesus dismantling the sacrificial system by means of mercy. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Mercy is the only thing strong enough to break the cycle of violence. Imagine that! It’s taken 2,000 years for the stones to fall. They are still coming down.

The question remains. How does the elimination of the sacrificial system lead to “nation against nation”? Caiaphas, the high priest, connects the dots. “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Caiaphas sees the hidden truth of sacrifice. A little blood spares a lot of blood. We sacrifice the few for the sake of the many. But when we no longer have a sacrificial system to limit the spread of violence, communities become unstable. The potential for violence multiplies. Eventually, “nation will rise against nation.” Jesus warns us not to be surprised about this.

There is only one way out of the slaughterhouse and that is mercy. Lord, have mercy!

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

*Our work as a training organization demands that we reflect deeply on how the Gospel of Jesus makes peace in the context of violence. Our staff and network have varying views on how to interpret difficult texts like this week’s text, but on this we can agree – Jesus is the liberator, not our theology!

Image: “Slaughterhouse” by Falcon Photography

The Widow’s Might

“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.”
Mark 12:41

“When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple….”
Mark 13:3

Our Gospel text this week is commonly preached at stewardship time to exhort faithful churchgoers to give their all – just like the widow who put into the treasury “more than all those who are contributing” (Mark 12:43). However, perhaps a look at the context of the story and the posture and positioning of Jesus challenges us to re-examine what might lie behind the comment Jesus makes to his disciples as he watches the widow’s actions.

The passage starts with Jesus warning his followers to beware of those who like to walk around in pompous clothing, high-fiving their homies while they demand seats of honor and offer up pretentious prayers. The cumulative effect of their actions, Jesus says, is that they “devour widows’ houses” (v. 40). That last piece is highly significant because of what unfolds next.

Jesus, sitting opposite (over against) the treasury, watches a bunch of guys wearing expensive clothes take a widow’s last two coins (mites) – all that she has to live on. He makes a comment about the beauty of her actions, but behind his words we can also read a scathing socio-cultural criticism of temple-based economics. In fact, he shows her actions as prophetic in revealing an oppressive system that no longer protects and serves the poor but instead “devours” them.

“Did you see the offering of the widow?” Jesus asks his disciples. “In case you think that the warning I just made about the scribes is unwarranted, this woman has just deposited all she had into an offering used to maintain the very oppressive system that has devoured her house in order to build another.” Could it be that Jesus is calling attention to the widow’s actions not so much for her giving but as a continuation of his pesky habit of pointing out the injustice of the scribes, the wealthy, and the oppressive system of temple-based economics that had been built for self-sustainability by those in power?

Perhaps the focus of this story is not tethered to the significance of her generosity in giving her last two “mites,” but rather in the might of her prophetic action that exposes systemic injustice for what it really is.

The rich give out of abundance while the widow gives out of her poverty. The question before us is: who truly ends up poor and rich in this story? Aren’t the power-mongers who play games of death in the sacrificial cults more impoverished than this widow who reveals the cults’ true nature by throwing in her entire living? She is a prophet; they are not. Their gifts do nothing to reveal the nature of the sacrifice. Her actions, on the other hand, have the prophetic might to reveal what is at the heart of the matter.

In 2005, we held in Guatemala City a consultation on gang violence called Street Psalms. In attendance were some 75 pastors and community leaders from the capital of every country in Central America. In an attempt to talk with gang members and not about them, we gave the first word of the extended three-day conversation to active gang members.

But because many of the gang members we wanted to engage at the event were incarcerated and unable to attend, we had given them an assignment: a month earlier, we asked them to write for us what they wanted to say to the pastors and community leaders. Here is a portion of the “offering” that came from their written communications:

“Frequently we have seen growth in the physical structure of many churches. We see leaders with a competitive attitude choosing, it seems, to compete with other churches while abandoning the needs that exist in prisons, neighborhoods, slums, and rehabilitation centers. The priority of these churches always seems to be focused on the comfort of their respective members so they can feel like VIPs. They have lost, or perhaps just forgotten, the vision of Jesus Christ, who said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.” We don’t want to criticize just for the sake of being critical. [We do want] to stand for the truth that while churches are constructing huge sanctuaries and creating Christian clubs, there are children dying of hunger, gang members killing one another, and prisoners suffering greatly – all the while you Christians comfort yourselves in your nice, big, comfortable churches.”

Are we open to learn from Jesus the prophetic sight to see in the words and actions of the oppressed and marginalized the might to shed the light of truth on corrupt, self-serving systems – religious or otherwise?

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms

Image: “Widow’s Mite” by Royce Bair (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But was Jesus really offering us an orderly spiritual checklist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saper Vedere

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

Mark 10:48

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms

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

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

Brigands of the Lord

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

Mark 10:37

The New Testament scholar N.T. Wright in his book How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, reminds us that Jesus was glorified and crowned king in the most unusual coronation ceremony imaginable: on the cross. Of course, we like to think the coronation ceremony happened sometime after the nasty business of the cross – perhaps sometime after the resurrection in heaven as a reward for having done such a difficult deed. But this is not Jesus’s understanding of his own kingship, as this week’s passage makes clear.

Wright points out that Jesus was crowned king and glorified between two “brigands” – one on his right and the other on his left. The Greek word here is “leistes,” which is often translated as thieves or robbers, but is more properly brigands. A brigand is literally a “gang member.”

In this week’s text we are confronted with holy irony. James and John cluelessly ask Jesus if they can join his kingly court. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” This request angers the other 10 disciples, but Jesus does not reprimand James and John. Instead he tells them, “You do not know what you are asking.” It’s true. They have no idea. How could they? They have no clue about the radical difference between God’s glory and human glory. They have no clue what it means sit on the right and left of Jesus. No clue that the only court in Jesus kingdom is a band of brigands.

The Gospels are filled with conversations like this, where the disciples are operating out of one frame of mind while Jesus responds from another. It’s as if the disciples are living in two dimensions while Jesus is living in three dimensions.

The famous novel Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884) by Edwin Abbot is a wonderful illustration of this. Abbot’s parable illustrates how those who live in the two-dimensional world of “Flatland” simply can’t see or imagine a three dimensional world. One day a three-dimensional cube enters Flatland, but the two-dimensional figures see the cube through their two-dimensional eyes and the cube appears to be just like them: just another flat square. Eventually, a Flatlander is intrigued by the possibility of something bigger and takes a step of faith. He enter the third dimension. It is scary and risky – even blasphemous – on the front end, but wildly liberating on the back end. Here is a short video of this parable.

Similarly, the disciples are trapped in the flatlands of their imagination. They simply cannot see the three-dimensional nature of God’s kingdom unfolding. They cannot imagine the coronation ceremony that Jesus talks about. Their vision of glory requires an all-out grab for position and power. As a result they are left to interpret the three-dimensional teaching of Jesus from a two-dimensional perspective. James and John are simply being good flatlanders. Amazingly, Jesus doesn’t seem to blame them for it.

Instead, Jesus gathers a cursed band of brigands and transforms them into a community of the cross. Together, they reveal a dimension of glory that has been hidden since the foundation of the world (Matt 13:35). Together they reveal a kingdom in which the last are first, the first are last, and the greatest is the servant of all. There is plenty of room on the right and the left of Jesus in this kingdom, if we would but count ourselves among the brigands of the Lord.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

Image: “Thatch Cube” by Ella T. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Good God

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

Mark 10:17-18

We’ll find out in a few verses that “give up your wealth” isn’t what this man wants to hear. But putting aside for a moment the questions about entering heaven with or without our respective riches, or what size holes camels can actually fit through, first let’s consider just one word: “good.”

All three synoptic gospels note that Jesus takes issue with the phrasing of the rich man’s use of the word “good.” And each time Jesus says that only one is good, and that one is God.

This seems a little strange, because the Bible starts with the goodness of everything. Genesis 1:1-2:4 is nothing but God unfolding creation, sitting back, and seeing that it is good every step of the way. Actually, the first thing God calls not good is Adam’s solitude: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18).

We know, from scripture and often from experience, that being too long without companionship is not good. But scripture also reveals to us another easily-recognizable facet of human nature: that rivalry is ever lurking beneath or at the edges of our relationships, from Cain and Abel up through this week’s encounter. We have already seen the hapless disciples bickering over who of them is greatest. They wanted Jesus to castigate any ministers working without the proper certification.

And despite Jesus’s efforts, the rivalry will continue. In a thorough essay on envy and jealousy, scholars Anselm Hagedorn and Jerome Neyrey point out that the Gospel of Mark says it explicitly: “For [Jesus] realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over” (Mark 15:10).

Perhaps we can see Jesus’s somewhat harsh initial response to this man’s question as another in a series of Jesus’s efforts to slow the growing rivalry that will ultimately lead to his death.

The perfect breeding grounds for envy, according to Hagedorn and Neyrey, are: (1) the idea that there is a limited amount of good, (2) rivalistic society, and (3) cultural values of honor and shame. From the time of his humble birth, Jesus has been trying to flip the script on ancient notions of honor, shame, and prestige. As we saw last week when he defended a child from the disciples, his followers’ insistence on clinging to old ideas of power is really starting to make Jesus mad. His crankiness seems to carry over here into his response to the wealthy man.

Maybe he also knows the man’s phrasing is more illustrative then the man realizes. Perhaps for those of us who are not the Creator, the presence of “good” seems to necessitate a “bad.” Like money, there is only so much good to go around, the voice of scarcity tells us.

Which brings us to the rich man’s actual question, and Jesus’s famous answer: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 25).

The disciples quickly recognize Jesus’s words are not about the rich man alone: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus is talking about all of us whose attachments to the stuff of this world blind us to the reality of God’s goodness that’s available to everyone.

What if what binds us isn’t just the stuff of this world, but also – and this can be especially tricky for some Christians – attachment to the very idea of personal “goodness”?

One adage of 12-step programs is “let go and let God.” More informally, another truism is that “everything I’ve let go of has had claw marks all over it.”

What do you cling to that keeps you from seeing? As with wealth, could an obsession with the idea of “good” be keeping you from the one ultimate good: God?

Peace,
Stephanie Dunlap
Street Psalms

Image: “envys” by cranky messiah (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Gift of Losing Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

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

 

Scandal

 

This week’s lectionary Gospel text, Mark 9:38-50, is not for the faint of heart. The disciples encounter “someone” casting out demons in the name of Jesus. They want to shut down this rogue minister and put an end to his ministry because he’s not part of their inner circle.

But the outsider and his ministry is no threat to Jesus whatsoever. He says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” The real threat that Jesus exposes in this text is the hidden envy brewing in the disciples’ hearts. Jesus warns the disciples that if they insist on picking a fight with the freelance minister, it is they – not the freelancer – who will end up in hell. Whoa!

By the way, the unnamed “someone” in this text is the patron saint of all those ministers who live and serve on the margins without the right credentials or official ordination from the home mission office. I am tempted to focus on such unsanctioned ministries that are blessing our cities, but this text is primarily about the envy of the disciples. It is about how envy inflames rivalries, and creates what Jesus calls stumbling blocks (skandalizō), from which we get the word scandal.

Jesus repeats the word scandal in verb from (stumble) three times throughout the text. Jesus does not mince words. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…. If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…. If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.” In other words, get rid of whatever leads you (and others) into scandal because scandals always produce scapegoats, and that is truly the hell of your own making.

The disciples are green with envy at the unauthorized ministry of this rogue minister. The problem, of course, is that they can’t see it. That’s how envy works. It is obvious to all who look on, but it remains hidden to those who have it. Envy secretly sows seeds of rivalry and rivalries become scandals that produce scapegoats. That is why Jesus says that it would be better for the disciples to cut off their hands, chop off their feet, and gouge out their eyes, than to let envy run its course. The tragic irony is that this is exactly what happens to Jesus on the cross.

This is not the time nor place to catalogue the untold scandals created by competing mission agencies and churches who are each convinced that they have a mandate from God and program from heaven that will save the city from destruction. I’ve seen (and participated in) ministry turf wars that would make rival street gangs blush.

By the time a turf war is full-blown, the competing rivals may look like bitter enemies who are completely at odds, but underneath it all they truly envy one another and are actually very much alike. This is what the disciples are blind to and what Jesus sees with utter clarity. This is precisely what happened in the Garden of Eden. It happens in urban ministry and around office water coolers everywhere.

Scandals have dual energies, as Rene Girard points out. We are both fascinated and repelled by those we envy. Like certain chemical compounds, this dual energy is combustible. For Jesus, envy is the root sin of humanity, which is why Jesus speaks so dramatically, even grotesquely, to make his point. The great writer Flannery O’Connor said, “I use the grotesque the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.” This is precisely what Jesus is doing. He’s using the grotesque image of self-sacrifice and self-mutilation to expose the even more grotesque nature of what we do to each other when we burn with envy. A world gone mad with envy will destroy itself.

The only way out this scandal is to let the cross of Christ confront our hidden envy and do what we cannot do for ourselves, which is—forgive us! There is no other way.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

Image: “Rival” by Dubwise Version (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Child in the Middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

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

Who Do You Say That I Am?

He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Mark 8:29

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Perhaps the most beautiful question Jesus ever asked his disciples is found at the very center of the Gospel of Mark. In ancient Jewish literature, the key to a story’s meaning is often found in the middle of the story rather than the end, as is often the case in Western storytelling. This emphasis on the center is most obvious in Jewish “chiastic” poetry, often found in the Psalms; the very center of the poem gives the main point. For the Jewish storyteller, each story has a “sacred center” that contains its unique treasure of meaning.

The Gospel of Mark contains sixteen chapters, so if we follow the notion of the “sacred center” with our lectionary text this week, something really important might be found around Chapter 8. There we find Jesus in Caesarea Philippi. What is so special about this place, and why does Jesus choose it to ask such a beautiful and important question of his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”

If you look at a map of the time, it will show Caesarea Philippi to be at the extreme northern border of Jesus’s ministry, and as far as we know, he never ventured further away from Jerusalem than this point. Perhaps there are some questions that can only be asked in certain places? Why didn’t Jesus save this riveting question for Jerusalem, the sacred center of an entire culture? Perhaps because a place like Jerusalem would have elicited a different answer. There, an entire history and culture would have weighed in, making it an unfair place for the disciples to consider the full possibilities of Jesus’s identity. It seems that Jesus knew that his disciples needed to be removed from that context in order to even consider anything other than prevailing viewpoints, unexamined assumptions, and accepted norms.

This is a core principle of the vision trips that Street Psalms hosts around the world. It is this journey to “Caesarea Philippi” for groups from far away places that provide the same kind of space that Jesus gave his disciples before posing his all-important question to them. Perhaps we today, like the disciples 2,000 years ago, simply cannot consider certain questions amid the sacred centers of our personal upbringing or respective denominational camps because those places tend to answer the questions for us. The question of “Who do you say that I am?” sounds very different when asked in a cemetery overlooking 3,000 people working in a garbage dump to scratch out a meager existence than it does from the comfort of a Sunday School classroom.

Jesus saves his highest and holiest question for a place on the northernmost edge of his ministry, furthest away from all that is most sacred to his disciples. In the same way, God takes us through circumstances far “north” of our sacred centers of understanding and experience to pose what may be the most vital questions. God holds in reserve the highest and holiest questions for remote and sometimes dark places at the edge of our own cultural, physical, theological, emotional, and spiritual maps.

Not only in this text, but also in our personal lives and in the dynamics of our communities, we can see the severe mercy of God de-centering and re-centering. When things fall apart – when centers we cherish as sacred and secure “cannot hold,” to use Yeats’s poetic image – there is invariably the possibility for new and life-giving sight.

What does the place of “Caesarea Philippi” represent for you this week? Where is the northernmost place that God has taken (or is taking) you, and how do you answer the question in Mark 8 differently because of where you have been or are going? How has your personal journey opened your eyes to a deeper encounter of who Jesus is?

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke and Kris Rocke
Adapted by Joel Van Dyke, Director of Urban Training Collaborative, from Geography of Grace

Featured photo: View from the cemetery overlooking the largest dump in Latin America (Stephanie Dunlap, Street Psalms)

The Smell of Grace

But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Mark 7:24-37

Spread out in front of José was the ragtag congregation of drug addicts and alcoholics to whom he had come to preach. The problem this particular morning was that as he settled in behind the pulpit, he was unable to speak. He stood there feeling helpless until one of the ladies in the front row came up asking him if he was okay. Then she turned and proclaimed to the people around her, “The preacher can’t talk. He needs us to pray for him!”

The folks got up off of their plastic stools and formed a circle around José. The smell of alcohol and body odor was so strong that José almost passed out. However, as the people began to take turns praying for him, José says, the bad stench turned to sweet aroma. The smell was overwhelming. It was like nothing he had ever smelled before or since. Recounting the incident to me later, he said, “I smelled grace that day, and it was magnificent.”

Our lectionary text this week begins with the statement, “Jesus left that place….” Could it be that the place he was leaving meant far more than a simple change in geography? In the earlier part of Mark 7, we saw Jesus having a heated argument with the Pharisees and scribes over their angst that Jesus didn’t make his disciples wash their hands before eating . Soon after, the disciples asked Jesus about the meaning of a parable and he responded, “Are you so dull?

More than changing his physical location, it seems Jesus is trying to “leave” a stench of hypocrisy and dullness. He does not smell grace in the church leaders, nor in his own disciples. So he enters a house in the vicinity of Tyre, hoping to get a time of respite. However, a Syrophoenecian woman learns of Jesus’s proximity to her. She “falls at his feet” to ask for healing for her demon-possessed daughter.

The response from Jesus as she grovels at his feet is disorienting and aggravating: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

How can Jesus be so rude as to call this woman a dog? How does he have the nerve to do so publicly, in front of a listening crowd of bickering church leaders and dull disciples?

Could it be that Jesus decides to do so in order to confront those watching this interaction with the absurdity of hearing out loud what was swirling silently in their own heads? Could it be that Jesus makes his disorienting proclamation to her only after a wink of his eye that only the Syrophoenecian woman could have seen?

Instead of bitter defensiveness, her response according to the New American Standard Bible translation is simply, “Yes Lord, but…”

According to the religious tradition, she has no right to be in Jesus’s presence, let alone speak with him and even make a request of him. She is a Gentile, not a Jew. She is a pagan, not a God worshipper – and a woman, not a man. She knows she is on the wrong side of the tracks of every moral, gender, cultural, and racial boundary. She has none of the credentials necessary to approach a Rabbi. Yet she risks all anyway.

Yes Lord, what you say is true, but all my daughter needs is a crumb from your table. Contained in a crumb of your goodness there will be an overabundance of what my daughter needs. It is in front of your abundant goodness that I throw myself.

Does your life smell like the grace that wafts out from this kind of dependence on God’s abundance, or do you more resemble the Pharisees, dependent on rules that you’ve established from your own version of the gospel? Or perhaps you can relate to a “dullness” – has life just become a thoughtless, unexamined religious parade?

It took a rejected, marginalized Syrophoenecian woman to invite those around her to recalibrate their vision. Through her story we are exposed anew to the aroma of scandalous, abundant grace.

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Street Psalms

P.S. For a deeper exploration, listen to Joel Van Dyke’s sermon on this passage.

Image: “Sam” by Angelica (CC BY 2.0)

Meditations on (Un) Cleanliness

So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?…. Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

–  Mark 7:5,14-15

At Street Psalms, as at our longtime organizational partner Mile High Ministries, we lift up a perspective of peacemaking. This week we experimented with this podcast in which we interview Mile High Ministries Executive Director Jeff Johnsen about his take on the 2011 book Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality by Richard Beck.

Richard Beck is Professor of Psychology at Abilene Christian University. On his blog Experimental Theology, Beck writes: “This radical openness to the Other always seems to get undermined in our churches. Why is that?, I mused. After thinking about it, the answer hit me. And it was a simple answer. The same thing that caused the exclusion of people from table fellowship in Jesus’s day is the exact same thing that causes the exclusion today. That is, a group of people is considered to be ‘unclean’ and these people are just not welcome. The reasons for being declared ‘unclean’ might have changed, but the underlying dynamic is still the same. And I began to realize: The logic of being ‘unclean,’ a source of ‘spiritual pollution,’ was undermining Jesus’ radical call to love.”

Listen here, then please let us know what you think.

Peace,
Jeff Johnsen of Mile High Ministries, with Stephanie Dunlap and Brian Rossbert
Street Psalms Community

The Stranger, Revealed

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

–  John 6:56-58

As this week’s lectionary reading wraps up a series of passages in which Jesus proclaims that he is the bread of life, we conclude a five-week series of excerpts from Meal From Below with this prayer:

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. Amen.

Peace,
Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Excerpted from Introduction to Meal from Below.

Photo: Street Psalms and friends break bread together in Guatemala, 2014 (Stephanie Dunlap)

Bearing Witness to Goodness

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 
John 6:51

Meal From Below rests on a bold and liberating assumption: there is a eucharistic shape to life, not just the Christian life, but to all lives everywhere. Celebrating Holy Communion may be particular to the Christian tradition, but it is not a religious rite that separates us from the rest of the world – quite the contrary.

Our participation in Holy Communion unites us with the world, particularly those people and places in the world with whom we are most estranged. The Lord’s Table is a radically inclusive table that not only makes room for the “least of these,” it gives them preferred seating. These honored diners are precisely the ones who best remind us that the Eucharist is not the property of Christians as it is sometimes portrayed. It is the universal sign of God’s peace for all.

As Christians, we are not only invited to enjoy the feast, we are also called to be table waiters who bear witness to the abundance and goodness of God’s meal, as well as the unlimited seating at the table of God’s grace. Consequently, we don’t own the table. It is the Lord’s Table and we are all God’s guests. Christians are guests who bear witness to God’s goodness at work in all creation.

Peace,
Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Excerpted from Introduction to Meal from Below.

Induction to Reality

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

John 6:35

This week’s lectionary passage continues a series of Gospel excerpts in which we see Jesus setting the table for Eucharist.

Our 2012 book of devotionals Meal From Below rests on a bold and liberating assumption: there is a eucharistic shape to life, not just the Christian life, but to all lives everywhere.

If this is true, the Lord’s Table is not simply a ritual performed on special occasions in clearly recognized “sacred settings” – though it is often exactly and beautifully that. Like Jesus’s “I Am” statements, including his statement about being the Bread of Life, a sweeping universality is held in the particularity of this Meal. The sacrament is a window into fundamental reality, in the same way the incarnation of Jesus is a window – it reveals that the divine is actually most fully expressed in the physical (Heb. 1:3). It is God’s great work of bringing all things – all things! – into union and communion (Col. 1:20).

The Eucharist inducts us into Reality and reveals its hidden patterns at work in our lives. Using verbs we explored last week, Jesus “took the bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me'” (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). In the same way, we too are taken, blessed, broken, given, and spoken in God’s love – so that we might re-member the body of Christ for a hurting world and become instruments of peace.

How might you be an instrument of peace today?

Peace,
Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Excerpted from Introduction to Meal from Below.

Photo: “Garlic Naan – Northern Indian, Palms Food Court AUD3” by Alpha (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Liturgy of Life

Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.

For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

John 6:32-35

Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus modeled for us the life-long human liturgy of being taken, blessed, broken, given, and spoken into existence. This week’s lectionary passage continues a series of Gospel excerpts in which Jesus prepares for the Eucharist by proclaiming that he is the bread of life. As we wrote last week, we structured the book of devotionals Meal From Below around the five verbs of Jesus’s Eucharist invitations:

Taken. We feast on God’s love as the foundation of all life and transformation.

Blessed. We drink deeply of the Incarnation and life of Christ as the blessing of God’s presence.

Broken. We taste God’s own experience of suffering on the cross.

Given. We savor life inside the Resurrection and its gift to the world.

Spoken. We digest the living Word that speaks all of life into existence.

As summer reaches its height, we invite you to relax into the poetry of these words. Which speaks to you today?

Peace,
Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Excerpted from Introduction to Meal from Below

Photo: Bread” by Alex Johnson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Among So Many

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 
– John 6:9

For the next five weeks, our lectionary Gospel passages explore abundance – this week we see Jesus feeding the 5,000, and soon Jesus will proclaim that he himself is the “bread of life.” That idea will carry through to the Last Supper and inspire our tradition of celebrating Eucharist.

The Eucharist that Jesus showed us also inspired Street Psalms’s 2012 book Meal From Below: A Five Course Feast with Jesus (available here on Amazon).

Meal From Below is a book of devotional reflections as well as an introduction and companion guide to a 40-week spiritual formation experience that includes daily, weekly, and monthly practices. It is patterned after communion at the Lord’s Table. Liturgical Christian traditions aptly call this shared experience the Eucharist, which literally means good gift.

Jesus hosts a table at which there is always enough; in fact, more than enough. As if to underscore this point, the feeding of the 5,000 is recorded in all four Gospels. Aside from the Resurrection, it is the only miracle recorded in each Gospel (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). Each Gospel recounts the miracle using the same highly liturgical structure – Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave.

These same verbs show up again at the Last Supper, and again after the Resurrection on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:30). At the Last Supper, we are supplied with an additional verb; it is an interpretive word. Jesus said, “This is my body,” and “this is my blood.”

Jesus models for us the life-long liturgy of being taken, blessed, broken, given, and spoken into existence. Jesus the Word revealed in his own humanity the shape of God’s divine abundance. Jesus is teaching us that there is a Eucharistic shape to flesh-and-blood human life, and this shape is the very essence of reality.

Peace,
Kris Rocke and Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Excerpted from Introduction to Meal from Below

Image: “Women Holding a Basket of Corn” from Art in the Christian Tradition 

Come Away

He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
 –  Mark 6:31 

This week our globally dispersed Street Psalms staff gathers to work and to rest through a retreat in the far upper left of the United States (that is, Hood Canal, WA).

As Jesus shows us in this week’s lectionary, even the most devoted disciples need to set boundaries for self-care.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others,” says vulnerability and shame researcher Brené Brown. (Her TED talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” has more than 20 million views.)

Vulnerability is also one of what Street Psalms and our partners in the Urban Training Collaborative call our “Manners of Mission.” (Read more about our UTC Training Foundations.)

So we will be vulnerable with you, friends, and tell you that we are tired and we will rest, and we will go fishing and crabbing and running, and we will read some good books, eat good food together, enjoy good conversations, and pray for our next season of good work.

And we pray that this summer, you too find ways to come away and rest.

Peace,
The Street Psalms Team

Pawn of Desire

When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it. And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”

 – Mark 6:21-24 

Growing up as a relative outsider to the Christian faith, but born into its cultural heritage, I understood this passage to be another exhibit in the “women are seductive and untrustworthy” narrative.

A young woman danced and by dancing got what she wanted, right? And another prophet of God was sacrificed to crowd desire and people-pleasing – a mirror of what would soon enough happen to Jesus Christ.

And yet this girl either did not know what she desired, or knew her desires came second to those of her mother. So “she went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” (Mark 6:24).

What young person does not know what to ask for? As a kid I had my running mental Christmas wish list populated by February. Of course, fulfillment is another thing entirely. But what child is not connected to what she or he would desire? Probably someone whose desires have been circumscribed – by poverty, by oppression, or by exploitation. Even, perhaps, the exploitation of a parent.

So the young woman ran to her mother Herodias, who did not appear to wonder why her daughter was dancing to inflame a roomful of men, but instead told her charge exactly what to ask from the most powerful of those inflamed men. And so it was done: John the Baptist’s head delivered – because Herodias had manipulative plans of her own, because Herod could not bring himself to stand up to his crowd (a dynamic we’ll see again later with Pontius Pilate), and because a young girl was caught in a morass of intertwined desires.

So perhaps the girl seemingly at the center of this Biblical intrigue is not completely at fault. But the implications of victim-blaming reach further, right up into our present day: the Human Rights Project for Girls recently released a study recommending that juvenile women who are sex trafficked be spared from prostitution charges.

In an article titled “History of Abuse Seen in Many Girls in Juvenile System,” The New York Times said, “Laws in many states allow the police to arrest girls as young as 13 on prostitution charges, even when they are victims of sex trafficking.”

The Human Rights Project for Girls study concluded that “When law enforcement views girls as perpetrators, and when their cases are not dismissed or diverted but sent deeper into the justice system, the cost is twofold: girls’ abusers are shielded from accountability, and the trauma that is the underlying cause of the behavior is not addressed.”

According to the study, sometimes as many as 80% of the young women in the juvenile justice system have a history of sexual or physical abuse. They are disproportionately poor African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.

“Our girls, and especially our girls at the margins, are suffering, and what the study shows is how violence is part of their lives and how the response is criminalization,” Malika Saada Saar, the executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls, told The New York Times.

As sex trafficking survivor Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew recounted in the report, “Suffering, isolated, tired and helpless at the age of 15, the concrete box that represented my cell in… the girls’ section the largest of the juvenile facility in Las Vegas, Nevada, seemed no less invasive than the horror of the streets. As much of a real physical confinement as it was, it wasn’t all too different than the mental confinement I endured from my pimp…. I was faced with charges of solicitation and/or prostitution, a crime that as a minor who wasn’t of legal age to consent to sex, couldn’t seriously be charged to commit. But yet, there I was, facing them. No one assessed me or ever even asked me what got me there, no rehabilitation services were offered. I just sat locked in a box while being interrogated and talked-down to.”

Perhaps amid the swirling themes of bending to crowd desire and of turning the profane (or quotidian) into something sacred, we can take a moment to consider the young woman named as agent in this drama – a girl who is remembered for her seduction rather than her humanity.

Peace,

Stephanie Dunlap

Street Psalms

Photo: “Prostitute allo specchio” by Lamiavitadimerda (CC BY 2.0)

Vulnerability and Authority

He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.”
Mark 6:7-10

Having given away or sold most of our stuff, my wife Melanie and I were headed to Asia as community development workers with an organization called Gooddeeds. The name pretty much summed up what we wanted to do. As a young couple we wanted to engage our lives and our faith with the poorest, someplace. Woefully clueless but eager, we cast about for, well, clues. Tips, training, insights – anything to steer us in the right direction.

Decades later I’m immensely glad somebody put us onto Tom and Elizabeth Brewster. Deeply troubled by their observations and experience of Western missionaries’ typical approaches to new cultures, the Brewsters were helping ministry workers of their era imagine a new and better posture of engagement with local people. Their prescriptions were controversial and groundbreaking for their time, though others were calling for even more extreme remedies (“a moratorium on missions,” some Christian leaders advocated). Our world has shifted and some of the Brewsters’s ideas sound quirky and dated, but their core insights might be even more instructive today.

The Brewsters outlined four simple, basic conditions under which outsiders should engage a vulnerable community. In fact, in their own organizational circles, they would not enlist foreign staff or volunteers who were not eager to commit to each of these:

1. Be willing to live with a local family.
2. Limit personal belongings to 20 kilos (44 pounds).
3. Use only local public transportation.
4. Carry out language learning in the context of relationships that the learner is responsible to develop and maintain (rather than enroll in language school).

Oh, and one other thing. These four conditions start from day one, minute one, right off the plane. No guesthouse the first night. No seasoned expat showing you the ropes. No language school or phrasebooks. No posse of teammates with identical T-shirts – just two people at the most, or possibly a couple with kids. Plunk in the middle of family life, usually in a poor community, ideally with not a word you can understand.

Melanie and I were crazy and naive enough to try this. Before the sun rose our second day in an Asian city, we regretted ever having heard of the Brewsters. We were in a riptide of disorientation, utterly helpless. I recall almost whimpering. I couldn’t grasp what had happened or how, and fought for air.

By the second and third day it was… worse. I can’t even say when it was better. Weeks? Months? Surely we had been poorly advised.

What I know now is that we were being born, again. Having watched births, I don’t know how anyone survives it.

Elizabeth Brewster watched a lot of births. A student of infant bonding and attachment, as well as newborn “imprinting” in the animal world, she understood that from the first moments of life, humans bond and belong to those who meet their needs – typically our mothers. If basic needs are provided by hospital staff instead, babies may be imprinted with a surrogate. If by some misfortune needs are not met, babies may fail to bond at all, with crippling and socially toxic consequences.

In other words, infants are profoundly vulnerable. It is a necessary condition of any belonging, and eventually any robust life that will bless the world.

According to Jesus vulnerability is, most counter-intuitively, an absolutely necessary condition of authentic authority.

Of course the Brewsters’s four conditions aren’t absolute, thank goodness. I’ll be in Nairobi shortly, staying in a guesthouse the first night after my Kenyan friends pick me up. But I see now the humble, learning posture these four simple rigors were designed to cultivate. They gave birth to a new form of life that was just not gonna happen by gentle means.

The Brewsters’s crazy ideas weren’t new. Jesus divvied up his raggedy band so they’d be even more raggedy. “No bread, no bag, no money in their belts.” What a strategy! The absolute and necessary conditions of an authority that would astonish all who encountered it. An authority profoundly nourished by the very people and communities among whom the disciples would speak and be the good news of God.

Any other kind of authority has proven tragically to be bad news all over. Youch, don’t ask me how I know. We messed up plenty in that Asian city, and got messed up. But whatever good news I’ve ever been part of – by amazing grace – came with the strangely powerful authority of open, empty hands.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “Newborn” by Jlhopgood (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Outsiders and Insiders: A Tale of Two Daughters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America

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

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

 

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

 

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

Riding the Waves of the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

 

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