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.

Holy Saturday: “As Secure as You Know How”

“Take a guard,” Pilate answered, “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.”
Matthew 27:65

“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh, and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear. He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives.” (From “An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday” written by an anonymous author in the Liturgy of the Hours.)

Our journey through Lent has almost culminated. We find ourselves this morning in a black hole of silence. We are in the in-between day. The church has no official liturgy in Holy Week for Saturday. If a church body celebrates Holy Saturday at all, it is traditionally simply a day of somber reflection.

On Holy Saturday we enter into the mystery. Today we contemplate Jesus, there in the tomb, dead – exactly the way each of us will be one day, dead. We don’t easily contemplate dying, but we rarely contemplate actually being dead. What is important is that we keep this day holy, and let our “sense” of the mystery of death shape our reflection as it drips into our longing to celebrate the Easter gift of Jesus alive, for us and with us.

Yesterday Jesus was crucified, dashing to bits the dreams and aspirations of all those who had thought he had come as the promised Messiah to overthrow the yoke of suffering and pain. We await tomorrow’s ultimate victory with anticipation – but that is tomorrow’s story. Our present reality is Saturday.

Alan E. Lewis paints a vivid picture of this tension in Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. He writes, “The second day appears to be a no-man’s-land, an anonymous, counterfeit moment in the gospel story, which can boast no identity for itself, claim no meaning and reflect only what light it can borrow from its predecessor and its sequel.”

The central drama in the Gospel narrative spans just three days – the hinge of salvation history. The first day portrays what humanity did to Jesus and the third what God did for humanity in the resurrection, but the center of the three-day drama is an empty space. The irony of this is that scripture all but completely ignores the middle day of the three. Matthew is the only one of the Gospel writers who says anything about what happens on Saturday, and that comes in a span of just five quick verses (Matthew 27:62-66).

We read here that the silence of Saturday – the day after – is haunting the chief priests and Pharisees. They come knocking on Pilate’s door in great fear of the power of the “Great Deceiver” to win over followers even in death. They express great concern that the “last deception could be even worse than the first.” Pilate bends once gain to their wishes. He assigns them a guard detachment and the power of royal seal to go and “make the tomb as secure as [they] know how.”

As I spent some time with Lectio Divina in this passage, I was blind-sided by the words of Pilate. How often I find myself living like the Pharisees, not able to rest in the holy silence of Saturday, not allowing it to simply be what it is. The silence haunts me and I find myself needing to make some noise. There are doors to knock on and things to secure. I need to do something, anything to help, to protect, to secure. Sitting in silence is a blind acceptance of impotence in the face of circumstance, and that is simply not permissible. I must take a guard and go make things as secure as I know how.

However, in light of Sunday’s promise of hope, the actions of the Pharisees on Saturday were an act of utter futility. The best that they knew how was no match for the Divine, transformative power of resurrection. Oh how I wish I could learn to lean into the silence of today! In so doing, I might actually celebrate my personal impotence in the face of circumstance. I must, we must – and the Gospel demands that we do.

“Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection” (Romans 6:3-11).

Until tomorrow,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Lamentation, or the Mourning of Christ (1304-06) by Giotto

Good Friday – God With Us, Alone

The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”
John 18:17

Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his book Life Together, a treatise on community written from the underground church situation in Nazi Germany, with the startling reminder that Jesus suffered and died bereft of the community he held dear. The crowds turned on Jesus in the end; okay, everyone knows fame is fickle. And from the day of his first public sermon, he had enemies. But his closest friends had shared the intimacy of a long meal the evening of his arrest. In a matter of hours they would be gone. Mark reports, “They all ran away” (14:50).

Along with the physical wounds suffered by Jesus in his darkest hours, there were the kind of wounds that reach deeper than thorns, nails, or spear. His cry, “I thirst” (John 19:28) surely was not limited to cravings that a damp sponge could alleviate. This is not to minimize the impact of physical trauma on the whole human psyche. But added to his afflictions is this trauma: to be deserted, alone in extremis, in the most vulnerable moments of his life!

I have loved ones in hard places, and the hardest place of all may be the place of abandonment.

In Romania, when I have asked my longtime orphan friends to tell something important about their life story, they have replied, “sunt abandonat” (I am abandoned). It is the central wound of their lives – a wound that festers far into adulthood.

It is a tragic thing for a child to have parents die and to be left alone in the world. My young friends might envy that circumstance – to be able to cherish the memory of their flesh and blood taken away by some turn of fate. For almost all of them, however, their parents live in the next village or the next valley. For reasons a sociologist might try to explain but a child cannot fathom, they were not wanted. Their abandonment was a deliberate act. “I know the feeling of hugging,” one said. “And I know the feeling of being tossed out like a useless rag.”

A young man counts from one to five on his hand, unfolding his fingers from his fist. “One, two, three, four, five children in my family. I was fourth.” He taps on his fourth finger. “Fourth, and the only one abandoned. It was catastrophe for me! Why me, the fourth? I could understand if I had been the first, and my parents were too poor and not ready. Or the last, and they could handle no more. But the fourth?”

“Once I showed up at the door,” another related. “I had planned this for a long time, and one day I did it. I saw my siblings through the doorway, and it was like looking in the mirror. They had my features! I thought to myself,

‘In there is safety, and security, and love. They have a place to be, and they know whom they belong to.’ I asked my mother if she knew who I was and she stammered, ‘Yes.’ I asked her if she loved me and she did not respond. I asked her, ‘Why did you abandon me?’ and she had no answer. Before I could speak any more she slammed the door.”

On hearing his friend relate this story, a fellow orphan said, “There is not a night in my life I do not lie on my bed and remember the reality of this: that I have been left alone in the world by those who should have cared for me. And there is not a day in my life I do not feel in some way absolutely alone.

Jesus knew, and knows. On this of all days, abandoned. By a great mysterious paradox, the One who was born Immanuel – God With Us – is now on his dying day with us in the absolute extremity of alone-ness.

It is dark, dark, strangely good news today for all who thirst for presence and experience only the bitter ache of absence.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Peter Denying Christ – Painting by Peter Janssen (1869)

Maundy Thursday – Flesh and Fluids

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.
John 13:12-15

Pus.

Sweat, blood, blisters, infected sores… those emerged as central images from the very jazzy riffs of conversation around the 13th chapter of John’s gospel downstairs at Anchor of Hope Church. For my bright kids in children’s church, “pus” struck their imagination around washing grungy feet that might have been a little worse for wear on roads shared with livestock. On the lips of young boys around a table with young girls, we discovered the word “pus” to be simply delicious. Along with the gross-out factor that provided at least five more minutes of attention span, I appreciated the vividness of the scene they conjured up as we talked together.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the traditional commemoration of the evening of the Last Supper. “Maundy” derives from the Latin mandatum, or mandate. It is used of the “new commandment” our Lord gave to his followers: to love one another (John 13:34). This commandment was not introduced in the abstract or engraved on stone tablets; it was demonstrated by an action striking in its human physicality. After rising from the meal he shared with friends, he took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, and began the process we imagined so vividly in children’s church – wet fingers among the toes and calluses, massaging away donkey dung, soothing sores.

Some scholars believe this story forms the narrative backdrop for the Kenosis (“emptying”) Hymn in Philippians 2. The “pouring out” of the water into the basin (John 13:5) parallels the “pouring out” of Jesus in his life and death (Philippians 2:7). The descent and ascent of Jesus in the poetry of the ancient hymn is embodied in the foot-washing story by Jesus stripping and kneeling at the disciples’ feet, performing this most priestly and prophetic task in humility, and then rising to clothe himself again.

For centuries, Maundy Thursday services have been marked by foot-washing. Some traditions refer to this day as “Thursday of Mysteries.” I like that. To me, it speaks of the mystery of flesh and spirit, divine and human, intermingled not only in the blood and wine but in the fluids and flesh of hands moving over feet. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the liturgy includes this prayer: “Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither will I give Thee a kiss like Judas. But like the Thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.”

In remembrance of Jesus’s actions on this last supper night, I have participated in numerous foot-washing ceremonies – with ministry colleagues, with church members, with friends. Perhaps the most memorable times have been in a forest clearing in Romania with teen orphans, some of whose feet actually rivaled my own fungus-infested pair for grossness. There’s always an awkwardness to the proceedings, a fumbling wet mix of touch, shame, and caressing affirmation that seeps somehow through skin into spirit. We are quite unaccustomed to loving our neighbor’s feet in this way, as we love our own. Toweled off and tugging our socks back on, there is a palpable sense of having been both exposed and embraced – perhaps even cleansed – blisters and warts and pus and all.

It is an affirmation and intimacy we will surely need – we cannot remotely know how much – as the gospel story will soon descend into depths.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

 

Photo by Scott Dewey

Coming Home

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Mark 8-9

This Sunday is Palm Sunday, when Jesus makes what some Christians refer to as his “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem on the back of a young donkey. Crowds cheered and hailed him. “Hosanna!”

So there’s Jesus, fully human and fully divine – but he couldn’t have felt all that triumphant. He knew well to distrust fickle crowds, and he probably knew that in this very crowd were the same faithful who would crucify him five days later. Not that he disdained crowds – he is always portrayed viewing them with great compassion, and acting to bless. Nor simply that he mistrusted the crowds with his earthly fate. Far more significantly, Jesus has made it clear he didn’t trust crowds to fashion his true identity and calling. What temptations – either to mirror or despise the swirling energy. We can only imagine the stirrings within his spirit amid the fray this day.

Depending on your reading, the donkey he rode was a fulfillment of scripture, a sign of peace in lieu of a warrior’s stallion, an embodiment of humility within the pageant, or a straight-up lampooning of the whole spectacle. But is any of these truly “triumphant”?

Robert Farrar Capon says the Triumphal Entry is one more vexing parable, one acted rather than spoken – from Jesus that master of vexing parables. “In resorting so often to parables, his main point was that any understanding of the kingdom his hearers could come up with would be a misunderstanding,” Capon writes.

We watch as Jesus did the “next right thing” he knew to do. There was Jerusalem and only Jerusalem for his journey home.

In our own journeys, it often doesn’t feel triumphant to come home – to self, to our past actions, to our hidden motivations, to our deepest fears, to our flawed selves, to our deepest desires. To truth. Sometimes bits of grace come through just when we are most uncomfortable. Someone places a palm frond underfoot, whether or not her sentiment will last. Someone else gives up his cloak for a cushion.

Years ago my friend tested her young marriage when she told U.S. customs that she’d brought agricultural goods back from her Italian honeymoon. Two hours of bureaucracy later, confused customs agents held aloft the dried palm frond Pamela had saved from Palm Sunday services. “This?” Her new husband shook his head. But Pamela wasn’t the sort to lie to authorities. She had to be who she was.

Not being true to her nature would have caused Pamela unbearable anxiety. For others it leads to more destructive habits. In 12-step recovery programs, the 4th step asks us to face who we are. “We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” It’s about as much fun as it sounds. But true recovery – in the form of spiritual connection – isn’t possible until we first come home to ourselves. In addition to the serenity prayer, the coins used to mark time in recovery often say “To Thine Own Self Be True.”

Jesus’s triumphant journey of truth has another week to go before it’ll look anything like real triumph. Before then the skies will darken and his closest friends will turn. Crowd adoration or crowd bloodlust, disciples or no disciples, Jesus resolutely will be who he was made to be, and the truth he is becoming. The truth is misunderstood, vexing – and will grow ever more vexing in the coming week.

With God, Jesus holds the course. And so must we, whether or not we understand what it means.

Peace,
Stephanie Dunlap
Street Psalms

P.S. Find a beautiful prayer from our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous here.

 

Photo: Palm Sunday 11 by Waiting for the Word (CC BY 2.0) 

The Sweetness of Death

It was a case of mistaken identity, but five years ago  “Sugar” – Daniel Antonio Puac Calderón – was riddled with bullets and killed as he was closing up his little store in Guatemala City.

We all knew him simply as “Azucar” (“sugar” in Spanish). Anyone who had ever met Azucar and witnessed the way he sweetened his neighborhood understood immediately the rationale behind his nickname.

After reforming his own life, Azucar had returned to his troubled neighborhood and helped other troubled youth find God and exit the cycle of gangs and violence. Read more of his beautiful story and watch a video on our Magazine story about Azucar.

“Truly I say to you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
– John 12:24

In this week’s lectionary Gospel reading, Jesus utters these words in anticipation of his own death – and Sugar’s.

Herein lies a solemn statement that illuminates profound truth – we truly must die to self to be reborn. Appropriately, we encounter this text on the fifth Sunday in Lent, just before Palm Sunday and Holy Week. The time is nearly upon us – “the hour for the Son of Humanity to be glorified” is about to arrive.

The judgment of the world will be Jesus on the cross. It doesn’t occur at the end time, and neither Jesus nor God does it. Like Azucar’s killers with guns in hand, we hang up an innocent man. It is a truth that we have always wanted to hide from. We find ourselves trying to keep peace by marginalizing, rejecting, even murdering those we dislike. Nearing now the end of our Lenten journey, we are assaulted by the reality of who hangs on the cross before us and, even more hauntingly, how he got there.

The cross is God’s mind and heart, shattering the window of the world’s values. The gospel of the cross is not one more philosophy to add to countless others the world has to offer. It is, in actuality, the overturning of all of them. The cross says the way up is down. The way to real power is to give power away. The way to real influence is to seek to not be influential. The way to get real riches is to give all your money away, etc. In other words, “seeds need to fall into the ground and die.” Jesus fell into nothingness so that we might be able to fall into him.

Azucar represents the best of the grassroots leaders that we at Street Psalms have the distinct honor and privilege of serving around the world. He will be profoundly missed. In his life we hear the voice of God saying, “I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again” (v. 28).

Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms
Latin America

The Lightest Touch, The Touch of Light

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world.
John 3:17-21

Glancing back, I saw my father slowly slide his belt from his trousers. He folded it in half. His face was ashen; I turned away. I tried in vain to relax my buttocks – rumored among friends to make it not hurt so bad.

I wouldn’t know. I’d never gotten the belt before, though our family was among a subculture that fostered what bordered on enthusiasm for corporal punishment of children. My Baptist school principal had no religious imagery on his office wall that I recall, but he resolutely displayed one magnificent implement none of us could miss – a bolt-reinforced wooden paddle. Both symbolic and functional, it hung heavily from a strap. I often heard smacks and groans from down the hall.

As my dad raised the belt, I flinched for the smack and readied my groan. Down came Dad’s arm. Against my skin I felt the belt, and gasped. It was simply a brush – a caress!

I turned and stared. Dad’s eyes slowly overflowed. We both trembled. He held me for a long time. I can’t remember what was said, if anything. Of course I didn’t know the moment was a pivot, a hinge in a life story, a door to a way.

What I’d done was hardly trivial. I almost burned down our house on purpose, nearly killed my sister by accident, and lied for a day as if incredulous to be the innocent victim of a diabolical setup. The first was exciting, the second terrifying, and the third utterly exhausting. Isolated by my denials and the crushing shame that fueled them, I saw no way out whatsoever.

Over the course of life I came to know my father as a man of uncommonly good judgment and vision. He could size a thing up. “This is the judgment, that the light has come” (John 3:19). Light!

Suffocating in shame and fear that dark day, I imagined only condemnation and retribution. Nothing whatever in my father created that notion. Where did it come from? In eight short years I’d picked it up – the world just works that way, right? Play with fire and a whuppin’ might be the least of it. Just ask the principal or the playground guys. I was condemned already – dead dude walking.

This was my dad’s good judgment, his marvelous sight: I wasn’t condemned at all! He did not simply withhold retribution – it was never in his character or posture toward me to harbor such a thing.

Nothing changed about my dad that day. Everything changed inside of me. Everything.

Caveats are in order:

1. Dad’s a gentle but firm man; plenty of discipline would come over the next decade. But he so loved me to life, that my trust only grew.

2. I’m surrounded by loved ones with no such dad; to you treasured friends I don’t know how to speak of this in a way that won’t hurt somehow.

3. To Dad I’ll say… whatever I’ve managed in a few paragraphs here, all these years later I’ve still got no words for the gift of that day.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “Belt” by Aurimas (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Temple Cleansing or Temple Closing?

Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
– John 2:15-19

Jesus did not “cleanse the temple.” Sadly, most Bibles add this heading to the story. It is misleading.

Rather, Jesus closes it down! Better yet, he creates a new temple in its place – an abode of mercy that is himself. This is the heart of the Gospel!

Several years ago I visited Kolkata, India as part of a doctoral class along with Joel Van Dyke, my wife Lana, and our good friend Tim Merrill from Camden, NJ. We visited Kali Temple, which is the holiest of sites in that great city and from which the name of Kolkata is derived. It sits adjacent to Mother Teresa’s hospice house for the dying.

The day we visited Kali there were throngs of people lined up to perform the ritual animal sacrifice and gain favor with the goddess Kali. It was muggy hot and the smell of blood and incense was intense. When we got close enough to see what was happening, I saw a mother ceremoniously place her child’s head on a bloody chopping block as if to offer her up to Kali. As the priest theatrically lifted the long knife, the mother withdrew the child’s helpless head and a small goat was offered in its place. We gasped and turned away.

One doctoral student in our group snarled in self-righteous disgust. He insisted that we (North American Christians) are above that kind of primitive religious violence. I wanted to believe him, but I had my doubts. To be honest, there was a part of me that preferred the honesty of animal sacrifice to the hidden forms of sacrificial violence that we practice in our culture.

For example, authors/activists like Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy) argue convincingly that the U.S. criminal justice system is a sanctioned system of sacrifice of young African American and Latino males. It represents an utter failure of imagination for any more peaceful and productive means of establishing social order.

Currently, one in every 15 black men and one in every 36 Latino men are incarcerated in the United States, compared to one in every 106 white men. Even more alarming, one in every three black male babies born today is expected to be incarcerated. We are creating our own permanent under-caste – or what others call an “American apartheid” – that is creating even greater disparity with each generation.

Particular strains of fear-driven theology conspire to maintain our modern day sacrificial systems. And this doesn’t even begin to count the untold millions who still believe that God, like Kali, is fundamentally angry and on the prowl for God’s next victim. (In a Christian version made popular only in recent centuries, Jesus himself becomes the bloody victim of such a God.) Our ever more sophisticated forms of sacrifice – and the sacrificial logic that supports it – make it hard for us to see and take responsibility for the bloody mess we humans (not God) are making.

This week’s text shows up in all four Gospels, as if God knows we need to hear it again and again! Jesus’s action in the temple is the critical event that seals his fate with temple authorities.

A popular interpretation of this passage is that Jesus was cleansing a corrupt system that needed a bit of spit polish. It was a system that wrongfully excluded the poor, women, and gentiles from participating. Jesus cleansed the temple to open it up and make it a “house of prayer for all nations” (Jer 7:1-11). In this interpretation, Jesus would go on to fulfill God’s sacrificial requirement on the cross, bringing the temple system to its fulfillment with a final sacrifice once and for all. This interpretation signals an end to the temple system of sacrifice, but it also preserves the sacrificial logic by which the temple operates, which is always the problem with sacrificial theology.

Thankfully we are learning to see the text afresh. Notice that when Jesus turns the tables, he drives out both merchants and sacrificial animals (cattle, sheep and doves) alike. He sets both sacrificial victims AND their victimizers free. It is a forceful, dramatic act of profound disruption. It is a beautiful act of liberation.

Can we see? Jesus is mercifully driving out the victims that feed the temple slaughterhouse – and with them, the victimizers who presume they are satiating a vengeful God. Without victims the temple can’t survive and neither can such an image of god. We can hear Jesus shout – standing on the shoulders of the prophets before him – “I desire mercy, not sacrifice!”

These are perhaps the most revolutionary and liberating words the world has ever heard.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

Thanks to Dr. Thomas Truby’s sermon on this passage that inspired this reflection.

Read our further reflection, including a simple graphic illustration of the shift from sacrifice to mercy.

 

Photo: “doves in flight” by Vince Wingate (CC BY-SA 2.0)  

Suffering and Love

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Mark 8:31-33

To live is to suffer, Gautama Buddha taught. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

Raise your hand if by some chance your life experience has taught you otherwise. Maybe you are an extraordinarily fortunate child reading above your grade level here. Even then, I might prompt you to think again upon your few years.

I was texting with a couple old high school buddies last week. Yes we are old and yes, high school was a long time ago. One of us wisecracked about our hair, then and now. That moved us quickly to the topic of our kids, who might have something to do with the hair issues. The mood on our little screens turned very, very pensive.

Each of us three dads has children who have suffered. As it happens, each of us has a child who has attempted to end the living and the suffering. It is the deepest single valley of the shadow of death we have ever walked through.

We couldn’t have imagined the pain, forty years ago with our fishing poles. In our pensive moments even then, we imagined being in love. Probably good for us that we didn’t know all that love might entail.

I sat in a cave in the jungle in Northern Thailand a few years ago – my buddy Kris Rocke hiked up there too and remembers this – talking with an old Buddhist monk about our faiths. Bats swirled in the candlelight. The monk had been a professor of comparative religion at the university. “The Lord Buddha taught us about the nature of suffering,” he observed. “The Lord Jesus showed us about love.”

Indeed the gospel accounts of Jesus show us – above all – love. Like Peter in this week’s lectionary passage, we cannot from the beginning possibly imagine all that love entails. Were we to imagine it, we would protest strenuously – and possibly refuse its invitation altogether. Or we might embrace it with bravado and later flee before the morning rooster crows.

But Jesus teaches, rebukes, and shows. He would show in his death and resurrection what he had shown his entire life. Reflecting later about the night of the Last Supper, the Apostle John would make a most beautiful remark: “He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he showed them the full extent of his love.” (The Greek in John 13:1 is “eis telos” or “full extent,” per NLT translation footnote and other commentators.)

Past Word From Below reflections (for example here and here) have explored the demonic nature of Satan and the “human” perspective that Jesus rebukes in this passage (verse 33). Coming Lenten reflections will explore the “divine” nature of the Atonement – how the cross brings a troubled humanity into union with a loving and peace-making God. For now we can recognize from “The Son of Man” a truly noble truth about God: If to live is to suffer… then to love is to “suffer with.”

It is a truth three old fishing buddies know now. At least in part, in our own ways as parents – we glimpse the love of God the Father, even as we are invited ever deeper into the way of the Son. It is the way of the cross.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “Poland_4122 – Tolerance” by Dennis Jarvis (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Bread, Temple, and Crown: a Lenten Invitation

“At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”
Mark 1:12-13

This week we celebrated Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Christians worldwide will enter into a heightened time (40 days) of prayer, reflection, and spiritual companionship with Jesus to the cross. At Street Psalms we are grateful for this annual pilgrimage that awakens our individual and collective hearts to our own true desire.

Our lectionary text this week, the first Sunday in Lent, has Mark inviting us to this year’s Lenten journey with his usual economy of words. In rapid fire succession we see Jesus being baptized, immediately sent out into the wilderness, and then traveling to Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God (Mark 1:9-15). While all three elements are worthy of focused attention, it is specifically time in the wilderness that captures our imagination this week as we embark with Jesus on the circuitous path to the cross – the Lenten journey.

In biblical parlance, the wilderness (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. What happened during the “temptation by the devil” and what are the implications for us this Lenten season? Mark, of course, gives us little detail on what actually happened in the wilderness, so we need to visit the accounts of the other Gospel writers to get the full picture.

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’s story alone. This is our story too. Jesus carries all of humanity into this meeting or, to be more precise, he carries the fullness of humanity into his divine appointment with the tempter. We are rehashing a conversation that began in a garden so many ages ago and continues to this day.

The conversation centers around three symbols that have shaped the soul of Israel, and the world, since the beginning – the symbols of bread, temple, and crown. Each symbol is packed with meaning and a narrative history that represents a way of seeing the world and God. The bread is an economic symbol, the temple a religious symbol, and the crown a political symbol. Jesus meets with Satan to talk about things of ultimate significance – bread, temple, and crown are about reality itself.

Bread-From Scarcity to Abundance

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, as the land is as empty as his stomach.

It is not hard to imagine Jesus being overwhelmed by the vision of scarcity before him. What kind of God allows his people to starve? When seduced by a worldview of scarcity, the mystery of God’s abundance is not easy to see. Jesus, however, takes another look at the barrenness that surrounds him and listens more carefully to his own stomach. Here, deep in the soil of relentless scarcity, Jesus discerns the seeds of his Father’s abundant and fruitful love.

It takes some time, but eventually he becomes fully present to the reality of God’s abundant love allowing him (and us) to re-imagine the whole of God’s economy as one of reckless abundance. Jesus resists the myth of scarcity and declares God’s Word reliable in the face of deprivation. God is friend, not foe. God can be trusted. There is enough!

Jesus’s fidelity to the “mystery of superabundance” moves humanity from the bondage of scarcity born of fear to the freedom of God’s abundance born of love. There is enough bread for all, if we can only see and embrace it.

Temple: From Violence to Peace

No symbol made greater claims on the imagination of Israel than the temple. What bread was to the body of Israel, the temple was to its soul. The economics of scarcity had produced a religion of scarcity and it followed the same deadly logic. As is always the case with scarcity, violence was its governing principle, hidden under layers of rules and regulations that masked the fear that sustained it. This was the sacrificial system of the temple – it was a highly regulated and sophisticated system of violence that had been given sacred meaning and justified by virtually every religious authority, except a handful of prophets.

In the second temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple overlooking Jerusalem. There he says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.”Jesus looks again at the meticulously designed religious system with all its rules and regulations and discerns another law at work. It is the law that rules his own heart. It is the inviolable law of love.

Jesus stares the devil down and quotes the ancient text, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt. 4:7). Jesus refuses to throw himself into the temple trap and test God’s love with his own act of violence. He opts for another way – the way of mercy – a way that would one day turn the temple inside-out and become the hope of all those who have ever cried out, “Lord have mercy.”

Crown: From Above to Below

The crown is the symbol of the political system, which is concerned with the stewardship of power. While this symbol is not named directly in the temptation narrative, it is clear from the context that we are dealing with the temptation to power. In a monarchial system, the crown is the ultimate symbol of power. As such, it is something of a summary of the previous temptations. The economic, religious, and political systems are of one piece – each needs the other to survive.

Jesus ponders the potential of wearing the crown-the potential for good, not evil; the potential for life, not death. Who better to wear the crown and steward power than a benevolent king who genuinely cares for creation?

However, the glittering gems on the crown being offered are quickly seen for what they are – a crown of thorns. Satan’s twisted view of power is exposed. The whole world is turned upside-down. The cross ascends and Jesus is “lifted up.”

During the next 40 days, we invite you to consider what the implications of bread, temple and crown are for you personally and for your city. Is there enough bread on your life’s “table” for all, or are you deceived by the myth of scarcity and hoarding little crumbs? What would your relationships look like if you were to resist throwing yourself into rivalry with others – rivalry that leads, always, to some sort of violence? How would your view of life change if you were able to look up from below, envisioning power made perfect in weakness as opposed to strength?

May you travel with courage on the way to the cross this Lenten season, and may a careful consideration of the implications of bread, temple and crown be your companion for the journey.

Peace,

Joel Van Dyke

Street Psalms Latin America

Portions of this reflection were adapted from Chapter 7 (Symbolic Universe) of Geography of Grace by Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke. We encourage you to read that chapter for a much deeper reflection on the images of bread, temple, and crown of the desert narrative.    

 

Photo by Casey Kiernan (CC0 1.0)

A Dazzling Secret

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Mark 9:2-4, 7-9

There is nothing quite so dangerous as trying to occupy the place of resurrection glory prematurely or falsely.

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples not to mention his identity too soon. Theologians often refer to this as the “messianic secret.” After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah in Mark 8, Jesus tells Peter and the disciples not to say anything to anyone. And in this week’s lectionary text, Jesus strictly warns Peter, James and John not to say anything about the extraordinary mountaintop event until after the resurrection (Mark 9:9). What a strange remark!

Why is it okay to speak of Jesus’s glory after the resurrection and not before? What will they see after the resurrection that they cannot see before?

One thing we know for certain is that when Peter, James and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain, Jesus had not yet been crucified. Had the disciples become evangelists on the basis of their limited vision on the mountaintop, they would have run the risk of proclaiming a false gospel in the valley. And so Jesus tells his disciples not to speak until after they have witnessed the resurrection. Jesus asks them to wait, like Job, until they have seen for themselves (Job 42:5) what it means to pass through death and come out safe on the other side. He tells them not to speak until after they have seen in Jesus’ resurrected body the very marks of death that he triumphs over. Then and only then will they have the authority to speak, not before. Then and only then, will they see things as they really are – most especially, death itself.

We have a hunch that one of the primary reasons there is so little transformative authority in the Church today is because there is so little transformative vision. So much of what passes for authoritative speech is not wrong, as much as it is formed prematurely in a kind of blindness devoid of the paschal mystery of death as a gateway to life.

Jesus implores his disciples to wait. Could there be times when we too must wait – to not speak prematurely of good news – until we are able to discern a circumstance in light of its passage through death?

Adapted from Geography of Grace: Doing Theology from Below, by Kris Rocke and Joel Van Dyke (Street Psalms Press, 2012), chapter 18.

Peace,
Street Psalms

 

Photo: JESUS MAFA

Don’t Tell

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
Mark 1:32-35

How odd. Once again Jesus orders the demons to be quiet about his identity. A few chapters hence, Jesus will “sternly order” his disciples to do the same (Mark 8:30). This odd behavior is particularly striking in the Gospel of Mark. In fact scholars have a term for it: the “Messianic Secret.”

What gives?

Last week we read that Jesus cast out a demon in the synagogue, and his “fame began to spread throughout the region” (Mark 1:28). This week Jesus heals the sick and casts out more demons. Crowds grow. Expectations rise. “The whole city gathers” (Mark 1:33). Jesus slips away under the cover of darkness to a deserted place where he prays in silence (Mark 1:35).

While praying, “Simon and his companions hunted for him” (Mark 1:36). When they find Jesus they tell him, “Everyone is searching for you,” (Mark 1:37) as if to say, “What are you doing out here? The crowds love you, your stock is rising, let’s ramp this thing up!” Instead of caving in to the cravings of the crowd, Jesus says, “Let’s go on to the neighboring towns.”

Jesus handles the crowd the same way he handles the religious authorities and even the demons – which is to say, he handles them very carefully, as if they were some kind of unstable explosive that could detonate at any moment. The word “crowd” in the Gospels is something of technical word that can also be translated as “mob.” (While the word “crowd” is not specifically used in this week’s text, it is clearly implied and it’s used repeatedly throughout the Gospels).

Anthropologist Rene Girard and theologian Walter Wink have written extensively on how crowds are highly unstable and volatile socio-spiritual realities. They are more than the sum of their parts. They are easily moved, especially towards violence. This is why at every turn throughout the Gospels Jesus refuses to be the puppet of the crowd’s desire, which can one day shout “Hosanna, Hosanna,” and the next “Crucify him, crucify him.”

Crowds hold the collective spirit of those who inspire them. In the Gospels, it is primarily the religious authorities and the religious system itself, steeped in sacrificial violence, that gives the crowd its collective spirit. And the crowd is completely unconscious of the spirit that holds them captive. That is why Jesus is so hard on spiritual leaders and so filled with compassion when it comes to crowds (Mark 6:34).

Jesus sees through the superficial shouts of “Hosanna” and “Crucify him.” He knows that crowds need kings and scapegoats like junkies need a fix. Highly charged crowds are constantly on the hunt for ways to release their pent-up energy.

In recognizing the reality of satanic power, we must consider the possibility that when Jesus is casting out demons, he is casting out the very spirit of the religious system itself and the hidden violence of the crowd. In other words, demons are the manifestation of bad religion. If you think I am making this up, notice how this week’s text ends with an undeniably strong association between the religious system and demons. “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons (Mark 1:39).

Reading the text this way forces us (especially those of us who are religious leaders) to take responsibility for the “demons” that we keep producing. Demons are mirrors for what we want to keep hidden about ourselves. They are the visible incarnation of society’s collective fear and violence turned outward and concentrated on a vulnerable person or group.

Jesus clearly understands the triangular relationship between religious authorities, crowds, and the demonic. He knows that to blow the cover on this stuff is to put himself in harm’s way and become the ultimate scapegoat. That is why he flies under the radar and hopes not to be detected too soon. That is why Jesus orders demons and disciples alike to be quiet and keep the “messianic secret” as long as possible.

Jesus knows that in due course he will be crucified, and the fruits of violent religion will be put on full display for the whole world to see. When we look upon the face of the Crucified One, we will see the demonic fruit of our own violence and the mercy of the One who forgives us completely. In so doing, Jesus will make it possible for “crowds” to become genuine, loving, and stable communities of peace that will transform the world.

May it be so.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “Protesters Blur By” by Geraint Rowland

Astonishing Authority

They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Mark 1:22-27

Making my way down to the canal behind a ramshackle Bangkok slum, I spotted an orange-robed Buddhist monk sitting in a small wooden pergola. Flower garlands lay at his feet, and lotus flowers bloomed in the surrounding swamp. I approached and greeted him as properly as I could by pressing my palms together in the traditional “wai” and using Thai high pronouns for “exalted one.”

I’ve greatly enjoyed many times bantering with monks, who are typically more easygoing than you might expect. I’ve learned a lot from them. Even with his head and eyebrows shaved, though, I immediately could tell that this monk was older and more serious than many of the younger guys.

I offered a bit of small talk. “Come here often, honored sir?” Ok that was lame, but hardly warranted what came next.

“Do you not know I have the power to kill you right now, right on this very spot? Right at this instant!” His eyes drilled into mine. “I have authority from a spirit with immense power – the power of death. Do you doubt it?”

Whoa. A chill swept over me in the tropical heat. In rapid succession, voices from both my cultures weighed in with equal force. From my adopted Thai eastern culture I thought wow, this is deadly serious – as genuinely grave as handling high voltage wires while wading in the swamp. Then from my native western culture I thought, who is this dude? A cranky old guy in an orange bedsheet sitting in a flowery outhouse? And animist spirits aren’t even a Buddhist concept, technically speaking. Facts are I could, and possibly should, toss him in the canal. Sheesh.

The eastern voice quickly won out. After all, I was shaking. Grasping for calm, I drew a breath. “I don’t doubt it sir. With respect, I too have authority from a Spirit with immense power – the power of life. The Spirit of the Exalted One named Jesus – creator of heaven and earth. This Spirit of life is more powerful than any powers of death. It is the Spirit that sets us free.”

What came out of my mouth surprised me far more than what had just come out of his. Where did that come from in me? Had I rehearsed in advance, I would not have said anything remotely like that. I’m not well versed in these dynamics and would see no advantage in trying to one-up a spirit master.

It was his turn to look stunned. Were his lips actually quivering? He looked away, then turned back without any of the previous sternness at all. “You have spoken truthfully. Death has no power over you, and neither do I.”

That encounter took place decades ago, and I’ve hardly spoken of it since. To be honest, I’ve not fully understood it. To this day, both my eastern and western voices speak with equal force in my head. What realities were afoot that afternoon in the swamp?

Reflecting on this week’s lectionary passage, I’m struck by many of the same realities – at least in the same ballpark. Spirits. Fear, freedom. Life, death. An encounter involving power and authority. And to anticipate a theme later in Mark’s gospel, the need to keep quiet about the story.

One difference: I ain’t Jesus.

I asked Street Psalms friends this week about spiritual authority. Having seen and experienced its misuse – resembling the old monk’s power play more than the meekness of Jesus – we’re not high on the term. But we’ve known, and needed, genuine authority that makes space for life amid death. Death in our contexts presents with such force, such power! We tremble, and grasp for calm. And sometimes – sometimes! – the voice and power of life rises within. We are astonished by its gift of peace in our communities. We’re reluctant to speak of it, but we know. We know.

Have I said too much already? I have other ideas, analysis, and hypotheses about authority. My friends suggested spiritual authority is a grace grounded from within, and recognized by its fruit from without – in community. Helpful insight. My eastern voice – like this passage from Mark – reminds me there is also much behind the veil of sight and insight.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “The Possessed” by JESUS MAFA

Leaving Our Nets

“Time’s up! God’s Kingdom is here.
Change your life and believe the Message.”
Mark 1:15 (The Message)

This week we read of four fisherman Jesus encounters while strolling along the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:14-20). We don’t know if these hardworking fishing professionals have ever even heard an actual sermon from Jesus. It seems that Jesus’s preaching in Galilee was finished prior to this encounter on the shore.

Why these men? What about them leads Jesus to issue them his first call to a life of great adventure? If the first thing that Jesus does after his formal commission into ministry is seek out companions for the journey, we’d assume he wouldn’t be thoughtless about his choice of those companions. Yet in a conversation taking less than a minute, he swoops up one-third of his final group of 12 disciples. So what about these particular four fishermen has captured Jesus’s imagination?

As I sit with the text this morning, however, I am struck most by the decisiveness of the four fishermen and the urgency of their responses. Perhaps a more revealing question than “what does Jesus see in them?” is “what do they see in this Jesus?

What do they see that compels them to immediately leave their nets to follow him? Would it not be much wiser and more prudent to first consult with their families and closest friends? Or perhaps enter a designated period of discernment regarding the possibility of such radical life change? Maybe they should have discussed it with a spiritual director, or at least taken some time to “pray about it.” No, our text tells us that these four “at once left their nets and followed him.” This leaves me feeling both confused and inspired by their responses to immediately (perhaps irresponsibly) leave net and family.

Maybe life in the “kingdoms” they had built for themselves paled in comparison to Jesus’s invitation to align with the great adventure of a different Kingdom – the Kingdom of God.

What kind of kingdom have I been trying to build through devotion to the nets that I daily put my hands to? I wonder what the nets represent for me in my life. How many of the seemingly altruistic decisions that I make each day are really motivated by the fish I hope to catch when casting my nets into the waters of self doubt? Is the catch I seek really the affirmation of others to prop up my soul?

I am shocked by how often I am driven to cast nets into the sea of rivalry. I tend these nets amidst waves of misplaced desire that break violently on those around me. Am I willing to leave those nets behind, whatever security they seem to provide, and instead follow Jesus into the deeper, unknown waters of Christ-like desire? “We dance,” wrote Robert Farrar Capon, “under the banner of God’s desire.” I am realizing that could very well mean turning my back on what I have spent my entire life fishing for.

There is something very powerful here about the intensity of Mark’s cut-to-the-chase witness. The sparse narrative emphasizes that Jesus is really important and is in the midst of a really important adventure.

The Street Psalms community often finds that the places we serve are also a kind of Jesus-like smelling salt waking us to the reality of life. But sometimes it seems the only things in our own lives worthy of immediate attention are the cares of our daily worlds that seem so large. The intrigue of Jesus’s invitation, assumed but not explicitly stated in the passage, is that there must have been something quite captivating about this Jesus and his mission. Not a Mission Impossible-type narrative that appeals to ego, pride, and the sense that we need to go do something important – but rather an invitation so freeing that it allows us to leave that which up this point in our lives has seemed all-consuming and impossible to release.

What an amazing thing Jesus is calling us into: an open-ended adventure of radical discipleship where our nets are left behind.

“Time’s up! God’s Kingdom is here.”

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America
Guatemala City

P.S. I find that praying the Examen keeps illuminating the need to leave my own nets. Street Psalms invites you to pray it as well.

Photo: “nets” by Miemo Penttinen (CC BY 2.0)

Holy Everything

Jesus answered (Nathanael), “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
John 1:50-51

This week’s text is a reference to the story of “Jacob’s Ladder” in the Old Testament and the radical implications of the Incarnation.

Remember Jacob’s Ladder? Jacob stole his brother’s birthright and fled into the desert. Eventually he stopped running and fell asleep, exhausted. The heavens opened and he saw angels ascending and descending on the place he occupied. Celtic spirituality calls this sort of thing a “thin place” where the boundary between heaven and earth thins out – the divine and human greet each other with a holy kiss and unite in holy matrimony. As a result, Jacob awakens to God’s loving presence, and he sees his place of desolation as holy ground and a gateway to heaven. He stacks a pile of rocks and calls it Bethel – “the house of God.”

Jesus builds on this familiar story. The heavens open again. This time, however, the angels ascend and descend not on a place, but on a person – “The Son of Man.” In Jesus, the divine and human become one. In other words, Jesus is God’s holy presence in a hurting world, sanctifying this world and everything in it. We might call Jesus the ultimate “thin person,” who reveals what has always been true, but hard to see. In Christ, everything is holy. Not the kind of holy that separates and divides, but the kind that unites and makes whole – the kind that sees all things as related, of one piece. This is the mystery of the Incarnation.

Yes, everything is holy, even and especially desperate fugitives in desolate places. The sacred is hidden inside the profane, wanting to be discovered! Every person and every place is a burning bush ablaze with God’s glory – if we can only see it. Creation is a cathedral, and each person is an altar at which we kneel and give thanks to God. The world itself and everything in it is a sacrament. This, I believe, is the “greater thing” Jesus speaks of in this week’s text.

I realize this perspective is challenging, but the most orthodox teaching has always insisted that the Incarnation unites what the world divides. It turns common ground into holy ground. There is nothing that is not saturated with the loving presence of God – nothing! There is nowhere we can flee God’s presence – nowhere (Ps. 139)! Love and laughter are everywhere.

This simple insight radically changes our posture in life. It is the difference between drudgery and delight. In the end, the world is not holy because we love it. We love it because it is holy. Our job is to see and celebrate this joyful reality, especially with those who are blind to it. Everything is holy now. Can we see it?

Check out this short video that introduces the Born From Below training to explore the meaning of the Incarnation in hard places.:

Or check out this song, “Holy Now,” by Peter Mayer. It is the unofficial anthem of the Street Psalms Community.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “balance” by Julia Nogueira (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Baptismal Blessing

“You are my son whom I love, 
with you I am well pleased.”
Mark 1:11

We are familiar with the red-letter Bibles that highlight the words of Jesus. I’d like to see a blue letter edition that highlights the words of the Father. It wouldn’t take much ink. We only hear the voice of God the Father four times in the New Testament. In each case it is the voice of blessing. The Father’s economy of words serves only to magnify their meaning.

The first two times the Father speaks he repeats himself – once at the baptism of Jesus (which is our text this week), and again at the transfiguration of Jesus (Luke 9:35). The third time we hear the voice of the Father is when Jesus nears the cross and calls out, “Father, glorify your name.” The Father responds, “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again” (John 12:28). And finally in Revelation the Father says, “I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Half of all we hear from the Father is limited to these most elemental words, “You are my son whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” When these words become flesh in our lives we are transformed.

The key to this verse for me is not in the word “love.” After all, if God is love then it sorta makes sense that God would love us. It’s the second part of the verse that stands out: “with you I am well pleased.” St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible translates this phrase with the word “complacent.” To our ears the word “complacent” sounds negative, but it literally means to “dwell with like.” A grassrootsy but fully truthful translation of this verse would be, “You are my son whom I love and I really like you.” Catholic theologian James Alison explores this beautifully in his book, On Being Liked.

Perhaps the greatest of all the miracles is not that God loves us, but that God actually likes us. I am convinced that until “love” matures into “like” it is not complete. When we know ourselves as liked by God, we come to see ourselves, this world, and even God’s love, in a whole new light! In a word, we relax and actually become likeable and capable of great love in return.

When I asked my wife to marry me, I began by saying, “I love you and I really like you.” Take away the “liking” part and I honestly don’t know where we would be today. In the delivery room the first words that each of our boys heard in this world were, “You are my son whom I love and I really like you.” They still let me bless them with these words at bedtime. Last year, at my father’s bedside the day before he died, I felt led to bless him with these words – a son returning the blessing to his father. In turn, he placed his hand on my head (too weak to speak by then) and he silently blessed me in like fashion. I will never be the same.

I don’t know of anything more vital than the blessing of the Father. That is why each day I receive afresh the baptismal blessing when I pray the prayer of the Street Psalms Community. I invite you to pray it with us now.

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

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “Mira Cleir A. Tamonang | Pre-Baptism Photoshoot” by Freedom II Andres (CC BY 2.0)

The Word Without A Word

“In him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
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.
From his fullness we have all received
grace upon grace.
John 1:10-18 (excerpts)

About a hundred years ago the poet T.S. Eliot produced, some would argue, his best and most influential work. It was before his conversion to Christianity. Physical ailments, an uneven academic career, and a tortured marriage left him in a frame of mind that produced “Waste Land” – 76 memorably bleak lines such as “April is the cruelest month.” Likewise “Hollow Men” concludes, “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”

In 1927 Eliot underwent a profound shift toward faith – drawn particularly to the incarnation of Jesus. Like the incarnation itself, it was an awkward and messy move toward light amid darkness. He fumbled for words as he groped for this new reality of the divine and human embrace. His first post-conversion poem, “Ash Wednesday,” receives mixed reviews to this day. The great master of words seems to be peering as through a glass dimly, scarcely grasping what he is attempting to clothe with language.

Perhaps the disciple John, putting pen to papyrus in the first decades after Jesus’ birth, faced the same struggle? John and Eliot clearly share a wordsmith’s relentless desire to deploy each word, each nuance, each turn of phrase precisely for its mission of meaning. How ironic that for both John and Eliot, when words fall so clearly short of that mission in describing God with us in Christ, they settle simply for the word “Word.”

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.

– T.S. Eliot, excerpt from “Ash Wednesday

Eliot would go on to find a bit surer footing in later poetry, though it was hardly the case that he lived happily ever after. He would always be part of the “unstilled world,” but like John he had found a “centre of the silent Word.”

We too live in unstilled worlds. Unto us a child has been born, inarticulate, unable to speak a word – the Word. Maybe it is fitting we find ourselves also inarticulate in the light of this very human and very divine presence, and find in silence a space to listen.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Photo: “Lost words” by Kool (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To Hope and To Wait

“But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
Romans 8:24-25 

In the Spanish language the verb esperar means both “to hope” and “to wait.” It is a beautiful Advent verb, capturing the essence of the season that we have journeyed together these past four weeks.

This waiting, essential to the spiritual life, is not an empty waiting. It is a waiting bathed in hope and a promise that makes present what we wait for. When architect Frank Lloyd Wright was asked at the age of 83 which of his works he would say was his most magnificent masterpiece, he said, “my next one.” We have waited during Advent for the birth of Jesus. Our waiting has now been fulfilled, and we celebrate the birth of he who has been the object of our pregnant hope:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given….”

In the Gospel reading this week (Luke 2:22-40), two old folks happen upon a couple carrying a child. Luke describes Simeon and Anna in terms that he will use later of the early Christian movement. Simeon is “righteous and devout and the Holy Spirit is upon him.” Anna is a prophetess and a long-time widow who spends every waking hour in worship and prayer. Both spend their final days “esperando” (hopefully waiting) for the “consolation of Israel”(Simeon) and the “redemption of Jerusalem” (Anna).

Simeon and Anna both saw the Christ and welcomed him because they were longing for his coming and his redemption. What have you been waiting for this Christmas? What have you been longing for? What have you been expecting to receive? Did you see Jesus? In whom? How? When?

I am fascinated with the person of Simeon. My mind races to what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph to have their baby taken out of their arms by a strange, old man. What did the face of Simeon look like as he held in his arms the “consolation of Israel” for whom he had been waiting his entire life? Oh the joy that must have enveloped him – a sense of utter fulfillment, coming as it did after a long time of waiting, impregnated by hope. How do Simeon and Anna’s lives at the time of meeting Jesus speak to you having just had the same experience this Advent?

How are we to wait for God? We wait in hope, patiently. But patience does not mean passivity. Waiting patiently is not like waiting for your date to pick you up, the snow to stop, or the sun to rise. It is an active waiting, one in which we embrace the present in order to experience here and now the signs of the One for whom we wait. The word patience comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer.” The art of waiting patiently is suffering through the present moment, marinating within the juices of current reality, all the while learning to see life through the lens of unbridled hope.

In a recent e-mail to the organizational directors with whom we serve at Street Psalms, Kris Rocke quoted Paula D’Arcy who said, “God comes to us disguised as our own life.” He then went on to explain that in D’Arcy’s words, we find a poetic way of saying that the Incarnation reveals itself most powerfully not only in the past or in the future, but also in the present reality of everyday life. “Jesus is coming to us whether we have raised lots of money for our organizations or find ourselves in the hole,” Kris wrote. These are merely the circumstances into which Jesus comes… either way, he comes!

Pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote in a 1943 letter that “a prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various seemingly unessential things and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”

Our time of hopeful waiting, like Simeon and Anna’s, has led to the opening of the door to freedom in the birth of Jesus. We hold in our arms the new birth of promise, we gaze in wonder at the mercy, grace, and love of the Almighty, and we revel in the words of the Old Testament prophet whose vision has been fulfilled:

“Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty.” (Malachi 3:1)

At the conclusion of this Advent season may you, like Simeon and Anna, have in your arms and in your heart the One who has come – the object of your deepest longings and most profound desire.

Merry Christmas, and may you have a hope-filled 2015!

Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms
Latin America

 

Photo: “Waiting for good news” by Jorge Sanmartín Maïssa (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Let It Be

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God…. Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Luke 1:35, 38

“Let it be.” These are words of faith in their most distilled form.

The angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her that she will bear the savior of the world. Mary is understandably confused. She asks, “How can this be?” And then, after some consideration, she says three very simple words that changed her life and the course of human history. “Let it be…” (Luke 1:38)

The Beatles song, “Let it Be,” echoes this event:

“When I find myself in times of trouble,

Mother Mary comes to me.

Speaking words of wisdom.

Let it be, Let it be…” 

As a rule, Street Psalms is an active network that makes things happen. We come out of the prophetic tradition and are very much concerned with issues of social justice. Nobody has accused us of being overly contemplative. Perhaps that is why the words of Mother Mary are so challenging. She reminds us that transformation is not something that we can either will or work into existence – ever. It is always a gift. At its most fundamental level, the transformative power of the Gospel is something we accept, receive, and let happen.

The problem, of course, is that Mary’s words, like so many words in Scripture, are easily distorted. In the mouths of the mainstream, “let it be” can easily become a cover up for the status quo. It can easily mean, “We like the way things are, so let it be.” On the other hand, in the mouths of the marginalized, “let it be” can easily become an utterance of despair, resignation, and fatalism. It can easily mean, “We are tired and things will never change, so let it be.” Mary’s words (the Beatles’s too) resist both temptations. They offer us another way.

As I see it, the key to understanding Mary (and the Beatles) is in the word “it.” When she says, “let it be,” the “it” that she is referring to is not the external conditions of the world she inhabits – a world enslaved by violence. The “it” that she is referring to is the goodness and grace of God’s favor on the world she inhabits, and the mystery by which that favor will be demonstrated in Christ. God’s favor is the “it” – the only “it” that we are called to accept and let be.

Check out this clip from the movie Across the Universe. It beautifully, if painfully, highlights the tension in Mary’s words. The scene is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the tumultuous 1960s when the Beatles wrote their song. Hear it as a prayer – a prayer for God’s favor. Hear afresh the words of Mary this Christmas, as God’s favor in Christ draws near again: “Let it be.”
Peace,

Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

Photo: “Let it be + Come together, John-Lennon-Wall, detail, Prague” photo by helst1 – off for some days (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Advent Hope

He said, “I am the voice of one crying out 
in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way 
of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said.
John 1:6-8, 19-28

It’s the third week of Advent and soon the “Word will become flesh.” We will hear the voice of an angel announce “peace on earth.” But let’s be clear, the pathway to peace is paved by the disruptive voice of the prophet.

Again this week we hear the voice of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness. John the Baptist is not only speaking to highly charged hearts, he is speaking to a highly charged community fractured by radically unjust social, economic, and religious disparities. He draws his inspiration from the prophet Isaiah:

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Is. 40:3-5)

The prophet’s word induces a massive social and spiritual upheaval. Something big is being born along with the Messiah. The valleys of injustice and the mountains of oppression are being leveled so that ALL PEOPLE (not just some) can see the salvation of God.

It’s an audacious claim that is hard to believe given the uneven landscape (then and now). The modern prophet Martin Luther King Jr. echoed John the Baptist’s bold vision when he said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Yes, even though it’s hard to see in the moment, God is flattening our world as well as our hearts. God is giving us a new reality. That’s the gospel promise! The barriers of false protection that pit us against each other and divide our own hearts are coming down like the Berlin Wall. Ultimately, as the apostle Paul says, God is creating a world in which “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

The Gospel is a divine leveling – a leveling of love. But here’s the catch! This leveling cannot be survived unless we are transformed by the love that levels us.

Those who have experienced the leveling of their own soul or participated in the leveling of unjust social barriers know firsthand how dangerous it can be when dividers are gone. Without the false protection these barriers provide, things become chaotic! That is why the Gospel of Jesus urgently insists that we clothe ourselves in love (not our favorite political, racial, or religious identity flag). Without love we will tear each other apart. Jesus knows that we simply cannot survive the divine leveling if we are not also given new hearts – the very thing he so eagerly gives. “I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ez. 11:19).

For several years now I have prayed the Isaiah 40:3-5 passage daily (see Examen Prayer). I have witnessed firsthand the leveling of love and the slow but sure gifting of a new heart. It is without a doubt the most liberating and dangerous kind of love imaginable.

Word made flesh, giving hearts made flesh. Advent hope!

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “Raining Day” by Transformer 18 (CC BY 2.0)

BEEP BEEP BEEP Arggg

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight'”
Mark 1:1-3

The beginning of this “good news” according to Mark is a blaring alarm. You know the obnoxious, grating kind that jackhammers right into your dreams? Or worse, the roommate who flips on all the lights, shakes the bed, and yanks off the covers?

Ugh what time is it anyway? Just give me another 20 minutes, c’mon. Why not? This had better be good.

Over the next couple months, the lectionary will take us on a tour of the openings of each of the four Gospels. Each has its unique flavor and tone. Other gospels nudge us with at least softer wake-up music, or a kiss.

In Mark we get a smelly guy yelling – dressed like a nutcase. Right from the opening verses.

“Repent!” Literally, “get a different mind!” Wake up! Rub the sleep boogers out of your eyes. Splash some water if that’s what it takes. Brew a strong cup. Yes this is going to be good, and you’re going to miss it in the state you’re in.

No time to take this slow. Been slumbering for way too long already. Let’s get moving! We’ll figure the meaning out (or not) as we go. The first chapter of Mark alone has nine different stories of Jesus, some of which get whole chapters in other Gospels.

This is Mark’s way of announcing Good News. It’s not the only way, as we’ll see. But for some of us, and some of our communities stuck in ruts, it’s a much-needed way.

Qs: Could it be the way that is most needed in your context now? What alarms are already going off, announcing Good News in ways you might even overlook as such?

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Illustration by Patrick Hoesly (CC BY 2.0)

Awake For What?

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory…. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Mark 13:24-37

Who can keep awake always? Certainly not the apostles with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, a scene soon to follow in this story. With danger that close and yet sleep so heavy upon even Jesus’s closest, bumbling friends, how are we expected to keep awake nearly two millennia later?

I lay sleepless in bed long into the night that the decision was announced not to indict a Missouri police officer for the homicide of an unarmed black teenager. From my apartment in Colorado I heard choppers overhead: probably police monitors as well as news teams looking for drama in the demonstrations and protests below. In my days as a reporter I would have been looking for the story too. I knew that many Street Psalms friends were congregating in the city’s central park, urging peace and civil conversation around deep communal wounds from systemic oppression and police brutality. But peace and civil conversation don’t make for compelling news reporting. “If it bleeds, it leads” the evening newscast. Unlikely partners choosing to share a meal instead of decking each other doesn’t pay the bills.

I felt guilty for not gathering that night with my Street Psalms friends. Earlier that day I had lunch with a friend who works at a legal clinic for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. She had wanted to be more active in our last political campaign cycle, she said sadly, but she was too busy visiting her friend in hospice.

How much and how many can we care about before our hearts grow sleepy? There is so much to be aware of that things can dull to a low hum. It’s a struggle to stay present. Addictions large and small help take the edge off, keeping us drowsy. These days “Netflix binging” is even a thing. (Guilty.) By the time this reflection reaches your mailboxes, some people will have stood in line for hours to pay less for more on Black Friday.

In this lectionary passage, Mark presents Jesus speaking in the fullness of a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. The word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek “uncover.” Uncover what exactly? In Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie writes, “What, then, is veiled, the unveiling of which can have apocalyptic consequences? The answer is: violence…. Without benefit of religious and cultural privilege, violence simply does what unveiled violence always does: it incites more violence.”

Some scholars point out that much of what Jesus predicts has come to pass, save the glaring omission of the “Son of Man’s” return. The Jewish Temple fell in 70 A.D., before the last of Jesus’s generation had indeed passed away. We see that violence continuing today, and it will probably continue tomorrow as well.

Notice, however, that not once does Jesus pin these apocalyptic upheavals on a vengeful God. Instead, “suffering is to be caused by wars, frauds, charlatans, natural catastrophes, misunderstandings and persecutions” (Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred) – all stuff humanity is perfectly capable of without any divine help.

In the arc of the gospel narrative, we’re here with Jesus in the quiet before the storm that leads us to the violence of the cross. It’s also the first Sunday in Advent, beginning our season of waiting for (re)birth. Pastors everywhere will urge us to take time for the waiting and listening: presence along with presents. But even (or especially) pastors can get swept with us into the maelstrom of the holiday season.

What exactly are we to wait and listen for, anyway? Isn’t there someone, something to get busy caring for? A congregation, children, a fundraising campaign, a live-in mother with dementia, homeless teens on our streets, overtime to pay for Christmas presents, mandatory overtime so others receive their Christmas presents.

Some of us wait for the birth, again, of hope. Maybe we pray for the willingness to pray. Maybe we even wait for the ability to stay fully awake.

Contemplatives like Thomas Merton helped integrate mindfulness into Christian practice. Members of the Street Psalms community are introducing mindfulness techniques into member care programs for missionaries living in slums and other challenging settings throughout the world. Mindfulness can be no fun, especially for beginners like me. Staying either asleep or one frantic step ahead of that “still small voice” seems infinitely preferable. It’s easier to hit cruise control. Waking up can be like bringing your car to a screeching halt with all your baggage heaped in the back seat: all that baggage just ends up on top of you.

As people of God we can work to uncover violence – not with further violence, but with love and presence. But those efforts are only sustainable if we also offer love and presence to ourselves. We don’t know when we’ll be brought to screeching halts, or when those skies will darken and the stars will fall. Might we try contemplative prayer, mindfulness, and other practices to stay awake? Every day, hour, minute offers a new opportunity.

Peace,
Stephanie Dunlap
Street Psalms

P.S. For Apple users, here’s a good contemplative prayer app.

Photo by Dennis Stauffer

I See You – A Third Way Through

“The horizontal arms of the cross are the
two sides of every dilemma, the vertical line
is the third way, and the way through.”
Richard Rohr

The Gospel reading before us from this week’s lectionary is a famous one about sheep and goats from Matthew 25:31-46. It is a passage that has been used most often as a teaching illustration for the eternal separation of good from bad.

  • The goats are the unbelievers
  • The sheep are the believers
  • The unbelievers go to hell
  • The believers go to heaven

As a youngster, I liked the affirmation found in my assumed identity as one of the “good sheep.” While I pitied the eternal destiny of the “goats” around me, I have to admit there was a tinge of satisfaction in knowing that the “goat people” (those revelers in sin) were one day going to get what they had coming to them. I felt at home in the dualism found in the existence of a “TEAM US” vs. a “TEAM THEM”.

There is something very self-assuring about choosing a side and then “goatasizing” (scape-“goating”) those not on yours. In so doing, we sow seeds of violence and rivalry in our hearts and in the hearts of those we’ve identified as other.

What would it look like if we were able to come to our passage this week suspending the traditional manner in which some of us have entered this text? What if we were willing (as Christ often did) to dance a little, to take a breath and a step back for a more intentional look? Could it be that we’ll see something more profound that Christ is offering us here, rather than a simple statement on eternal destination?

Perhaps there is third way through, as opposed to the temptation to divide up the world so clearly into choices between two-sided moral dilemmas? The third way of Jesus moves us out of dualistic morality into the freedom of a whole new kind of relationality. Jesus locates himself among the goats of the world – those whom we tend to judge – and there among the disposed he invites us to learn to suspend our judgment. When read this way, Jesus is actually erasing the line between insiders and outsiders that divides the world neatly into sheep and goats.

At Street Psalms, we have a hunch that in many instances, the line between insiders and outsiders (us vs. them) is an invention of our own making. Often wielded like a sword of self-righteous judgment, it is far too common a tool of control forged from a worldview of scarcity.

Jesus isn’t simply telling us we’ll go to hell if we don’t visit prisoners. He’s telling us that there’s great peace found in encounter with and caring for the outcast, and that the greatest position of power is often found in engagement with those who, according to the parable, would be found on the left side with the goats.

Consider the missional implications of what Jesus is teaching here. Traditionally the church approaches mission with the idea that there are many unconverted people out there who need the Good News of Jesus Christ; therefore it is our responsibility to go to them for their benefit. This is certainly true, but what else might be happening as we go out there?

We discover Jesus….

The hungry, thirsty, and naked reveal to us the third way of Jesus that frees us from the very judgments we are so quick to make.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America

P.S. Please consider taking five minutes to meditate on the profound insight of Bryan Sirchio in his song “I See You,” written after an encounter with a little girl on the streets of Haiti.

Unlikely Hero in a Familiar Parable?

“For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”
Matthew 25:29-30

Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news

… So sang Billie Holiday in 1941. The song “God Bless the Child”* sold over a million records, on the force not only of “Lady Day’s” achingly lovely voice, but also the blunt realities of the world to which it attests:

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

In her autobiography, Holiday recounted an argument with her mother over money that seared these words into her psyche as a young girl, “God bless the child that’s got his own.” Holiday went on to get her own, largely raising herself and going on to make millions in her brilliant career – though the final arc of her life ended with less than a dollar in her bank account and not a friend by her side.

Money, you’ve got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you’re gone, spending ends
They don’t come no more

Holiday’s spirit clearly longed for something else, a different sort of world, and glimmers of it flashed in the wistful songs she favored.

I confess, as your Word From Below correspondent this week, to wrestling even more than usual with the meaning of this text the lectionary offers from Matthew’s gospel. Wrestling in mind and spirit. Many cross-currents here. One consolation is that if we’re baffled, we’re hardly alone! Jesus’s first hearers commonly were, and every generation since. Another consolation is that sowing confusion actually seems to be a key strategy for Jesus – agitating us from ruts of the status quo.

And what is the status quo? The default way of the world is clearly what Billie Holiday heard from her mother, and what we’re conditioned to hear at first impression from this gospel story: “Them that’s got shall get/Them that’s not shall lose.” Better get your own, because if you don’t, this world will shred you and spit you out. If you do, as Lady Day found out, the world may bless you – buy a million records and shower you with adulation. Jesus found that out too.

A few chapters back in Matthew, Jesus couldn’t even escape the fawning crowds when he tried. A chapter or two ahead, and he will be utterly abandoned. In between, he laments how the true prophets have been killed in the name of God (chapter 23), and warns of calamity when the faithful will be once again hunted down and terrorized (chapter 24). In fact the graphic-novel-style apocalypse of the previous chapter escalates the horror to the highest level, as the lords of violent power in heaven and earth claim their place as God.

Yes, Jesus knows how all this works. He knows what’s been building these three years. Soon it will crush him, and he will be thrown by the powers outside the city gates to the “Place of the Skull.”

The “Parable of the Talents” here in chapter 25 depicts three house slaves who have been entrusted with their master’s possessions. The stakes are high; the slaveholder is known to be a violent, “harsh man” (verse 24). One hides the money (a “talent” being the name of an extremely valuable coin), while others invest. The investors are rewarded with favor. The guy who squirrelled away his single entrusted coin is brutally cast out.

I have loved ones crushed by the powers of the world and thrown out. They’re struggling. Sometimes they are faithful, sometimes not. Me too. Sometimes my loved ones think it’s God crushing them, casting them aside. I’m not so sure about that, but my arguments are not always convincing. Together we hunger for good news. We talk about Jesus, a lot.

Is Jesus the voice of Billie Holiday’s mother here?

Is God the harsh slaveowner, ruling by terror?

Does God simply sanction the status quo, the way of the world – playing by its rules of rewards and punishments with even higher cosmic stakes?

It seems a tremendous stretch, given what Jesus has taught on the Sermon on the Mount, how he has lived and loved, how he will die, and how he will rise. It seems farfetched, if in him we truly have seen the glory of God.

Or could it be, as a small minority of interpreters has suggested, that the hero of this parable is actually the slave who is cast out and crushed? Crushed not by God, but by God’s imposters? Like true prophets through time, this slave has subverted the status quo through an act of resistance – and paid a terrible price. Could it be that like the prophets, he points through his faithfulness to another sort of world? Could it be that the slave in fact has paid this price for his allegiance to the “kingdom” Jesus has spoken of and modeled? Could it be the brutal price Jesus himself knows he will pay, at the hands of harsh men, so that these very dynamics of power might be dismantled and transformed?

If so, it would be a glimmer of very good news not only for the poor but for all people, as Jesus boldly announced from the beginning. Is this what Jesus wants us to see? But oh my – what stunning courage it calls forth. We are headed with Jesus for Jerusalem.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

P.S. Listen to “God Bless the Child” on Spotify here or YouTube here .

 

The Crushing Weight of Purity

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat…. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
Matthew 23:2-4

Last week I “had the talk” with a group of young leaders in Romania, on the topic of “God and sex.” What was I thinking when I volunteered for that? While I’ve had countless informal conversations with these friends over the years on both subjects, it’s the first time we’ve tackled it formally in our leadership training.

Hmm, really, who wants to hear an old guy talk about sex? Someone suggested we just show pictures, which certainly might offer more engaging possibilities. Fortunately I’m only one part of the mix. While we wondered if the whole thing would unravel into goofy-ness, our young people’s earnest desire to learn and grow shone through. We had fun for sure, and had to reel it in at points. But they pressed in with many whiteboard brainstorms about what questions to explore – which became a plan for a number of weekly sessions.

Our session went great last week – beyond expectations. More about that in a moment. What caught me up short was a phone conversation with someone in the USA afterward. “I hope you started by teaching about purity. That has to be the foundation,” my friend advised. “Use the verse in Philippians and go from there.” Think, think, I thought. The verse on purity? Oh yes I remembered, chapter four. “Nothing else about sex will matter if there’s not purity.” I wasn’t so sure about that, but in the moment I couldn’t put my finger on why. Who can argue with purity? Snow and gold and Ivory soap? Lamely I offered that we’d be talking about purity.

At the risk of betraying precious individual confidences, I’ll paint with a large brush here and say that as a group our young people – formerly abandoned and institutionalized – have experienced sex in almost every way imaginable since they were very small children. Sex before they knew what sex was. Sex with orphanage staff. Sex with local officials, as a perk. Sex with bullies. Sex as bullies. Sex for money for other people. Sex for cigarettes. Sex with each other. Sex with both sexes, sex in groups, sex by themselves. Sex they didn’t want and sex they did. Yes, sex in every way imaginable except “purity.”

So where to start?

A “pure” place to start would be “the seat of Moses” the lawgiver. Famously, there were 613 Mosaic laws and quite a few were about sex. Moses’s seat is a good seat to sit on, when you can possibly imagine yourself pure.

No one imagines our young people pure. Least of all, themselves.

From the seat of Moses we might say “You’ve had it done to you wrong, and done it wrong yourselves, now get it right and here’s how.” But sex… ah sex. Sex! It goes so far, far, far beyond doing. It goes to being. To every blessed and dark corner of being. It becomes our being.

When you understand yourself to be a pool that’s been peed in, gum that’s been chewed, a flower with plucked petals – to use purity metaphors that yes actually get used – you can’t un-pee or un-chew or un-pluck. Any of us, if unflinchingly honest, have a lot more of this in us than we let on. Our young leaders in Romania have it in every cranny of their bodies and souls, with the added feature of seldom being able to hide it.

Our young people will wither before the seat of Moses. It will crush them. In fact it already has crushed them in a thousand ways. It’s much of what they think they know of God.

So where did we start? We started with Moses the storyteller. We started at the start of the story he told, with the Spirit moving over the face of the deep and bringing life. We started with a story of stuff – earthy, physical stuff – spinning out from delight and raucously cheered as good. We talked about hands down in dirt, playing, messing around, squishing and pushing body parts into humanity, lithe and sensuous. We went around the room telling each other about our own favorite pleasures of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. We rubbed fragrant lotion on each other’s hands. (Nope I didn’t lead that part. But it was nice!)

We asked each other the most beautiful question: whose image do we bear? Not could we, or should we, or might we bear. Whose image do we bear?

Afterward a young man pulled me aside. “This is the first time I have ever felt good about myself, even for a few minutes. This is the first time I have had hope.”

If the “seat of Moses” the lawgiver has become a hulking marble throne that crushes, could it be that Jesus calls us back – back to Moses of the liberating Exodus, further back to Moses barefoot before a burning bush, still further back to fingers in the mud? Those are the fingers Jesus lifts. He makes the burden light, calling us forward, forward, forward into marvelous light from which we need not flinch.

Good thing, because next session is about vaginas and penises.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

 

Photo: www.HolyLandPhotos.org

Love God, Love People, Nothing Else Matters

So reads a phrase on the many battered T-shirts stacked up in the back of my closest. I just don’t have the heart to discard them – those old shirts contain so many beautiful memories of my summers serving the children and families of north Philadelphia over twenty years ago.

The phrase above became the motto for a little outfit with which I served back then. Eventually that little group evolved into a bustling organization. The phrase on the shirt was lifted from the words of Jesus responding to the Pharisees’s trap question (another of the many “un-beautiful” questions that were referred to in last week’s Word from Below). Jesus responds:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.

And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 22:37-40

Sitting here in Guatemala City, this week’s lectionary text enters a very personal space for me. Over the past few weeks my inbox has filled with concerns and questions from others regarding the life trajectory of a friend connected to those 20-year-old memories – a friend who has been one of the chief inspirations helping to put me unto the trajectory that my own life has followed. A friendship, by the way, that continues to inspire and encourage.

As I try to remain emotionally present to the many unanswered questions swirling around the issues, I feel compelled by the text in front of me to consider anew the words that jumped off the T-shirts and perforated my heart two decades ago:

“Love God, Love People, Nothing Else Matters.”

Is that really true? Is this statement about love in two directions all that really matters?

For my part, I guess some could say that it’s just a blind allegiance to a kind of nostalgia that keeps my closest full of unworn, tattered T-shirts bearing catchy sayings. However, what about for he who uttered these words in the first place? Was there something far more foundational, revolutionary, and practical that roots his response in an earth-shaking exclamation – in the face of which “Nothing Else Matters?” Could it not be argued decisively that the church today has tweaked the statement to read: “Love God, Love People and a whole lot of other stuff also matters.”

If Jesus’s words to the Pharisees meant anything then, they mean no less today. They even take on further texture if we see the words through the lens of the expanded definition of “neighbor” revealed by the parable of the Good Samaritan. An additional layer comes from the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44).

The big surprise for the Pharisees comes with the addition of this second commandment – “love your neighbor” – that Jesus says is equally important as the first. The Pharisees had definitely not asked for two. It is this second that made them squirm, because they had organized themselves around a love for themselves more than their “neighbors.” In fact, they assumed superiority to their neighbors and certainly felt superior to those stinkin’ Sadducees that Jesus had just finished shutting up in the previous verses.

I see far more of my current self than I’d like to admit in the Pharisees of this story. Why, like them, have I allowed so many other things to “matter” more than the cruciform-shaped dimensions of love? Why do I allow my pride, reputation, success, and comfort to matter more than love? What was it (in relationship with either friend or foe) that the younger version of the person wearing those T-shirts 20 years ago understood, that this older version seems to have forgotten?

Perhaps a righteous Christian life is not one that obeys the law of God impeccably, but a life that loves relentlessly. Love, Jesus tells us, is the way to unplug from the cage of violence and rivalry that the teachers of the law are trying to lock him – and all of us – up inside.

Maybe Jesus is again giving permission to take to heart the greatest gift of God in this life – to continually and repeatedly and relentlessly embrace the ones we love while extending the goodwill of heart, soul, and mind to all the world – even, or maybe especially, to those who seem furthest away.

Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms
Latin America

P.S. For those among our readers who remember being in high school in the late 70s and early 80s and need to laugh: please consider taking a peek at the memories from the pop culture of my youth that surfaced for me in my mind’s eye while working on this reflection.

Perhaps motivational speaker Bill Murray has something to say to us about what does or just does not matter in relationship to what we typically find so important in life.

Or perhaps Steve Martin wasn’t such a “jerk” after all with this parody on life about all that’s really needed.

Un-Beautiful Questions

“Tell us, then, what you think. 
Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Matthew 22:17

At Street Psalms we’ve grown to love “beautiful questions.” They provide doorways to freedom and life.

Unfortunately un-beautiful questions abound as well. These questions prove to be traps – luring us to small, confining spaces with doors that snap shut.

How very crucial to discern the difference!

Beautiful questions spring from the pages of scripture and from the life experiences of people in our communities. By some counts, there are over 3,000 questions in the Bible. Beautiful questions may be hard and haunting, or gentle and inviting – but they are capable of opening our spirits to wider and richer realities. Questions such as…

– Where are you?
– How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
– Who do you say that I am?
– What do you want me to do for you?
– How many times should I forgive?

Beautiful questions prompt us to deeper life with God and each other, especially as we explore them together.

Other questions are NOT beautiful. We come to know them by their fruit. Scripture records plenty of this variety too.

Un-beautiful questions can be posed sincerely, but start from false premises that run us off the rails every time. A classic example opens John chapter 9: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Who sinned questions virtually never become beautiful questions for our communities. Who’s to blame? Who can we scapegoat? We would do well to pay careful attention to how Jesus avoids such a trap in this important story, and prompts his hearers toward freedom.

Other un-beautiful questions come from flat-out ugly motives from the start – which brings us to this week’s lectionary reading in Matthew 22. Here Herodians and Pharisees are unlikely collaborators in a plot they hope will prove deadly. Usually on opposite sides of the political fence (loyal vs. resistant to Rome respectively), they now unite to scapegoat Jesus. No matter that they happen to have completely different views of Roman taxation. Fear and loathing bring them together. Their question represents not honest inquiry but a rhetorical trap, which Jesus calls out immediately as “hypocrisy” (Matthew 22:18). It’s not the first time for this chronic trap-question: “Is it lawful?” (v. 17).

Jesus asks for a coin used for the imperial tax imposed on every man and woman in Palestine. His questioners hand him a silver coin stamped with the image of Tiberius Caesar, and inscribed with the words “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” The reverse bears a goddess image with the words “High Priest” – i.e. of the cult of emperor worship. The coin was literally the property of the divine “son of god” who demanded unquestioning allegiance and subjugation. For Jews the graven god-image and inscription represented blasphemy of course, and indeed sparked a Boston Tea-Party style revolt in the year 6 A.D. that was brutally crushed.*

Jesus answers the “lawful?” trap-question with a beautiful question. “Whose image?” (v. 20). Echoes from the Hebrew creation story are unmistakable:

“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

“Whose image?” What vistas this opens! What imagination it sparks! What freedom it invites! What a vibrant, life-giving contrast to petty wrangling about “what’s lawful,” and what if anything might be owed to a distant despot who maintains grudging allegiance by swords and stooges. Fine, return his little coin, if that’s the extent of his claim. But the beautiful question is: Who are the true image-bearers? What might it mean to render the image of the divine giver of life?

May we cultivate discernment among questions, and eagerness for questions that open us to good news.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

*For background see Craig Keener, here.

 

Photo: A coin with the image of Tiberius Caesar from Essam‘s photos  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Builders of Violence

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.'”
Matthew 21:42

The tension has been building, building. If this were simply the story of a nice guy – with kindness for the sick and friendship with the forgotten – things could have been different. Jesus might have flown under the radar. We have instead a story sliding toward violence.

As the conflict stretched to the snapping point between respected religious leaders and this rogue rabbi, we might imagine any number of ways to ease the tension. At this precise juncture Jesus opts for nothing of the sort. Just the opposite; he ups the torque. No longer roaming the desert or the villages of Galilee, Jesus is now approaching the sacred center – geographically in Jerusalem and chronologically with the upcoming Passover.

Without an awareness of what’s at stake here, we might misread Jesus’s reference to Psalm 118 simply as an inspirational quote about making cornerstones from castoff junk. You know the motivational posters in middle managers’ offices… “POTENTIAL: Your Marvelous is Ready to Be Seen.” In other words: a bland, innocuous statement about what might be possible for anyone anywhere with a dose of resourcefulness!

Though Jesus continues to speak in parables and metaphor, the references are becoming more explicit. The “builders” are those who construct and manage the prevailing religious, political, and social systems. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them” (verse 45).

Throughout his public life, Jesus defied the architecture of these systems, welcoming people whom the dominant structures rejected and excluded. As we’ve seen in recent readings, these rejects included prostitutes, foreigners, slackers, and lawbreakers. Jesus might now be expected to clarify: “Okay, I’ve been hanging out with this unsavory bunch for strategic reasons – to bring them around for help making my point – but make no mistake, I’m not one of them!” Instead he brings a new clarity: “This is exactly who I am.”

The news isn’t that Jesus has finally managed to wedge himself into the old conventional architecture, finally accepted as the expected Christ. The news instead is an unexpected wrecking ball crashing the very structures that craftsmen take pains to conserve. To put an even finer point on it, not only the buildings but the builders themselves: “Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed” (verse 44). Sound harsh? Earlier Jesus announced that nothing less is required for salvation: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

Ironically, this is the way of love. It is the way of true life. It is the way of nonviolence and peace, which Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us is not simply the absence of conflict but a new arrangement of reality expressed in the “beloved community.” It is the way of good news for the poor – over which conservators of the old order will stumble and flail – often violently. In each of three “synoptic” gospels in which this cornerstone reference appears, it immediately follows the dark parable of vineyard tenants killing the son of the vineyard owner.

The new comes – a marvel! But as we see the gospel story unfolding, the old will not go quietly. Should we be surprised when it sometimes does not go gently around even our peaceable work in vulnerable urban communities?

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “Once the dust settles” by Brandon Doran (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Scandal of Authority

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
Matthew 21:31b

At Street Psalms we embrace a particular perspective that invites us into a grace to see from below. We do theology from below, reading the Bible with the excluded and damned. We practice spirituality from below, together learning to see and celebrate good news in hard places. We share a spirituality of imperfection that delights in the Spirit’s dance among awkwardness and disarray.

A perspective like this often leads to profound, disorientating questions about authority.

In the Dominican Republic, Pastor Francis Montas and his wife, Loly, shepherd a church of young people – Casa Joven – that meets on Saturday nights in a converted Santo Domingo nightclub. They have been core members since the beginning of our Dominican Republic missional community, led by CTM Caribbean Director Mario Matos. Their work with street kids, incarcerated juvenile delinquents, and las chicas de Sarasota (prostitutes) serves as a prophetic wake-up call to many others in the Dominican church.

One Thursday night, Francis and Loly called a special prayer service because so many young people in their flock were having serious problems. They did not know what else to do in the face of such difficult circumstances. They met in a little house near one of Santo Domingo’s most infamous streets for prostitution – La Avenida Sarasota. Their prayers for one another seemed strained and blocked somehow in a way that they had not experienced before. They began to question their own authority related to their work as a church, and a prayerful attention began to shift to the young women working on the street outside of this prayer meeting. They began talking about the women and praying for them. Eventually they felt compelled to leave from where they were and spent the next several hours outside asking beautiful questions of the “Chicas de Sarasota.”

I had the chance to go out to the streets with Francis and Loly and their team seven weeks later, during which time they had not missed a Thursday night encounter with the girls.

We experienced a numbness-shattering picture of God’s scandalous grace in the strange world of evening call girls. Every sex worker we talked to lit up as the young women from the church called her by name and embraced each with bear hugs. The women on the street updated us on their week, shared stories about their children, and received prayer with eager anticipation – all the while completely ignoring potential clients who passed by.

We had just finished sharing and praying with a group of three sex workers when one of them, whom I will call Gloria, asked if she could pray for us. Needless to say, that was an inversion of roles I had not anticipated. We all joined hands on the sidewalk of Avenida Sarasota at 2:30 a.m., and I heard one of the most beautiful prayers of my life. When Gloria uttered her “amen,” a smile exploded onto her face. She sheepishly confessed that it was the first time she had ever prayed out loud. I pretended to cough while trying to wipe away tears. Gloria received more bear hugs from the ladies and an awkward handshake from me. She said that she planned to come to church that Saturday night where I was scheduled to preach.

I thought about her promise several times over the next several days, and on Saturday night, Gloria indeed came. When the service concluded, she received hug after hug from the young worshipers, including this guest preacher, whose awkward handshake on the street a few nights earlier would no longer suffice for Gloria. She approached me with arms opened wide and a smile erupting with joy. Authority remixed??

How blessed the church in Casa Joven has become, and how their vision and mission for their city has been recalibrated through their interaction with these young women! Casa Joven is living out the missional implications of questioned authority in which the outsiders “get it.” As a result they are encouraging many other “insiders” throughout Central America and the Caribbean to exchange hugs with the “outsiders” of their respective cities and neighborhoods. And in so doing, they are giving the question of “authority” a graced-filled facelift.

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

 

Photo: “Mumbay Prostitute” by Salvatore Barbera (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Last and the First

“Jesus says ‘For the Kingdom of heaven is like the landowner who…'”
Matthew 20:1-16

“Pray then in this way…. Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.”
Matthew 6:9-13

For those of us who wrestle with earning our place – either in heaven or in our office – through good and hard work, this passage about a lavishly generous landowner might not go down easy. This landowner’s economics are not like those we learned in school, or on the streets.

Obviously, this passage tells us that the landowner of the kingdom is concerned for all his workers. The invitation to join in keeps coming throughout the day. When I sit with these words in lectio divina, it appears the kingdom is about giving everyone the opportunity to participate in the life, the purpose, and the work of the kingdom. It all belongs to him and he is generous. It is about how he chooses to love and lavishly pour grace on everyone.

But for a moment let’s place ourselves among the workers. What is our response? Am I the first or the last? Am I the jealous worker who has toiled all day long? Am I the grateful one who joined the team at the last minute and reaped the full benefits?

Or perhaps there are better questions. What were all these workers to learn about themselves and about God as they encountered this part of their individual journeys?

The ones hired in the morning – did they need to work all day and reap the benefits of a full day’s labor?

Those hired at the end of the day – was theirs a gift of purpose when all seemed lost?

So it brings me to think that we all have a place, and I ask myself what else we receive along with our wages. As they stood in line to receive their reward, did workers unwittingly already hold in their hands, and in their experiences of the day, riches that they did not readily recognize? Was that not part of the “your kingdom come, your will be done” plan?

Once I loose myself from the math in which I think that working harder or longer should earn me more, the mystery of the kingdom always strikes me with wonder and comfort. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord in Isaiah 55:8.

When our thoughts (and feelings!) center on fairness, reward, and ourselves, we are most often looking in the wrong places. As our friend Richard Rohr says, after any true God experience, you know that you are a part of a much bigger whole, as if you are actually inside of a larger mystery.

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth…

Peace,
Penny Salazar-Phillips
Director of Joshua Station at Mile High Ministries
Street Psalms Community

 

Photo: “Last Light (Avoid Mud)” by Hailey E. Herrera

Forgiveness

“Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Matthew 18:32-35

On the surface, here is another parable that seems to contradict itself. Jesus starts off by painting a picture of mercy and ends with frightening judgment that seems to undermine the original point.

The parable begins with Peter asking about whether there are any limits to forgiveness. Peter asks, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus completely blows the roof off the limits that Peter wants to impose and says, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (18:21-22).

“Seventy-seven” is biblical code language of eternal completeness. In other words, there is no limit to forgiveness inside the Kingdom. God does not merely have mercy, as if it were a commodity to be dispensed when feeling generous, God IS mercy.

To make the point, Jesus goes on to tell the parable about an unforgiving servant. At first the point seems obvious. Give mercy to others as you are given mercy by God. It is a beautiful picture of the Kingdom of God in action.

But the whole darn thing seems to flip right at the end. At the end of the parable, God’s judgment seems to mirror our own. Is Jesus saying forgive others as God forgives you… OR ELSE? Is he suggesting that God wants to be nice, but if you are a jerk then God will be a jerk too? What’s worse, Jesus seems to suggest that God will “torture” you big time if you don’t play according to the rules. What started as a revelation of limitless mercy ends as some kind of spiritual terrorism.

Or so it seems…

The key word in this passage is the phrase “handed him over.” It is a passive verb. The King “handed over (the servant to be tortured.” This phrase is used repeatedly throughout the Gospels referring to Jesus himself. For example, later in Matthew, “The Son of Man is to be handed over for crucifixion” (Matthew 26:2).

The point is that the King is not actively punishing the servant any more than God was punishing Jesus for our sins on the cross (as is commonly taught). That would make the master no different than the servant. Instead, the master releases the servant over to the hell of his own making. In other words, if we opt out of the Kingdom principle of seventy-seven, we are reluctantly handed over to the hell of our own choosing. This process will feel very much as if God is punishing us.

The diabolic logic of tit-for-tat debt-keeping binds us and blinds us. We end up seeing God and the world in the same light. We see God in our own debt-keeping image, and in the end that image tortures us. Of course, this is a hell of our own making and has no basis in reality, but it’s hard to convince someone of that while it is happening. It’s a hellish way to live, which is why Jesus was “handed over” to the crucifixion – to show the world the true end of its diabolic logic. And while being crucified Jesus declares the only way out of the vicious cycle in which we are trapped: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Therefore, forgive as you have been forgiven.

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: The Stone Cross on the Hill by Tambako The Jaguar (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Binding and Loosing

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Matthew 18:18-20

Jesus’s ministry as peacemaker was characterized by – paradoxically – disruption and disorientation. It is clear he viewed this as essential to the movement toward shalom. At every turn in the gospel accounts, we find the status quo challenged by his words and actions. In this week’s gospel reading, here we have it again! Jesus is making a major shift in the location of authority.

The language of “binding and loosing” would have been familiar to his hearers as a responsibility and privilege reserved for respected religious authorities such as the Pharisees.* These teachers interpreted gray areas and practical implications of the Jewish law. The fourth commandment, for instance, forbids work on the Sabbath. But what about carrying something? How heavy? How far? What exactly can I carry, and what for? A piece of bread across the room? A sack of flour across town?

Religious authorities debated and decided this stuff – allowing and forbidding. Things allowed were “loosed” and things forbidden were “bound.” The implications ranged across all of life – personal, social, spiritual, legal. Some teachers were stricter and others were, well, looser.

In this and similar passages, Jesus doesn’t weigh in on whether he falls in the strict or loose camp. As a rabbi he makes a far more profound move. He grants to his immediate hearers the responsibility and authority to make such discernment. Not only that, he gives their “binding and loosing” the weight and sanction of heaven.

When we remember who Jesus’s followers were, this becomes downright alarming. Unschooled social castoffs making the rules for everybody? Here I want to say very personally how challenged I am even as I write this. I’m a religiously educated person groomed for authority, who happens to have spent many years among social misfits by way of programs, friendships, and even family. I think I probably have more appreciation for their messy gifts than most people do – having undergone so many of my own painful and beautiful rebirths with them. But… but… the homeless coffee house guys setting the rules for the place? Making moral judgments for others? Exercising spiritual discernment that impacts the whole community?

I need to sit with this and you do too. As we do, we will do well to explore the contexts (both in the immediate text and the larger story) in which Jesus makes this shift in authority. As well as our own contexts!

Here in this passage, the authority shift comes as a response to practical questions of conflict resolution (Matthew 18:15-17). “Binding and loosing” judgments are not made in an absolutist or theoretical vacuum. Commenting on this passage, J.H. Yoder observes that in our own day, “Christian debate about moral issues makes the mistake of concentrating on what the standards ought to be rather than on how they are to be discerned and implemented…. Conversation with reconciling intent is the most powerful way for a community to discover when the rules they have been applying are inadequate, so that they may be modified.”

Jesus was gathering a rag-tag community whom he trusted – even mandated – to do this ongoing work of discernment. Do we have this same trust?

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

*One excellent discussion of “binding and loosing” in Jesus’s day is here.

 

Photo: “Bound” by Steven Key (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A Change of Heart for Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Might we grow and change with Jesus as well?

Peace,
Scott Dewey
The Street Psalms Community

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

Theoretical Considerations of Walking on Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformation begins when we do too.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
The Street Psalms Community

Lavish For Whom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motive: Narcissism – Compassion

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

Invitation: Exclusive to royal guests – Welcome to all

Serves: Lusts of the host – Nourishment of guests

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

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

Outcome: Violence – Shalom

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

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

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

Urban spaces: Private vs. publicly shared

Recreation and celebration, festivals: Privately vs. publicly enjoyed

Economic opportunity: Pathways for a few vs. many

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

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

Peace,
Scott Dewey
The Street Psalms Community

 

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

Riddles of Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Dazzled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind – 

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

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

Photo by Ronnie Pitman (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Deficiencies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waste more, want more!

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

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

My Well-Fitting Yoke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Scott Dewey
The Street Psalms Community

 

Photo: Nepal by Scott Dewey

Hospitality Among the Flies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Stephanie Dunlap
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Two Women in the Park by Evan Bench

The Manner of Going

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

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

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

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

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

Generosity: “Enough for all!”

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

Hospitality: “Room for all.”

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

Simplicity: “Limits for all.”

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

Vulnerability: “Risk in all”

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

Go, therefore…

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

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

All Flesh Is One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Unity by Luz_Spy (CC BY 2.0)

Advocate or Accuser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joel Van Dyke
CTM Guatemala
Street Psalms partner

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

Way, Truth, Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mercy Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thought Experiment:

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

Thought Experiment #2:

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

Thought Experiment #3:

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

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

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: Herod’s Gate in Jerusalem circa 1940

Creation Through Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

2. “Peace be with you” (vs.19).

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

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

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

4. “Peace be with you” (vs. 21).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. “But Thomas…” (vs. 24)

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

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

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

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

 

Photo: “Doubting Thomas,” painting by Caravaggio

Maundy Thursday

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

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

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

Hear afresh these words at the meal of friendship,

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

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

 

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

Gospel of Rejects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Scott Dewey
The Street Psalms Community

 

Photo: Palm Sunday 11 by Waiting For The Word

Voice from the Bones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms Latin America

Adapted from Geography of Grace, chapter 14

Formed Among Thorns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Lenten Blessings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ St. Patrick

Peace,
Kris Rocke
Street Psalms

Photo: Phil Whitehouse

You’re Invited to Desire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Street Psalms

The Greatest Loser

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Street Psalms

Photo: Michele Clemo, Jesus the Homeless statue

The Enemy of Perfection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
The Street Psalms Community

Photo:

Have You Heard?

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

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

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

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

Part 1 – “You have heard it said”

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

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

Part II – “But I say”

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

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

Rabbi Jesus, teach us to see through your eyes.

Peace,
Street Psalms Community

A Solitary Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Into Prison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,

The Street Psalms Community

Mission: Transformed

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