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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