Stretch Out Your Hand

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If I must pick just one story in the book of Mark that speaks most directly into my own life, it is the story of the man with the withered hand (3:3). We know from Luke’s added detail to this story that the withered hand likely represents the loss of vocation – his working hand. Through some unidentified circumstance, the man had lost his ability to continue his vocational craft. His passion and ability had been crushed…and his withered hand now serves as his daily reminder of his withered worth.

It seems that for Mark, this story was more about the withering aftershocks of trauma upon a life than the physical injury of a hand. Mark is well aware of what happens when traumatic loss reaches the soul of a being – a debilitating injury of identity.

This is an example of the kind of “powers” that we are looking for in our journey through Mark. Psychological trauma and misplaced identity/worth are two powerful forces upon and within us. And the list of powers being revealed in Mark are everywhere for those who see and hear.

It is easy to point out the large social oppressors. Rome, Empire, The Temple, the Debt Code, the Purity Laws are easy to recognize in their oppressive forms. But can we see the power of social stigma upon Jesus because of his close association with the poor and the outcast (2:16) and how about the social shame of those weighty familial expectations! Think about the power of fear and shame at work when Jesus’ brothers and mother show up and say, “Jesus, stop embarrassing us with all this liberal social action!” (3:31)

Interestingly, the response of Jesus to the observers within the synagogue reveals an alternative way and power. When asked a simple question…is it better to save life or to kill…they stood stunned and silent, unable to discern goodness because of the thickness of their own judgment and certitude. Mark then states, “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.” (3:5)

I reckon hardness of heart is another of those subtle powers readily at work around us today. It is a condition very present in the synagogues of our day. I dare to say that I’ve directly witnessed how god-fearing certitudes and moral condemnation can destroy the worth and dignity of others. Perhaps this is exactly what Mark is hoping we will notice. Jesus noticed, and got angry.

But Jesus doesn’t stop with anger, because anger is never transformative…but it can be very initiatory. Jesus moves in his anger toward grief and then just as quickly to compassionate action.

And that is the alternative power we are asked to see. The power of compassionate action.  

Today, think on this: Who can you offer compassionate action to as a means of affirming their dignity and worth?

“Stretch out your hand.”

The Gospel according to Mark

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This is written as a summary reflection on the weekly discipleship discussion of The Gathering Community. The Gathering Community is a group of seekers who are “relinquishing what has failed (which we will likely treasure) and receiving what God will give.” Currently we are traveling through the book of Mark, receiving good news for our wearied world and selves.  

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An age of grief. That’s the best way I know how to describe the reality of our day. A time of deep grief that has settled into the soul – the very core of our being. Today we know that grief expresses itself through many different outlets: anger, sadness, loneliness, guilt, feelings of failure, and social withdrawal. And grief has its embodied expressions as well: sleep interruption, weariness, muscle tension, headaches, digestive issues, and physical pain. Many of us are well acquainted with the expressions of grief.

If we can hold our experience of grief and bring it with us to our reading of Mark, we have a chance to hear and see Mark’s message. Mark assumes his readers know the realities of suffering, dehumanizing oppression, seething anger and exasperation, and the resignation of human agency. Yet, even while bringing our own experiences of grief to the interpretive scene, we still might struggle to fully see and hear due to the depths of our privilege and our 21st century expectations. Hard words no doubt, but important to confess if we are going to enter Mark’s world and receive Mark’s message of good news.

Mark begins his story with an imaginative appeal; “The beginning of the good news.” In other words, “here is something you have never heard before, the creation of a new reality…and it’s better than the one we currently know.” Now that’s an audacious claim, but nevertheless, it is the claim Mark makes. Everything that follows those opening words in Mark unfolds that new way of seeing and hearing and reveals what it means to be human and how to experience God in a new way.

I reckon that’s what Mark is pointing us toward when he quotes Jesus saying, “Hear this announcement of good news: the kingdom of God is here.” And to hear it, we will likely have to suspend what we think we already know, hold loosely the things we often cherish, and engage the intentional work of “looking” for the new reality being revealed.

The Work of Enough

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The work of the land. The work of community. The work of enough. Each are more than formational lessons for us in our journey. They are the interlaced circles of the Kingdom, Church, and Life. They are the root, the vine, and the fruit. They are the lens through which we are seeking to see everything. They are what it means to practice the Way of Jesus. And in our practice, to be patterned into the resurrected life of Jesus.

Everyone has been given a land…a place to caretake. Be it in the suburbs or the woods, be it acres or city blocks. Everyone has a land. The land defines who your neighbors are, the land requires your attention and your awareness to its well-being. For your own well-being is dependent on the well-being of the land on which you dwell.

Everyone needs the work of community…a people who are following Jesus together. A people who define the reality of our lives. A people who self-limit for the other. A people who encourage one another on to good works. A people who serve and love together.

And everyone needs the work of enough. Let me say clearly and up front that the work of enough can’t be simplified into merely owning less; it is about what owns us.

The work of enough has been the hardest work we have tackled. I can’t say we have mastered it…but we are apprenticing enough’ers.

What is the work of enough? It’s a little hard to define. For “enough” is a mysterious thing. It’s not something you can hold, create, or something you can see…but it is something you must search for, and it is something you can find.

The work of enough is to recognize the gift of your one life. As a Chaplain, I have sat in front of many people and listened to their dying regrets. Not one time have I ever heard someone say they tried to ruin their life. Not one time have I ever heard someone tell me they wanted to be unhappy. But I have heard the same stories and themes over and over. I would summarize those stories like this: If I could live again…I would pay more attention to what I was given rather than what I wanted.

The work of enough is to recognize everything in life is derived. Everything is gift. The Bible starts with this lens…everything that exists derives from a Creator. The Genesis story is not trying to argue a scientific fact of beginnings, but providing a lens to begin life with…to see life and everything in it as a gift. Unfortunately, as told in the Genesis story, humanity struggles to embrace the humble work of enough. We too often eat the bitter fruit of wanting to trade places with God. We try to return the good gift of earth in exchange for something more.

To avoid the worn path leading out of the garden, we must refocus ourselves on the work of enough.

The work of enough reveals that we are dependent. We are not self-made. We are dependent upon God and one another. No one exists independently. We are all connected. The work of enough is to embrace our dependence. To live in a spirit of trust in God and the other. To live with an awareness that my choices in life can dictate the conditions of another life. The work of enough frees us from the independent pursuit of status, positions, and possessions. The work of enough keeps us from the traps of labels, judgement, and fear.

The work of enough requires us to confront our active idolatry. Richard Foster says, “Idolatry is, of course, the attempt to erect an allegiance higher than God.” There is no shortage of idolatry at work in our lives. Idolatrous monuments litter our cultural landscape – and if we struggle to name them…it’s likely because we are captive to them. The work of enough is the discipline of identifying and confronting our active idolatry.

What does the work of enough produce? The work of enough forms a contented life. The work of enough makes room for joy. Again it is Richard Foster who says “Joy, not grit, is the hallmark of holy obedience.” Engaging in the work of enough disciplines the spirit of dissatisfaction. The work of enough puts to work the lazy imaginations of anxiousness. The work of enough creates grounded and grateful people. The work of enough forms a person who knows they are not what they own and are fully aware of what owns them.

It seems Wendell Berry is right, again, when he writes, “And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye, clear. What we need is here.”

What we need is here. And that is the work of enough.

The Work of Community

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On our land is a house. It was already an old house before it was moved on skids from down the road to its current location in 1959.

The house wore its character of 100+ years well. There was a kind of beauty in the decay. An artistic expression of age. Even the siding was gracefully falling off and the broken window panes glimmered in the sun. It was weathered, broken, and had become unsustainable for the second time; but yet it was hard to start the process of restoration. It seemed sacrilegious to ruin its picturesque image, but yet we knew somewhere under the decay was the healthy framework of a home.

It required careful and selective demo…ridding itself of the former to make way for the new. Finally, after months of help from family and friends, it again became what it always was meant to be…a home. There is still much to complete, but we moved our family in as soon as there was a stove for heat and a toilet to flush.

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The house has become a narrative for us. For we are also in the process of rebuilding our understanding of church. It’s painful work at times. There is much to love about the old institution. There are important memories and a history worth telling. But like our old house, church has become ornamental – over-grown in budgets, buildings, and opinions. It is evidenced by the crowds who faithfully visit but the church remains a background prop for their lives. Few are actually willing to move in…they pass by only seeing an abandoned structure, ambivalent to the stories of those who called it home. And there are others who disdain its landscape presence, demanding it be torn down and forgotten. It seems we have arrived at a crucial moment…to begin the process of reformation.

I’m not interested in tearing down the church, for I need a spiritual home. I am interested in rebuilding a home from the ground up on the foundational message of Jesus. Not merely a message about Jesus…but upon the wisdom and way that Jesus taught. And there is a radical difference.

The way of Jesus begins in community. Jesus built the foundation of the Church with the simple invitation of “Follow me.” It makes sense, I reckon, to those who understand God as Triune. A God who exists as relationship…surely would begin with relationship. It seems then the thing we call Church is simply this: people in community with Jesus.

I love Wendell Berry’s definition of community.  “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.” -Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House, Pg 71.

That’s some serious work. And it’s that work of community over the past two years that has rebuilt our church home. We gather every week with a handful of families. There is no regular time or place, no specific agenda, just the discipline to meet for a few hours and share our lives. We have gathered in barns, parks, and homes. There is no one person in charge. There is usually shared food and shared stories from the week. At some point there is an invitation for everyone to gather around the table. We read from the Gospel (currently Mark) listening for the words that speak in the moment, and we share joys/concerns/needs. Sometimes there’s an response – an offering of help or resources. Always there is encouragement. This is the work of community. This is church.

IMG-0548 (2)It’s taken me quite awhile to call it such. I would talk of our gathering as something in process or something with potential…but I am learning to identify it for what it is. It is Church. Some have hinted from a distance that it is not. Not official enough. Not organized enough. Others share of their own hope for such a community but cannot bear to begin the reformation process.They remain paralyzed in memory, unable to respond to the twitches of discernment flashing in their own imagination. There are still others who cannot imagine a way around the bi-weekly reward of leaving the house exactly where it is. And yes, I have experienced all of those thoughts too.

I have no answers or advice. Certainly no model or articulate argument. But I sense the house is worth saving. There is framework for a home under the decay. And for us, the arduous work of community has created a new home in the church.

The work of the land. 

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“Until we understand what the land is, we are at odds with everything we touch. And to come to that understanding it is necessary, even now, to leave the regions of our conquest – the cleared fields, the towns and cities, the highways – and re-enter the woods. For only there can a man encounter the silence and the darkness of his own absence. Only in this silence and darkness can he recover the sense of the world’s longevity, of its ability to thrive without him, of his inferiority to it and his dependence on it. Perhaps then, having heard that silence and seen that darkness, he will grow humble before the place and begin to take it in – to learn from it what it is. As its sounds come into his hearing, and its lights and colors come into his vision, and its odors come into his nostrils, then he may come into its presence as he never has before, and he will arrive in his place and will want to remain. His life will grow out of the ground like the other lives of the place, and take its place among them. He will be with them – neither ignorant of them, nor indifferent to them, nor against them – and so at last he will grow to be native-born. That is, he must reenter the silence and the darkness, and be born again.” – Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace. pg. 27, “A Native Hill”


Nine months ago we purchased 50 acres of land. Once wild forest turned farmland, the land is now mostly an overgrown mélange of moss, pine trees, and blueberries. Scattered throughout the land are the left behind reminders of the former residents. There are neatly piled rows of field stones made by farmers seeking to plant and harvest crops, and there are piles of scrap metal and trash left by the most recent resident. It has a history of both nurturing and abusing, of care and neglect.

We thought we were buying a place to call home and a place to try our hand at farming, but we have discovered that rather than owning a place…we are learning our place in the world. Like the character-shaping lessons of waiting and longing for a home…so are the lessons of being employed by the land. I like writing those words; because the one thing we have learned is the importance of remembering it is not us who employs the land. We are seeking to recognize there is a larger work that is already underway and join it rather than forcing our own way upon it.

Unfortunately it is the latter that is seemingly most common in life. We have forgotten our place in the world, neglecting our primary calling of caretakers. Some live in a posture of scarcity and consume at unsustainable and abusive rates. Some live with a crazed view, driven by poor theology, that our presence in the world is only temporary and thus justifying our left behind piles of scrap. 

It seems Berry is right that most live at odds with the land. Most tumble along ambivalent to the very land that sustains them.  We need to live with a new awareness. 

Living within the awareness that we are employees of the land is what allows us to become farmers. It would be impossible to call ourselves such without the land. The land itself allows it. And it is the land that shows us our place.

The land requires new practices. No longer do we look at our calendar and determine our days, the work of the land now determines our calendar. The chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, and soon-to-be crops require a routine. Our schedules are determined by the land. The land requires aligning our lives to its seasons and ways. 

The land reveals our ignorance. When we pride ourselves as owners…the land chuckles at our naivety. One day we too will be gone and our home will rot back into the soil from which it came. Our finite presence on this land will soon only be a memory; and the memory of the land extends long before and after our own. Our lives are but the time it takes a pine cone to fall to the ground compared to the length of time it takes the topsoil to form. When we plant a seed in the ground, our effort is limited to the planting and the nurturing. We cannot hurry productively. We cannot cause any plant to grow. We participate, we cultivate, we hope…but we are dependent on a land that operates on its own accord.

The land provides limits. Only certain types of crops will grow here. There is a limit to the size of a herd that can be hosted here. These limits can be abused and the land will bear the weight of it, but only for a time. It is only with respect of its limits can the land grow past its current condition. Only with faithful care-taking can the not-yet become the now. The soil can be amended, but not replaced. The overgrowth can be tamed, but never ceased. The land is what the land is. And it comes with limits. 

It seems the land will have more to say as we continue to listen, but this is a start. These 50 acres have been a gift as we learn to love the daily routine of the chores, embrace the truth of our novice-ness, and live within limits.