Intently Looking

Standard

Over the past few weeks, we have read together through the first section of Mark’s gospel. We have noted that Mark is a book about power; an insightful review of the many powers at work upon and within persons. We have also recognized that Mark is making an appeal to his readers and asking, “what power is at work in and through you?”

It seems that’s also the question Lent asks of us. What power has you?  

As we enter this Lenten season, we will also begin reading Mark’s second section. Mark uses the story of a blind man (8:22) as a functional literary technique marking the transition from his use of parables/symbols (that reveal the many institutional and biopsychosocial powers at work within and upon persons) to a more forthright tone and revelation of what it looks like to faithfully live within the power of love.

Mark’s transitional story tells how Jesus first provided a traditional medical approach – an ointment of spittle and mud smeared on the eyes – and then Jesus asks the man, “Do you see anything?” The man replies, “I see people; but they look like walking trees.” (8:24) Jesus then compassionately reaches out a second time, but this time Mark provides an important and sudden shift in his telling of the story. Rather than the focus of the story remaining on the action of the Jesus, Mark transitions the subject to the action of the one seeking healing. Mark emphasizes, “he looked intently, and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” (8:25)

It seems Mark is illustrating what the journey of discipleship looks like for everyone. And if we pay close attention and engage the work of intently looking…what we will discover along the way might surprise and challenge us.

On this Ash Wednesday, the attention of the Christian story also turns to the seeker. The ash is placed on the forehead as a reminder of our humanness, a reminder of our unavoidable pending death, a reminder of our often limited and blurry view of things, a reminder to look intently at the true reality of our lives.

And it is exactly the work of intently looking that we will seek to engage together in this Lenten season. For, like Walter Brueggemann reminds us…”Now as always, prophetic imagination depends on great intentionality, and it requires a host of reliable companions on the way from a failed world under judgement to a new world of good-news possibility. That ‘way’ is one of relinquishing what has failed (which we are likely to treasure) and receiving what God will give.” (The Prophetic Imagination, 132.)

____________________

These reflections on Mark are written as a recap summary on the weekly discipleship discussions 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.” (WB) Currently we are traveling through the book of Mark, receiving good news for our wearied selves and world.

The Power Within

Standard

In its foundational purpose, the Bible is a collective commentary about power. It offers warning, instruction, graphic illustration, and ultimately, an alternative understanding regarding the reality and use of power.

Any attentive reading of Mark will note the core theme of authority and power, for Mark approaches power from nearly every conceivable angle. From the oppressive institutional and political powers of Rome and Jerusalem/Temple to the inner dialogical and psychological powers at work within persons. And for those, as Mark makes illustratively clear, with open eyes and ears…it is the formational question of “What power is at work in and through me?” that should remain our daily guide.

Today, while grieving the news of the day, I am reminded of Mark’s inclusion (6:17) of the story about Herod’s beheading of John the Baptist — a definitive reminder of the insanity that contrives from the combination of ego and power. The outcomes of violence, lack of regard for life, the grasping for self-preservation, and the manipulation of reality by naming their own “truth” to serve their own purpose…these are the known outcomes of ego and power. And because these are the known outcomes…we are called to the work of organizing our human systems around a different path of power. Open eyes and ears can see clearly how the past few years of acute attention given to egoic power in our own society has directly emboldened the violence of the present day. That’s how evil power works. Like a raging fire, it both consumes its fuel and exists by the fuel.

In contrast, throughout the New Testament the power of God (dynamis) is named the “Holy Spirit.” Jesus informs his disciples that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit is upon you” (Acts 10:38). It seems it is best to think of the Holy Spirit as the power of God flowing in and through a person (and in all things!). And when embodied, this power is known as Love and Justice. I suppose the remaining chapters in our reading of Mark ought to be read through the simple but insightful lens of “What does the power of Love and Justice empower Jesus to be/do?”

Martin Luther King, Jr. summarized this gospel view so well. He said, “If we want truly to advance a step further, if we want to turn over a new leaf and really set a new [humanity] afoot, we must begin to turn [humankind] away from the long and desolate night of violence. May it not be that the new [human] the world needs is the non-violent [human]? … We must be hammers shaping a new society, rather than anvils molded by the old. This will not only make us new [humanity], but will give us a new kind of power.” … “It will be power infused with love and justice, that will change dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows, and lift us from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope. A dark, desperate, confused, and sin-sick world waits for this new kind of [human] and this new kind of power.” (King, 1967a, 66.)

Ah, yes! The world still awaits such a gospel movement. And for anyone seeking to follow and learn from the life/way/truth of Jesus, the core discipleship question remains: “What power is at work in, upon, and through me?”

____________________

*These reflections on Mark are written as a recap summary on the weekly discipleship discussions 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.” (WB) Currently we are traveling through the book of Mark, receiving good news for our wearied selves and world.

The Lesson of the Loaves

Standard
The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. ca. 1545–50 Jacopo Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti) 

Last week we examined Mark’s message found in chapter 6. We entered the flow of Mark’s thoughts by recognizing that Mark strongly identifies hospitality (a mutual participation of giving and receiving) as both a determinant and requisite of gospel ministry. The lack of hospitality determined the limits of ministry in Jesus’ hometown (6:5) and Jesus’ instructions to the twelve disciples included a direct requisite (6:10) that they would rely on the reciprocity of hospitality for their own ministry.

A fun and important interpretive key is provided by Mark in this chapter, and it shows up repeatedly in the chapters ahead. Mark’s mantra of “take no bread, no bag, no money in your belts” (6:8) must be kept in mind throughout our reading. The disciples were specifically instructed to not carry extra bread or money – to resist the scarcity of self-determinism and self-reliance, and to embrace the abundance of community.

With this emphasis in mind, we arrive to the story of the twelve baskets. As with so many stories in the bible, this story holds potential for significant misreading. A quick reading might result in an interpretation that looks like Jesus fed five thousand people by magically multiplying a few fish and bread. That interpretation requires the assertion into the story of supernatural magic (some would argue the demonstration of deity, but that has its own complications). It is important to note that there is NO actual mention of supernatural multiplication by Jesus in this story. (BTW, it seems that assertion into the story reveals much about our assumptions regarding the crowd of poor and sick persons.)

What IS mentioned is Jesus’ compassion for the crowd (6:34), Jesus’ organization of the community (6:39), and Jesus’ determination of what resources are available (6:38). And then there is this important detail…Jesus asks the disciples how much money and bread they had on them! (6:38)

This is the main plot of the story! Will the disciples of Jesus follow through on the instructions to depend on the hospitality of the community (take no bread or money with you), or will they continue to fall into the trap of scarcity and “pull yourself by your own bootstraps” kind of individualism?

Seeing this question as the main plot shapes our reading and understanding. The real miracle in this story is the miracle of community/hospitality. And the message in this story is the question regarding if the disciples are going to figure out what the kingdom life is about or not.

Because, come to find out, there are enough resources within the crowd when organized around hospitality…more than enough. For, from out of the crowd is where the abundance came from…they brought back twelve baskets.

I’d say the message is clear, and the image in our imaginations of each of the twelve disciples humbly walking back to Jesus a basket full of food is the aha learning moment. The resources of community have proven to be far more abundant than the private possessions of a few. Let that kingdom reality play out to its fullest potential!

If the applications of this gospel lesson can’t transform the follower of Jesus…what will? And maybe that’s Mark’s question too. For, in a just a few verses, Mark reminds the reader, “they failed to understand the lesson of the loaves.” (6:52)

Will we?

__________

*These reflections on Mark are written as a recap summary on the weekly discipleship discussions 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.” (WB) Currently we are traveling through the book of Mark, receiving good news for our wearied selves and world.

Invitation to Interrupt

Standard
Raising of Jairus’ Daughter by Paolo Veronese, 1546

Often in our reading of scripture we miss the foundational realness. Because we have been taught to give the surface level words the most authority, we often miss the real and deepest meanings. The deepest truths and realities of life are what the scriptures seek to reveal, and such insights are usually found in the implied meanings (or maybe it’s better to say Mark’s applied meanings). Let me say it in a different way; if we are not seeing/hearing Mark’s symbolism as signposts pointing us to the primary story, we will likely miss Mark’s invitation to discover his real and intended message. For if we only read Mark (and surely we know this is also true for nearly all the bible) with literal eyes, we will walk away with a very distorted understanding of what Mark is seeking to reveal.  

Mark 5 is an obvious illustration of such symbolism and provides a meaningful insight into Mark’s revelation of how the way/life of Jesus confronts and challenges the dominant status systems. The first story in chapter five looks through the experience of a Legion (The running boar was the mascot symbol of the 10th Legion, an elite Roman military team. This detail shapes the foundational realness of this story.) The story of the Legion is told through the freedom of a particular man, and that one also represents all of those who suffer the anguish and dehumanization of military training and war (5:9). The recognition of a particular person is exactly what Mark hopes we will see. For, it is often the case that we dismiss the inherent dignity of others by identifying them by what uni-form they are wearing (more likely what uniform we put upon them). Jesus surely could have confronted the Roman Legion as a whole, condemning their deeds of violence and oppression, yet, Mark demonstrates that Jesus sees the individual as a victim of the sin-system and restores the dignity of yet another human one.

Immediately following that story is the “interrupting” story of the woman who suffered the abuse of the medical system for twelve years (5:26) and the twelve-year old daughter of Jairus (5:39). It would be wise to look for the dehumanizing systems in both stories, as it seems to be Mark’s theme. The abusive medical, patriarchal, and purity systems that dismiss the dignity and agency of women are certainly at work. And perhaps the consequences of the ruling class system, religious privilege system, elite family-image systems are being revealed in the “starvation” (5:43) of the twelve-year old girl. The interpretive lens allows us to see such powers at work, then and now.

All three of these particular stories help reveal the larger and foundational story….that is…Jesus’ interruption of the debt/shame-systems through the recognition and restoration of the dignity of persons. Jesus’ refusal to “other” people into any form less than their inherent and beloved God-Image is what Mark is inviting us to see and hear. And it is this humanizing and dignity-lifting work that anyone following the life/way of Jesus is invited to join.

*These reflections on Mark are written as a recap summary on the weekly discipleship discussions 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.” (WB) Currently we are traveling through the book of Mark, receiving good news for our wearied world and selves.  

Stretch Out Your Hand

Standard

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.”