Introducing Recovering Abundance: A Miracle and Midrash about Rural Renewal

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What’s with the name Recovering Abundance

There is a gospel story that I’ve been carrying around for quite awhile. When I say “awhile,” I don’t mean a couple days, a couple weeks, or a couple months. I mean a couple of years. It has been bouncing around in my mind, sinking deeply into my spirit, and shaping my sight. The gospel story I’m talking about is the passage sometimes called the “Feeding of the Multitude.” This story is found in all three of the synoptic gospels as well as the gospel of John. Each gospel’s version has unique themes and I too have gleaned several insights as I have reflected on the story over the years. It inspired the title of this blog because I have come to read it as a midrash about rural renewal. The insights and themes shared in this blog provide a framework with which I will approach site visits, book reviews, and personal reflections in future blogs.

You may know the story by the title: “The Feeding of the Five Thousand.” I prefer not to use this description because it is a number that includes only the men and excludes the women and children among the group. It should be obvious that women and children are worth including and numbering. But the impulse to count the crowd is an important one. Counting the crowd can be a way to dramatize an event and its effect but it can also be a way of recognizing the importance of every individual. Being attentive and taking attendance are intimately connected. Good leaders and good lovers notice when someone is present and when someone is missing.

Recall the famous Parable of the Lost Sheep. It teaches us that a good shepherd counts the sheep. Not only that, in the mind of the shepherd, 99 out of 100 isn’t good enough. They will not rest until they get 100/100–all present and accounted for. Similarly, the good host is not happy if 9/10 guests are fed. They are not satisfied if there is “almost enough” for everyone. They are only content when every guest has had enough–actually, more than enough. They will be satisfied only when the guests are so full that they couldn’t possibly take another bight.

Jesus, the embodiment of the Divine Shepherd and Host, sees the crowd, notices that the people are hungry, and is moved with compassion. In biblical terms, being moved with compassion doesn’t simply indicate a feeling of pity or empathy but a willingness to act for the justice and well-being of another. Recall the Good Samaritan parable in which the Samaritan traveler is also “moved” with compassion–not simply to feel bad for the injured person but to use his resources to assist the person in front of him. Jesus, being a good shepherd, wants to make sure all the sheep are cared for. Jesus, being a good host, wants to make sure everyone has enough to eat. And, being moved by compassion, he’s prepared to act for the justice and well-being of the people in front of him.

Jesus may have been ready to act but his disciples had some concerns. The presenting issues happened to be the time and the place. The timing was poor because it was late in the day. Even more, the place was poor because it was a “deserted place.” It was what sociologists call “rural and remote.” There was no way to feed such a crowd at such a place; it was the middle of nowhere. In other words, the disciples looked out upon the place and people before them and saw only need and scarcity. The only response to scarcity is individualism and competition; they tell Jesus that the crowd should be sent away to find resources on their own, probably in the cities.

In contrast, Jesus looks upon the people and place and sees abundance. Jesus was aware of the need but believed that the answer was not to miss the moment and send the people to the cities. After all, Jesus had been travelling the countryside teaching the message that the kingdom of God is arriving here and now. The kingdom is among and within you, he said. This was just as true of a “deserted place” in a rural region than of a city. Jesus believed that the hungry crowd needed to recover and release the abundance already present within the place and among the people. They were on the verge of a miracle but needed the vision and organization to bring about the miracle of the moment.

Jesus initiates the miracle of recovered abundance in four ways. First, he reinforces responsibility among the disciples. Because they saw the crowd with an assumption of scarcity, they were ready to set aside the relationship of responsibility that was well established in the Torah and Jesus’ teachings. Jesus’ religion was rooted in the “manna economy” in which believers pray for “our daily bread”– an economy of abundance in which there is always enough when we remember the Creator, care for creation, and are willing to share with our neighbors. So he reclaims the ethic of mutual responsibility by saying: “you give them something to eat” (Mk. 6:37). No one can save the world but we are responsible for those under our care, in our community, and those who cross our paths–whether it’s an individual like the Good Samaritan or a large group as in the feeding narratives.

After the disciples retort Jesus’ request with an expense report for feeding such a crowd, Jesus initiates the miracle in another way. He invites them to recover abundance by taking inventory: “How many loaves do you have? Go and see” (Mk. 6:38). When addressing social concerns, it is often overwhelming when the approach is a problem-focused one. We end up with a long list of issues and needs and feel unsure of how to find adequate resources and solutions. But there is something powerful about taking inventory of resources, asking “What skills, resources, and opportunities are already present? How can we then grow our capacities and build on what is here?” This is why the trending change among community development advocates is shifting from a problem-focused approach to an asset-based approach.

In his next move, Jesus directs the group to divide up into smaller groups. In doing so, Jesus transforms the massive crowd into a collection of small communities. We are often tempted by the belief that big problems require big solutions, especially bureaucracies and corporations. We see the people as masses of need that can be fixed with applied techniques and technologies rather than a collection of individuals, families, networks, and relationships. Jesus knew better. His ministry related to people as unique individuals in unique social settings. They needed healing and empowerment to live in right relationship with their families and communities as well as their God. Because he saw the crowd in this way, Jesus organized the group into more humanizing units.

Jesus’ fourth move, in good Jewish and Eucharistic fashion, is to look up to heaven, giving thanks for the loaves and fishes. Looking up to heaven was a practice of giving thanks for the gifts and asking for God’s gracious blessing. Naming needs, forming groups, and planning strategically are all important. But Jesus reminds us of the importance of “looking up” as well as “looking around,” seeking divine guidance, blessing, and vision. Looking up after the important work of looking around clears the way for receiving a new vision of possibility that we might call “prophetic imagination.Learning to see with prophetic imagination enables us to see visions and ventures that transcend conventional wisdom and the narrowness of scarcity assumptions. These visions and ventures are not “pie in the sky” but instead are rooted in the nature of one’s place and envision that place reaching the fullness of its unique potential through hope-filled cultivation and care.

After the gifts were offered up to God, they were given back to the disciples to “distribute to the people” (Mk. 6:42). Distributive justice is a central theme of biblical ethics. After all, God is described as being like a loving parent, good shepherd, and generous host. God is like a parent who makes sure every member of the household is nourished and nurtured. God is like a good shepherd who counts the sheep and can’t rest until 100/100 are present and accounted for. God is like a generous host who “prepares a table” (Ps. 23) and won’t be satisfied until everyone is fed and full. With his vision of abundance, Jesus embodied this divine character and instructed his disciples in this kingdom way. In the end, we are told that “all ate and were satisfied” (Mk. 6:42). As if that wasn’t enough, we are told that there were basketfuls left over. A true picture of abundance.

What does this story have to do with renewal in rural communities?

What can this story teach us about renewal in rural communities? Many things. I mentioned above that I have come to read this story as a “midrash” about rural renewal. In case you don’t know, midrash is a word, borrowed from the Jewish tradition, which describes an imaginative and interactive way of relating to scripture. Whereas classical exegesis of biblical texts helps us interpret the original intent and meaning of a passage, midrash interacts with a passage in ways that evoke multiple meanings and applications of a story. Both are important, appropriate, and engaging. Meditating on this story using both of these methods, I find several themes that speak to the conditions of contemporary rural communities and suggest possible pathways to a renewed and recovered abundance.

First, there is the setting and context. The miracle took place in a “desolate place,” an isolated region that the disciples perceived as having a lack of resources and vitality. According to their assumption of scarcity, if the people were to experience abundance, they had to separate from the place and find resources somewhere else. I think many rural people can relate to this perception. On one hand, it is the solitude and spaciousness that draws us to make our home in a rural region. We cherish the simple beauty and peace of living “in the country.” On the hunger hand, it is that very experience of isolation that can leave us feeling disconnected from resources that are essential to our thriving and sometimes even surviving. This is the paradox of rural communities. Rural living holds within it the simple pleasures of peace and quiet, nature and family alongside the hidden struggles of social disenfranchisement, poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence, food insecurity, and more.

Jesus teaches us to notice needs and act compassionately but he also teaches us to see and recover the hidden abundance present within rural people and places. Remember the invitation to take inventory of resources: “How many loaves do you have? Go and see?” The road to renewal for rural communities begins with a recognition of the resources already present among the people and within the place. It is a road that unfolds through asset-based development not problem-centered salvation schemes. Of course, partnerships with outside organizations and connection to new networks are important. But renewal requires a belief that abundance is already present and can be recovered. Discovering this abundance by taking inventory means seeing the diverse sources of wealth and capital in the community and ecosystem:

  • Financial Capital
  • Natural Capital
  • Cultural Capital
  • Human Capital
  • Social Capital (“bonding” and “bridging”)
  • Built Capital
  • Political Capital
  • Spiritual Capital
  • Moral Capital

When all of these sources of capital are stewarded skillfully into a local economy/ecology of abundance, we come close to the Hebrew concept of shalom. Shalom is the experience of flourishing and wholeness when individuals, families, and communities live in right relationship and share the fruits of abundance.

Realizing a vision of shalom and abundance requires the mutual responsibility and authentic community described in the gospel story we’ve been exploring. It means hearing Jesus say to us still: “you give them something to eat.” We are indeed our brother’s and sister’s keeper. This truth finds expression in our roles and relationships within every aspect of our common life: family/household, workplace, local business & entrepreneurship, religion, education, health care, land care,  government etc. The political Left often focuses on good government and public policy as the means to positive change while the political Right focuses on economic growth and personal responsibility. The truth, of course, is that “all of the above” are needed for the renewal of our communities, whether rural, urban, or otherwise. I believe we also need a renewed emphasis on the missing middle spaces of our common, civic life. In between the pet projects of Left and Right live many undervalued social spaces:

  • libraries
  • pubs
  • coffee shops
  • bakeries
  • food pantries
  • community gardens
  • farmer’s markets
  • book groups
  • theaters
  • historical societies
  • local parks
  • neighborhood watch groups
  • 4H, FFA, Farm Bureau
  • VFW
  • co-ops
  • unions
  • rotary clubs
  • salons and barber shops

Though cynicism and polarization seem to have won the day, I believe an essential part of rural renewal comes through a fresh appreciation for the roles of local civic engagement, associational life, and “third spaces.” It is in these places that the transformation from crowd to communities can happen. In these places we move from seeing each other through categories and labels or through the glow of a screen to a face-to-face, ordinary, local life kind of a relationship. We need circles of community in which leaders can count and name their members and no one will be satisfied unless 100/100 are present, accounted for, and care for.

Finally, churches and faith communities are critical to the process of rural renewal. As Jesus illustrated in the story, we need to look up as well as around. We need sacred places where we can gather with others and seek divine wisdom, guidance, and blessing. It is in collaboration with God and through seeking the Reign of God that abundance is most fully recovered. The local church has long been the heartbeat of many rural communities.

Perhaps it’s time for local church and faith community leaders to embrace their vocation as shepherds of rural places and people. Too often, pastors and staff of rural churches see their job as a stepping stone to a better job or larger church. Perhaps even worse, they see themselves as saviors of small, struggling fellowships who need church growth strategies or the saving knowledge from their enlightened progressive seminary. Of course, fresh theology and strategic planning can be helpful, but rural communities need spiritual visions of abundance and shalom that recognize their unique rural context and speak to their unique gifts and challenges. There is a need for the creation or retrieval of lectionary and liturgical resources that help rural faith communities celebrate the rhythms of rural life, particular the seasons of agriculture, and lift their wealth and wounds to the Divine Presence. It is also important to remember that many of the authors and audiences of the Bible lived in a rural context. Reading the Bible in rural places with rural people will bring out insights and truths that are often missed.

  1. How can we begin to see our places as communities of abundance rather than scarcity?

  2. How can communities cultivate a sense of mutual responsibility and common life in the midst of a polarized and individualistic time?

  3. What associations, organizations, and “third spaces” exist in your community? How can they promote collaboration and the building of social capital?

  4. When you take inventory of your community, what kinds of resources and capital do you find which can be used to recover a sense shared abundance?

  5. What is the role of the local church or faith fellowship in your community? How do local spiritual leaders speak to the unique gifts and challenges of rural life?

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