Abundance in the “New Inner City”

Midwest FOJ 2017

*This blog is adapted from a message I shared for this year’s Midwest Friends of Jesus gathering in Toledo, Ohio. (Friends pictured above)

The story begins with Jesus and the disciples in a space like the one in which we are currently gathered. We might say they were at a Friends of Jesus retreat. It was Jesus and his disciples/Friends; they had been busy doing ministry, teaching and being taught, finding their way on the pilgrimage of a life in the company of Christ. They were filled with mixed emotions: weariness, elation, confusion, doubt, enthusiasm, anxiety, passion. Most of us can identify somewhere in that mix.

Jesus understands this. And he, no doubt, was also experiencing some of those emotions. So he says to his disciples & friends: “come with me to a quiet place and get some rest.” Have you ever heard the Christ Within offer you that invitation? Maybe it’s what led you here today? It is something that Christ is known to say. The whole “yoke is easy” thing and what not. It was also something that Jesus was known to practice during his ministry. He regularly took time away to rest, reflect, pray, center, and seek direction. I had a professor and mentor that used to say “even the Messiah didn’t have a Messiah complex.” Jesus knew he had limits and he needed rest and friendship and prayer.

So Jesus and the disciples got on a boat and headed to a “solitary place” where they could get some r&r. But their plans were thwarted. That’s how retreats tend to go, though. They almost never go the way you thought they would or should. But they are almost always eventful, whether inwardly or outwardly. Be careful on retreats, they have the capacity to redirect and reorient your life. I’m not one for formulas, but I heard one recently that made sense to me. It came from a pastor and author named Mark Batterson. He said that a change of pace + a change of place=a change of perspective. Sometimes we long for that change of perspective and other times we loathe it.

In this case, a crowd of people sabotaged their retreat by stalking them and interrupting their route. Henri Nouwen said that he used to complain about all the interruptions to his work until he realized that the interruptions were his work. I appreciate his wisdom but I think I’m usually stuck at the complaining part. And I confess that I’m a little annoyed at Jesus in this story. Because he engaged them, thereby enabling their dysfunctional behavior. And it’s curious to me because in other cases, Jesus takes a different approach. He is what we might call a self-differentiated person. He makes decisions based on intentionality and divine direction not based on the anxiety or demands of the crowd. So why now and why them?

I obviously don’t know but the text tells us that the reason he engaged them was that he had “compassion” on them. Compassion is the bridge between contemplation and action. In biblical terms, compassion is more than a feeling of sympathy but a deep emotional & ethical energy that moves us into action on behalf of another’s well-being. To be honest, even though I know compassion was one of the central themes of Jesus’ message, the language of compassion has been drained of much meaning for me recently. The reason is that we live in an age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. I often feel like I’m bombarded by a constant cycle of outrage and virtue signaling and commercials of starving kids in Africa or melting polar ice caps or police violence or a President flirting with nuclear warfare. Perhaps like Jesus, I feel like I’m being followed around by crowds of people declaring their needs and demanding I do something about it. Now!

Anybody else feel that way?

This requires a lot of us. Not least of all discernment. Discernment to know, as Christ did, when to tell the crowds to move along and when to move into the crowd with compassion. The hard thing is that both can be faithful responses. More than ever, the Friends of Jesus are called upon to discern what work is theirs and what is not, to let their Yes be Yes and their No be No.

Compassion is what leads us to our true work. Not sympathy or need or social pressure. Compassion that rises as what evangelical Friend Everett Cattell called “an ever-weightier conviction.” Historically, Quakers have called these callings of compassionate commitment “Concerns.” The idea is that God seeks partners in the work of healing and transforming the world’s suffering, so God divides up the pain and problems among humankind. Each of us gets a share, or a bundle, and we know which ones are ours because a Concern arises for new learning, organizing, and acting.

I find it helpful to think of our Concerns like eggs in a nest. We are given a few core concerns to nurture and tend. Too many and they aren’t given the time and energy they need and they may even fall off the edge, to their damage or demise. We are given a number that matches our current capacities–the size of the nest. You may want to take time to discern what are your core concerns, perhaps limiting them to 4 or 5. Name them and perhaps imagine them as different sizes, having different placement or priority in your life & ministry right now.

So, back to the story. Compassion moved Jesus from contemplation to action. The action involved teaching and spiritual nurture at the beginning but it began to take on a more practical, earthy bent. The crowd was hungry. And no doubt the disciples and Jesus were hungry too. Hangry, I’m sure.

And the Christ of Compassion is prepared to respond to their hunger by providing some dinner. But the disciples brings some common sense to the conversation. There are too many people; it’s too expensive; it’s late; and we are in the middle of nowhere.

The reference to geography and topography is of particular note. [There are two things mentioned repeatedly in the story: the fact that they are in an isolated place and the fact that there was a large crowd.] The Greek word used here is eremos, which is often translated as “desert” or “wilderness,” is also rendered elsewhere as a place that is isolated, deserted, uncultivated, solitary, or quiet. In other words, it is a rural place. Peaceful, simple, and quiet or barren, deserted, and isolated (God-filled or God-forsaken)–depending on who you ask and when you ask them. It is what I like to call the paradox of rural life: there is a simplicity and beauty to the small towns and natural landscapes…but there is a host of hidden pain that is often unseen but ultimately unavoidable. This story reminds us that the quiet, rural place won’t ultimately provide an escape from the pain and desperation of society. Far from it. Some sociologists are calling rural America the new inner city.” Since the 1990s, rural counties have replaced urban areas as America’s most troubled regions according to key metrics of socio-economic well-being. And the decline is accelerating. The opioid drug crisis, domestic violence, family breakdown, food insecurity, widening wealth gaps, and more.

With problems like these–and the ones faced by our urban neighbors–it’s easy to get stuck in a scarcity mentality. And it’s easy to understand why the disciples did. If scarcity of resources is the problem, then the solution is competition and resettlement. Go someplace new and fight it out. This is part of the less flattering but familiar narrative of American history, which Wendell Berry called the “unsettling of America.” We still struggle with this, hipsters no less than colonialists. We can’t stay put and learn to play nice with people that are different from us–learning to solve problems and create community where we are. Ashlyn and I have a dog and some of her greatest struggles are ones common to our society: learning to stay and learn to stop barking.

Jesus, by contrast, sees the situation through an abundance mentality. After all, he said his purpose was to bring about abundant life. His narrative is shockingly opposite:

“They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

Abundance is recovered when we realize that what we need is here. When our eyes are opened to see the hidden abundance in the people and the place. The kingdom of God is here, within us and among us.  

What we need is here. That may be an affirmation you need to repeat as you learn to inhabit your local community. Sometimes the abundance is obvious and sometimes saying “what I need/we need is here” is a statement of faith more than one of sight.

Jesus helps us with that. From their position of scarcity, all they could see was what they they didn’t have, in that God-forsaken place and the mass of needy people. So Jesus challenged them–and challenges us–to reframe. He says, I’m well aware of what you don’t have and what you can’t yet see. What do you have? How many loaves do you have? Go and see…In other words, take inventory.

Their inventory revealed five loaves and two fish. The Mark version doesn’t say how. A version in the gospel of John tells us that a boy gave it to them–a good reminder that abundance often comes in surprising ways and we should remember the importance of our kids when we take inventory. But I love the response of the disciples: “we have nothing…except these bread and these fish.”

A similar dialogue takes place in the famous story of Elisha and the widow’s oil. The woman has lost her husband and is deeply in debt; the creditors are coming to take her children as slaves. Pretty crappy situation but Elisha is trained in prophetic imagination so he isn’t intimidated. He asks her to take inventory: ”what do you have in your house?” Her response is understandably one of scarcity: “your servant has nothing in the house…except a jar of oil.” Elisha then tells her to get some help from her neighbors and reveals what kind of miracle happens when we give over our little to the Divine Economy and apply a little entrepreneurship. Part of our blindness is that we often can only see our gifts and resources in their current form, not their potential. Jesus’ parables are constantly teaching this new way of seeing: seeds grow into something beautiful and incredible, invasive shrubs take over a whole landscape, capital invested instead of buried is multiplied.

So Jesus reveals abundance by asking the disciples to take inventory. And his next move is instructive. He divides up the crowd into smaller groups and has them sit down in the grass, thereby, as Parker Palmer suggests, transforming the crowd into a community, or perhaps a cluster of communities. Smaller groups in which strangers become neighbors and the faceless crowd becomes a collective of face-to-face fellowships. Governments and corporations act based on the trends and tendencies of crowds, and there is a time and place for this. But what if abundance is recovered and the kingdom is realized best when people sit down together in community clusters, learning names and faces? Maybe that’s where the miracles happen. As Quaker Rufus Jones said: “I pin my hopes to small circles and quiet processes in which vital and transforming events take place.” Me too.

To what small circles and quiet processes do you belong in your community? What “third spaces” exist in your community where people can learn names and faces?

So inventory is taken, food is collected, then Jesus lifts it up to God in prayer and gratitude. An important practice. It reminds us that there is a larger Presence and Process at work in our lives and in our local community. It reminds us that our work and play are directed by God and God is involved in intimate ways. Thank God. We don’t have the energy and insight to do it all on our own. But we have our parts to play, our gifts to share, and when we bring it together and offer it to God, miracles happen. This practice also cultivates gratitude, as we count our blessings–and assets–and remind ourselves of their Source.

Then the distribution begins. It’s hard but the smaller groups help. And distributive justice is central to the heart of God. What kind of host is happy if 8 out of 10 guests are fed and full. No way! Somehow, there was enough. More than enough. A true picture of abundance.

It is harvest time these days here in the Midwest and I’ve been thinking about a Psalm–Psalm 65–that talks about God as farmer and then God revealed in the harvest. When we think about feeding the multitude, it’s worth remembering the farmers who are God’s partners and friends in providing daily bread for so many. The Psalm talks about how God cultivates abundance on the earth. We could say the same about how God cultivates abundance in our lives and local communities.

“You care for the land and water it;

   you enrich it abundantly.

The streams of God are filled with water

   to provide the people with grain,

   for so you have ordained it.

You drench its furrows and level its ridges;

   you soften it with showers and bless its crops.

You crown the year with your bounty,

   and your carts overflow with abundance.

The grasslands of the wilderness overflow;

   the hills are clothed with gladness.

The meadows are covered with flocks

   and the valleys are mantled with grain;

   they shout for joy and sing.”

It was so for the people in the story gathered in their rural place. May it be so now and here: in our lives, our landscapes, and our local communities.

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