Two Fish

Loaves and Fishes by Tintoretto

Proper 12 (17)  |  John 6:1-21

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Two Fish

Why is this miracle so popular—the feeding of a crowd of people near the Sea of Galilee? It is the miracle found in all four of the gospels, and it is odd that this one claims such attention. Jesus makes blind people see, heals people with a touch or a word, even brings the dead back to life, and we gloss over the details. Let him feed a crowd with five loaves of bread and two fish, and we keep talking about it.

Only one other miracle holds our attention this way—Jesus walking on the water of the same sea. Even raising Lazarus from the dead doesn’t seem to hold our imaginations so strongly. Yes, we talk about the resurrection of Jesus, but not in this way, and we tend to put that resurrection story in a category by itself. Ask any child in Christendom to tell about the miracles Jesus performed, and she will tell you about the loaves and the fishes and about walking on water.

We get it, on some level. The tale of feeding the multitudes fills our own hunger for security, addresses our fears that our own needs will not be met. In gathering the people, Jesus is our mother. In giving them food, he is our father.

Loaves and Fishes by Lambert Lombard
Loaves and Fishes by Lambert Lombard, 1505-1566. Museum Rockoxhuis, Antwerp.

It’s a story of comfort, needfulness, shelter. Something deep within us responds, seeing our simplest, basic needs of rest and food being met by the image of God. This is not a God of the heavens or of distant thrones or fire and thunder. This is God choosing to be present in the sharing of a simple meal.

This is God demonstrating the divine in the commonplace. It is epiphany in breadcrumbs.

As to walking on the water, who would not wish to do such a thing? We would revel like children in such a power, to feel our bare feet supported by the waves.

We suspect that our lives are ephemeral, shifting around us like water. If only we could learn to rest in the currents that we fear will drown us, to trust in the continuity of change to support us, then merely walking on water would seem a simple thing.

Perhaps it is no mystery as to why we tell each other the stories of these two miracles, no mystery as to why we treasure them above so many others. A blind man who sees is wonderful, and we sense that in some times and some ways each of us is blind. A sick person is healed, and we realize that any of us may succumb to illness. We accept that death comes to each of us, unless a chariot of fire comes to Elijah us away. Strangely, none of that is a match for our present awareness of the transience of life, or for our denial enabling us to imagine we are walking on solid ground.

All of us respond to hunger. All of us need rest. All of us need to feel that we are standing and not sinking.

It is no miracle that we tell these stories. It is only human.

Having these stories to tell? That is a God thing.

Loaves and Fishes by Tintoretto
“Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti): The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes” (13.75) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (March 2014)

The Other Side

Proper 11 (16) | Mark 6:30-56

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

The Other Side

He was tired. He must have been.

He tried to take some time off, to lead his friends and followers on a retreat, out in the wilderness away from it all, but when they got to the spot they found that everyone had gotten there ahead of them.

It was a little like going to Yellowstone to enjoy nature only to find bus loads of tourists everywhere you go. And these people haven’t come to look at the bears. They’ve come by the bus load with the sole purpose of finding you.

It was the same wherever Jesus went, first one crowd and then another. He took a boat, aiming to land at a nice secluded spot, but it’s hard to hide a boat on the water and the people came, a great throng of them, to find him.

I would have been irritable, cross, put out. If Jesus was, he covered it well. He seemed to reflect that while he had sailed to this unplanned rendezvous, these thousands of people had walked the long way round to find him. He saw that they needed it so badly, wanted it so much. So instead of leading a retreat for a few friends, he led one for a few thousand folk, talking to them, even managing to feed them.

Jesus tried again. After he had dismissed the people, some of them no doubt lingering while he urged them to head home, he sent his friends back across the water in the boat.

Painting - Rembrandt's Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee
“Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee” by Rembrandt. 1633. Stolen 1990, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, current whereabouts unknown.

There they were, his friends, out on the Sea of Galilee. The story says that he had gone up on a mountain where he could probably see their progress. He was trying for some alone time. Maybe he got a little rest before the storm rolled in.

He watched the cloud line, felt the wind, watched the waves grow, and he knew that his friends would be afraid. People who know nothing about the water can be afraid of it. People like some of his friends, lifelong boatmen and fisherfolk, know enough to be terrified of what a sudden squall can do to them.

And he saved them, of course. It’s a famous story. Jesus walked on the stormy water, in the semidarkness of the early hours, and he calmed the storm and joined them in the boat.

There are some odd details.

For one thing, the story says that he meant to pass them by. We can’t quite tell whether he meant to pass by unseen or to pass by so that they would see him—probably the former. Never mind how he was managing to walk on the water. For another thing, Mark’s Gospel says that when he got into the boat, the wind ceased, without being clear as to whether it was cause and effect or happenstance, though we are inclined to see another miracle. Of course, this miracle meant that the rest of them had to start rowing.

When they reached the other shore, people recognized Jesus and started bringing crowds and fetching sick relatives, expecting Jesus to heal them. One might imagine a doctor finally opening a clinic in a remote valley of Appalachia. The people brought their sick and put them on mats, in the streets where Jesus would pass, in the marketplaces of their villages. It must have been a sight, and an unsettling one, his path bordered and measured by people who needed him. Some of them wanted more than others. Some only wanted to touch his robe, either to make the experience more physical or to let some power move through the touch, and he let them.

Of course, he did.

The people in our path—it’s all so obvious isn’t it?—we help them, though it would be nice if the Gospel were clearer on the whole walking-on-water and calming-storms and healing-people miracle thing. There are no explanations of the mechanism by which it works, if it still works at all. It’s a God thing.

Painting by Delacroix - Christ Calming the Tempest
“Christ Calming the Tempest” by Eugène Delacroix

We’re left to do what we do, and we watch for God to do what God might do, and we call the whole experience faith. It is a sometimes unsatisfactory arrangement, depending on one’s expectations.

When God passes us by, for instance, is it to remain unseen or in the hope that we’ll notice? Of course, the atheist would say that nobody is passing by—it is only the wind, or an idea, and no one knows where those come from or where they will go.

Faith is remaining open to the possibilities. It is not being stupid. It is being imaginative, hopeful, open, and humble enough to suppose that we are not the greatest thing in the universe.

The wind doesn’t listen to us, or if it does, it seldom agrees. We’re rubbish at walking on water. That sort of thing is God stuff, and not our job anyway.

Even in matters of faith, we don’t get to do the God things, which is good. We do the follower things. Our hugs do not heal, but they may help. We walk alongside the needy, like a kind non-believer might do, with the difference that we hope God is walking on their other side whether or not anyone notices.

We feed the hungry people, and we talk to the lonely ones, believing that God was already in the business of doing that before we got there. We think that the opportunity to help is also a God thing—not making people needy, but helping us to see them when they are.

Maybe, as some people claim, there were no miracles in that story. Maybe there were stepping stones in the sea, and everyone had food stashed away, and Jesus just got them to share. Maybe the storm just ended, as they all do.

Regardless, something happened around the shores of Galilee, something different enough that we have four gospels telling the stories. Something happened that makes us look more kindly on one another, something that helps us respond when needier people reach out and touch us.

That’s pretty miraculous. That’s a God thing.


Fifth Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 4:35-41

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

We’ve heard this story. A bunch of disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is sleeping on a cushion in the stern when they are caught by a storm.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that although God is with them, incarnate in this man Jesus, they are still wanting more. It isn’t enough that God is present: they want God to do something. After all, what use is a God who doesn’t do anything?

We may say that we want the presence of God. In truth, we want God to act. Heal. Bless. Save.Cumulonimbus1

We want God to do something for the same reason that those muddle headed disciples wanted it: we’re afraid. We’re afraid of what has happened or hasn’t, or of what is happening or isn’t, or of what is going to happen or not, and sometimes with good reason. If the lion slips her cage while we’re at the zoo, fear is a useful reaction. It’s appropriate. Even when the lion sleeps, we’re afraid of what might happen.

That’s the real bogey man. His name is Mr Thusandsuchmighthappen (it is German, I believe). He and his twin sister go by YouKnow and AndThen. With them, things always go from bad to worse.

The bogey man meets our expectations. God does not.

Christians make many claims on God. One of the most interesting is that God is in control, with the possible implication that everything that happens is by the will and choice of God.

The idea of God as Sovereign may work well for theologians in an ivory tower, and the notion does not trouble saints who are beyond any attachment to this present world. For the rest of us, the idea of Sovereignty is a problem, an enigma. We are left hearing Inigo Montoya from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”


In practical theology, where storms do threaten our boats, the idea gets trampled down into something like, “God is in control.” That is a wonderful concept, right up to the moment when the boat sinks.

Lesser difficulties are still manageable. The loss of a house, a job. A survivable illness. We might come through those with our skins and our notions about God intact.

What about the worse things? What about the real storms, the ones that threaten to send us to the bottom of the sea? Many people never live to face one. Many others do not live through them.

A perfect storm as a concept is survivable. A perfect storm in reality may not be.

What about these storms we do not survive, sometimes not at all, sometimes not as the people we were when the wind began to rise? What if the storm comes, and it seems to us that God is somewhere in the back of the boat, asleep at the tiller?

What if we drown?

There is a verse, Job 13:15, traditionally translated, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in Him: but I will maintain my own ways before him.” It may not mean what we think it means. That translation is based on one way of understanding the Hebrew text. Reading the text another way, the New Revised Standard translation gives us, “See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face.”

Quite different, isn’t it? Either way, what does it mean? Do we lie down and wait for the worst? Even Job, sitting on the ashes of his home and surrounded by pious pontificators, has the intention of at least speaking up for himself.

Maybe it comes down to translating another passage from a letter to a church in Rome. The King James gives us what we find on most refrigerator magnets, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God….” It would take an optimistic saint indeed to watch the spectacles of tragedy, natural and human-made, all around us and think those worked to anyone’s good. A better translation would be that “…God works through all things…”, even those things.

Seeking something good on the other side of tragedy, seeking something good even in the midst of tragedy, something to redeem the loss and the pain, now that is powerful. It is the gospel story. The measure of the power of God isn’t found in the heat of stars or in the fathomless reaches of space. We witness the power of God when something good remains even from the storms that drown us, or worse, the storms that sweep away those we love, the storms that leave us gasping in our misery on the deck.

Even in our loss, God creates. Restoration where there was loss. Something from the nothing that is left. Redemption. That is the gospel. That is true redemption, the practice and presence of grace, the iron resolution of love.


Hide and Seek

Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany | Mark 1:29-39

Lectionary Project

Hide and Seek

“You cannot step into the same stream twice.” —Heraclitus, c.535—c.475 BCE

It would make more sense, in many ways, to write about science, or science WhitewaterRavinefiction, or psychology. More people would read this blog if I did. It may even be that more people would benefit from it.

A good number of people, with good reasons, turn away from anything that smacks of Christianity or religion. Sometimes I see and hear the expressions of Christianity around me, words of judgment, acts of exclusion, airs of superiority, and I wonder whether I want to be identified with the movement. Too often being a person of faith is equated with ignorance, lack of intelligence, lack of compassion.

My novel I,John is often characterized as Christian fiction, a label that I resist. To label any writing as Christian, or Jewish, or Buddhist, is to place walls around it, to relegate it to a ghetto. Either something is worth reading or it is not, regardless of the writer’s spiritual, geographical, political or biological place of origin. Being part of a faith movement should not sell books any more than being outside of that movement.

RapidsUnderTreeI wonder, though, whether the same thing holds true for the Gospel of Mark. A person within the faith community, however widely and loosely one might stretch the fence around Christianity, will read and understand the words of the Gospel differently than someone who does not embrace the possibility of God, let alone the possibility that Jesus was actually God incarnate.

There’s a concept.

God, walking around in the form of a human being: what an idea for a science fiction story, or an elaborate fantasy novel. One might imagine a plot line for a psychological thriller, keeping the reader guessing as to whether the main character is more than human or just deeply disturbed.

Mark writes of demons who know the true identity of the man Jesus. They name him, calling him the Holy One, but in this Gospel story Jesus forbids them to tell what they know—his identity is a secret. Even beyond the idea of talking with demons, doesn’t the notion of silencing anyone who identifies the true nature of Jesus seem odd?

Mark adds another strange element to the secrecy motif. While one might Rapid Streampresume that God would welcome those who come seeking God, Jesus gets up and slips away in the night, refusing to meet the people who have come looking for him.

“You will find Him if you seek him with all your heart and your soul.” That’s what is promised in Deuteronomy 4:29. “You will seek me and find me when you search with all your heart,” echoes Jeremiah 29:13. Yet Mark tells us that Jesus, God-become-human, leaves the people who are looking for him and goes off to other places, to seek out a different as yet unbelieving audience.

The ones who know him are forbidden to speak. The ones who seek him are left behind. It’s not what we expect from the plot.

Those who do not believe they have encountered God might take some comfort from these things, if they have any interest in God. Those who think they already know something about God are bound to be a little discomfited.

Mark tells the story of a God who does not stand still, who is continually moving, seeking, touching new people and new places. There is no room in Mark’s Gospel for a God imprisoned on a throne.

The disciples never seem to understand who this Jesus is, at least not in Mark’s telling of the story. Each time they look, they expect to see the same Jesus they think they know, but he is already moving, changing, waiting until those who seek him realize that he will always be found somewhere unexpected.

God is a river running through our lives. Though we stand perfectly still, what we touch around us is always new.


The Edge of Our World

The Edge of Our World  |  John 1:6-8, 19-28

John the Baptist never claimed anything. At least, he didn’t claim anything that seemed to matter to the people who asked about such things.

He was somebody, though. That much was clear, or they wouldn’t have been asking.

He lived in the wild places, down by the river, and crowds of people trekked out to hear what he had to say, to make a new beginning, to let him baptize them—an odd enough ritual when you think about it. Say a prayer. Stand in the river. Let this wild looking man either plunge you into the river or pour the water over your head. (They weren’t particular about how it was done in the beginning; those arguments started much later.)

When crowds of people went out to John, their leaders WatersEdge2followed them. After watching the crowd and listening to John long enough, they managed to ask, “Who are you?”

Maybe, like the song says, they really wanted to know. It’s more likely that they really wanted to get rid of him. Nobody rues competition quite like religious folk and politicians. They wanted to know who he was.

Are you the Messiah? No. Elijah? No. The prophet? No, no, and no.

I’m only a voice in the wilderness, says John.  It’s the only claim he makes about himself. Then John adds one more thing. Someone else is coming, he says. Someone else is standing in the midst of you all, in plain sight. You haven’t even noticed. And he is much greater than I.

You’re asking the wrong question. That’s what John is telling them. The question isn’t, Who are you? The question is, Who else is here?

Who else is waiting in the wilderness? Who lives at the edge of our world?

That’s where they found John, after all. At the edge. He wasn’t so far in the wild places that nobody could find him, but he wasn’t calling out his message in the city streets. John, this harbinger of God, was out on the edge of the world, where people had to make an effort to go, out beyond their normal haunts and habits. He stood at the edge of their world and talked about God.

John dressed in a queer fashion, and he ate strange things. According to the Gospel of Luke, John may have taken vows as a nazirite—no wine, a limited diet, and perhaps never cutting his hair. Twenty or thirty years of that, and you get a stone cold sober guy wearing camel hair and leather, eating locusts and honey. Hair hanging down around his knees. Standing in the river. Preaching.

That is the man God sent to announce the coming of the Messiah, at the edge of the world.

If we are going to encounter God, we may need to change our expectations. Finding some sense of the Other may require that we step away from our routine. We’ve got to leave our habitual comfort zone.

When God touches our lives, God starts at our edges. Perhaps it’s because our center is already so full of activity that not even God can find room. Or perhaps it’s because our center doesn’t map onto God’s center. Just as God is not the center of our world—be honest—neither are we the center of God’s world. Again, be honest—did you think you were?

God’s world does not revolve around us. Like Galileo, we have to look to a different orbit. If we are to encounter the Holy, it will be where we have not been looking. If Advent is about waiting for God, waiting may turn into a journey to the edge. That is where God is waiting for us.


Photos by Granny