Upon the Bread of Life, Just Believe: some thoughts on John 6:22-36

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (oil on canvas, by Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti, c. 1545-1550)

In the sixth chapter of the gospel according to John, Jesus makes a short trip across the Sea of Galilee to a city called Capernaum. Shortly after his arrival he finds that hundreds, if not thousands, of people from the town he was just in (Bethsaida) have travelled in their own boats in pursuit of him.

Many of these townspeople had been part of the 5,000 whom Jesus famously fed by miraculously multiplying loaves of bread and baskets of fish. When they find Jesus here in Capernaum they seem to exclaim: “Teacher, when did you come here?”

Mosaic Commemorating the Feeding of the 5,000 (photo by Robert L. Grupp)

Jesus is perceptive. I see him smiling a little, maybe shrugging. He says, “You’re not looking for me because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill in bread and are hungry again.”

You’re just hungry again. That’s why you’ve followed me here. His lesson then is: “Don’t strain for temporary food, but for eternal food…”

Eternal food. One might have heard a hollow sound were they to knock upon the collective skull of the crowd just then (admittedly, the same simple-mindedness would have been true of me as well). Trying to be perceptive themselves they may have assumed that by “eternal” Jesus was referring to a longer-lasting prize they’d yet to receive. So, moving away from the topic of their growling stomachs, they ask, “What must we do to be doing the work of God?”

Yep. I’ve asked this question often. It’s the old bartering-masked-in-piety trick I revert to when I’m feeling pretty good about life, above certain sins, and confident in my own standing. Alright God, I’m ready. Put me in. Let me show you what I can really do. Don’t just give me that eternally loving presence thing you’re always talking about. This time let me earn it.

It’s the opposite of bartering for God’s help and provision, in a way. You know what I mean. Rather than the prodigal son-esque: “I’m at the end of my rope, God, help me!” thing, it’s believing that God’s grace makes me into some kind of indentured servant. It’s saying, “Hey, see what great work I’ve been doing here? See the prayer, the charity, the abstinence? I’ve moved on; I’ve become healthy. So how about we just call things even?”

Christianity tells of many mysteries. For example, that the first will be last, and the last will be first, or, that Jesus did not come to bring peace but something that would split and divide up families. But I’ve found nothing more mysterious than how freely receiving what I need begets more belief that I need to make up that free gift to God.

Jesus is kind in his response to the crowd. “You are doing the work of God by believing,” he says.

He means, you are paying me back (if you must hear it this way) by your belief. That’s all.

A very close friend of mine—let’s call him Joey—confessed once that he found believing in God to be too difficult. Misunderstanding him, I replied, “Yeah, me too, man.” Joey kindly laughed at that. He explained that the burden of being a Christian was too heavy for him, and that he was tired of feeling guilty for not carrying it very well. He and I both grew up as evangelical Christians. Our church taught kids that devotion to God was paramount; that devotion was, if nothing else, proof of one’s salvation. From around 8th or 9th grade it was encouraged (and quietly expected, I presume) that kids were daily engaged in some form of what was coined, “quiet time with God.”

In short, a “quiet time” is spending a portion of one’s day (maybe 20 to 60 minutes) in solitude while reading the Bible or praying. It’s difficult to know exactly where or how the idea of our modern ”quiet time” came about (and frankly, we need a better phrase for it—not only does it carry a burdensome reputation, it also sounds a little too close to “sleepy time”), but I suspect it’s been something Christians have done for a long time to try to know God better. It may have been poorly dictated sermons by Joey and my pastors that were to blame, or that he misinterpreted some teachings on what devotion to God meant (God knows I did). But his interpretation of what being devoted to God meant was that it was a rule to follow, and that failure to keep the rule was not exactly a sin, but not exactly helping him be on God’s good side either. Joey believed the proof of his faith could be found in his ability to follow through with the rule. And so, from a young age he saw how, each day, he could not prove his faith.

Back to Jesus. He said: “Only believe.” So, what does this mean?

Hear me rightly now: is a man who calls himself a painter but never gets up to paint really a painter? In Christianity, there exists a fine line between legalism and some sort of free-formed Jesus-y association, and an argument could be made that neither extreme is really what Jesus taught. But, I often wonder how Joey’s faith would be different today if the emphasis he remembered while growing up at church was that he didn’t need to do anything to be on God’s good side. That his devotion to God would actually be a reaction to God’s enduring love for him.

Five years later, Joey still seeks a god in the world, and I can see how he thinks it could still be true. But the Christian God is too unattainable. For what it’s worth, though, it’s my belief that his seeking, his yearning for a god, is proof of a very strong devotion indeed. It’s proof that, if nothing else, he has tasted something enlivening and that he will cross many seas to find it.

Give Freedom Away (or give it back)

I wrote this post last year on the 4th of July from the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago near Grant Park. I hope you enjoy!

Today is the fourth of July. In America, this means something.

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I have a tattoo on my arm that not a small number of people have asked about. It’s not that it’s entirely unique, or even that it stands out. It’s actually the smallest of the one’s I have, and it’s hidden by every shirt I wear.

When it is exposed, some people ask, “Is that Africa on your arm?” Others: “What does that writing say? What is it outlined with?” Most, however, ask: “Is that India?”

It is, in fact, India.

The writing on the inside says Psalm 67:1, 2.

I should say that I’m not a huge fan of faith-based tattoos, but only because I don’t like being boxed in. I don’t really find myself “edgy,” nor do I find any need to take allegiance with it.

Nevertheless, I have a tattoo with a verse from the Hebrew Bible on my arm. That verse says:

May God be gracious to us and bless us

and make his face to shine upon us,

Selah

that your way may be known on earth,

your saving power among all nations.

Eight years ago I was in India for the second summer in a row. This summer, unlike the previous, I was traveling around with a translator telling the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with a tool called the “Evangecube”. Basically, it’s a Rubik’s Cube-looking thing that only unfolds one way. It culminates in a picture of two hands meeting, symbolizing a relationship with God. They say pictures are easier for people to understand.

So here I am, a six-foot oaf with a bandana, a green canvas bag, and slacks I bought at a thrift store, walking from hut to hut doing the absolute worst job at re-telling a contrived version of Jesus’ LDR via the E-Cube. I am watching Bengali men and women look me in the eyes, folding their arms at their chests, as if to say, “Really? That’s what you came all the way from America to tell me? That a God I don’t believe exists wants to save me from something I don’t believe I need to be saved from?”

Heh. “Yeah, I think so,” I’d say.

A few days later I sit in a chair looking out upon the city from my hotel. I am in anguish. I hate what I am doing, all the while knowing that people need to hear about Jesus someway. Perhaps this team, these cubes, these intrusive tactics are their way. Perhaps.

From the street I can see taxis bumping each other and honking, men driving and beeping the horns of their tuk tuk’s. Dogs meander, sniffing grass. Cows stand in the middle of the road and drivers take great effort to avoid hitting them. There is a dump truck that pulls in front of the hotel and stops. Two men get out and hurl piles of trash into the back of the truck. I watch plastic bags, food wrappers, and dried out fruit rinds soar into the air, some of which don’t make it high enough. The trash men don’t mind.

One package of trash lands right at the top and I am stunned to see that it splats atop a man lain across the top of the heap. He is still in sight but quickly being buried. He does not move as trash flies at him, he only lays. His eyes are blank, his expression, empty. His demeanor, nothing. There is a human mind in this truck bed. There is a beating heart; a mother’s son.

The Dalits are at the bottom of India’s caste system. They are “untouchable,” and known as less valuable than work animals. There are approximately 160 million Dalits in India.

This man is likely one of them. His sunken eye sockets, his joints and bones ready to pierce through his skin, are emblems of the story he carries. And so far, it is not a hopeful one.

I want to confess to my team leader that I don’t think door-to-door evangelism is working, and that I think helping Dalits, or something like it, is a better use of our time for the gospel. Instead, I wind up telling him that I saw a man who didn’t have hope today, and that I’ve been handed hope for my entire life.

“I don’t need to worry about a thing,” I say. And it’s true. I have means to money, I have people who know my name, I have a warm place to lay my head, I have food whenever I want it. I am a king by a Dalit’s standard. Truly, I am the untouchable one.

“I didn’t choose this,” I tell him. “To be born white, privileged, and in a place like America. So why did I receive it while people like that man are treated like trash?”

All the while my mind is racing: Why did I get the easy way out? Why wasn’t I born here in India, where life is real and people suffer? Why aren’t all countries, neighborhoods, economic situations the same? Why do some of us get to live in suburbs with SUV’s, laundry detergent, extra blankets, and safe places for our kids to play? God, this, is injustice.

My leader doesn’t try to fix me. He doesn’t tell me that I had been blessed and that God was showing me favor. He doesn’t even try to explain why people are born into third world countries. Instead, he shows me Psalm 67:1, 2. He reads it, and then he hands me his Bible so that I can read it.

And then, it was like I knew all along.

Today, when I approach that passage I do a little interpreting when I read it:

God, you have been gracious to me and have blessed me

But you have given to me because you want me to give it all away again,

so that people will know it was you all along.

This fourth of July I try to remember my trips to India. I try to remember the friends I made, and the stories I heard. I try to remember that if I didn’t grow up in America I may never have had the opportunity to tell my Indian friends’ stories today; I may never have known how deep poverty can swim in this world, and that while Americans are mostly surface swimmers, more than half of the world will remain stuck upon the ocean floor.

Love Your Neighbor, Love Yourself [Theology Thursday]

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What we allow to inform us becomes what we believe. 

A man named Jesus once said, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The culture around me seems to say, “you shall do what is right for you and love yourself.”

Here are depictions of both statements drawn out:

Jesus: 

A man driving home after a long week of conducting business at a trade show notices a car on fire and a man beaten up on the side of the road outside of it. He considers the time it may take from his travel if he is to stop. He slows and peers down the road, flicking the face of his watch with his finger. He stops and studies the beaten man. He is unconscious, though he is familiar too. He was at the trade show too, except he was smiling, laughing, and writing up several more business contracts. Yesterday’s competition, he thinks. Today’s near-death story. At the end of every day, every businessman is still just a man, just as able to be beaten by something. Had he left the night before, as this man had, it might have been his car on fire. He steps out of his car, pulls the man across his shoulders, and sprawls him across his backseat. He drives a few miles to the nearest motel. He calls for a doctor, spending the last of his travel money as a down payment for his attention. He tells the motel manager to keep the beaten man as long as he needs to be kept, and to mail him the bill.

Two days later, the beaten man is conscious again. When he asks who brought him to the motel, and who hired the doctor, the motel manager hands him a wrinkled piece of paper with an address. 

What is this? The man asks.

Your advocate, sir. 

Sorry?

The man who saved you.

He turns the paper over twice and studies it. It is someone’s business card. I’ve heard of this man, he tells the motel manager. Why would he have stopped for me?

The motel manager shrugs. Maybe he believes in helping people, sir.

Helping people? No, that’s not how it works. Not people like me. In the business world I’m his enemy.

Maybe you’re not, sir. Maybe in some other world you’re his friend. His action might start a wildfire. You never can know. Care for neighbors like us can make caring for our neighbors make more sense.

Culture: 

A man coming home from a business venture stops along the side of the road to watch a fire. He opens his notepad and removes a pen from his jacket pocket. He scribbles down notes. The flames are like red and orange cornstalks reaching for the sky. Blackened at their tips, there is smoke billowing like confused clouds that meander before lurching toward the blue sky. I can turn this into a story tonight, he thinks. Tomorrow’s headlines will be mine. Cars are driving by and people slow to watch. Some lay on their horns and look annoyed. They are not interested in the fire. There does not appear to be any help coming. This might burn for hours, he thinks. And I have the best spot. The best eyewitnesses are the worst interveners. The world tells stories everyday, and I would be a fool to stand in its way. 

An ambulance screams around the city. When it gets to St. Mark’s hospital it screeches to a stop. Two men are yelling at each other as they open the rear door. A body like a carcass made of charred bones is on the gurney. Several seconds pass.

I told you to go left and you went right, the first ambulance operator says.

It doesn’t matter. This poor bastard is gonna die. I drove as fast as I could but what’s the sense in getting us killed too?

It doesn’t matter. I’m the lead and you listen to me, even if I’m wrong. 

Inside there are white coats, green scrubs, tennis shoes. The emergency room is a whirlwind of evaporating time. 

What do we got? The doctor says as he pushes through the door. He turns to the sink to wash his hands. 

Car wreck. The fire leapt from his car to the field where he was thrown. Under the char he looks beaten pretty badly too. Looks premeditated.

That’s not our job to decide. He looks over the body. We decide if he lives and that’s it, and judging by the look of him you better call for the priest. 

Doctor?

He ain’t worth our time. Get his I.D., his insurance policy, and then pump his heart a few times. Get him on an IV, but don’t hold your breath. We ain’t here to plead for miracles. We have more work to do.

A priest opens his Bible it at a sewn-in burgundy book marker. The man’s mother and brother have come, but his father and ex-wife have not. The priest reads systematically from Isaiah the prophet, David the Psalmist, and Paul, the self-appointed apostle. He speaks from a script in his book and condoles the family. They cross themselves when he is finished. He closes his Bible, reports a blessing, and departs from their room. He scratches down the family name and the service he conducted in a small black book issued to him by the hospital.

To a very true and certain extent, what we allow to inform us becomes what we believe. 

The man, Jesus, once said, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 

The culture around him, me, and us ever seems to say, “you shall do what is right for you and love yourself.”