Summer book group anyone?

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Recovering from a staph infection that required hospitalization has forced me to slow down considerably. My energy levels are low, and my ability to focus has been drastically reduced. I am definitely on the upswing, but recovery is going to be a long, slow process.

I have been beginning each day sitting in the back garden with a cup of tea, enjoying the beauty of spring crops flourishing, garlic plants growing scapes, and raspberry canes slowly loading with fruit. And I’ve read a single chapter of a book, while I drink my tea. Last week, I picked up a copy of my second book, “TEN”, as it’s been a while since I’ve read it. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed re-acquainting myself with the characters who meet weekly to drink coffee and discuss important questions and issues concerning our shared life in community.

Each morning as I read the next chapter, I find myself thinking, “This really is good stuff. I wish more people could read this.” Not just because I’m the author (or for that annual royalties cheque): it’s because I believe this book has something important to offer at a time when public – and personal – discourse is so polarized and divisive. In the book I try to model respectful conversation between people with very different views on important issues: not as a product of my imagination, but based on my experience in an amazing community I had the privilege of co-pastoring for 7 years: Mercy Street, in Houston, Texas.

Mercy Street is the most socio-economically and politically diverse community I’ve ever been part of. The characters the book contains are inspired by friends and church members who made themselves vulnerable as they told the (often painful) truth of their lives in a weekly mid-week group in which we wrestled with the hard questions of life. What enabled such respectful and meaningful conversation week after week between such different and, quite often, highly opinionated people? I think it came down to being willing to hear each others’ stories, and along the way coming to understand why we might think/believe as we do. That is what unfolds in the book, and I believe it will be listening to others’ stories that will prove essential if we are to find any hope of reversing the cultural trend of polarization and division that is tearing us apart as a society.

For many of us the summer opens up some time we don’t have while school is in. There are more chances to share meals with friends and neighbors; to sit on the porch/deck and catch up while the sun sets; perhaps to enjoy a neighborhood beer garden. Here’s a proposal for how to spend some of that time this summer: invite a few people to read “TEN” together with you. Read one chapter a week ahead of time, and then get together to discuss it over dinner, or on your deck, at the park, or down the pub. Consider inviting people you’d like to get to know better, or who you know think differently than you do about certain issues. Perhaps invite 3-5 people, and ask each person to invite someone else, to mix things up a little.

“TEN” is an exploration of the Ten Commandments as they interact with our lives, as well as an attempt to re-frame them in a more helpful way than many of us have experienced them. You can read more about the book, and some of its endorsements on my publisher’s website. Here are two I particularly appreciate:

“I have read TEN with great interest. Two things in particular struck me. First, the way Sean shows how the ‘rules’ are in the service of a relationship. And, second, the way Sean weaves the commandments into real life situations with real people. The latter is a special pastoral gift.”
~ Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus, Columbia Theological Seminary

“I have read TEN three times now. It is lovely. I feel like I really know all those people, and can picture them having a chat each week.”
~ Dagma Jermy, a friend of my parents

Amazon.com is the easiest place to find TEN, but please buy books where you want to see them sold. Obviously, I am more than happy to sell you copies, especially if I know they’re for a reading group. Finally, if you need a little incentive to take me up on my proposal, perhaps this will help: if you buy 5 or more copies from me, I would be more than happy to Skype/FaceTime in with your group for 30 minutes during one of your sessions and join in the conversation. If you’d like to do that, please email me at sean.gladding@gmail.com.

I hope you’ll consider my proposal, and create an opportunity to experience for yourself the kind of conversations we so desperately need to be having as friends, neighbors and fellow members of society.

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The Naked Man – pt. 49

Second Temple Jerusalem - cropped

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

Yiftach, lost in thought, made his way to Upper Jerusalem, his feet finding their own way on what was fast becoming a familiar route through this unfamiliar city. As the streets grew wider, and the houses larger, the resentment and anger such conspicuous wealth and privilege normally provoked was dulled, his mind and heart still reeling from the confrontation from which he had just walked away.

Ever since Simon bar Giora had led his force of 15,000 men into Jerusalem at the request of the Council, Yiftach had seen little of his leader and – he had dared to believe – friend. Simon spent his days making endless plans with members of the Council, plans for the defense of Jerusalem, which may well depend on their ability to form some kind of alliance with John of Gischala and the Zealots, who still controlled the Temple area. Yiftach understood the pressure Simon was under, and the tension they all felt whenever their attention drifted to the ranks of tents beyond the walls of the city, to the Legions that were just waiting for word from Rome to begin their siege of this troublesome city.

So it was to his great surprise and delight when Simon had sought him out earlier that day. Passing a wine skin back and forth and making small talk evoked memories of all those years in the hills of Galilee, when it had just been fifty of them. As they told stories of those early days, laughing at one particular incident, Yiftach saw the lines of weariness and anxiety around Simon’s eyes soften. And realized that this was probably why Simon had come looking for him: for a moment’s respite from the pressure, and – perhaps – from a longing for simpler days, when “the enemy” was more-clearly defined. As they laughed and held each other’s gaze for a moment, Yiftach’s heart once more filled with love for this man.

But as Simon leaned forward to pass the wine skin back, Yiftach saw the lines around his eyes return, his lips draw back into a grim line. Instead of leaning back, relaxed, Simon’s posture became rigid, and Yiftach felt the moment of camaraderie pass as swiftly as it had come. “So,” Simon said, his tone flat, “I hear you’ve become a regular dining companion in the home of Council member Benyamin’s mother.” Startled by this statement, Yiftach said nothing for a long moment. He heard an edge in Simon’s tone as he continued. “I am curious as to why one such as you, who has dreamed of liberation from the power of Rome for so long, and shed blood in its pursuit, would abandon that dream in the very moment when we have a chance to realize it.” He leaned closer, so close that Yiftach could feel Simon’s breath on his cheek as he spoke. “This sect, so Benyamin tells me, preaches forgiveness of enemies. Encourages such nonsense as non-violence – “the beating of swords into plowshares,” as the prophets said. Let me tell you, Yiftach, there will be time enough for farming when we have driven the Romans from our land. You left your father’s plowshare to take up the sword with me: why would you turn your back on us – on me – when the hour of our deliverance is at hand?”

Simon leaned back against the tree, his arms crossed, waiting for an answer. Yiftach felt bands of fear tighten around his chest, but held Simon’s unwavering gaze as he began to respond. “In truth, I do not fully understand why I return there night after night. As I listen to what Yohannan Marcus – Benyamin’s brother – has to say, I find myself questioning much of what he says. Which,” he paused, a wry grin spreading across his face, “he encourages. I confess there is much I find hard to understand, let alone believe. But…” His voice tailed off. “But?” Simon echoed, a hint of menace in his voice now.

Yiftach was suddenly aware in himself that he wanted – needed – Simon to understand what he himself had just realized. “But there is something about the gathering itself that I find compelling. Simon.” He leaned forward, animated. “Do you remember all those nights sitting around the campfire, up in the hills, dreaming of what life would be like after Messiah came and drove the Romans from our land, and restored the glory of Israel?” “Of course I do,” huffed Simon. It’s what has kept me going through all we’ve endured to get us to this point. What of it?” “Well,” continued Yiftach, “we talked of what our life together would be like then. That Messiah would establish justice and peace when he came. That our people would no longer know hunger, or the burden of over-taxation. That all would share in the wealth of our people – that there would be an end to the grinding poverty you and I grew up with. That we would enjoy the fruit of our own labor and not have to give the majority to the wealthy landlords who live up there.” Yiftach pointed to the Upper City.

“Yes,” responded Simon. “I remember. What of it?” Yiftach hesitated before plunging forward. “That is what I experience at the gathering. Rich and poor, master and servant, men and women, all sharing a meal at the same table. No special food and the finest wine for the host and her peers, while the rest of us get bread and the cheap stuff. But all enjoying the meal provided – each contributing as they are able. When I break bread with them, Simon, I taste the future we dreamed of in the hills. Right now. With the Romans camped outside the walls. That’s why I go back, night after night.” He sat back, and waited for Simon’s reaction…

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50 trees for 50 years

FIGS photo - croppedMy friend and neighbor Luella and I celebrate a milestone birthday this weekend – we were born on the same day 50 years ago. I’ve never really been one for celebrating my own birthday, but 50 feels significant, and so I wanted to mark the occasion with more than just the usual special birthday dessert (our family tradition – I’m leaning towards some kind of raspberry/chocolate/cookie ice cream affair this year).

A couple of weeks ago Rebecca asked me how I wanted to celebrate this birthday, and without thinking I blurted out, “I want to plant 50 fig trees in our neighborhood.” This was not as random as it may seem. We love figs. We have a fig tree in our front yard, Chicago Hardy variety, and we enjoyed the sweetest fruit from it over a couple of months last year. I particularly enjoyed the reactions of the middle school kids walking up our street after school who were brave enough to try one. I realize it is a rare treat to eat a fig right off the tree, and one we have only enjoyed ourselves for the last couple of years.

After blurting out my idea, we began to wonder at the possibility. What if there were 50 more fig trees planted in front yards and public places in our neighborhood for people to enjoy as they walked home from school, or work, or the store? We have put roots down here, and the thought of walking past fig trees twenty years from now that we helped plant with our neighbors fills me with happiness. We talked to Luella about our idea, and she loved it. So we’re going to do it!

But there’s more! Something else Luella and I share is a small gathering in her and her husband Steve’s home every Saturday, which we’ve now been doing for about a year. We share a potluck meal and the Eucharist together with some other friends and neighbors, we sing, pray and read scripture together. We have felt an invitation to formalize what we’re doing, and when you do that, it helps to have a name. So, the name we have chosen is the Fig Tree Collective, and you can read why here.

Planting 50 fig trees feels like a good way to celebrate our 50th birthdays and the beginning of the Fig Tree Collective. If you’d like to join us in that celebration, click here to help buy a tree or two, and – if you’re a neighbor – suggest a place or two to plant them! 

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The Naked Man – pt. 48

loaves-and-fishFor the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

“Five thousand men?” repeated Yiftach. “And I assume there were women and children? So what, twelve, fifteen thousand people overall? That’s like ten Capernaums deciding to have a picnic! And I don’t think 200 denarii would begin to cover the cost of bread for that many people – even if the surrounding villages had enough spare food to sell them.” He shook his head, disbelievingly.

“And where did that money come from?” asked Adina. “Didn’t you say Jesus told them not to take any money with them? How come they have that much?” “That’s a good question,” said Mark with a smile. “I never thought to ask Peter that!” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “And they weren’t supposed to take bread either, but they apparently ignored that too. Because when Jesus said to them, ‘How many loaves do you have? Go look!’, they told him they had five, as well as a couple of fish.”

Yiftach laughed. “Well, that must have provided the crowd with a feast!” Mark smiled again. “It does provide quite the quandary for them. But Jesus obviously had something in mind. He commanded them all to recline by groups on the green grass. And they reclined in companies of hundreds and fifties.” Simeon spoke up. “Just as Moses organized the people in the wilderness following the exodus.” “Hmm. Quite so,” responded Mark. “Well, Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up towards heaven, he blessed the food and broke the loaves and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the crowds; and he divided up the fish among them all.” He paused before concluding, “And they all ate and were satisfied.”

Yiftach spluttered out another “What?!”, spraying his unfortunate companion with wine as he did so. “That’s impossible. Absurd! You believed Peter when he told you this?” Mark nodded slowly as he responded. “Well, it certainly qualifies as…miraculous. But such an event is not entirely without precedent.” He gestured to Simeon. “There was another great crowd in the wilderness without bread – following the exodus. Moses talked to G_d, and G_d provided the people with manna – daily bread.” “I get it,” said Yiftach. “Jesus is the new Moses. But this story is just unbelievable. I’m sorry.”

“More so than Jesus raising a little girl from her deathbed?” asked Miryam, gently. Yiftach shifted his attention to Mark’s mother. “Yes. No. I don’t know!”, he exclaimed. It’s all so…” He threw his arms up in the air. “Unbelievable. I’m sorry, but it is.” Before Miryam could say anything further Yiftach said, “And again, if something like that had happened, those people would never forget it. That story would have been told, and re-told for generations. Yet this is the first time I’ve ever heard of it.” He looked back at Mark, a note of challenge in his voice.

“My friend, I understand your incredulity. But what if the crowds didn’t know where the bread and fish came from? What if they just sat down, and the disciples brought baskets of food to them where they sat? They may well have expressed gratitude to the disciples, but never thought to ask about the source of the feast.” Yiftach shook his head, unconvinced. Simeon spoke up. “What if the miracle was not for the crowds’ benefit, but for the disciples? What if this is one more sign to them as to Jesus’ identity that they are slow to understand?”

Miryam leaned forward. “And to my mind, there is something more miraculous happening here. Picture that hillside. Thousands of people who had been there for some time. No access to water for ritual purification for those who needed it. No way of knowing who among your neighbors was clean and who was unclean. And yet, they sat down together in large groups to share a meal. In the presence of Jesus – their teacher, their shepherd – they sit and eat without concern for ritual purity. That strikes me as miraculous.” Yiftach nodded, indicating agreement.

Miryam smiled. “And perhaps something else happened on that hillside. As a mother, I find it difficult to believe that women would have headed out into the wilderness without at least some food for their children. What if they sat down in groups as Jesus instructed, and as the disciples brought food to the first few groups, they began to pull their own food out? And as they realized people next to them may not have brought enough – or anything at all – began to share what they had with each other? Perhaps those around them noticed and, like a ripple spreading across a lake, each group began to do the same.” Seeing Mark about to interject something Miryam held up her hand and said, “I know. I know. That’s not what Peter said.” She paused. “But maybe Peter didn’t tell the whole story.”

She swept her arm, to indicate the gathering in the courtyard. “Out there,” pointing beyond the gateway, “is the economy of scarcity. There’s not enough for everyone, so we hoard what we have, afraid to share in case there’s not enough tomorrow. But in here, we embody an economy of abundance, where each contributes what they can, until we discover there is enough for all. If we will learn to share.” She held Rachel’s gaze briefly, who smiled in return.

Mark stood. “Thank you, mother. Whatever happened there in the wilderness, it was miraculous, one way or another. When the meal was finished, they respected the gift of bread from G_d, picking up twelve full baskets of the broken pieces and also of the fish.” Adina called out, “One for each of the disciples! Surely they understood then?” Mark shook his head. “No, as we will hear tomorrow night…”

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The Naked Man – pt. 47

loaves-and-fish

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

Mark walked into the courtyard from the house, greeting Simeon before sitting down next to his mother. She offered him a platter of dried fish, and he popped one in his mouth, chewing slowly as he surveyed the gathering. “Rachel seems happy tonight,” he observed. Miryam’s face creased into a wide smile as she said, “Yes! You know how she continues to feel bad about not being able to contribute to the shared meal, no matter how often I tell her that there’s always enough, regardless of what each person brings. Well, apparently she bumped into an old friend of her family in the marketplace this morning, and when he heard about the challenges she and her sisters have faced since losing their father, he bought her a sackful of food.” She gestured to the platter. “That fish you’re enjoying? She brought that, along with those loaves of bread. And a couple of skins of wine.” Mark regarded Rachel again. “Such generosity – this food could have fed them for days. And we would not have known that she had hoarded it.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “That reminds me of another of Peter’s favorite stories…” He washed down the fish with some wine before standing to address the ecclesia.

“In telling the story of what happened to John, I interrupted the story of Jesus sending the twelve out to proclaim the message of repentance, and to heal people of disease and the demonic. Let us hear what happened when they returned. The apostles gathered together with Jesus, and they reported to him all that they had done and taught. And Jesus said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a wilderness place and rest a while.’ For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. So they went away in a boat to a wilderness place by themselves. But they were not to enjoy the promised rest just yet.

“The people saw them going, and many recognized them, so as the disciples headed out in the boat with Jesus, the crowds ran ahead on foot from all the cities, and got there ahead of them. And when Jesus went ashore, he saw a great multitude, and he felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Mark lifted his cup to his lips, and offered a grateful smile to Rachel, acknowledging her generosity, before placing it back on the low table before him.

“Throughout our story we find the promise of G_d providing rest for G_d’s people in this very setting: the wilderness. We find it in the Law and the Prophets, and now Jesus offers the ancient hope of rest to the crowds gathered in the wilderness to hear him teach. For we are people of the new exodus, those who have been liberated from the power of sin and death by the new Moses.”

“And,” interjected Simeon, “by the new Joshua: Yeshua of Nazareth.” He stood to address those gathered. “As Yohannan has told us the story of Jesus each night, we have seen that those responsible for the welfare of G_d’s people failed to care for them. Whether it be priests, or teachers of the Law, or ‘kings’ such as Herod, we were indeed like sheep without a shepherd. This was the concern Moses brought to G_d in the wilderness, after which G_d appointed Joshua to be Moses’ successor. This was the concern G_d expressed through the prophet Ezekiel, as well as making the promise to one day send a faithful shepherd who would provide rest for G_d’s people in the wilderness.” He searched his memory for the text before saying, “‘I will feed my flock, and I will lead them to rest. I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.’ Well, as the lost, and the broken and the sick gathered around Jesus, the fat and the strong plotted against him.” Simeon nodded at Mark, then took his seat once more.

“Thank you Simeon,” said Mark. “Now, when it was already quite late, Jesus’ disciples came up to him and said, ‘The place is desolate and it is already quite late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’ But Jesus answered and said to them, ‘You give them something to eat!’ And they said to him, ‘Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?’“

“That’s a pretty disrespectful response,” observed Yiftach. “If I’d spoken like that to Simon bar Giora…well, let’s just say he would not have been best pleased. But two hundred denarii – that’s a year’s wage for most of us gathered here. Just how many people are we talking about out there in the wilderness?”

“Five thousand men,” responded Mark.

How many?” returned Yiftach in an incredulous voice…

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The Naked Man – cast of characters

Olive-Tree-in-Courtyard-of-the-Church-of-the-MultiplicationSetting

We are in Jerusalem in CE69. A Roman army is encamped outside the walls, awaiting orders to besiege the city. The call has gone out throughout Judaea and Galilee – all faithful Jews must rally to the defense of Jerusalem. Inside the walls, the city is a tinderbox. Simon bar Giora is ‘master of Jerusalem’, his army of 15,000 having been welcomed into the city by the Council. But in the Temple, his rivals John of Gischala and the Zealots control the outer and inner courts respectively.

In the courtyard of a home in the Upper City, members of a controversial group meet each night to hear what one man has to say about such troubling times. The group are members of The Way, a sect within Judaism that believes that Jesus of Nazareth – a man denounced by the Council and crucified by the Romans outside this very city over three decades ago – is in fact the long awaited Messiah, and has been raised from the dead by G_d. The man is Mark, author of the Gospel which bears his name. He has come home to encourage the ecclesia that meets in the house he grew up in.

Cast of characters

Mark:               or, Yohannan Marcus, author of the Gospel

His family:
Mother:          Miryam, host of the ecclesia
Brothers:       Benyamin – a member of the Council
[Benyamin has four grandchildren (Samuel, Deborah, Miriam and David). Their father, Joseph (Benyamin’s son) died a year ago.]

Daniel – a Zealot

Simeon:          An elder of the ecclesia, who wrote to Mark asking him to come from Rome to address the members of the Way

Yiftach:           A long-time follower of Simon bar Giora, who is intrigued by the Way, but who is preparing to fight when the siege begins

Rachel:            A young woman of high class who has experienced a drastic change in status, and who is now grateful to join the gathering for the food and welcome she receives

Adina, Devorah and Ya-el:  friends of Rachel who find themselves in similar circumstances

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The Naked Man – pt. 46

st-john-the-forerunner-icon-croppedMark continued his account of John’s imprisonment. “Now a strategic day came when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday for his lords and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee; and when the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you.’ And he swore an oath to her, ‘Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you; up to half of my kingdom.’”

“That must have been some dance,” Yiftach commented. “Indeed,” Mark said. “Although I’m sure they were more impressed by the fact that it was Herodias’s daughter than they were by her performance.” “Perhaps,” responded Yiftach, “but that’s about as big an oath as Herod could make. He was clearly very…impressed.” Adina spoke up. “I’m surprised he managed to say anything, what with his tongue hanging out as far as it no doubt was. Well, did she ask for half his kingdom?”

“No,” Mark responded. “She went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ And, without hesitation, Herodias said, ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ Immediately she came in a hurry to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’” Adina pulled a face as she said, “That’s disgusting.” Yiftach nodded in agreement as he said, “And some pretty dark humor, given the setting. I bet her request sobered Herod up pretty quickly! What did he do?”

Mark continued. “Although the king was very sorry, yet because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded him to bring back John’s head. And he went and had him beheaded in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.”

“So,” Yiftach responded, “he takes John’s head to save face in front of all his powerful friends. Because his drunken oath is more important than a man’s life.” “Well,” said Mark, “at least, this man’s life. But clearly what he had done weighed heavy on his mind, because, remember, when he heard about Jesus, Herod’s first thought was, ‘John, who I beheaded, has risen!’ It seems Herod may have regretted killing G_d’s prophet, and feared G_d’s judgment for doing so. Certainly, when Aretas of Nabatea invaded Herod’s tetrarchy a few years later to avenge the dishonoring of his daughter when Herod married Philip’s wife, the stinging defeat Aretas’ and Philip’s forces inflicted on Herod was seen by many as G_d’s judgment for his killing John.”

“What did John’s followers do when word got out about his death?” asked Yiftach. Mark answered, “When his disciples heard about this, they came and took away his body and laid it in a tomb.” “As would eventually happen to Jesus,” said Miryam. Attention in the courtyard shifted to the diminutive figure in her customary chair. “Just as with John, Jesus would also be arrested, imprisoned and then killed. Not as a result of a conspiracy between an angry mother and her daughter, but a conspiracy between powerful men in the Temple and the Roman state.” She sighed. “And just as John’s death foreshadowed Jesus’ death, insofar as his disciples inherited the same mission – to preach repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of G_d – their ever-present reality was that they might inherit the same fate. And wherever gatherings like this one proclaim that same message and refuse to accept the narratives of the powerful, we risk sharing the fate of both.”

Heaviness fell over the ecclesia. Mark rose to his feet once more and spoke. “There are indeed other gatherings like this throughout the Empire where ordinary people like you and I risk much because they belong to the Way. And some have indeed shared in the suffering of John and of Jesus.” He paused, as well-known and beloved faces came to mind. Then his voice rang out across the courtyard. “But they are willing to do so because they believe what Herod feared: that G_d’s prophet has risen from the dead. And while we, too, may one day share in their suffering, we, too, will share in the resurrection. May we go forth from this place tonight in that sure hope…”

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