Change in Status

Our congregation recently marked the one-year mark that we moved out of our building. Except for three months in the late summer and early fall, we have worshiped remotely. Not only has our congregational life been confined to individual houses. Our work life has sent us into nooks in our homes where we set up shop thinking it would only be for a short while. My sister transitioned from her office to a card table with a plastic chair for months on end. She needed physical therapy because the unyielding furniture did a number on her spine and hips. We never imagined we would be isolated for so long. Mandated to stay out of community, we were expected to teach our children, run our businesses, and cater our own meals (in spite of sold-out ingredients) with no advance notice.

And we have done it! Each one of us deserves a medal for adaptation but I suspect we would settle for hugs from the loved ones we have missed!

So now we begin to consider leaving our homes as vaccinations are administered. We accept that we have to continue to observe basic safety precautions but warm weather is calling us beyond the walls of our homes. I’m hearing that many of us are feeling anxious about the thought of freely mixing with other people. Even those who are fully immunized experience a gut reaction against meeting a friend for lunch or going back to the office a few days a week. We have become so reliant on the safety of our dens that we have almost forgotten how to interact with others easily. We long for companionship yet hold back from re-entering our world.

Photo by Janko Ferlic on

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan friar based in Albuquerque. I have been following his daily devotions this past year while squirreled away in my home or working in a quiet church building. I appreciate his theory of the three domes which he described in his January posts. Picture three conical domes that fit inside each other. The smallest and inner dome is comprised of my personal interests. Rohr calls it the world of “My Story.” It’s me living each day based on my needs. I thrive thanks to self-help books. I seek to fulfill my deepest desires. I immerse myself in my interests and can find it pretty rewarding! Many of our members have talked about what a relief it was initially to be mandated to stay home. We ate meals with our loved ones. We tackled home projects, read books, and slept in. We self-actualized by learning new cooking techniques and organized neglected files. When we focus all our efforts on ourselves, we risk settling for an inwardly-focused life. In our increasing narcissism, we easily take offense at others and are fearful of anyone foisting changes upon us. Every aspect to our lives, when we live exclusively in this smallest dome, resembles a selfie: Look at me! Tell me how great I look! What can you do for me today? Fixating on ourselves gets…boring, right? Think of how yucky it is to wear a mask, breathing our own breath for any length of time. Even if we’ve brushed and flossed our teeth, after 20 minutes of talking with our co-worker, our mask smells rank! Too much of me becomes unpleasant!

We place another dome over “My Story” and that is called “Our Story.” “Our Story” is the narrative of whatever group we claim as our own. We commonly base this allegiance on race, nationality, gender, religion, or occupation. We might call those in this second dome “my people.” We find value in associating with those who share our attributes and values. Being part of a group is the necessary training ground to lifelong trust. Church involvement fits under this dome as congregations live their faith together. Unchecked group-think, however, leads away from a healthy sense of belonging with others to an ardent defense of “our group.” We are willing to sacrifice for “us” so as to defeat “them.” We broadcast our group commitment by wearing the right swag and joining the proper on-line group. We seek out fame. Sometimes we even strive for domination, like rival gangs in an urban setting. The Bible values both of these domes as evidenced in Jesus’ command: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. God works in us on both a personal and communal level.

The largest dome encompasses the first two. This one Rohr refers to as “The Story.” It is here that we encounter patterns that are always true regardless of personal story and cultural bias. We cannot peg anything easily in this realm because it is so beyond our human level. We realize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves and our best human communities. In order to find our way to “The Story,” we have to take responsibility at both the personal and group levels. We admit our errors that hurt us and others. We look at the group with whom we affiliate and notice their prejudice. We become aware of our blind spots. We are humbled by our blunders and discover that we need something more than personal satisfaction and communal belonging. We embrace the necessity of forgiveness. We are moved with compassion for those in need. We care for the earth as our home. We love others because we experience Divine love. When we live in the realm of “The Story,” Rohr states that we are saved from the smallness of “me” and the illusions of “we.” When all three domes are honored as worthy of our love and attention, we mature spiritually.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is written in the characteristically dense language of the Apostle. As we sift through it we notice a once/now structure. He begins by pointing out our status as individuals: The 47th selfie you took of yourself today may look great but you’ve missed the point! Your self-absorption has isolated you from all that matters. You have used your independence to serve your own personal needs which has damaged you and others. Paul warns the readers to be very clear about whom they follow. There are good guys and bad guys. There is God and Satan. Know that you are choosing your leader with each decision, thought and word. For all of us “My Story” is flawed and incomplete. We need community.

In verse three Paul shifts into the first-person plural: We, all of us, once lived among those who were busy building their resumes to promote their personal best. We were lost in sin and didn’t know it because “everyone was doing it.” If any reader was feeling smug about escaping the snare of peer pressure, Paul bursts that little ego bubble mercilessly. We were part of a group but our priorities were wrong. William Stringfellow wrote, “Biblically speaking, the singular, straightforward issues of ethics—and…of politics—is how to live humanly during the fall…” Perhaps what we are made of has been revealed more clearly in the past year of isolation and fear. Maybe we have retreated deep into our shell so that the light of a new day is barely discernible. So Paul reminds us that it is only when we acknowledge the reality of the powers to act selfishly that redemption can happen. It is only when a church undergoes self-examination that it can recognize and name the way it has become a power. We need the season of Lent every year to be reminded that we cannot overcome the forces of evil that surround us. Rather, we choose to follow Christ as He journeys toward Jerusalem. We witness to His strength and admit our own powerlessness.

Verse four beautifully describes a status shift. It features those of us who have transparently struggled through “My Story” and “Our Story” to find ourselves still on the dusty road with Christ. In spite of our lostness, God notices us. In spite of the stench of sin that clings to us, God reinvigorates us by placing us alongside of Jesus. Paul makes sure that none of us backslides into myopic arrogance by thinking we’ve earned this status shift. In verses 8 and 9 Paul issues a blunt reminder: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Paul was never one to mince words! Before we know it, the stinky face mask is removed, God holds our fully-revealed faces, and life-giving breath fills us with renewed purpose. “I am” and “We are” is abandoned for “God is.” A whole new life stretches before us, by God’s grace. We become the very person God created us to be. I love the sound of that. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good work. We feed the hungry. We love beyond our own tribe. We recognize our unity as children of a loving God who calls us to leave the obsession with self behind. God invites us to claim our story even as we celebrate the narratives of others. Following trusted guides who have navigated the potential pitfalls of “My Story” and “Our Story” faithfully, we find ourselves elevated beyond the pettiness of human life to the glory of God’s presence. The shift in status is God’s gift and it’s never too late.

We have spent months in virtual seclusion. We have expanded to safe pods, savoring the tenderness of hugs like never before. We may find it challenging to leave the safety of our homes as COVID begins to lose its grip. But we must remember the image of the three domes. Staying fixated on ourselves is deadly. Ian Markham writes, “Egotism and selfish preoccupation are so damaging to our being that our spirit is not alive to God and to love.” As a stroke victim labors under the direction of a rehabilitation coach, we must push ourselves slowly but surely back into our world. We can’t get stuck in a small circle that focuses on defending itself against all others. With our fears elevated unlike any other year, it would be easy to seek out “our” group and fully entrust our well-being to them. Only family. Only my closest friends. Only my church group.

Limiting our interaction to those within our circle of trust puts us in the driver’s seat and ejects God. Closing ourselves off to the beauty of complete strangers suffocates our God-intended humanity. Will we hang on to the wheel and avoid the places where we feel threatened? Or will we trust God with our journey? Will we leave our safe zone in good faith that God can shift our status from once to now, from lost to found, from lonely to home?

As we slowly leave COVID behind, we must carefully choose our Guide. Intentionally, sacrificially, we follow Christ’s lead.



For those of you chilling your green beer for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration tonight, listen up! Let me broaden your understanding of this holiday with a brief bio about dear Patrick! We started a new study at my church this week: Saints and Greats of the Faith. Since we commenced the study this week, it made sense to examine the life of the man behind all things Irish.

Patrick was born in Romano Britain, living during the 5th century. The exact details of his life are a bit sketchy. From his later writings we know that he was kidnapped by pirates at the age of 16 and carted off to Ireland where he served as a slave for six years. He tended the sheep of his master so another disciple of great faith understands what it means to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd of the sheep. His father was a deacon in the church and his grandfather served as priest. But young Patrick, at the time of his kidnapping, wasn’t a particularly devout disciple. Few 16-year-old boys are now, for that matter! But kidnapping and slavery can do a number on whatever construct you have of your teenaged life. During those unimaginable years of forced labor, his relationship to the God of his childhood deepened.

During his time of captivity God told him that he would soon go home and that a ship was at the ready. This didn’t mean, however, that his master understood this vision. The man who owned him certainly didn’t walk him to the boat, sending him off with a fond farewell. Patrick had to flee from his master, trusting the voice he had heard. He traveled some 200 miles, if you can imagine, to get to the eastern coast of Ireland. Even then, there wasn’t a ship’s captain holding up a sign with the name of Patrick inscribed on it. An exhausted and impoverished slave, he had to convince a skipper to take him aboard. God’s promises are true but don’t always come neatly wrapped with a bow! When his boat docked, he traveled by foot with other passengers 28 miles to find his way home. This wandering band of nomads grew weak with hunger. Patrick, with his fervent faith, prayed for God to sustain them. Not long after that public prayer, an unfortunate herd of wild boar appeared and a feast of roast pork ensued! The folks who traveled with this 22-year-old young man took note of his spiritual prowess and were impressed. This was the very beginning of his popular rise to Sainthood.

Patrick did arrive home, clearly changed by his experience. He pursued the Christian faith with great zeal, studying in France for a time. His spiritual accomplishments were noticed and God’s plan became clear in a vision. Patrick heard the Irish calling out for him, begging him to rejoin them. He took this vision seriously. I suppose you would have to, if you were being asked to return to the land of your enslavement! He left family and culture behind once again, this time by choice, and headed to the western coast of Ireland. He docked his boat in one town and they made it clear that he wasn’t welcome. Sometimes complete strangers help us in the task of discernment! These folks must not have been the ones Patrick heard in his vision. So he hopped back into his boat and paddled further north along the coast. Isn’t it interesting how we can assume we know where God is leading us, sacrifice to get there, then learn that we haven’t yet arrived where God will use us? The good news is that, a short distance up-stream, Patrick disembarked and was welcomed. That was the beginning to a lifetime of Christ-like leadership among a people who revered him. He baptized thousands. He ordained priests and sent them out to establish new faith communities. He made enemies when he inspired wealthy women from prestigious families to renounce their heritage and become nuns. He converted princes to the faith, who left highly privileged positions to enter the monastery. He is attributed with planting 300 congregations. The primary place of his ministry was in Armagh where both a Catholic parish and Church of Ireland were named after him.

There is plenty of folklore about this great man of the faith. He is reputed to have taught about the Trinity by using a three-leaf clover as a visual aid. He is credited with banishing all the snakes from Ireland after an uncomfortable encounter with some slithering reptiles. Ireland is still known as a land without such creatures. There were reports of his walking stick, completely detached from any root system or other form of nourishment, sprouting green shoots. All of this falls in the category of myth but it has made its way into revered memory. In stained glass images of the saint, you are likely to see him holding a shamrock, standing on defeated snakes and/or holding a walking stick bedecked with healthy greenery. We celebrate his inspiring life on March 17 as that was understood to be the date of his death.

This was all the more interesting for me to research this year since my DNA panel was further refined in recent months. As more individuals send in their vials of saliva, looking for some sense of personal identity, the data base expands and my information becomes more specific. Before the recent report, my ethnic passport credited England with more than 75% of my DNA roots. I easily embrace the British, having lived three of my first five formational years in jolly old England. My dad picked up fish and chips wrapped in newspaper on the way home from work and I devoured it. I fed pigeons in the quaint British parks, Mary Poppins-style. I loved the Beatles music and laughed at Monty Python’s odd version of humor! James Cordon singing with celebrities in a car makes me smile. I readily embrace being a part of these people!

Another 12% of my DNA comes from Scotland. My great aunt Jean, after whom I was given my middle name, donned a three-piece wool suit on special occasions. It was tailored out of the bright red MacDougall tartan. I have a picture of her father, my great-grandfather, in full Scottish kilt attire, playing the bagpipes. Three sisters and I had the amazing experience of digging into our MacDougall roots in 2018 by visiting two of “our” castles in Oban, Scotland. The crisp seaside air invigorated me as I considered that my ancestors, perched at the top of impressive stone structures, breathed in this same air as they played their bagpipes and savored their beloved haggis (A lot like meatloaf, truthfully. Just don’t ask what’s in it!).

A token amount of “me” traced back to Nordic Vikings who conquered my ancestors then settled into family life with lovely Scottish lasses. No wonder I was drawn to St. Olaf College where Scandinavian immigrants welcomed the frigid temps of winter as reminders of home-sweet-home.

But all of that changed when a new breakdown of my ethnic constitution was emailed to me this year. COVID changed a lot of things about my life, one of which was connecting me to another homeland. What we thought was an overwhelming percentage of English blood was newly divided into two parts: half remaining with the English and the other half traveling across western waters to land in Ireland. More than one-third of my ethnic heritage is Irish! No wonder I’ve always favored green! How awesome that I can now add  “Luck of the Irish” to my resume! Surely that’s an asset that I haven’t yet exploited! So, for my two classes on Saint Patrick this week, I’ve dressed the part. Even before knowing of my Irish roots, I purchased bright green suede pumps for just the right occasion. I even stopped by a department store today to check out their discounted St. Patrick’s Day swag. I guess I haven’t fully bought into my Irish identity yet since I wasn’t willing to pay full price to broadcast my roots! But I’ve got plenty of green in my wardrobe!

The lessons I learn from the Patron Saint of Ireland today are what impact me most. Just because God calls you in a new direction doesn’t mean that the path will be clear or easy. Just as you arrive at one place, sure that you have landed in the port of God’s choosing, you may discover that your gifts are rejected and you need to travel further. Following the prompting of Christ will often lead you away from all that is familiar. The very nature of the Christian faith is to avoid excessive attachment to the things of this world so don’t get too comfy at any one stage of your journey. When the layers of familiarity are peeled away, as they were for 16-year-old Patrick when pirates carted him far from home, we are most open to the moving the Spirit. We learn that God keeps pace with us all along. When we are famished for our physical needs to be met, God dishes up a healthy serving of reassuring Presence along with sustenance for our bodies. When we do what God asks of us, our life may not flow more easily but the imprint we leave in the communities to which God calls us will be immeasurable.

So raise your stein of green beer to St. Patrick today. May his tireless devotion to the poor inspire us to quiet acts of mercy. May his unflinching gaze upon the rescuing God be our inspiration beyond the shamrock shakes and green beaded necklaces of today.



Restraining Order

When I pastored a church in suburban Chicago I worked with a couple in the community who faced more hurdles than most. The woman was attractive and in her mid-thirties. She had struggled with addiction and promiscuity in her earlier years. But then she met a somewhat older man who was good to her. He saw past her insecurities to an inner beauty. They married and became very involved in our church for a time, having the fervor of converts to the faith. The woman had never been in a more stable situation in her adult life and she was able to leave the past behind in the protective care of her new husband.

They asked to meet with me to talk about some difficult news. He had been diagnosed with a chronic disease that would make each day much more challenging. They had to face his mortality squarely. He underwent several procedures and the younger wife bore the brunt of caring for him. It was a demanding situation that would tax even the strongest marriage. The wife began to backpedal from his health needs. She relieved her anxiety by reverting back to the addiction that had claimed much of her young adult years. The weakening husband continued to love her even as she distanced herself from him. The final straw was when he discovered that she had sold some of his medicine to make money to support her own habit. He flew into a rage, even punching a hole in the kitchen wall because he was so heartbroken at her betrayal. Frightened by this atypical showing of anger, she fled and took out a restraining order against this otherwise gentle, loving man.

With enforced time apart the couple began to think through their marriage, his illness, and her past. When the restraining order expired, the husband again sought out his wife and she came home. She asked his forgiveness for betraying his trust. He asked that she pardon him for his outburst. The last I knew of them, they were still working on their marriage as their love was tested by his disease. Even in his vulnerable condition, his love for his unstable wife led him to fight for her. He always, always believed in her.

In the story of the rainbow, I notice that God self-imposes a restraining order. Humanity is so wicked that God decides for a Divine Reboot by sending a devastating flood. Only Noah and his family survive. As the water recedes and the beauty of creation resurfaces, God has had some time for introspection. Clearly God’s intention for humanity and the world has not panned out. Rather than enjoying an Edenic setting in which to live their lives, families of the earth sin against one another and God. After the flood God seems to come to terms with the fact that the created order was not always going to follow the blueprint God had in mind. Since the people were not going to change, the broken-hearted Creator did. In this story it is stunning news that God is changed—and changing. Out of this deep sadness, God initiates the first covenant with humanity.

We have begun our Lenten journey. The gritty ashes from Ash Wednesday have long since washed down our drains to infuse the groundwaters far beneath the earth’s hard surface with holiness. In this Lenten passage, we meet a God who repents! Since punishment hasn’t driven men and women to penitence, God changes so that the relationship can be maintained. We could easily skip over this poignant lesson while focusing on the gift of the rainbow. But we need to pause here before we move on. God loves us so much that a divine restraining order is self-imposed! “…never again…” is heard between heavenly sobs as God grieves an ideal for creation that will clearly not be realized. The freedom granted to creation has led and will lead to sin. So God performs a major reboot of heartfelt hopes for humanity. In the ancient world turbulent water was frightening and represented chaos. Fishermen earning a living wage for their families lost their lives when storms blew in suddenly. After the angry flood waters recede, God promises that the chaos of their world will never separate them from the love of their Maker again.

In this scripture passage God refers to the rainbow as a bow. A bow was commonly used by ancient people to kill animals for food and to protect themselves from their enemies. The bow in the sky is unstrung. It cannot be used to harm. I don’t know what tactic you use to remind yourself of some task, but God chooses a rainbow as a sort of string tied around the finger. We set alarms on our phones to ping us into a meeting at the right time. God casts an arc of colors into the sky as a note-to-Self to never again punish humanity for their wickedness. God has the compassion of a mother who sees the good in her boy even as he misbehaves. God’s heart is touched as a father suffers alongside a hurting child. The intimate glimpse of God we are given in this story is that God refuses to give up on Creation even as the Creation refuses to change. Like a wedding ring that signals to the world that someone is married, the rainbow is a tangible reminder to God of a promise made. It is a promise built on an abiding love for us, for children of the living God who struggle to live holy lives.

We see in our world the beauty of different people, places, and animals. Spouses are drawn together because of their complementary talents, not because they are identical in all things. God’s design is for affirmation in our variance. In Lent, we recognize the imbalance between God’s plan and the way we live each day. We choose to be part of Christ’s Church so that we can grow in our faith and more closely approximate God’s plan for creation rather than fighting amongst ourselves. Jane Ferguson writes, “The church can respond to God’s call to be a place where ‘all the colors of the rainbow’ were welcome and equal in God’s sight, in terms of race, age, gender, and sexual orientation. The church can seek constructive dialogue with communities of other faiths or communities on the other side of denominational or doctrinal divides. Previously unimaginable partnerships may be formed, and a reconciliation may blossom. The patience and forgiveness spilling forth from hearts broken open by God’s love may paint the walls of the church, color its people, and emanate from its doors and windows into the world.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2; Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, page 30)

When we see a rainbow, we remember that God invests in us. God is all in, whether we do good deeds each day of the Lenten season or fail miserably in spite of our best intentions. Just as we persevere in relationships in spite of their brokenness, God refuses to give up on us. In this first contract God makes with Noah, do you notice what’s asked of us earthlings? Nothing! Can it be a contract if only one side promises certain goods to be delivered with no expectation of payment from the other party? That’s a losing proposition for a business owner! God promises to refrain from ever acting out of destructive anger again toward a people who are bound to fail repeatedly. We see God punish the Israelites when they act like selfish ninnies right after witnessing a miracle. But the rainbow is God’s memo-to-Self to never again destroy the inhabitants of the earth for acting like, well, for acting like earthlings. God will ride the ups and downs of being in relationship with flawed men and women because they are beloved sons and daughters.

In Lent we meet that self-restraining God in the person of Jesus. We have entered into the most somber season of the Church year because we have turned with Jesus to face Jerusalem, knowing what lies ahead. The self-limiting action of God in Genesis 9 foreshadows a Son who will lay down His perfect life for a broken world. For a very brief time the Son cannot feel the love of His Father as witnessed through His words on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The sky turns pitch black and a storm rolls in as God wails over the sacrifice needed to right humanity once again.

In this story of the rainbow, I take solace in the lesson that change is always possible. We meet a very different God when we read the words of the Psalmist in the 103rd psalm. Far removed from a vengeful destroyer of nature, we read this: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.”

We began our Lenten journey with the imposition of ashes upon our brows: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but praised be the name of the Lord.” It’s a long journey to shift the focus from ourselves to others; from judgmental glances to affirmations of worth. It’s a struggle to leave behind our favorite sins and most unhealthy habits. We fight to live in transparency with our loved ones rather than secrecy. So, as winter gives way during Lent to springtime storms, we remember a God who self-imposed a restraining order with a rainbow serving as a reminder. “Never again…” we cry out as we begin this journey.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy, have mercy upon us.

Photo credits to Anna Ellerbroek. Thanks!


Leaving Home

I invite you to take a tour with me. Like most journeys this past year, it will have to be virtual. But I want you to imagine that you are in the place that became known as Jesus’ home. We typically think of Him as being One who had no place to lay His weary head. But in Mark 2:1 we read, “When he returned to Capernaum, after some days, it was reported that he was at home.” Even though Jesus walked hundreds of miles to bring the Good News of a loving God to many small towns and the big city of Jerusalem, He had a place that He called home.   

The name of that village is Capernaum and it sits at the far northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. I had the great privilege of walking in Jesus’ footsteps there several years ago and found it impactful because of its authenticity. I’m want to share a few pictures with you from the archaeological excavation of Capernaum.

In the verses that precede this passage, Jesus entered their synagogue on the Sabbath. He went into their sanctuary and the people were astounded at the authority with which He taught.

Our group of 15 people were there in October of 2017.  I was able to walk through the stately remains of a synagogue that dates back to the 4th or 5th century AD.

I peered out the window and felt the breeze that wafted up the hill from the Sea of Galilee. I sat on a bench that stretches along the west wall of that structure, trying to wrap my heart around the fact that Christ had been healing and teaching in that same spot, even if a few feet lower than where I sat.

Several foundations are stacked on top of each other. You can see the lowest exposed foundation is angled to the ground and is not flat. Subsequent foundations needed to correct the sagging that inevitably happens over the course of decades. You can see how the top foundation provides a flat and stable footing for the synagogue constructed on the ruins of Jesus’ synagogue several hundred years later. Thousands of first century coins were found in the Capernaum synagogue, reminding us that people have historically sacrificed from their livelihoods, no matter how meager, to maintain the costs associated with congregational life.

After astounding the faithful in that synagogue with His authoritative teaching, we read that Jesus headed to the home of Peter and his brother, Andrew. This is not a long walk—only about 100 feet south of the synagogue. We can assume that these brothers were very involved in the life of their congregation.

The scriptures tell us that they had moved their families from Bethsaida, which is on the northeastern side of the lake. The tariffs on processed fish were collected at the customs office that was manned by Levi at Capernaum. Jesus called him to leave his hated position to became one of the twelve disciples. If the two brothers lived in Capernaum, they didn’t have to pay that tariff. So two astute businessmen who fished for a living left Bethsaida and settled five miles west in Capernaum.

As you make the 100-foot walk between the synagogue and Peter’s home you can see the excavation of a neighborhood. Believed to house a population of between 1000 and 1500 residents in Jesus’ time, it is always referred to in the Gospels as a city. It was near a major trade route and the fishing industry was prosperous. We can assume Peter and Andrew made a good living as fishermen.

As was common of any ancient settlement, folks clustered their homes together. This offered protection against the elements and possible intruders. It also meant that neighbors were easily able to recognize need in their community since everyone lived so closely together. These would have been modest homes that consisted of several roofed rooms clustered around an open courtyard. Each home or compound opened out onto the street. Peter and Andrew lived in a double lot, indicating that they raised their families together. Walls were built of drystone black basalt that would not have supported a second story. The areas that were covered had roofs made of crisscrossed tree branches melded together with a natural mud clay. The whole of the village covers a one-mile stretch of land that has been largely excavated.

As you approach Peter’s house, where his mother-in-law suffered in bed, you will only be able to get so far in our walking tour today. Walls surround sacred history and a church building sits atop these precious ruins! Early pilgrims to the faith turned Peter’s house into a chapel. There is evidence that the walls of the home were enlarged at one point. Different unearthed items dating back to the first century reveal that the private home became a place of public gathering for worship purposes. Small pots for cooking and fish hooks for domestic industry were replaced with lamps and large storage jars.

As early as 50 AD, one large room stood out from others. The walls, arched ceiling, and floors were plastered smooth, which was unlike the other modest buildings in the city. Graffiti on those walls sends a message from some of the earliest believers that they were Christians: “Christ have mercy” and “Lord Jesus Christ help your servant.” The numerous crosses indicate that this space was used for worship. The two large courtyards opened onto the main street where crowds gathered outside Peter’s door hoping for healing. In this story these devout Jews waited until the sun set so as to honor the laws of the sabbath. The cross that you see at the far side of the structure identifies the place where early pilgrims believed the crowds stood in hopeful expectation.

You can’t get too close to the interior room believed to have housed Jesus because it is protected. In the 4th century Peter’s house was set apart from the rest of the town with an enclosure wall.

In the 5th century an octagonal church was built over it to serve the multitude of pilgrims who journeyed to the sacred sight. A new church has since been built atop this holy space. The floor serves as a clear window through which you can look into this 1st century chapel. It has become cloudy after years of use by countless pilgrims. But the sense of holiness that I felt as I looked into the space that Jesus called home was overwhelming. It was here that Jesus rebuked the fever that Peter’s mother-in-law was fighting, as if it were a wild creature that had a hold of her. In that space she served Jesus and the other men out of a profound sense of gratitude.

The verb for her service is the same one that describes the work of church deacons. In essence, this recovered woman “deaconed” Jesus and she became the first individual to serve Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.  Later, while teaching a sold-out crowd in this intimate space, friends of a paralyzed man clawed a hole into the roof above Jesus’ makeshift classroom and lowered the helpless man into the room. Jesus “deaconed” him by restoring health and mobility to him.

Capernaum was home to Jesus. It quickly became a destination for people seeking miraculous healing, like the pilgrims who travel long distances to Guadalupe or Fatima. Capernaum was home for Jesus but it wasn’t restful. He became their local celebrity and their streets clogged with visitors when He was in residence. Verse 33 states that “the whole town gathered at the door.” Word spread quickly and everyone wanted a piece of Jesus. Townies seldom appreciate tourists except for the income they bring into the village. So, after the healing, the two brothers wanted to keep Jesus to themselves. They hoarded His enviable power, wanting to make sure He always had a reserve for them. But, when they awakened the next morning, Jesus was gone. They found Him in a solitary place and bubbled over with enthusiasm: “Everyone is looking for you!”

I wonder what Jesus was praying about early in the morning while it was still dark? His overnight success made it clear that devotional time with God would be hard to find. Maintaining any balance between public and private was going to be a challenge. Did He ask God to give Him direction about where His earthly home would be? Should He stay in Capernaum, the place He called home, and settle for being a big fish in a small pond? Was His ministry to be a one-town wonder? Was His prayer offered in the words of a song from the ‘80’s: Should I stay or should I go?

Like a gentle breeze that scatters the seeds of a dandelion, Jesus knew the answer. The Spirit would be His guide, leading Him from town to town along the Sea of Galilee. It was a beautiful area where rural life was valued by hard-working people. The Spirit would lead Jesus to Jerusalem where He would ultimately give up His life for the sake of a needy crowd and a band of greedy disciples. Those who flocked to Him for His healing touch would ultimately nail His hands to a cross and reject the wholeness He offered. In the dark of that morning in a solitary place Jesus knew that He wouldn’t be one to settle down. He would disappoint His disciples by pushing on, away from their families and a familiar life they loved on the lakeshore. There were too many people like the beloved woman who languished with a fever in a town named Capernaum. Jesus told the men to pack their bags because time was short and the list of needs was long. As inviting as it seemed, Jesus knew He needed to leave home.

We know from the archaeological data that there were two communities that coexisted peacefully in 1st century Capernaum: Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity. The movement Jesus started in the synagogue moved into Peter’s house. The rock upon whom Jesus would build His Church opened his home as the first Christian sanctuary. Merely 100 feet apart, these two worship spaces shaped a peaceful community that Jesus called home. Isn’t it interesting that our Christian faith took root not in sacred buildings but in humble homes of ordinary people? We’ve learned this year that our faith cannot be reliant on a building. This year we had to leave our spiritual homes in order to stay together as congregations. Our ministry has not stopped. I hear stories of soup being dropped off on folks’ doorsteps, flowers being delivered to surprised widows and carols being sung to the person still recovering from surgery. We may have left the buildings but we’re traveling with Jesus each time we pick up the phone or drop a card in the mail to offer words of encouragement to a lonesome friend. We’re on the road with Jesus when we take time to pray for the church member who just received a difficult diagnosis. We practice our faith when we confess our needs and patiently wait for God’s answer. We’ve chosen to get out of our comfort zone when we take a stand for our beliefs by peacefully marching in our communities. The life of faith requires us to leave home knowing that a world awaits our ministry. We stretch our boundaries assured that worship happens anywhere—and everywhere…because Jesus goes with us. Ironically, it is as we follow after Him, searching for wholeness, that He brings us home.