The Strange Familiar

John 6.5-6

When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 

Robert Farrar Capon was a master of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. He made his career as a priest, and then as a theologian, and then as a chef, and then as a little bit of all of them combined. His writing on the Gospels is refreshingly funny and yet profoundly serious and I find myself drawn back to his books again and again.

Perhaps my favorite work of Capon’s is his 1990 book The Man Who Met God In A Bar. It’s basically a modern retelling of the biblical Gospel story of Jesus, but instead of it taking place in and around Galilee circa 30-33 AD, it’s told as if Jesus was actually a short-order cook named Jerry in Cleveland circa the 1990s who finds Marvin (Peter) not in the middle of a fishing venture, but instead in an airport bar during a layover. The story is told from Marvin’s perspective as he gets caught up in something much larger than himself ripe with miracles, teachings, and even death and resurrection.

Capon delights in taking these familiar stories and flipping them slightly on their head so that we, the reader, can reproach the Gospel stories with a fresh and delightful appreciation. For instance, partway through the novel, Marvin gathers with Jerry and a whole crowd of people within the confines of a city park and Jerry goes on and on telling stories until he realizes the crowds look a little famished. Jerry remarks that it would be nice if they had some pizza and wine for everyone to enjoy. But, of course, that would cost a fortune. So Jerry calls over a little girl walking by the park with a pizza in her arms and decides to whistle up some miraculous food multiplication and begins to feed everyone in the park from that one pizza, with anchovies (Get it? Loaves and fishes!).

And then Capon brings the story home:

“Up to then Jerry just thought that people might take his miracles as a substitute for the message; after that though, the “might” disappeared in favor of “would.” He was finally convinced that any miracle he did would be practically guaranteed to give people the wrong impression… After the one with the pizza, especially since he did it on a day when he’d talked for three hours about the mess the old order was in – they got really serious about trying to put him in some position where he could do his miracles on a grand scale. The talk about him becoming mayor and president wasn’t just hot air; if he hadn’t gotten away from that crowd, sure as hell somebody would have organized something… All he kept saying, though, was how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously, he told them, they would still die eventually. The food they really need to be filled with was something that would make a real break with the old order – something that would actually bring in the New Order if they ate it. In fact, he said, unless they were filled with him, they would just stay dead forever. If they fed on him, though, he would raise them from death for good.” 

Sometimes, retelling an old story in a new way allows us to see and receive something we would otherwise miss. In fact, that’s basically what we do every Sunday in church. We pray and we sing and we listen to the words that proclaim the Gospel, we feast on the bread and the cup that are offered to us without cost, and we are reminded that Jesus came not to bring us more of the same, but to make all things new. Thanks be to God.

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are sometimes to help us think about making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar:

Courtney Barnett is a singer-songwriter from Australia who excels at making music out of the mundane. Her new single “Rae Street” is an almost stream of conscious reflection of the lives of the people who pass by her window in the early morning. The charm really hits when she’s able to jump between making a profound declaration about the need for society to change, and yet, the most she can muster is changing her sheets. The song is anthemic for anyone who struggles to make sense of it all and for anyone who hopes for something more, whatever that might be.

Orla Gartland is a quickly rising indie darling from Dublin. Her new single “You’re Not Special, Babe” is a reflection on growing up in a time of chaos and is a reminder that we all go through the same kinds of things: good times, bad times, strange times. The title, and the chorus of the song, can come off as a little mean-spirited but in interviews she claims it’s meant to be a comforting message! To me, that sounds rather Pauline – “None is righteous, no, not one.” Thanks be to God then that we worship the Lord who comes to make something of our nothing.

“Reach Out” is one of the first releases from Sufjan Steven’s collaboration with Angelo De Augustine. The song is based on the 1987 German film Wings of Desire in which angels listen to the thoughts of people in Berlin. One of the angels is so moved by the experience that it chooses to become mortal in order to feel and live as a human. The song conveys the themes of mortality and wonder from the angelic/human perspective with catchy harmonies, finger picking guitar, and eventually a subtle glockenspiel which make a brain melting thought experiment rather approachable. 

Devotional – Psalm 25.4


Psalm 25.4

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. 

Weekly Devotional Image

The air was pure and undisturbed. It was early enough that most of the neighbors were still asleep and the dog and I were the only ones about to roam the neighborhood. Snow covered everything in sight and I hesitated before taking my first step; until my foot hit the snow, all was still and smooth.


When I typically walk our dog (Tennessee), in the mornings, we follow the same path. She has to hit the familiar spots and soak up all the smells, and only when we’ve gone everywhere on that path, is she ready to return home for food. The routine is repeated each day and I know that we both fall into the familiar rhythms each morning. And, if I ever forget something, Tennessee is quick to remind me with a quick bark or nudge.

Today, however, as soon as we hit the snow, everything changed. The familiar path was covered under inches of powder and Tennessee was so excited to walk that she began running in circles. I struggled to get her to the familiar spots while she was far more concerned with shoving her nose into the deep snow and turning to look at me as if saying, “This white stuff is awesome!”


When it became clear that the familiar and routined walk was not going to take place, I decided to give in to her newfound excitement and began running around with her in the snow. Between shoveling mounds of snow up into the air, and Tennessee running around in circles, we were both quickly out of breath and at least one of us was laughing. By the time we returned to the parsonage it no longer mattered whether she hit all the same spots like most mornings; for us we simply enjoyed God’s creation in the beautiful snow.

The familiar routines of life often bring us stability and comfort: we wake up and drink the same coffee and read from the same sections of the newspaper; we listen to the same radio station while making the same commute to work; we pray the same prayers over meals with our family. Routines are important because they help to habituate us into faithful and fruitful patterns (We say the Lord’s Prayer every week in church because it helps to shape our lives around the Lord to whom we pray). However, life is not always so neat and tidy.

Changing the typical routines and patterns of life help to prepare us for the days when unforeseen circumstances change our plans. Taking the dog on different paths helps her, and her walker, to experience God’s creation in new environments. Learning to pray in different ways helps to keep our faith alive in new and vibrant ways. We need not wait for a snow day to change our rhythms and patterns; new opportunities are available every single day.

As we all prepare to take our first steps into the season of Lent, let us pray for God to reveal new paths in our lives. Let us see this season as an opportunity to rediscover that which makes our discipleship so exciting: a loving God whose paths are always open for new discoveries.