By Laurel Dykstra
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, our annual engagement with the repeated biblical assertion that both kingship and divine-human relations resemble sheep husbandry, the lectionary illuminates two key aspects of the emerging Wild Church Movement. Connected to both Watershed Discipleship and Contemplative Ecology, Wild Church is nothing more than Christians who intentionally worship, or seek to experience holiness, outside of buildings. In forests, deserts, city parks, beaches, urban vacant lots we reassert the strand of our tradition where wilderness is the place of divine encounter.
Green pastures, still waters, safe paths.
In the most beloved and best known psalm to many, for whom church is firmly an indoor experience, can admit to a connection with the divine in nature: sunlight, green grass, quiet. Pleasures of the field, attention to the seasons, the senses and wonder at the beauty of creation. Love of these words and the experiences in nature that they connect us to can help Wild Church practitioners explain what we do.
But an ‘experience of the divine in nature,’ sentimentalized or disconnected from any other context, misses the fact that a sheep in a pasture is very protected. This safe experience of beauty and abundance is not accidental.
A host of so called green endeavors, including contemplative ecology practices, especially those touted as “new” and “discovered and promoted” by and for white-majority communities, are guilty of a critique raised by Queer and BIPOC wilderness practitioners, like the folks at Queer Nature and Diversify Outdoors. We tend to use nature, the more than human world, as a playground for recreation, a back-drop where we enact our story, or have our spiritual experience. The “rugged few in the wilderness” stories we tell ourselves may include I-and-Thou, Individual to “Spirit”-type relationships, but they are not truly kin-relations that evidence ecological humility, or they are selective kin-relations that prize a few individuals relationships with charismatic macro-fauna (as they say), but romanticize or ignore the myriad of complex ways that working class, poor, queer, and Black, Indigenous, and brown people have been and continue to engage humbly, complexly, spiritually in places where wild, domestic, urban, rural, creature and human collide and overlap.
Which is why the passage from Acts is such a gift. It contains a whole lot of hints and evocations of the kinds of relationships, analyses, and ambiguities that a truly wild engagement holds.
Tabitha is dead.
Death was pervasive in the ancient world.
With infant mortality and risk of death in childbirth average life expectancy for women in the Ancient Near East was less than 50 years.
The Roman state is ruthless.
Tabitha, or Dorcas in Greek (so we know she operates bi-culturally) has died.
She is the only woman in the Christian Testament named as a disciple.
Her name in both languages means Gazelle.
a love-name in poetry.
No husband or sons are named. We don’t know if she is a widow (socially vulnerable like those who mourn her), or a single woman. Good works and charity seem to imply some financial means. And the upper room where she has been laid echoes and resonates with meals and gatherings in other upper rooms.
Her body has been washed and laid out –an inescapable intimacy with death and dirt.
Laid out in Joppa
The word appears four times in these eight verses.
In case we didn’t get that this is a story about death and resurrection, Joppa, the town where Jonah boarded the boat escape God’s call.
Death and birth and a great fish.
So they call a fisherman.
Simon, now Peter the Rock,
who it seems has inherited this rocking boat of a movement.
He comes and the widows’ grieving is tears and textiles.
Then Peter the Rock does a Jesus thing,
which is also an Elijah thing,
an Elisha thing.
Like the widow of Zarephath and the woman of Shunem, Tabitha the gazelle practiced some radical generosity.
Like the centurion’s daughter of Mark 5, a female-identified person is raised.
Indeed, Tabitha and ‘talitha’ -young girl- are almost homonyms.
Don’t all these widows, wives and daughters make you ask some questions about the role and value of women in the early church? (Since we’re reading this on Mother’s Day.)
The rock prays and he speaks and he touches.
And the gazelle springs up.
Saints and widows rejoice, many believe.
And Simon the Rock goes the home of Simon the Tanner, unclean because he treats the hides of dead animals with feces and urine.
This wild new life we are promised
It is not all green pastures and still waters,
it comes with humans and creatures,
death and shit,
and the ambiguity of power relationships.
Laurel Dykstra is the gathering priest of Salal + Cedar watershed discipleship community on Coast Salish Territory in the lower Fraser Watershed. Laurel curates Wild Lectionary, a weekly blog on ecological themes in the Revised Common Lectionary.