I had a friend a number of years ago that told a story about a backpacking trip that he took in university. It was a friend from camp, who generally did outlandish things and therefore had a plethora of absurd stories, but this one really captured me.
I have been backpacking for many years, even took at backpacking class in university (something you would only find in Portland, Oregon). And I am not referring to the kind of backpacking where you hop from hostel to hostel via public transit as you traipse through Europe. I am talking about down and dirty packing through the mountains and valleys of the Pacific Northwest.
During university, I did part of the Pacific Crest Trail, a several thousand-mile trek across some of the toughest terrain in the world for backpackers. (I did the easy part). But one of the keys in backpacking is to travel light. The best, most expensive gear is the super compact kind, that is made of hyper-light metals, because you are carrying all your resources for survival on your back.
My sleeping bag is actually a “short” version because you don’t want to carry anything extra…so it is about six inches shorter than adult-size—because I am about six inches shorter than adult-size. I even sawed off my toothbrush, so it is just a toothbrush head. I have a two-person tent that weighs about 5 lbs, and an ultra-light sleeping pad. My resources (including food) for up to several weeks will weigh between 30 and 40 lbs total in my backpack. Weight matters tremendously…and all of this is very important to my friend’s story!
He was on a trip with twenty or so university students and they were summiting a mountain. His pack appeared to be a bit overloaded for their length of trek, but nobody said anything to him. And as they scaled the peak, he became increasingly more and more tired, far ahead of anyone else. Everyone stopped for a break at one point, and he set his pack down with some trouble, and somebody quipped, “What, do you have in there? Rocks?!” He laughed and shrugged it off, before strapping himself back into the immensity.
They continued climbing and he started to complain more about how hungry and thirsty he was, and people began to chime in a bit. Then he muttered how nice it would be to have some fresh fruit, as they had been eating freeze-dried meals for days. Everyone seemed to agree!
The trek went onward quite a while, and as they reached the peak of the mountain, they looked out across incredible views. As my friend told the story, it took me back to some of my own experiences of witnessing God’s grandeur at the top of mountain peaks. Just as everyone set their packs down to break at the top of the peak, my friend set his down and started to open it up…which is not something you do on a mountain peak. The innards of a pack are normally extra clothing, and other items that you only need when you are setting up camp for the night.
But much to everyone’s surprise, he reached into his pack to pull out the biggest, juiciest watermelon any of them had seen. They laughed hysterically at the extravagance of it all, but never did they enjoy such a delicious treat after a hard day’s travel. To carry a giant watermelon, in addition to all of his belongings, up the mountainside seemed insane, but not to him. The treat of sharing that watermelon with friends at the vista point of their trip seemed like an awesome thing to do.
What struck me about this unusual tale was not the seeming absurdity of it all, or even my friend’s radical kindness, but the extravagant provision of the watermelon.
Jesus acts out the extravagant provision of God in Mark 8.
Mark 8:1-10, “In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.’ His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.” (NRSV)
As a younger believer, I thought about this passage a lot. I wasn’t really sure of the whole miracle thing, and I thought maybe there could be a more human explanation for such a thing happening. Perhaps, the seven loaves were broken into itty-bitty pieces, and the sustenance was just enough to get all the people to their homes for a real meal. Or perhaps, only the really hungry people ate. Or perhaps the loaves were Guinness Book of World Records size and the fish were really whales. But none of these explanations really hold up.
In this time, a crowd would have been counted by the number of men present. In fact, when this story is relayed by Matthew in that book, it says, “Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 15:38, NRSV). But besides feeding these 4000 men plus women and children, it says that the disciples collected seven baskets full of broken pieces that were left over. This debunks a couple of my rationalities. And we know that they weren’t just giant fish/loaves because Jesus held them and broke them—difficult to do with a whale, but then again, He’s Jesus! What we have here, plain and simple, is a miracle, witnessed by thousands and recorded in several different historical books.
But what strikes me in this is not only the miraculous feeding, but the abundance. “They took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full” (Mark 8:8, NRSV). Again, this is not a situation of God providing only the necessary amount to fill them up. It goes well above and beyond the provision necessary. All of the men, women, and children ate and were satisfied. But they also had left overs. And the amount left over is significant.
The number seven, in Jewish culture, was the number of perfection, the quintessential number of completion. Because of the story of creation, among other things, the Jewish people believed that the number seven represented rightness, sufficiency, excellence. The disciples, having collected seven baskets of leftovers shows abundance in God’s provision, but it also shows completeness, totality.
When we are talking about God’s provision, we find extravagance, not just sufficiency. It is like eating a watermelon at the top of a mountain peak—certainly not necessary, nor even reasonable or rational. It is extravagant.
That watermelon has become an analogy in my mind for how God has dealt with me. In seeking to be good stewards of our lives, I trust that God will ultimately provide. This upward focus of living in relation to God first and foremost is “upward stewardship.” Worrying not about money, but about the kingdom of God in the world, and allowing God to work miraculously and extravagantly in our lives has taught us a lot about who God is and how we should live in relation to Him.
There are times where I act more like the complaining Hebrews in the wilderness than I act like someone who is extravagantly provided for, but that does not change how God provides for us. Albert Einstein purportedly said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.”
Be the kind of person who sees the blessings and lives gratefully. Be the kind of person who recognizes the holy in the commonplace.
An upward focus on God and a centeredness in scripture takes away the covetousness of this life and aligns us toward our Creator.
Activity: As you prepare a meal this week, think about how God provided for the 4,000. While you eat dinner, think about some of God’s physical provisions for you. Later, journal in response to a few of these questions: How has God provided extravagantly in your life? What does it look like to have a relationship with God? Where does stewardship start? How can you be a good steward of your relationship with Jesus?