The Lord Planted a Garden in the East: Spirituality & Gardens, Part III

In a series of blog posts, several of us will be exploring the question of why a community garden makes good sense for a church, and I’ll be leading us off with a series of three posts looking at what I’m calling the “spiritual theology of gardening.” Here is Part I and Part 2. In today’s third and final post, I want to explore how a community garden can deepen and broaden our love for and knowledge of our community.

The Lord Planted a Garden in the East

The church planted a garden on the east side of the property. In that fertile land, the Lord God grew every beautiful tree with edible fruit[1]

Our church, I deeply believe, has a missional heart. I see this anytime we have someone come share about work they are doing for vulnerable populations, whether in our own community or globally, and the generosity that always pours out from our church to supporting those various missions. I also see this with the large number of attendees we have who volunteer their time at places like Fishline, MWEEP, Coffee Oasis, Kitsap Homes of Compassion and Salvation Army among others. But I’ve always wrestled with ways we can serve our larger community together as a church. Incarnationally. It’s good to write checks to support service organizations which are already on the ground working, rather than needing to always blaze our own trail. But if our primary missional outreach as a church is writing checks, there is a danger of approaching Gnosticism, not serving together incarnationally.

Our garden is designed to be missional, a way we can serve and love our community. One of our elders, Dr. Gwen Dewey loves to quote a good reminder for the church: if this church were to closer its doors for good tomorrow, would the community even notice we had? As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously put it, “The church is the church only when it exists for others.” As David and Stephanie Sweeney will share more about with our church, there is need for good, healthy food in our community, especially for vulnerable populations. The garden will be a way we can love our community by serving incarnationally together.

And so, to bring my three-part post to a close: I hope that in our garden we will gain a richer understanding of the words of scripture, written by people who were no more dependent on health of the land than we are today, but who were certainly far more aware of it than we are today (Leviticus 25:1-4). I also hope that we will broaden and deepen our spirituality, to see that growing food is a religious activity because it is one in which we are invited to collaborate with God, to work the land, to till the soil, and to be in awe of the mystery of our reliance on the creator who continues to bring light and rain and snow from heaven, watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, bringing nourishment and life out of dark soil. One of us may build the fence and the raised bed, another of us may plant and another may water but it is God who makes it to grow. Creator and creature co-laboring. And finally, a community garden will, I hope, deepen and broaden our love for and knowledge of our community.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. 

Don’t forget to come to our Community Garden informational meeting after worship on Sunday 7/11!

In tomorrow’s post Ty Whitman will share about something every gardener knows well: patience!


[1] See Genesis 2:8-9

The Seed is the Word of God: Spirituality & Gardens, Part II

In a series of blog posts, several of us will be exploring the question of why a community garden makes good sense for a church, and I’ll be leading us off with a series of three posts looking at what I’m calling the “spiritual theology of gardening.” You can see yesterday’s post here. In today’s post, I want to explore how a community garden can grow us spiritually as individuals and as a community.

The Seed is the Word of God

I’ve mentioned a fair bit recently in various settings that I believe the Christian faith today is in danger of lapsing toward one of the first heresies it combated: Gnosticism. Gnosticism separates the physical from the spiritual and places priority on the spiritual, so that the physical (our hunger, sexual desire, exercise, etc.) is either (a) Evil and to be avoided and/or suppressed, or it is (b) Inconsequential, so do with it what you will (licentiousness, drunkenness, debauchery, etc.). Gnosticism wants to move everything out of the physical realm and into the “spiritual” or, intellectual realm. As I’ve said on many occasions now, we are especially tempted by Gnosticism after this pandemic, to privatize our spirituality and think that listening to a sermon podcast on our Wednesday jog is the same thing as church. It moves spirituality largely into our heads and away from the bodies and body of fellow believers. But I actually think that this temptation to Gnosticism has existed for a while in the Western church.

The theologian Norman Wirzba writes that our technological and information age has “reduced our ability to truly know the world… The medium that increased our access to knowledge… at the same time decreases our grasp of the world’s significance… the irony [is] that today we have more information about how the natural world functions than ever before, yet also are guilty of its most widespread destruction. Should not the effect of our knowing lead to understanding, appreciation, affection, and care?” [1]

When we think of monastic living, we sometimes are under the impression that all monks and nuns do is sit around in seclusion praying, singing, and studying the Bible. But that is a grave misunderstanding of their vocation. For almost two millennia monks and nuns have farmed, brewed beer, made wine, run orphanages and soup kitchens not as an appendage to their important work of praying, singing and reading the Bible but, I would argue, as part of an integrated and holistic spirituality that is not limited to the intellectual or so-called spiritual realm only, but to all of God’s creation. Especially the spirituality of the physical. Gnosticism seeks to separate our prayer from our work and from creation itself, and there is a reason the church roundly condemned this as anti-Christian. As Leah Kostamo puts it “the incarnation shows God’s commitment to creation—the Creator becomes the created in the ultimate act of solidarity.”[2]

Christian spirituality is never removed from work and creation, even if it might have moments it detaches from it, it is inherently tied to “the dust of the earth.”

We often look at the book of Genesis and God’s command there to humanity to till the land, work the soil and we extend that command out to all forms of work, and it certainly isn’t inaccurate to broaden the language by making it more metaphorical. The schoolteacher, for example, tills the land and works the soil of young minds so that they will flourish. But for the first hearers of scripture, those commands to till the land and work the soil were probably understood literally more often than not because a good most of them… were farmers who actually spent their days tilling the land and working the soil.

Ellen Davis, who I quoted twice yesterday, I’ll quote now a third time:

I doubt we consider eating to be a genuinely religious activity… [but] the vast majority of cultures and individuals who have preceded us on the planet, up until the last three generations perhaps, have been intensely aware that getting food from field to table is the most important religious act we perform. Every day, taking our sustenance from the earth and from the bodies of other animals, we enter deeply into the mystery of creation. Eating is practical theology, or it should be; daily it gives us the opportunity to honor God with our bodies. Our never-failing hunger is a steady reminder to acknowledge God as the Giver of every good gift. When we ask our heavenly Father for an egg, we do not get a scorpion (Luke 11:12).[3]

Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, gave his disciples a meal. He did it as part of a meal that was over a thousand years old already (Passover). God is known, and our fellow bearers of God’s image are known by sitting at a table, taking the bread, taking the cup, eating, drinking as an act of memory, of faith, of hope, of love. A community garden and the food God produces in it and through it can grow us spiritually as individuals and as a community as we work the land, till the soil and marvel at the mystery by which God brings forth sustaining and nourishing life. But like all Christian spirituality, this is never for our own edification, at least not exclusively. It is so that we can go out and labor for the Kingdom of God in the world, which starts with our own community. And that will be the subject of the third and final post in this series.

Don’t forget to come to our Community Garden informational meeting after worship on Sunday 7/11!


[1] Ibid, 9

[2] Leah Kostamo, Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community (Cascade Books, Eugene, OR: 2013), 23.

[3] Ellen Davis, Preaching the Luminous Word (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI: 2016), 2.

The Land Cries Out: Spirituality & Gardens, Part I

In a series of blog posts, several of us will be exploring the question of why a community garden makes good sense for a church, and I’ll be leading us off with a series of three posts. For many of us, the reasons for a community garden are self-evident. But whether or not we need persuasion, I think we’ll find the reasons are even more extensive than we may have realized. I’ll leave the expertise about gardening to more capable minds than mine, but in this three-part series, I’ll be looking at what I’m calling the “spiritual theology of gardening.” In today’s post, I want to explore how a community garden can deepen our understanding and love of scripture.

The Land Cries Out

Ellen Davis has been one of the most helpful guides I’ve found in interpreting the Old Testament for a myriad of reasons, but one of the primary ones is her emphasis on an agrarian reading of scripture. Anyone who has read more than a few pages of the Bible can readily see the agrarian perspective of its writers: agricultural imagery and symbolism abound in scripture, whether that be unruly and obedient vineyards or vineyardists, or mustard-seed faith and parables about soil. I often assumed this was merely incidental. That is to say, it was simply because the biblical writers were using images that would have been familiar to their audience in the same way we might use illustrations about computers or cars, and of course that is true, but Davis has pushed me to go a little further in my thinking.

She describes a moment many years ago when she was meeting with her teaching assistant to prepare the final exam for an Old Testament course she was teaching. The assistant asked her if she was going to include a question about the land.

Why?, asked Davis.

Because you talk about it all the time, her assistant answered.

Hmm.

She writes of her own journey to discovery:

Reading the Bible is my line of work, yet for years I hardly noticed all this detailed attention to [the land and to] food supply… And once I did notice, I still had no idea what to make of it—and the scholarly literature was of no real help. I now realize that this general cluelessness about food sources among modern professional readers of the Bible points to a deep and worrisome difference between a modern cultural mindset and the culture that all the biblical writers represent. The difference comes down to this: for them, eating and agriculture have to do with God, and for us they do not… We might bless the food on our plates, but rarely does that provoke any serious thought about the mystery that underlies it. For the biblical writers, however, God’s provision of food is a key mystery and a core theological concern; eating is at the heart of our relationship with God and all that God has made.[1]

I hope in our current Mark sermon series we’ve done an adequate job of highlighting the fact that God and humanity are not the only characters in the gospel. Jesus enters into territory occupied by “powers and principalities” who are not neutral but are in fact demonic forces actively opposed to the ways of God. In the Old Testament, I’m not sure it would be a stretch to say that for the biblical writers, the land is nearly viewed as a character (as a starting point, see Genesis 4:10, 12; Jeremiah 4:28, 12:4, 23:10 and Hosea 4:3). Davis again:

Rarely does one read through two or three successive chapters [of the Old Testament] without seeing some reference to the land or to Zion, the city that is ideologically speaking the source of its fertility. Beginning with the first chapter of Genesis, there is no extensive exploration of the relationship between God and humanity that does not factor the land and its fertility into that relationship. Overall, from a biblical perspective, the sustained fertility and habitability of the earth, or more particularly of the land of Israel, is the best index of the health of the covenant relationship. When humanity, or the people Israel, is disobedient, thorns and briars abound; rain is withheld, the land languishes and mourns. Conversely, the most extravagant poetic images of loveliness—in the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Song of Songs—all show a land lush with growth, together with a people living in (or restored to) righteousness and full intimacy with God.”[2]

Biblical wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job) is often conceptualized of as little tidbits of advice or perhaps little commands. But it’s probably more accurate to see them as ways of instruction about how to live rightly in God’s creation, cultivated by sages who have learned hard lessons firsthand. Wisdom literature stems from a belief that God has created and ordered the world in a certain way, and when living with the grain of God’s creation (which is what wisdom literature tries to teach us to do), we experience life (life abundant, life to the full), and when going against the grain of creation in wickedness or selfishness, we experience death or deadness. But again, this extends beyond mere morality for the biblical writers (e.g., I have a clear conscience and more healthy relationships, so I feel better). It also relates to the land and whether the land is flourishing and, of course, the people living in that land.

 Wendell Berry put it this way:

“the Bible is not a book only about ‘spirituality’ or getting to Heaven, but is also a practical book about the good use of land and creatures as a religious practice, and about the abuse of land and creatures as a kind of blasphemy.”[3]

(Of course, “spirituality” and good use of the land are not separate practices, which is partly Berry’s point.)

Anyone who has spent even a little time tending to a garden will know that caring for creation comes with a deep sense of satisfaction. I believe that is because in those moments we are going with the grain of how God created the world, and in fact one of the first vocations given to the first humans way back in Genesis 2. But this is to get ahead of myself, for that is to look at how a community garden can grow us spiritually as individuals and as a community. And that will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Don’t forget to come to our Community Garden informational meeting after worship on Sunday 7/11!


[1] Ellen F. Davis, Preaching the Luminous Word (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI: 2016), 1-2.

[2] Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY: 2009), 8

[3] Ibid, x.

Punished & Wounded

The Coffee Oasis asked a number of local pastors to write a meditation for Holy Week on different verses from Isaiah 53, specifically the ways Jesus joins the suffering of our homeless population. You can find all of those entries here. I was asked to write a meditation on verses 4-5 and am including it here.

We considered him punished by God.

Wounds beg for words of explanation
A story that justifies the suffering I see
on this tortured and weary face
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents
That he was born blind?”
If he’s a sinner I can ignore his wounds
they are his punishment, after all.
So I will conjure a story for him
a tale of his laziness
of his selfishness
of his having wasted plenty of opportunities
so that
if I have compassion,
it is because I am saintly, but
if I ignore
it is because he is a sinner
bearing the consequences of his waywardness
struck down by God.
Punished.
Afflicted.


My own wounds beg for words of explanation
a story that justifies my suffering
as they fester into resentment
infecting my soul with a self-righteous sense
of victimhood;
as if they were caused only by others
these wounds I keep reopening
O! I am afflicted!
O! I am stricken!
Or sometimes
they fester into shame;
I am being punished by God
because I am hated by God
despised and rejected by God
unloved.


The wounds of a crucified man
beg for words of explanation
hanging naked for all to see and scorn
in shameful scandal
open wounds festering,
we considered him punished by God.
“Who sinned that this man hangs there like that?”
No,
this man didn’t sin. 
This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.
Wounds beg for words of explanation
No story can justify the suffering of this crucified man
but his story
is of a suffering that justifies
this tortured and weary face
suffering with all who have been
naked and homeless for all to see
despised and scorned
suffering for those who would be rejected by God
the punishment that brought us peace was on him
by his wounds we are healed
by his wounds we are loved.

Loving God, forgive me for the ways I try to make sense of the suffering I see in the faces of those experiencing homelessness by reckoning (even if only silently to myself in the dark places of my heart) that they are “reaping what they’ve sown,” scorning them as being in some way “punished.” I shudder to consider what assessment I might have made of you hanging on the cross if I were some first-century sojourner in Jerusalem, unaware of this Jesus of Nazareth. Thank you for loving me in spite of all that is despicable and detestable within me. Thank you for your healing wounds.

In Praise of Presbyterian Polity

The key for getting folks to click on your blog post seems to be finding a sensational, evocative, or controversial-sounding title. I suspect “In Praise of Presbyterian Polity” checks precisely none of those boxes. But this post is, a little bit, about avoiding sensationalizing, so maybe it fits.

As a millennial pastor in a declining mainline denomination, I have often found myself apologizing for our polity everywhere I go. It’s so slooooow. Everything has to go to a committee, even changing a light bulb it seems, ha ha ha.

Even the professor who taught my Presbyterian polity class in seminary seemed to take this posture: he decided to spend half the course on leadership theory in attempts to be “more relevant,” even though the class was called Presbyterian Polity. I remember next to nothing from his lectures on leadership theory, but I’ve run into a whole lot of things in day-to-day ministry addressed in the Book of Order that I sure wish in hindsight he’d spent a little more time explaining to us.

On a recent walk with Brittany she had actually asked me a question about Presbyterian polity (not a regular topic of conversation in our marriage, I assure you), and as I described to her words that seemed to belong to other centuries: synod, diaconate, I found myself marveling at how almost comically out of place they all seemed. I sometimes feel like I’m spitting up on friends who are my age when I tell them I’m a P r esby t e rian, as if I’ve just stained their trendy H&M shirt with some ancient and unwanted-forgotten-for-a-reason word vomit. In an age ruled by immediately Googled answers and on demand Pinterest recipes and YouTube how-to videos for a quick troubleshoot to any problem, the Presbyterian insistence on process does feel increasingly out of place. I confess I’ve lifted an envious eye more than once to trendy megachurches that move with great expediency because they just go do stuff, rather than sending it all through a process.

As our conversation continued and I listed more archaic words, I found myself reflecting aloud to Brittany, “I’m not sure Presbyterian polity is going to be able to last in this century.” Then I was surprised by the next words that came out of my mouth: “but I think we might need it to.”

I feel that even more acutely after watching the chaos of this election cycle… and the past week’s events.

Don’t misunderstand me here. First of all, I have plenty that I dislike about Presbyterian polity. I live in it, and I run up against its shortcomings all the time. It’s a far cry from perfect. My three-year ordination process, for example, usually felt like it fit better with the structure of higher-ed from the 1960s, but not the new millennium, and that it was more about setting up red tape and hoops for me to jump through and making sure I had to do everything older pastors had had to do, than it was about equipping or evaluating me for ministry (or preparing the church for having me in ministry). Secondly, I’m not saying Presbyterian polity will save the world (now there’s a catchier blog title). But. Maybe we need it more than we think.

Some years ago, David Brooks wrote a column about our increasing impatience with process in American political life. We want to get our way, we want to fully get our way, and we want to get our way right now. As such, we elect and idealize leaders who promise not to back down or take no for an answer, thinking we can shortcut the process. And… surprise surprise! We find gridlock when the other party is doing the exact same thing in their own caucuses and ballots, resulting in an inability to collaborate or compromise, to do the true nature of politics: work together for the common good. On the church side of things we follow pastors like celebrities, deifying and idealizing the ones whose star catapults them overnight as their church swells rapidly in attendance under the force of their captivating vision and charismatic persona. Presbyterianism is remarkably unsexy compared with that.

And yet, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to eschew the slowness that process demands for the quick results personality offers to us. Maybe something that impresses upon us slowing down and deliberating with others over even some of the smaller decisions is needed more than ever in our fast-paced, immediate answer world.

We live in an age that where it is easier than ever to make our opinion known to the masses, and that tempts us into thinking we should then always make it known, our individuality of prime importance. As CKPC’s founding pastor John Haberlin is quick to point out: the ruling body of our church is called the Session because it only has its full given authority when it is in Session. Together. Individual elders in our church may have recognized authority within our congregation through their influence or natural leadership, but their full constitutional authority comes only when they are all together. Discussing, dialoguing, listening, praying, voting. No single personality gets to steer it if everyone understands their role properly (though many personalities have of course tried to in the history of Presbyterian churches).

Oftentimes you’ll hear people say: “I want to steer clear of church politics.” And I one-hundred percent understand what they mean and agree. They’re saying, I think: “I want to stay away from drama and gossip and posturing.” We all do, pastors get pulled into that kind of thing all the time, and it’s soul-sucking. But as I spent some of this morning on the phone with Peggy Iversen, our nominating committee elder and chair, I found myself even a little excited by church politics, in a different sense of the word. As we talked about all the work she has set before her (thanks Peggy!), I realized: this is going to take a while. Why? Because our polity is one that is designed to involve a lot of people. It reflects our tradition’s theological commitment to the “priesthood of all believers,” that the people called to do the ministry of the church aren’t just the ones in the pulpits, but the whole church, praying and working together to discern where God is calling us to go. That’s a church politics I want to be involved in.

Our polity is not gospel. It’s time-tested, but it’s not Holy Scripture. It needs more than a few tweaks and reforms (and is actually designed for that). My dad used to say he was a Christian with a capital “C,” and a presbyterian with a lower case “p.” Our polity not perfect, but maybe some of the things about it that cause us to recoil should lead us to reflect just as much on our own shortcomings (like impatience with process) and the problems of our cultural moment as much as we reflect on what we’d change about the Book of Order.  

Maybe our polity can’t survive in this brave (and fearful) new (and chaotic) world, but maybe we need it to.

Are They Christians?!

I recently watched someone post a prompt on social media that was designed to be a collaborative space for church leaders to share ideas about how they were going to respond to the latest restrictions in our state. This thread rapidly devolved into a den of vipers devouring one another, pointing fingers, calling names.

“These leaders are letting fear, not faith, control them.”

“Those leaders don’t love their neighbors or the vulnerable and only care about their own rights or sense of normalcy.”

You’ve all seen the reductionistic arguments a million times by now. Even if you haven’t seen that particular thread I’m referring to, you’ve more or less still seen that thread somewhere else.

I’ll be honest, I got a little depressed. These are Christian leaders?

Like so many of us, these past eight months have shaken my faith… not in God, but in the American Church. Problems I knew existed—but naïvely thought were more peripheral—have been brought to the surface; open wounds oozing a witness to the world that looks so little like Jesus’ healing touch. We’ve seen it in Christians’ response to the pandemic. We’ve seen it throughout the General Election. The venom. The vitriol. And I don’t make any claim whatsoever to have any ability to rise above it; I have convictions and concerns too, after all. I’ve been shocked to see thoughtful Christians I respect defending behavior and viewpoints that seem so diametrically opposed to the gospel that I’ve wondered what Bible they were even reading.

But enough of all that. The problems are well-known to us. We’re living them, after all. Instead, I want to provide an encouragement in two simple points.

1) I thank God for Matthew 13:24-30. The parable of the weeds (or the “tares” if you prefer). There’s a beautiful harvest planted by a Good Farmer. But an enemy sneaks in and plants a bunch of weeds in the field overnight. What should be done? Find the weeds, surely, and rip them up. “‘No,” says the Good Farmer. “If you gather the weeds, you’ll pull up the wheat along with them. Let both grow side by side until the harvest.”

Let both grow side by side.

This parable offers me the freedom of humility on two fronts. First, it reminds me that it’s not my job to pull up the weeds. “But they’re choking out the good crops! They’re damaging the witness of the church at a time it’s desperately needed!” No. Go ahead and let both grow side by side. But this parable brings me humility’s freedom in another way: every single Christian in my life who I might be tempted to label as a “weed” is, without exception, absolutely convinced (so far as I can tell) that they are the faithful followers of Jesus.

And that means I might be a weed, too. And so might you. Yes, you. I don’t say that to terrify us or shake our assurance of salvation, that we might be ourselves the ones who are weeds to be gathered “in bundles to be burned.” I don’t think that’s the point of the parable. Rather, I say it, once again, to lead us to the freedom of humble prayer and worship. Only by God’s grace might I be a good crop bearing good fruit, and I throw myself on that grace every moment of every day; in my decisions, in my considering complex questions, in my desire to be a witness to Jesus at a time it’s desperately needed.

2) Jesus among the crowds. I’ll be honest, I’ve craved quiet lately. It’s a strange thing to crave, I admit, amidst so much isolation from one another. But I don’t so much crave auditory quiet, but rather quiet from the din of everyone’s opinions flying everywhere on every single matter. But I’ve been nudged the past few days not to seek God in the quiet, but to ask where God is in the noise. And here’s where I’ve seen God in the noise: Jesus amidst crowds. So many crowds. Those crowds were undoubtedly filled with people who had skewed perceptions of him and his mission. People who were getting the gospel all wrong. People who were following him for all the wrong reasons. People who were trying to fit him into their box, or prop him up into their agenda. Some were even there to try to trap him or defy him. And yet Jesus commands the attention of every single one of them. Misguided or not, they can’t help but keep their eyes fixed on him, they can’t help but follow him. And it’s in that space where Jesus begins the work of transformation for each and every one of them.

In the sometimes disheartening and depressing noise of Christians and Christian leaders shouting louder and louder, this much remains true: they can’t keep their eyes off of Jesus. A distorted image of Jesus? Yes. Sometimes even utterly grotesque. But surely Jesus can break through even that. I hope so. Because I know sometimes my selfishness leads me to concoct a distorted image of Jesus that serves my interests a little too well. And yet he still breaks through all of that.

Sometimes Jesus avoids the crowds, sometimes he escapes them or dismisses them, but oftentimes, he shows up in and amidst them. Jesus spent a lot of time in crowds. In the noise and the clamor and the chaos. And he leads them, and he teaches them and feeds them, and he heals them and transforms them. This is the Lord of the still, small voice. But it’s also the Lord of the crowds, of the noise, the Lord of the wheat and the Lord of the weeds.