Over the coming days on our blog we will be hearing from some of the speakers who will be sharing at our Psalms Conference on June 11th. First up is Becce Bettridge, who will be leading the breakout session “New Conversations with an Old Friend” Click here to learn more and register for the conference.
There is something very special about a long-time friendship. I have known my friend, Leslie Mauermann, since she sat behind me in AP US History when we were both juniors at Arcadia High School in Arcadia, California. She was the first to know that I thought I was falling in love with my husband, Joe. She took me to church and shared her “white gloves,” a requirement (apparently) at Arcadia Presbyterian Church in 1968. We were in each other’s weddings. I wept on the phone with her when she filed for a divorce. She wept with me when I miscarried my first pregnancy. She knows me as well as anyone alive…and yet we continue to surprise and delight each other as we share how we are growing, and the myriad of ways God is showing up in our lives. Ours continues to be a comfortable, but evolving, friendship.
Many of us, who have known Psalm 23 for most of our lives, tend to come to it with practiced eyes. We know what it says, we have heard the familiar phrases before. But one of the joys of reading scripture, is that it has the ability to surprise and touch us in new ways each time we engage with it. Particularly, when we slow down and ponder the words meditatively. The writer of Lamentations reminds us, “God’s mercies are new every morning (3:23).
How is God like my shepherd?
Is God inviting me to rest in “green pastures” … stick my feet in a quite stream?
When did God walk with me through the shadow of death? Did I know God was there as promised?
Is God preparing a table for me right now? What’s God serving?
All these questions, and more, come to us quietly when we engage slowly and prayerfully with this Psalm.
In The Message, Eugene Peterson grabs our attention by translating the final verses of Psalm 23:
An old friend…seen through fresh eyes. Come join us as we welcome God to speak to us in a very personal, perhaps even new, way through this beloved psalm.
Becce has been a spiritual director since 2009 and holds certifications from both Monastery of the Risen Christ in Santa Barbara and Christian Formation & Direction Ministries in Seattle. She holds a BA in Communication and Literature, a Master of Biblical Studies, and has studied spiritual direction and dream work with the Haden Institute in North Carolina.
In a series of blog posts, several of us have been exploring the question of why a community garden makes good sense for a church. For many of us, the reasons for a community garden are self-evident. But whether or not we need persuasion, we’ll find the reasons are even more extensive than we may have realized. In today’s post, the director of our community garden, Stephanie Sweeney looks at the “spiritual aspect of peas.”
The Spiritual Aspect of Peas
I find God in the garden, everyday. The sunstrokes streaming through the pussy willow tree’s branches warm the soil and motivate the seeds I planted to wake. As the pea plant’s cotyledons (the first leaves to appear) break the ground and unfurl, I can seriously laugh out loud. How the heck did that happen? How is God so good?
I’m not sure if you who are reading this can understand the joy I find in these garden moments, but I’m sure you understand the joy of new life. We humans can’t resist it. The appearance of a new, fresh, living thing reminds us of God’s faithfulness and fulfills our God-given desire to “fill the earth” and “be fruitful and increase in number.” Yet, the only way we can pursue this mandate is to eat food, food that originates in plants (even the chicken or cow you ate today was eating plants at some point too), which is why I think I find joy in gardening. A sprouting pea plant not only means new life for the plant, but it means life for me, my husband, and my neighbors in the form of nurturing sustenance.
Have you ever thought of eating as a spiritual exercise? The Lord’s Supper might come to mind, but I am talking about day-to-day eating– breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. Norman Wirzba writes,
At it’s best, eating is a sharing and welcoming movement that makes room for others… We don’t really understand food until we perceive, receive, and taste it in terms of its origin and end in God as the one who provides for, communes with, and ultimately reconciles creation. Food is God’s love made nutritious and delicious, given for the good of each other. The mundane act of eating is thus a daily invitation to move responsibly and gratefully within this given life. It is a summons to commune with the divine Life that is presupposed and made manifest in every bite.
(from Food and Faith, xi).
Wirzba discusses in his book Food and Faith (an INCREDIBLE book, by the way), that as humans we are inextricably linked to the land and the gardens around us by our stomachs. We need food in order to survive, and that food originates in a garden of some sorts. The growth of this garden is utterly dependent on God’s providence, his grace, his loving sustenance. In other words, every bite of food we take declares God’s life-giving love for us.
If we view food as a tangible expression of God’s love, this leads me to two thoughts: where our food comes from and how that source speaks to how we value God’s gift, and how we share that tangible sign of God’s love with others.
It’s no surprise that most of our food does not come from small-scale, organic gardens. Most of our food, over 50% in the US, is grown on large-scale industrial farms which often use harsh chemicals, degrade the land, decrease biodiversity, influence human health negatively, and cause extreme pollution. The benefit of this terrible system is that now our food is more affordable, but there are hidden costs. The treatment of the creation and the flourishing of life is not honored in this current system. If the creation is God’s expression of love and hospitality, maybe Christians need to rethink their view of food production and consider how where their food comes from is actually important to consider. As Wendell Berry put it,
The question that must be addressed is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others.
Growing a church garden organically, mindfully, lovingly, with an attentiveness for the natural rhythms God has set in place, will produce food that honors God via honoring the relationships we have with nature and neighbor. “God’s character is revealed in Genesis as the love that enables the life of another to be itself. Gardening work is thus potentially a powerful demonstration and extension of God’s own work, for what gardeners do is nurture the conditions in which life can take root and grow” (Wirzba, Food and Faith, 91).
What better way to minister to those in our community than to share with them God’s life giving gifts, grown in a way that honors all our connections: to God, to humans, and to creation? This is why I believe in a church garden. This is why I believe that the joy I find in pea sprouts can give life and joy to others who are in need of it. It is God’s love and hospitality for us to share.
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. For many of us, the reasons for a community garden are self-evident. But whether or not we need persuasion, we’ll find the reasons are even more extensive than we may have realized. In today’s post, Ministry Associate Ty Whitman looks at the virtue of patience as part of gardening and the life of faith
The Feeling of Birth Pangs
As a member of this church that lacks the ability to keep a single plant in the house alive, let alone the ability to tend to a full garden, I struggle to write to you concerning how a garden makes good, practical sense for a church beyond the obvious reasons of evangelism and service. Ways we can serve our community through the giving of food, and professing Christ as Lord whilst we do so. Yet, as a non-gardener, I ponder what God may be able to teach us through the physical act of gardening.
God often calls us out of our comfort zones, into spaces where success seems unlikely without God guiding us through every step of the way. We can recall Peter being called out onto the water by Jesus, but for the power of the Messiah, Peter falls immediately. However, as the story goes, Peter takes steps ON THE WATER! What faith Peter must have had to be able to make such a profound step outside of the boat. Now, God calling us into the act of trying to garden together is not quite as severe as being called to walk on water, but it certainly requires a faith that is willing to endure when the plants just aren’t growing in the ways we hoped. I can imagine that every good gardener has had that moment when they planted a seed, and it just didn’t grow. They watered it, tended to it, ensured they followed all the necessary steps, gave it sufficient nutrients in the soil, but… nothing. No sprout, just dirt. Or of course the moment that many of us have felt before, where we see the sprout, get overly excited, and then it withers and dies. To many, this may cause a desire to quit, but thank goodness some don’t – otherwise we’d be stuck with very few, good looking, vegetables and flowers.
Gardening requires patience. Just listening to David and Stephanie Sweeney – the two members of our church spearheading this ministry – talk about timing, and how we really won’t see much “fruit” until next year, has floored me. It’s clear this will require patience. Patience I too often lack, patience I think we all too often lack.
I’ve recently moved into a new home, with a yard and everything. I arrived and immediately noticed that the yard was, well, dead. Yellow and brown everywhere, with very little green. So, being just like my dad in being obsessed with wanting a well kept front lawn, I began watering it. Morning and night, I took the hose – because as a group of guys in our mid-20’s we don’t own a sprinkler – and would stand out there for a solid 20 minutes to water it. It’s been three weeks, and well, it’s still dead. I’ve used turf builder, watched far too many YouTube videos on how to make it green, and for some reason, it still remains yellow and brown. I’m impatient, and really don’t like the fact that this lawn isn’t responding in the way I was hoping. It wasn’t until today when our trusty Building and Grounds Elder, Bob Jensen, made the comment, “that lawn isn’t going to be better this year. It’s done, until next year,” did I realize where I was going wrong. Straight and to the point, Bob, without saying as much, was telling me to be patient. The grass will be greener next year, I’m just going to HAVE to wait.
Eugene Peterson, in the Message, paraphrases Paul’s words in Romans 8:22-25 in this way:
“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.”
The longer we wait, the larger we become and the more joyful our expectancy. What a beautiful phrase. Though, not a literal translation, I believe Peterson has fully grasped Paul’s conversation here around the creation groaning, as if it were in childbirth. Groaning, waiting, for our full deliverance and to be wholly connected with our Lord, God. Waiting for the moment the things of this earth are made perfect.
Think for a moment, about the 9 months a woman carries her child. Such a beautiful time, isn’t it? Full of wonder and joy as this human being, the mother and father’s own creation, grows before their very eyes. The excitement of the baby moving and kicking is elating. However, every mother will tell you that being pregnant isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Their feet hurt often, they experience morning sickness, which really tends to happen more than just in the morning. They experience emotions that makes them feel as if they are a different person than before. Pregnancy comes with pains – not to mention the culmination of that pregnancy in labor. There are also moments of nothingness. Where the baby isn’t moving, and it almost feels as if it weren’t there at all. The whole 9 months is filled with different sensations and feelings, good, bad and neutral. There are certainly moments where the mother just groans, wanting the baby to arrive already. But the longer the expecting parents wait, the more joyful their expectancy. And when they finally get the chance to hold their beautiful creation, it’ll all have been worth it.
So, too, is it with our lives, and with our garden. In life we will certainly experience times of pain, suffering, hardship – as it is with the garden, our plants may die, something may get stolen, maybe our cucumbers will be eaten by the beavers down by our dam. We will groan, wanting our Lord to return and remove all Evil from us and from the world – and with our garden we will groan, wanting our garden to produce better fruit, and wishing that those dang beavers would just leave us alone.
We will, most definitely, experience times in life where it feels as if God isn’t near, nothing good and nothing bad is happening and we feel empty – as with our garden, there will be a season where nothing grows at all. We will groan, wanting our Messiah to come and rescue us from the nothingness – and we will doubt, wondering if our garden is being successful or if it is even worth doing anymore.
The waiting does not diminish us. Why? Because we know our Lord is victorious over evil, and we can confidently proclaim that. Because we know that Christ creates beauty out of nothing. Because, God Almighty, brings us moments where we feel joy, gladness, and goodness reigns – we, too, can know our garden will produce something, and it will be good.
It’s in the waiting, patiently waiting, as a mother does for her child, that we are made larger. If God can teach us anything in our humble church garden, it’s this. Knowing fully who our God is and what He can and will do, we can wait with joyful expectancy. So, let’s garden. Knowing full well it will take time, love and care. Let’s garden, and may it teach us the power of waiting.
Don’t forget to come to our Community Garden informational meeting after worship on Sunday 7/11!
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…
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!
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?” 
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.”
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
(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!
 Ellen F. Davis, Preaching the Luminous Word (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI: 2016), 1-2.
 Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, New York, NY: 2009), 8
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 parentsThat 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
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.
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
as if they were caused only by others
these wounds I keep reopening
O! I am afflicted!
O! I am stricken!
they fester into shame;
I am being punished by God
because I am hated by God
despised and rejected by God
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.
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.
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.
I was recently inspired to write a poem for each day of creation–(which are written as poems themselves). I will be posting a new entry each day. Today: Genesis 1:24-31.
The Sixth Day
Like rereading a kind text or note from
a loved one sent hours or minutes before
their unexpected passing or
gazing at the photograph of a joyful moment
together with friends taken the day before
the world turned on its head: Sept 10, '01
or December 6, '41 or New Year's on the eve
of 2020, smiling faces unaware of ominous
thunderclouds fast approaching on the horizon,
so is reading the account of the Sixth Day:
a happy memory turned melancholy
by future tragedy, a reminder of what was
and what could have been.
The Imago Dei,
the Crown of Creation
moved by Pride
soon forgot in whose image they were made
soon forgot they were created
soon forgot their fellow humans were also
made in their Creator's image
soon forgot the earth was given to them to be
received with thanks, not taken by force;
soon forsook their calling to steward
choosing instead to plunder, the only
creatures capable of not being what they were
created to be.
The Imago Dei; desecrated but not destroyed
defaced but not effaced, in need of redemption
but not irredeemable
Redeemed by One Uncreated who alone was now capable
of being what these creatures were created to be,
who was taken by force, plundered, crucified
forgotten and forsaken
moved by Love,
the Crown of Thorns on
the Imago Dei.
The Sixth Day a reminder of what was and
what could have been and
a glimpse of what one day will fully be
glimpsed now in the face of my friend who
devotes his life to those with
mental illnesses forgotten by others,
glimpsed now in the hands of the vet
caring for the injured roadside deer,
glimpsed now in the feet of the farmer
walking her field once more in unending
cycle of love and labor, her patch of planet
received to steward, to grow, to give:
the Imago Dei
the Sixth Day.