Jesus’ Use of the Psalms

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. Today’s entry is from Jim Davis, who will be leading the breakout session “Jesus’ Use of the Psalms.” Click here to learn more and register for the conference.


Luke-Acts is the longest continuous narrative of the gospel and it’s the only one that includes an account of how Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension into heaven was understood by his followers.  That understanding re-shaped their Christology (their understanding of who Jesus really was and what he had really done) and their sense of their own identity and their mission and purpose.

In this seminar we’ll explore the way that the Psalms played a pivotal role in Jesus’ life from the time of his birth, through his ministry, during his passion, and after his resurrection as the Holy Spirit he breathed into his followers guided them to discover how to use the Psalms in life-changing ways.  We’ll point out some of those ways and learn very practically how we can use the Psalms in the same ways as Jesus and his first followers did.


Jim received his PhD in New Testament in 1982 from the University of Nottingham mentored by Dr. J.D.G. Dunn. He has taught and pastored since then, including as Senior Pastor of CKPres from 1999-2007. He will be teaching New Testament for Gordon-Conwell Seminary and previously taught courses for Fuller Seminary from 1992 until his retirement this year. In 2019 he retired as Senior Pastor/Head of Staff at a suburban Houston congregation.

A Quiet Little Psalm for Noisy Brains

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. Today’s entry is from Joe Bettridge, who will be leading the breakout session “A Quiet Little Psalm for Noisy Brains.” Click here to learn more and register for the conference.


Lord, I have given up my pride and turned away from my arrogance.

I am not concerned with great matters or with subjects too difficult for me.

Instead, I am content and at peace.

As a child lies quietly in its mother’s arms, so my heart is quiet within me.

Israel, trust in the Lord now and forever

Psalm 131

During the late 1920s, physicist Harry Nyquist and electrical engineer Ralph Hartley investigated how information is transmitted. From their research came the distinction between what is called “noise and signal.” A meaningful signal contains understandable information, while noise is the random clatter of unintelligible sounds that interfere with the signal. Think of trying to tune in to a radio station and getting a lot of static. Worry is a signal that sometimes means you are sensing some genuine danger. But most of our worries are just agitating noises in our heads thrust upon us by the devil, the world, and our sin-damaged souls.

Psalm 131 is my favorite Psalm. But it is a peculiar Psalm. First, because it is the shortest Psalm in the Bible. Secondly, it begins with a seemingly anti-intellectual notion quite angular to our educated sensibilities. Consider Verse One, where David says: “I am not concerned with great matters or topics too difficult for me.” What is he saying here? Are we not to read challenging books, think deeply about current events, or go to graduate school? Our little Psalm tells us that these questions miss the deeper point, that our problem is ‎not that we are ignorant and need better information but that we ‎are lost ‎and stuck and dying and need ‎Jesus.

Notice how this Psalm itself has both a philosophical and practical side. The Psalmist is proclaiming is the futility of fretting over things that we cannot change. It is the Biblical basis for the Serenity Prayer.’ “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”

Psalm 131 presents us with the wonderful truth that we can actually hear God’s life-giving signal communicating with us from beyond all the noise in our culture and especially in our own heads. Much of what happens to us in this world is incomprehensible. We can’t make sense of “great matters.” We can’t separate the signal from the noise. But God hasn’t called us to make sense of everything but simply to trust in Jesus Christ, who is God’s clear signal to us even as John 1:18 explains: “No one has ever seen God. But God’s the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made God known to us.”

Come join me in exploring Psalm 131, where our noisy brains can seek God’s calming Presence in this quiet little Psalm.


Joe recently completed 46 years of pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church and now is an honorably retired member of Northwest Coast Presbytery. Joe came to faith in the First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma and was spiritually nurtured at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. He has served long term pastorates in Alaska, Arizona and recently in Friday Harbor, WA. Joe graduated from Stadium High in Tacoma and the University of Washington. He received his Master of Divinity, Master of Theology and Doctorate of Missiology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Becce, are delighted to now be part of the CKPC family.

The Psalms Really Messed Me Up!

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. Today’s entry is from John Haberlin, who will be leading the breakout session “The Psalms as Pictograph: A Look at Acrostic Psalms.” Click here to learn more and register for the conference.


I was a commuting student to Seattle Pacific College (now University) from 1959 to 1963. Students that lived within the Seattle City Limits could not stay on campus because of the student housing shortage.

I was raised in a very conservative, fundamentalist congregation that stressed the Bible as the “Word of God.” The implication was that scripture had basically been dictated (though I don’t remember actually hearing that but it was just “the way it was”). It was here that I spent my non-student hours as “Youth Director.”

As one of SPC’s requirements, we had to take Bible courses … and foolishly I signed up for Psalms, taught by Dr. Joseph Davis. Of course, I was from a “Bible Believing Church” so obviously I was going to cinch this course … “Look, out “A” I’ve got you aced!” What do you mean a “D” on my first test? I was overwhelmed with confusion. It was like I was in a foreign land and they were speaking a language different from mine.

At that time in history the King James Version was the only available translation; except for a few less known and more “scholarly” translations from England. The landslide of translations was yet come. When I heard God “speak” it was always in KJV English. Every word was equal. To consider the context, the style, the purpose, the words used was meaningless. Now I was presented with an even more subtle concept that was like a foreign language to me. Well, indeed it was a foreign language, yes, even two ancient languages: “Hebrew!” I didn’t even understand it and it was written in weird “hen scratches.” Didn’t God speak KJ English???? And then, of course Greek … well, kind of, a rather “pop form” of Greek and not that of the philosophers … common everyday language. (Yes, the Psalms were translated into Greek by the time Jesus was born). As I focused on a Greek minor I was forced to take “classical Greek”as well and let me tell you, there is no comparison – kind of like trying to speed read the Hebrew of the very different “Job” in the Old Testament.

Back to Psalms: For the first time I had to struggle with a first domino and I was beginning to see that there were some other dominos off in the distance that if that first one fell, I feared that all heck was going happen. Threatening! Scary! Confusing! My simplistic world was beginning to crash. Thank you Lord, Jesus!

It was a tough lesson but one that I am so grateful for. I came to understand that God was not sitting on a cloud dictating through telepathy to the writers of the books of the Bible. No! God was encountering people, somewhat like you and me, in the real world in which we live. The scribes of the Psalms (Yes, plural! and No! David didn’t write them all) were real people, maybe even a bit bi-polar, just like people I know including the one I see from time to time in the mirror. Some were filled with faith. Some reeked of despair. Psalms were poetry, pondered contemplatively with each word a picture, sometimes with acrostic magic. Some were angry. Some I just don’t get. However, what I have come to understand and deeply respect is that God is in each psalm, engaged with real living people like you and me. They speak the whole spectrum of human life. Amazingly we are allowed to hear God’s faithful people vehemently yelling at God, praising God and you name it. God was and is in the Psalms in every corner of life right where we live.

This encounter with the Psalms in Dr. Davis’ class was an open door to me (though the final grade didn’t show it but what a good lesson for me) to move to the rest of scripture. I developed a passion for the original languages, especially the Greek of the New Testament but also for the Hebrew of the Old. I became engrossed in meeting the writers of each book of the compendium we call “The Book” (ultimately not a helpful term). I tried to meet the writers where they lived and hear them as they encountered God in their circumstances just like I am led to do in my life. As a pastor, one of my chief goals was to bring people into an encounter with the Living God which I truly believe is the goal of the LOGOS written and empowered by God’s Holy Gust (some people refer to tou hagiou pneumatos as the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit but I prefer the insight of a young friend of mine “The Holy Gust” (pneumatic – English transliteration of the Greek).

I’m not sure that generally the Psalms are written to be studies with great depth (though I am so thankful for those who have studied them deeply and brought out insights we could seldom discover on our own). What I am thankful for is the unique ability of the Psalms, one here and one there, to hit us right where we are living in that moment. Their ability to identify with our deepest thoughts is beyond human origin. They truly are divine …No! They are more powerful than a divine dictum. The Psalms are encounters with real humans, living real human lives and emotions in the presence of the Eternal and Ever Present God. Emmanuel, God with us.


John grew up in West Seattle, attended Seattle Pacific, Fuller Seminary and received his DMin from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. He began at Westminster Presbyterian in Yakima, moved to First Presbyterian in Hayward, California, served as founding pastor of CKPC, was Associate for Church Growth at General Assembly, and finally pastor at Harrison Square Presbyterian in Centralia. He is married to his lifelong friend, Pamela. They have three children and six grandchildren.

New Conversations with an Old Friend

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:

You serve me a six-course dinner
    right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
    my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me
    every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
    for the rest of my life.

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.

The Spiritual Aspect of Peas

Guest post by Stephanie Sweeney

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.

The Feeling of Birth Pangs

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.

The waiting does not diminish us. Why? Because we know our Lord is victorious over evil, and we can confidently proclaim that.

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!

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.