Spiritual Wisdom from a Garden

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Spring turns my attention to gardening. The cool weather crops of lettuce, kale, carrots, peas, broccoli, cabbage and chard that I planted several weeks ago are thriving—they even seemed to enjoy the recent cold snap. I’ve been browsing gardening magazines for my bedtime reading. Cynthia Woods wrote in the Virginia Gardener about an ancient oak tree that came crashing down in her garden on Christmas eve.

Cynthia says that after she recovered from the shock and horror of smashed Camellia and azaleas, an enormous hole in the ground, and more muck and mire than she cares to describe, she began to ponder what to do about the situation. She had worked on the garden for over 20 years and had recently rather smugly decided that she had it where she wanted it.

She says she should have known better. “A garden is never, ever finished. Any experienced gardener knows that even entertaining such heretical thoughts is just plain foolish.” She began to look at the desolation each day and walked around it to try to see and hear what the new, radically altered landscape was telling her.

Plants that thrived in the shade of an oak tree will not be happy in the bright sunlight that emerges when it falls to the ground.  After she finished sulking, Cynthia began to contemplate the possibilities for the new, open space in her garden, perhaps an interesting Japanese maple and some low growing conifers that she could train to grow over large rocks.

Even under the best of circumstances, things are never finished. Cynthia concludes, “It’s best to accept the lessons of patience, watchfulness, and resilience that our gardens offer. Slow gardening—it’s the way to go. Breathe deeply, observe closely, and enjoy everything, even the imperfections. There is beauty in everything.”

The same wisdom applies to faith communities. Together we’re God’s garden. Our church is located in a particular spiritual micro-climate here by Daniels Run in the City of Fairfax. This environment supports what will grow in our garden. I’m not sure what the equivalent of an ancient oak tree toppling over might be but the wisdom we can gain from this is that even disasters open up new possibilities—that is if we have eyes to see and ears to hear what our new landscape is telling us.

Like Cynthia walking around in her garden, I spent considerable time getting familiar with this new space when I first became the pastor of our church. I occasionally walk downtown for lunch to absorb the ambience of our city. I have joined the local Clergy and Leadership Council to get a better feel for what other faith communities are doing and to explore ways of working together. I find ways to build relationships with church members.

I love puttering around in our church garden. My gardener and pastoral avocations flow together as I dream of ways to keep developing who we are and what we have. Our Fairfax community is part of the old South. This was a slaveholding community and a Civil War site. How does our presence, and the life of our peace oriented church fit into God’s purposes for our community?

The apostle Paul says we’re co-workers linked together as one. (1 Corinthians 3: 9) The Greek word he uses is synergoi from which we get the word synergy—diverse people working together to achieve a common purpose. Skilled garden landscapers strive to weave a common thread through a garden that ties things together but it’s the contrasts of shape, texture, and color that make it interesting. Monocultures are boring; furthermore, they’re more perceptible to pests and disease. So we mix it up. Inviting, resilient, and thriving churches have the same characteristics.

Gardening by Daniels Run

Gorgeous spring weather has arrived and I’m squeezing as much time as possible from my other pastoral duties to work in our church garden by Daniels Run. I expanded our garden a bit by creating two new beds. I planted early spring crops of spinach, lettuce, chard, radishes, and snow peas. All these plants are starting to poke their heads out of the soil but you have to look close to see them. In a few more weeks they will develop into vigorous plants.

This is the promise of gardening. It’s also the promising of pastoring our smaller church here in Fairfax, Virginia. Our adult Sunday school class has been studying the book The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches written by David Ray. He says that worship is where the life of a smaller church begins and comes together. He also reminds us that the church exists by mission. To paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah, “We seek the welfare of the city where we live, for in its welfare we will find our welfare (29:7).

Our church is fortunate to own a three-acre property in the middle of our city, with the small stream called Daniels Run flowing through it. One of the ways we seek the welfare of our city is by caring for this environment and developing it into an inviting space for our neighborhood. Last summer an Eagle Scout troop helped us create a picnic area and nature trail winding its way from our church garden down to Daniels Run. Now we’re gradually developing the trail through the two-acre woods on the other side of the stream.

We’re also renovating our church building and worship space to make it handicap accessible and more inviting. One feature will be a large window in our sanctuary looking out over the woods and our church garden. Another aspect of healthy church life is raising morale and elevating our spirit. A big part of that is focusing on the unique strengths and resources of our small congregation rather than thinking we need to be a large, program oriented church to be successful.

We are a church in the Anabaptist spiritual tradition that emphasizes the communal life of our church and things like simple living, service, peace, and justice. We’re also deeply rooted in the soil of our past history of farm life and bi-vocational farmer preachers. Perhaps that’s why I thoroughly enjoy combining gardening with my other pastoral work. In keeping with this spirituality, our church is considering changing our name to “Daniels Run Peace Church.” That will help to root us in our environment and to grow our garden here beside Daniels Run.

 

A Beautiful Thing

 

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The beautiful bloom above is from our Wandering Iris plant. You need to be attentive or you’ll completely miss it. The Wandering Iris blooms only once a year, scattering its blooms over several weeks, each bloom lasting only one day. I see a parallel in the lectionary reading of the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and then wiping his feet with her hair (John 12: 1-8).

It’s holy extravagance! The vial of nard perfume that Mary poured over Jesus’ feet comes from the spikenard plant that grows high up in the Himalayan Mountains of India, Nepal, and China. Because of the long overland journey, it was very expensive in ancient Palestine. One vial alone cost about 300 denarii, which was about a year’s wages.

The significance of this story is often missed in the church calendar because it’s immediately followed by accounts of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Good Friday and the crucifixion, and the resurrection on Easter morning. I suspect we also skip over the story because we don’t know what to make of its extravagance and sensuality. A beautiful woman splurged a year’s wages on a vial of perfume, which she poured over Jesus feet, wiped them with her hair, and filled the whole house with the fragrance.

I admit that I would have been shocked by this display and would have sided with those who grumbled that it would have been better to sale the perfume and give the money to the poor. Jesus wasn’t having any of it, saying, “This is beautiful!” In what sense is spirituality sensual and extravagant? For frugal and somewhat prudish folk like me, all this seems self-indulgent rather than holy.

We don’t talk a lot about beauty in the church and God forbid that we would talk about sensuality. We instead talk about worship, mission, service, peace, and justice–all good and worthy things. Let’s lay aside that discussion for a bit to ponder (dream and scheme) about how our spirituality and our service can be informed by Mary’s beautiful deed of holy extravagance.

Welcoming Refugees

Last evening I attended a lively interfaith forum on “Welcoming the Stranger: Refugees and Immigrants in Our Midst” sponsored by the American Turkish Friendship Association and the Rumi Foundation. Moderator Sandy Chisholm, director of the Fairfax County Community Interfaith Coordination Program, reminded us that according to US Census Bureau statistics about one in four households in the DC area are recent immigrants, which is much higher than the national average.

The three panelists represented the Abrahamic faith traditions. Representing the Jewish faith, Rabbi Gerry Serotta, Executive Director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, began by stressing how central welcoming the stranger is to Judaism and all three Abrahamic religions. This is rooted in Abraham and Sara’s experience of living as sojourners and strangers in the land of Canaan as well as the experience of the Israelites of being slaves in the land of Egypt. We can never forget that our religious ancestors were refugees.

Patricia Maloof, Program Director of Migration and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, representing the Christian tradition, built on this by emphasizing that the child Jesus and his parents Mary and Joseph were refugees. Furthermore, there is the clear teaching that we see Jesus and serve him when we welcome and serve the stranger in our midst. Representing Islam, Naseem Rizvi, from the Open Society Foundation, added the experience of the early Muslim community living as refugees in Medina.

The current situation of millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war and other conflict areas in the Middle East animated the forum and the discussion following the panel presentations. Given that welcoming strangers is so central to all our religious traditions, why are we refusing to allow Syrian refugees to enter our country? We will want to advocate for greater openness and to match our words with action by showing that our faith communities are prepared to collaborate in sponsoring and helping to resettle refugee families.

Those of us who want to put our faith into action will want to attend the Community and Interfaith session “Refugee Settlement in Northern Virginia – How Faith Communities Can Help” on Wednesday, March 9, 1:30 – 3:30 pm at the Fairfax County Government Center, 12000 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax, VA 22035. You can register at: www.fairfaxcounty.gov/hscode/ereg/registration.aspx?groupid=26

We Care

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A slogan on our church sign by the road proclaims that we are, “A Caring Christian Community.” It expresses our desire and hope for the kind of community we want to be. Yet the word “caring” begs to be filled out. I did some research and found three different quotes about caring:

  • This one especially grabbed my attention. “Some people care too much; I think it’s called love”—Winnie the Pooh.
  • Another reminds me of something my former spiritual director would say. “A smile is the light in your window that tells others that there’s a caring, sharing person inside”—Denis Waitley.
  • Yet another is especially appropriate for smaller churches. “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world, for, indeed, that’s all who ever have”—Margaret Mead.

In what ways are we caring and how is that put into action? Pastor and small church advocate David Ray says there are good reasons why smaller churches are the right size to be caring communities. People come to small churches because they want to be with others rather than to worship in isolation (The Indispensable Guide for Smaller Churches, 154).

Smaller churches can take time to care because we don’t need to be fully occupied with keeping the institution running, as is true in larger organizations. If the way we think about our ministry and the way we structure our church life are more relational, we as a people will be more relational. We then have a greater capacity to care for others and to meet the needs of people.

 

 

Lent and Valentine’s Day

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The First Sunday of Lent and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day this year. Each reminds us of both the wonder and pathos of being alive. We are part of the whole web of life and we trust in God’s care for all creation. Life is full of unspeakable love and beauty. Yet none of us, no matter how powerful or privileged, is immune from personal tragedy and suffering.

Christian mystic Evelyn Underhill reminds us, “No Christian escapes a taste of the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.” A standard biblical reflection for the season of Lent is Christ’s temptation in the desert. The desert reminds us that life is fragile and that we all have internal demons against which we struggle. Our inclination to ignore the relationship between love and suffering keeps us from recognizing the pared-down beauty that the desert brings.

It also keeps us from developing the spiritual resources that we can draw on during times of adversity? The Bible is replete with the assurance that we can turn to God for strength and security. Common cognates are that God is our refuge, our fortress, our stronghold, our dwelling place, and our shelter. We learn to trust as a way of coping with the adversities and anxieties that beset our lives.

James Healy writes, “Whether we gaze with longing into the garden or with fear and trembling into the desert, of this we can be sure—God walked there first! And when we who have sinned and despoiled the garden are challenged now to face the desert, we do not face it alone. Jesus has gone there before us to struggle with every demon that has even plagued a human heart.”

All Are Empowered

In his international bestselling book Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande argues that we’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. He writes “We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way” (259).

It’s not only that our goal is misguided; the way doctors relate to their patients is equally problematic. He describes three different kinds of relationships. One is “paternalistic.” This is the old-school method of telling people what to do. Take the red pill or the blue pill. The doctor is authoritative, self-certain, and busy with things to do.

Another common way today is “informative.” Here the doctor is the expert who gives the patient the facts and figures and the rest is up to you. In this approach the patient is a consumer and doctors know less and less about their patients and more and more about their science. He says this is his own default way of relating to patients, which he’s trying to overcome.

Neither way is quite what people need. Sure, we need a doctor with information and a degree of control but we also need guidance, which requires a frank and honest discussion that honors the humanity and the wishes of the patient. This third way is known as an “interpretative” approach. Doctors who use this approach ask their patients, “What is most important to you? What are your worries?” (201).

The goals and doctor-patient relationships that Dr. Gawande strives for are also relevant in creating a life-giving Christian fellowship. I find it easy to become moralistic and self-righteous about things like social equality. Preaching is easy, but how do we create a community that listens to each other and endeavors to actually relate to each one of us in ways that are authentic?

One of the most revolutionary aspects of the life of the early churches was the conviction that all are empowered by the Spirit of God. Putting this conviction into practice was especially radical in the midst of a hierarchical and paternalistic society. They insisted that even those with no legal rights were to be equally included as sisters and brothers in their fellowship.

An example of how this was put into practice is when Paul sent the slave Onesimus back to his former master Philemon. We don’t know the circumstances but it appears that Onesimus ran away after a conflict and then somehow met up with Paul in prison. All three are now followers of Jesus and this makes all the difference. Paul sends Onesimus back with a letter to Philemon instructing him to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.” It’s a powerful example of how following the way of Jesus turns social relationships upside down and empowers even the least among us.

 

Diversion First

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A huge civil rights issue in our country is the number of people who are in jail for nonviolent crime, many of whom are suffering from mental illness. The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population. Many of these people enter our criminal justice system through the criminalization of substance abuse and mental illness. Prisons have become our de-facto place to house such people and prisons have few resources to adequately care for them or to help with rehabilitation.

Tina Garnett, a fifty-four-year-old woman serving a mandatory life sentence in Pennsylvania, is one such person that Bryan Stevenson writes about in his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Trina showed signs of intellectual disabilities and other troubles at a young age.  She and her sisters experienced homelessness and sexual abuse after their mother died when she was nine years old.

Trina was convicted of second degree murder when, as a fourteen-year-old girl, she sneaked into the home of a boy she had a crush on. She accidentally set the house on fire killing two people from smoke asphyxiation when she tried to find her way around in the dark with the aid of matches. She was tried as an adult and, under Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentencing guidelines, the judge had no choice other than to give her a life sentence. The state is still refusing to grant her the right to be resentenced in compliance with a recent Supreme Court ruling that children cannot be tried as adults.

The human cost of our broken criminal justice system is a huge tragedy for individuals, families, and our communities. President Obama and various leaders from both political parties are determined that we need to fix our broken criminal justice system. This week I saw an encouraging sign of progress when I participated in a Faith Communities in Action meeting at the Fairfax County 911 Call Center. We learned about the newly created Diversion First program that began this month in our county.

The police, along with other agencies, have created a Crisis Intervention Team where officers are given special training in handling crises when they are called to the scene of a minor crime or disturbance. They have the prerogative to redirect people who have created a disturbance into the health care system rather than taking them to jail.  We’ve recently created a therapeutic Crisis Response Center in our county for that purpose.

It’s not just the emotional toll on individuals and families; it includes the financial burden that incarceration imposes on a whole community. Nearly half of all Fairfax County jail inmate at any given time have mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders.  It costs about 104 dollars a day or almost $40,000 a year to keep a prisoner in jail in our county.  Still, moving people from jail to the health care system is only part of the solution because programs for treating such people in the health care system are severely underfunded.

Our church participates in a hypothermia program each winter and my interaction with these homeless guests leads me to believe that many suffer from mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Relegating them to the streets and their own resources cannot be the answer. Still, I’m encouraged by these positive steps in recognizing them as our neighbors and seeking to be our brother’s and sister’s keeper. I thankful for the privilege of serving as a pastor in a progressive community that’s working proactively at these seemingly implacable human problems.

 

The Human Connection (part 2)

Finding the human connection was so important for Bryan Stevenson as a first year law student. I wrote about this is my previous blog post and said that I have the same struggle with theological language that can feel just as esoteric and detached from the lives of people I serve in our church and our community.

What does it mean to say that Jesus in both fully human and fully divine? How do we understand abstract Trinitarian language about the relationship with God the Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit? Our common theological takeaway is a doctrine of redemption where our salvation is made possible by the incarnation, the sinless life, and the atoning death of Jesus. It’s a transaction that takes place in the spiritual realm and assures us that we will go to heaven when we die.

In theological language it’s called the doctrine of plenary atonement. It’s awfully thin soup, rather detached from the everyday lives of ordinary people. John’s Gospel can help us. It doesn’t have a nativity story, and begins instead by soaring into the farthest reaches of deity. Thinking, however, that it’s about life in the heavens would be a bad mistake.

The first three words “In the beginning” parallel the first three words in the book of Genesis. It’s about the origins of our world, including the human race. The Gospel story, as John tells it, is about a fresh beginning and a new human race. John’s Word or Light from heaven becomes flesh and is the life of humanity. Another way I’ve heard this said is that “God becomes everything we are—to make us everything God is.”

John is writing to a Gentile Christian community outside Palestine. They live in a different culture from the one in which Jesus was born. John is explaining to them that the life and teaching of Jesus comes from God and, at the same time, relates to their ordinary lives. He is placing Jesus both above and within their cultural world. John’s community believes that the spiritual world is good and the material world is evil. He counters this by saying that the eternal Word became human in the life of Jesus. It’s an affirmation that the earth and our physical lives are part of God’s good creation.

We have worth because we’re valued by God who entered our world in the human life of Jesus. In Jesus God shared our experiences including our love, joy and intimate companionship as well as our anger, our tears, and our suffering. God is not a detached deity in a world far away. Our God is an intimate, suffering God who shares both our joys and our wounds.

Jesus turns our world upside-down. In a world where social status is everything, he associates with common people and outcasts. In an anxious and fearful world, he reminds us that God cares even for the sparrows. In a world addicted to the power of violence, he demonstrates that nonviolent, suffering love is a force more powerful. This connects powerfully to the kind of world Bryan Stevenson relates to in his legal practice representing poor people and those trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system.

 

The Human Connection

My daughter gave me the book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson for Christmas. It’s his personal story of working as a defender for poor people trapped in our criminal justice system, especially those on death row. In the introduction he tells how he became a lawyer doing this kind of work.

Near the end of his first year of studies at Harvard Law School, Bryan was disillusioned because the courses seemed esoteric and far removed from the race and poverty issues that had motivated him to study law in the first place. The next fall he took a course on race and poverty that included an internship with a nonprofit law group in Atlanta handling the appeals process for prisoners on death row.

Bryan was scared and insecure during his first visit to a death row inmate in a maximum security prison.  His task was to tell the prisoner that they still didn’t have a lawyer assigned to his case but, never-the-less, to assure him that he wouldn’t be executed in the next year. Bryan was astonished when the prisoner, whose name was Henry, was relieved to hear this news.

They immediately connected, started talking about everything including their families, and went way beyond the allotted one-hour time limit for the visit. When the guard came back he was very upset, roughly shackled Henry, and started pushing him out the door. Both the guard and Bryan were startled when Henry shut his eyes, tilted his head back and began to sing the old spiritual, Lord Plant My Feet on Higher Ground. 

That was the human contact and inspiration Bryan needed. He returned to law school with an intense desire to learn everything he could about the laws that sanctioned the death penalty and extreme punishments including constitutional law, litigation, and appellate procedure.

I can identify with Bryan in the sense that I’ve wrestled for a long time with theological language about Jesus, which can feel just as abstract and esoteric as those law school courses he was taking. Where do we as theologians find the human contact that Bryan found during his visit with Henry in that maximum security prison? I’ll write more about this on my next post.