Unity, Diversity, and the Body of Christ

Format Image

Over the past week, I’ve been working to get my garden prepped a bit for spring and to start some of the seeds that will be set out after Mother’s Day.  And I was reminded as I dug my fingers into the dirt that soil is so incredibly diverse and complex.  That just one handful of the stuff contains more living organisms than there are people on this planet.   

And in every part of the soil, every one of those organisms has a part to play, impacting chemical and physical properties.  And all of these living organisms live off of and feed off of one another.  It is their interaction that makes soil healthy and thriving and good.

In his book, The Third Plate, Dan Barber describes two ways of seeing what is happening in the soil that surrounds us.

One, is a class system… or a battlefield…

We’ve all seen those videos of a tiny fish being eaten by a bigger fish, being eaten by an even bigger fish… that’s some of what happens in the dirt beneath our feet.  One way of looking at all of the interaction beneath us is to focus on how microbes are eaten by protozoa, which are eaten by centipedes, ants, and beetles.

 

 

But another way of thinking about all of that diversity in the soil is as a system of checks and balances. 

 

Fred Magdoff is a soil scientist and he thinks that “When there is sufficient and varied food for the organisms, they do what comes naturally, ‘making a living’ by feeding on the food sources that evolution provided… What you have is a thriving, complex community of organisms.”

And all of that diversity and interaction in the soil is what makes our food taste good. 

Magdoff says, “Taste comes from a more complex molecule that gets eaten, taken apart, and put back together in a different way.  The plant takes this, and all the other molecules, and catalyzes them into phytonutrients.  Taste doesn’t come from the elemental compounds (like calcium or nitrogen).  It comes from the synthesis” [The Third Plate, Dan Barber, page 85]

 

That’s really why you and I want all of that diversity in the soil after all.  Because we want the things we grow to thrive and taste good.  We want it to bear tasty fruit! 

In musical composition, unless it is a solo piece, it is the interaction of the various instruments each playing their part, yet working together that create harmonization.  

And in the church, it is the way that we each utilize our various gifts and we each play our part as hands or tongues or livers that allows the Body of Christ to make a difference in this world.  

 

But sometimes, the church acts more like a battlefield than the Body of Christ.  

When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, he was responding to the way factions and power and pride were tearing the community apart.  

Corinth was a port city and as such it had incredible diversity.  Ideas from across the globe all mingled and freed slaves lived amongst wealthy entrepreneurs.  The church reflected this diversity… but that created a power contest between the believers who argued with one another about which ideology or status was better than another.

At every turn, Paul reminds the people that their diversity should be seen not as a source of division, but as a blessing.  Because of their varied gifts and perspectives, they could do far more together than any of them could do on their own.  

 

We’ve experienced this as a church, haven’t we?  We have incredible diversity as far as our age and our political and theological perspectives and yet look at the amazing things that we have done together.

We raised over $5000 for Joppa in a weekend with a garage sale last year that brought so many different people together.

We built on Faith Hall and paid it off in record time because every person did their part.

We successfully launched Children’s Church because of the incredible work of so many different volunteers and people who were willing to try something new.  

Today is the last day of Third Grade Bible, which is an amazing way our more experienced folks help our young people learn about this amazing book that guides our faith journey.  

 

None of that could happen unless the various parts of THIS Body of Christ were willing to step up and play a part.  

You might be a foot or an eye or a spleen, but you play a part in this church.   We all play a part.  You might think that you are too young or too old or too busy to make a difference, but Paul says you are wrong.  You are an essential part of making the church work!  

Or you might think that church would be a whole lot simpler if everyone was just like me, but again, Paul says we are wrong.  It takes all of our different perspectives and experiences… even when they make things more complex… to be the Body of Christ God has intended for this community.

 

In the United Methodist Church right now, we are divided.  We are different.  And we feel differently about human sexuality.  We can’t always agree about how we should be in ministry with those folks on the margins, whether they are refugees or poor or elderly or tattooed or whatever else marks them as different from the majority.  And underneath all that disagreement is that we don’t all read the scripture in the same way.  

And sometimes, that diversity feels like a war.  It feels like the battle described the soil beneath us or in that clip from Minions.  We are chewing each other up and spitting each other out. And I hate the way my brothers and sisters are hurt and damaged by actions and words that cut to the core of their very being.  And I’ve watched as some people have walked away from the Body of Christ because of it.

When you focus on the conflict that diversity creates, you want to strip out everything that is different to protect yourself and others.  We want simple things.  We want unity, which means, we want to all be the same.

But I believe, and Paul believes, that to be healthy, we need diversity.  We need difference.  We need checks and balances.  We need reminders of the importance of the scripture and justice and mercy and love from people who don’t see it the same way we do. 

We need to listen. 

We need to hold one another accountable. 

We also need to challenge one another. 

We need to be willing to speak the truth in love.

And together, the interaction of all of our different parts creates something beautiful and mysterious and powerful.

John Wesley claimed the Moravian Motto: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.”

There are key things that are pretty essential to who we are as not only United Methodists, but as Christians:  ideas like believing in the Triune God, and understanding that grace plays a role in our lives.  Core things, without which we simply could not be the Body of Christ.  

But there are other things that are non-essential.  What style of music or which translation or scripture or if we prefer percolator coffee or ground coffee or whole bean pour over. In those things, we are called to allow the freedom of diversity and expression and to give room and space for our siblings in Christ to be different and to share their varying gifts.

But no matter what… in all things, we are called to love.  To respect each other.  To listen.  To disagree without being disagreeable.  To be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit.  

In all things, Love.

It is not a coincidence that this chapter on what it means to be the Body of Christ comes right before the chapter on love.  Because the only way we make this kind of community work is through love.  We’ll talk more about that next week.   

 

In the same way the soil beneath our feet thrives on diversity and competition and interaction and synergy – this church thrives because we are different AND because we love one another.  And through God’s grace, that means we can do more than any one of us could accomplish on our own for the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

 

Dirt, plants, and hope #gc2016

Format Image

image

In the Scriptures, Jeremiah buys a field as the Babylonians are on the doorstep. It is a symbol of hope, promise, and faithfulness.

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land. – Jeremiah 35:15

One of the last things on my to do list before heading to General Conference was getting my garden in. Seedlings that had to get in the ground. Things that needed started before it was too late.

With all of the prep work… Which includes all of the pre-work at church so I can be gone for two weeks… I was a bit behind.

I found a few hours between yesterday and today to dig some holes and set some plants to growing.

And as I looked out at the garden… all bare dirt with teeny plants… I thought about Jeremiah. Knowing that after this time away, life will resume is a good feeling. Hope, promise, homes, work, all will be back.

The time away has a purpose.
But it is not an end.
It is not everything.

Life will be waiting.

And hopefully some lettuce and strawberries, too!

Format Aside

We have probably 20 volunteer red bud trees growing in the landscaping of our back yard.  If we simply let them be, they are in the wrong spots and far too crowded for sustained growth.  The best choice is to pick two or three and move them to where they will have a chance to flourish.

As I have been researching this, one article I came across suggested cutting the roots in roughly a 15″ radius around the base of the tree in all directions.  By cutting directly down and through the longer roots, it forces root growth near the ball that will allow the tree to transplant better.

 

This same information was learned in a different context by a colleague this Sunday.

The lectionary scripture for the day is about the gardener, the owner, and the fruitless fig tree in Luke 13:6-9.

In the parable, the fig tree isn’t dead… but it also isn’t bearing fruit.  The owner wants to cut it down, but the gardener wants to give it another year.  He wants to “dig around it and give it fertilizer.”

Dig around it…  maybe like cutting the roots in all directions?

My colleague had a parishioner come up after her sermon and share her own anecdote about digging around to help something bear fruit:

…She grew up in Eastern Washington state, on an apple and pear farm. And she said she didn’t know anything about figs, but with the apples and pears trees, if a tree was otherwise healthy and fine but not bearing fruit, as a last resort they would take a spade and about a foot out from the trunk they would chop all the roots all around the tree. This makes the tree kind of “panic” and think it is dying, for some reason the reaction to the panic is that it bears fruit!

Plants like fig trees or apple trees or even my raspberry bushes can grow vibrantly and abundantly… and still not put forth fruit.  Sometimes this has to do with it being too crowded or having a bad season or putting too much energy into other places like leaf production.  And sometimes, they need a radical kick in the rear to jump start production.

 

And I think our faith is a lot like that, too.  I think sometimes we need someone to dig around us and cut all of the long roots that keep us healthy, but also keep us from bearing fruit: wealth, comfort, success, health, freedom…

It’s not that these things are bad – but we can put so much focus on them, that we forget all about the bearing fruit part.  Maybe “digging around” and cutting the roots can help us to not take those things for granted; help shift our focus and our priorities so that there is room for other roots to grow;  help create energy towards fruitfulness and not simply stability.

And sometimes in the process, we find ourselves uprooted and transformed and transplanted as God sees our renewed strength and thinks:  I have just the place for that disciple to bear fruit…

What can thrive here? #growrule

Format Image

Last year I took four weeks of spiritual renewal leave and wanted to focus on cultivation… in relationships, in my spiritual life, and literally, in my back yard.

 

I had far more intentions than time, but I was able to manage to clear out one entire section of the retaining wall (seen behind the owl mug in the picture).  Vines and weeds and trees were growing in the midst of the mulch and rocks.  I wanted to start from scratch and add some order to the space.

 

The question put forth today in “Growing A Rule of Life” is simple: In your garden, what will thrive… what can thrive if you let it?

What I discovered last summer was a whole lot of things were thriving I didn’t really want anymore.

So the English ivy was pulled and I discovered day lilies  hiding under all the vines.

I cut back and cleared volunteer mulberries.

I destroyed a viney, busy mess of poison ivy, and cut out growth on a tree that had been cut down long before we arrived.

 

By clearing away the clutter in my garden, I created space for other things to thrive.  Like the  lilies and a lilac bush I discovered hiding in the mess of it all.

It was hidden in the very back corner, with volunteer trees suffocating it and so I moved it to a better spot and now it will have more sun. I’m anxious to see how it has weathered the winter and whether it will thrive in its new location or not.

I also am trying to figure out what to do with about 20 volunteer redbud trees in the space.  They are thriving, but will need pruning and support in order to grow into proper trees. And they simply cannot thrive so close to one another, so the majority will have to be pulled.  That is still a project for another day.

In the space I cleared, I also tried to plant wild ginger.  Yet, it seemed to yellow and fade as the summer went on.

Just because we want to cultivate certain things, doesn’t mean we can.

 

As I build a rule of life, these lessons are helpful.  There are all sorts of things I might want to plant, but I simply don’t have time or room for it all.  Focusing on a few things that can thrive and will help me thrive in my journey of discipleship is wonderfully freeing.

 

Some things I think can thrive:

  • Intentional Sabbath: setting firm boundaries between work and home/rest
  • Blogging as a spiritual discipline: a place for reflection upon the Word, our faith lived out in the world
  • Prayer time and space:  physically creating a space to spend time listening to God both at work and at home.

Two Texts: Pope Francis, the Environment, and Relationships

Format Image

This summer, Pope Francis issued a letter to the world, “Laudato Si’” or Praise be to You which calls upon all people to care for our common home, our sister, Mother Earth.

And while it made the news this summer, one of the first thoughts I had was that, as United Methodists, we had a letter of our own like this about six years ago. In 2009, a pastoral letter was issued from the United Methodist Council of Bishops called: God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action. (http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/council-of-bishops/documents/grc_letter_english_1010.pdf)

If you would like to see or have a copy of our letter, you can pick one up at the table in the back as you leave today.

 

In both, we are reminded of the relationship between living organisms and their environment… that we need to understand our ecology: the interconnected system of water, air, soil, plants, animals, and ourselves.

From the fight over water rights in California, to our own conflict here in Iowa over nitrate levels, this summer has been full of stories about how the environmental choices we make in one location impact the whole of creation in another. And I’m not just talking about the decisions of a farmer. Each of them is simply responding to the demands of the market, which is impacted by our choices as consumers. We do not always appreciate how precarious the balance of our ecologies can be, until the weather and climate change.

As our Bishop’s letter states, “we no longer see a list of isolated problems affecting disconnected people, plants and animals… the threats to peace, people, and planet earth are related to one another.”

Or as Pope Francis writes: “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation…”

Everything… from the availability of quality water, to the loss of biodiversity, to the inequitable distribution and consumption of energy, violence, warfare… is interrelated.

 

And rather than debating the merits of specific proposals or policies, Pope Francis points us towards the foundation for a different way of being.

 

It all boils down to three relationships

  1. Our relationship with God
  2. Our relationships with our neighbors
  3. And our relationship with creation itself.

So today, aware of the multitude of articles and stories this summer on climate change, water, drought, and the environment, let us explore the text in our scriptures that lays the groundwork for our ecology… Genesis One.

 

We learn in this story of a creative and life-giving God. Everything has a purpose. Everything is connected to another. The sun, moon, and starts give light and determine the seasons. The plants provide food for the animals, who provide sustenance for humanity.

Everything is a gift and nothing was made by our own hands.

Therefore, the foundation of our relationship with God should be one of gratitude.

Gratitude for every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, every creature in the multitude of this diverse, beautiful planet.

 

Our relationship with our creator is also fundamentally related to our relationship with the creation, because we are called to take care of this earth. Historically, we have heard verse 28 as the call to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, over every living thing that moves on the earth.” We look at this image of the creation and our central image in it and believe the world revolves around us.

The language of dominion and subduing has led us to believe we are called to control and use and have power over the world. It is ours to do with it whatever our hearts desire.

 

But when we really look at these verses in context, I think we have been sorely mistaken.

The Hebrew word in this place is not so much the idea of dominion or rule, but rather that of holding sway over… influencing… guiding. Pope Francis holds both the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts together, reminding us our call is to “till and keep” the garden of the world…. We are to cultivate and work this creation… while at the same time caring for it, overseeing it, protecting it.

In my organic ministry class this summer, I have been reminded over and over again that any good farmer cares for the soil as much as they do what is planted in it. One must protect the earth in order to work it. And one must listen and pay attention to what the environment demands and respond accordingly if you ever want to influence what might grow there.

That is far different than a more domineering perspective…. a stubborn resolve to use the earth and grow whatever your heart desires whenever you want to.

 

I learned about this in my own garden this summer…. (talk about tomatoes)

Even if we stick with the language of dominion, the root of dominion is in the Lordship of God. We are to be lords as God is Lord over creation… in love, in creation, in fostering diversity, in nurturing life.

 

This earth does not belong to us. It is a gift. As we remembered two weeks ago when we recalled the Jubilee in ancient Israel, God tells us that the land is not ours… it is God’s and we are merely strangers and sojourners upon it.

Yet in God’s gracious and loving spirit, we are allowed to take and use what we need for sustenance. We are allowed to care for this earth, and pass its gifts down generation upon generation.

Because this planet belongs to not only Adam and Eve, but all descendants, all humanity, then our relationships with one another are intertwined with the gift of creation.

Just as every plant and animal, microbe and molecule is a gift… so too is every person on this planet. The very idea of Sabbath calls us to let the earth and its workers rest, so that all be renewed. And the promise is that even if we rest and cease working, there will be abundance and plenty. God will take care of us.

The gifts of this planet are to be shared. Not only with people of today, but future generations as well.

So that all might find joy. So all might be at peace.

Pope Francis begins his letter with a description of the type of lifestyle that people of faith should aspire to… a tribute to his own namesake, Saint Francis. “He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology… he was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature, and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace… Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it means to be human.”

May we be people who are concerned for nature.

May we be people who always seek justice for the poor.

May we be people who are committed to society and work towards its common good.

And may we be people who find inner peace as we do so.

 

Amen.

Manipulate or appreciate?

Format Image

Henri Nouwen writes:

It is impressive to see how prayer opens one’s eyes to nature.  Prayer makes men [and women, I’d add] contemplative and attentive.  In place of manipulating, he who prays stands receptive before the world. He no longer grabs but caresses, he no longer bites, but kisses, he no longer examines but admires…. Instead of an obstacle, it becomes a way… (from Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic)

I have spent almost every morning of my renewal leave praying outside.  The squirrels are chattering.  The birds squawking and cirping.  A starling is eating dead leaves off of a dying tree, while a cardinal sits on my garden post, and a squinny is digging a hold in the landscaping. It has been noisy out here on the porch.  And busy.  There is always something to watch and hear.

And I do feel more deeply appreciative of what I am discovering.  The cardinals are new.  I hadn’t seen them before this morning.  The orange and magenta and purple in the butterfly garden are just now coming into full bloom and I can imagine how striking that space will be in a few years as the plants naturalize and spread.

But there has been some manipulation going on as well in my back yard.  Some battles I am choosing to fight.  Putting in the garden, for one. Clearing out the weeds.  Being intentional about what to keep and what to change.

In my organic ministry course, we have talked a lot about paying attention to what the land is telling us.  What does it need?  What grows best there? We can fight against nature all we want, but the land will keep fighting back.  Or, we will strip the land of every good nutrient as we force it to produce what we want, in an efficient manner, every year.

Success looks like a good harvest. Abundant production. With little regard to what we have sacrificed in our manipulations.

My manipulated vegetable garden isn’t producing much this year.  The rabbits have eaten all the green beans. The peas never came up.  It has not been warm enough for the peppers and they aren’t growing as abundantly as I would hope, nor are they putting on flowers to bear fruit.  The raspberries we planted last year blossomed, but I think the birds ate all the berries. Only the tomatoes appear to be on the verge of production and “success.”

But these past few weeks have helped me to appreciate what I have. The tiny garden is feeding our wildlife at least. While I might find the intrusion frustrating, it is also fun to watch the joy my cats take in watching the birds and squirrels. I’m also learning lessons in the process that I can apply next year: the need for better protection, starting my seeds earlier, cultivating a healthier and less sandy soil for growth by adding compost and nutrients. Those lessons are also success.

And I wonder how the time spent paying attention in this season will impact  how I pay attention in the church and community.

How often do we manipulate our people and programs in order to produce the results our conference or denomination or the latest church growth book has suggested?  How often do we use cookie cutter approaches that might bear fruit in the short term, but have no long term understanding of what will keep the church soil healthy and vibrant? Do we appreciate who our people are?  Do we spend time getting to know them before we start to shape them?  Do we allow what they say to use to alter our plans for ministry? What is the community teaching us? What are our children teaching us?  What are the interruptions and oopses and failures teaching us?

Maybe there is a middle ground between manipulation and appreciation. A place where we really pay attention to what is happening in our churches and communities and we explore the places we can make some intentional changes that will honor what is there and create the conditions for healthy and flourishing life… now and in the future.

The itch

Format Image

Last week, I got into some poison ivy.

First, on the disc golf course as we were looking for a shot that was too long and in the rough. I noticed it after traipsing through.

Then, in my very own backyard.  We had a gigantic bush of the stuff, all viney and spread out everywhere.  I donned my long sleeved shirt and latex gloves and washed everything immediately after pulling the ivy out and tossing it in a garbage bag.

But 2-3 days later, the bumps have arrived. The itchy, red, gross bumps. A streak on my leg.  Both of my wrists, a few fingers and a blotch on the top of one arm.

Last year, I covered myself with this pink itch relief cream, but in reality, it didn’t really help, so I’m toughing it out.

And here is what I have figured out:  If I’m busy with something… if I’m watching television or writing or working out in the garden, I don’t notice the itch.  But as soon as I stop, I can’t stop thinking about scratching!

 

I have had another itch as well.  The itch to get back to work. And that itch has been a little bit stronger.  Any time my mind is clear… as I’m pulling weeds or sitting at the computer waiting for inspiration to hit on the writing or driving in the car, I can’t stop thinking about what I’m going to do when I get back to Immanuel next week.

For me, that itch is much healthier.  It is a sign that I’m doing the work I am called to do.  It is a sign that this has been a good time away where I could clarify and focus on things in a new way.  It is a sign that God has been in the midst of this time and that I need to honor the things I have discovered about myself, my relationships, and my calling when I return.

In fact, I had to make a list on my phone.  Every time inspiration strikes, it goes on the list.

It helps soothe the itch for a while so I can get back to resting and renewing.

Alternatives to Herbicide

Format Image

I always through there were two options when it came to weeds.

1) you could spray chemicals all over them and hope they die… or use more natural chemical reactions like vinegar and hot water to cause them to wither.

2) you could get out there with a hoe, like my deda (grandpa) always did, and take them out by hand.

This year, I’m taking a course on organic ministry at a farm near Norwalk.  We spend roughly half the day in conversation and reflection, have some personal retreat time, and do some work in the gardens themselves.

So far, the thing I have learned that has stuck with me the most is that there are other options when it comes to weeds.

Weeds thrive, you see, because the soil conditions promote their growth.  And the weeds themselves tell you what the soil needs in order to be more healthy OR what type of plans you should be planting there instead.

Stinging nettle can indicate that the soil is acidic… so maybe you want to plant hydrangeas or blueberries there.  Or, you could work to improve the soil conditions by adding dolomitic limestone and making the soil more neutral.

Chicory or mustard weeds are a sign that the ground is hard and too compacted. You can break up the soil by planting sweet clover that will help break up the soil and replenish nitrogen.  Brassica crops (like broccoli and cabbages) also will flourish under these conditions.

The list goes on and on.

I was spending time with a group of clergy colleagues this week and we were talking about difficult people in our churches.  People who take up a lot of time or who talk too much in meetings, or are always complaining about something.  We all have them in our churches, and if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes WE are that person.

Our tendency is to see these people as weeds.  We wish they weren’t there. We’d like to pull them up by their roots or change them.

But what if, instead, we stopped and asked what were the conditions that allowed their behaviors to flourish?

What if someone talks too much in a meeting because we haven’t created space for other voices to be heard?

What if someone is constantly complaining because there is something else going on in their life and it is a sign of a pastoral care need?

What if that person who always takes up too much of our time is a sign of our lack of good, healthy boundaries?

And what if instead of focusing so much of our worry on the weeds, we instead worked to strength and plant things that we want to flourish in that space?

What if we shifted the meeting format to have more small group conversation time?

What if we made a policy to only accept a complaint if there was a constructive response along with it, or a commitment to volunteer to be part of the change?

What if we nurtured a community of care with trained lay folks who helped with congregational care instead of trying to do it all on our own.

All of a sudden, our lives are not consumed with stamping out weeds, but with promoting growth and health and vitality in our gardens and in our churches.