Of Thistles, Potatoes, and Parables

Cursed is the ground because of you;

in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread,

till you return to the ground,

for out of it you were taken;

for you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.

These words from God’s curse on Adam in the opening pages of Genesis play through my mind on repeat as I dig up potatoes at Overgrow Farm, a small organic homestead near the central Oregon coast. It is October, but the sun is clear and bright overhead and the region is having a late summer. Even with my shirt off and a bottle of water close at hand, I feel beads of sweat forming on my brow and dripping down my temples and shoulders. 

For every potato I dig up with my hefty, four-pronged steel fork, there is a thistle plant growing in the garden bed that must be uprooted and thrown aside. My cheap plastic and fabric gloves are no good for this. The thistles still prick my fingers. I leave them to a friend working behind me with thick leather gloves. She will pull them out of the soil and feed them to the pigs. 

This is my first time doing serious garden work since I was a child. As I feel callouses building on my hands and squat down to avoid straining my back, I understand in my body—not just my mind—why the ancient Genesis narrative has been such a foundational text in shaping the worldviews of people for millennia. For those in an agrarian society (read: the vast majority of recorded human history) it must have seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. Of course work is cursed! It’s painful. It’s hard. It’s full of opposition and risk at every turn. The damn thistles just keep coming back! But it’s the price one must pay to eat and survive.

The curse, however, is not the whole story of my experience here in the field. Despite the sharp pricks of the thistles and the ache in my muscles, I find a distinct and remarkable joy in turning up potatoes. It’s like finding a buried treasure, plunging those prongs into the ground and turning up a handful of yukon golds. Sometimes it seems as if they are just waiting to be found, longing for that disturbance in the soil ushering them up into the light. “I’m here!” I feel them exclaiming as they burst up out of the dirt. I want to whoop and shout—eureka

In these happier moments my mind wanders further along in the biblical text to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I marvel at how many of his parables are set in the context of agriculture. They’re full of things like vines being pruned and bearing fruit, day laborers working in the fields, harvests of wheat and tares, good soil and rocky soil, seeds falling and dying before coming to life. 

This connection is profound and obvious at the same time. Of course they are! It’s an agrarian society! This is the language of the people in Jesus’ day, the language of farmers and laborers and craftsmen. This is their lived experience of a world that is both predictable and full of divine surprises.

The bodily and spiritual implications of this, I am beginning to see, are potentially huge. Here in the dirt, pulling weeds, turning over soil, and harvesting vegetables, I begin to suspect that I am as close to the living core of divine wisdom as I have ever been. I have only to open my eyes in the sunlight, listen to the birds singing around me, breathe deeply of the forest air, and feel the dirt beneath my feet. I’ve heard it said that the thrust of Jesus’ teachings through his stories and metaphors isn’t so much to usher his hearers into a higher, hyperspiritualized reality as it is to open their eyes to the incarnational presence of God that is already active and accessible all around them. If God would dare to become a man and show up in their midst as the son of a carpenter from a podunk town in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, perhaps he was already there and had been there from the very beginning, speaking to them in the growth of the tiny mustard seed and the wine fermenting in new wineskins. 

It makes me wonder if the spiritual ignorance, apathy, and shallowness that is so widespread in the American church (and lamented by many Christian leaders, especially in the Reformed circles I come from) isn’t due to a lack of theological teaching and catechism so much as a physical disconnection from the earth. Sure, I’ve taken science and biblical studies classes and understand conceptually a fair bit of how seeds grow and how farming in the ancient near-eastern world worked. But after just a few days on a small organic farm, I suspect that hearing Jesus describe the Kingdom of God in agrarian terms doesn’t feel as real to me as it would if the deepest rhythms and well-being of my life revolved around achieving a sustainable, fruitful harvest.

Indeed, it seems this one significant way in which modernism and consumerism has atrophied the spiritual vitality of our souls. I’m tempted to go so far as to say that any regimen of discipleship or spirituality that purports to follow the way of Jesus will fall woefully and palpably short of our Spirit-empowered potential if divorced from the embodied agrarian context in which Jesus lived and ministered. Want your faith to become more substantive and alive? Maybe consider going outside and planting a garden.

Is it any coincidence that faith and spirituality didn’t begin falling out of fashion on a broad scale until the world became industrialized and urbanized? Even today, regardless of whether they happen to claim the name of Jesus specifically, farmers tend to be quite spiritual people. They’re surrounded by the miraculous, life-sustaining wonder of the created world every day. They understand how unpredictable life is and that their fate is subject both to their own diligent labor and to forces utterly beyond their control. This is one of those paradoxical intersections of true spiritual wisdom, more valuable, as the Hebrew psalmist sings, than much fine gold. 

I see little of this earthy connectedness in the practices of modern American evanglicalism other than the occasional summer camp or weekend retreat to a rural or alpine setting (which, don’t mistake me, are good and wonderful things). There’s a lot of talk about biblical instruction and righteous living, but not as much said about embracing the dirty, messy process of growth and the cycle of death into life that characterizes the entire created order. Healthy crops, after all, usually begin their life beneath a layer of excrement and rotting plants.

In contrast, the monastic traditions of the ancient church traditions seem to have a stronger grasp of this. Adherents to these traditions are steeped in tactile, physically grounded practices like cultivating gardens, keeping bees, crafting soaps and candles, and tending to the poor and infirm. They may not be “in the world” or on the front lines of popular culture, but I suspect these more earthy rituals actually open their hearts and bodies—rather than just their minds—to a deeper and richer understanding of the way of Jesus than any seminary training could ever achieve. 

I once heard a wise and thoughtful man say, “Prayer is the work.” As I dig up potatoes and weed out thistles, I begin to understand this in a more mystical way. This whole business of farming and cultivating does feel awfully cursed most days, full of pain and opposition and harmful turns of fate. But at the same time I find God is with me and speaking to me in all of it. He is there in the ache of my back and the cooling drops of sweat on my skin, in the swing of the hoe and the feeling of dirt beneath my fingernails, in the harsh cawing of the crows flying overhead and the squealing of the pigs at the arrival of another bucket of greens. And—perhaps most beautifully—God is there in the face of my neighbor laboring beside me, with whom I will feast tonight on the satisfying fruits of our labor.

POEM: My Dim Contours of Repentance

I’m sorry it had to come to this

That it took George Floyd suffocating beneath a knee

And a legion of protests

Long reams of raw, angry, repentant Facebook posts

For me to start paying attention

I’m sorry it took so long for me to listen

To name that all lives can’t matter until black lives matter

I’m sorry I let politics and religion

Those evil, constructed lines of left and right

Blur the face of your pain and trauma

Blur the sight of your dignity shoved into the pavement

Cut off from air — pinned like an animal

While I went on my way and said nothing

Did nothing

I’m sorry I was content with the neutrality of empty negatives

Content to comfortably try to not be bad

To not be racist

While your bodies were ravaged

Just around the corner, where I was afraid to look

I’m sorry.

_

It never should have had to come to this

The hard birth of healing held up, stuck in the throat

For decades — centuries for Christ’s sake

Your wounds, your fears, your cry left to fester

Beneath my pride and fragility

It should not have come to this.

_

I will lean in and keep my ears open

If I speak, it is for mourning — for lament

If my heart whispers, it is to give a greater thanks than I can know

Thanks to Malcolm X for writing his autobiography

Thanks to Ta-Nehisi Coats for singing his sad, ferocious song

Thanks to my black American history teacher at Bakersfield College who showed us Amistad

Who told us about men who, when they couldn’t keep it in their pants

Went out to the slave quarters

To the makers of 12 Years a Slave and Selma

To brave saint Isaac for sitting in front of my church

Then in front of my microphone

To say what it felt like when Trayvon Martin was killed

Thanks to the black brother whose name I can no longer recall

Who told a majority white room full of Baptists

That racism was still real

To vulnerable and strong David who said on Facebook

That he would rise in violence if not for Jesus

Such courage, my God, such courage

Courage you never should have had to muster

Burdens you never should have had to bear.

_

Where was I when your ancestors landed on these shores in shackles?

Where was I when that God damn fraction, three-fifths, was written down

Where was I when white hoods lynched your great-grandfather

When a deptuy marshal shot Clyde Perkins in an alley

And walked away without a charge

When the bank loan was declined over and over again

And the white man’s laws held your father on the other side of the tracks

When blue lights flashed in your mirror and your heart leaped in terror

When the tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets started flying

When Eric Garner gasped “I can’t breathe”?

Where was I?

_

So far away.

I am still so far away.

So I lay my hand on my mouth

I have spoken once, I will proceed no further

Except to utter this one impossible — but yet possible? — blessing:

May you breathe in

Deeper than you ever could

Before

Dealing With God Relationally

Jesus wants to have a relationship with you.

What sort of response does that elicit in you? Is it a deep well of encouragement? Does the language rub your theological sensibilities the wrong way or make you uncomfortable? Does it seem incomplete, shallow, or trite?

Without further context, it’s obviously hard to render any clear judgment on such a statement. In principle, however, it boils down to the question of relating to God. What does it mean for a Christian to have a relationship with God? What does it look like, or what should it look like? I hear this discussion crop up particularly often in the context of Christian music. The proliferation of “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend”-esque songs in the Contemporary Christian Music scene and the creation of a allegedly “relevant” Christian subculture have drawn attention and criticism to this idea of dealing with God relationally. In fact, a song on a Christian radio station recently raised the question in my mind and prompted this post.

We need to deal with this issue carefully and thoughtfully. One way to understand the nature of sin, after all, is that it destroys relationships. Central to the nature of God is that He is triune, three persons in one, and the members of the trinity exist in perfect, beautiful relationship with each other. In the Bible we are called to  relate to God as a Father.

It’s hard to keep a proper focus on this. I grew up in a church that heavily emphasized sound doctrine. Identifying false teachers and critiquing shallow theology was the norm. The Bible certainly requires this, to a degree, but sometimes Christians reach a point at which our study of theology retards the dynamic, relational experience of following Christ. For example, I distinctly remember a moment in Sunday School class, probably about ten years ago, where the teacher was talking about Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life. He quoted a point where Warren basically says that more than anything, “God wants to have a relationship with you.”

“God doesn’t want a ‘relationship,'” the teacher responded with disdain, “He wants you to repent.”

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Step Back Sometimes and Remember that it’s All Fake and Pointless

Meet the latest cultural artifact and YouTube sensation from mix master Daniel Kim. For the past several years, Kim has been creating pop music mashups of the past year’s hits. His 2012 mix is easily his best yet, and the collective internet audience has rewarded it with more than seven million views after being out for only a week. It’s worth the eight minute watch:

I confess I’m enough of a Philistine to enjoy a good pop tune once in a while. Some I enjoy quite frequently (like Owl City’s “Good Time,” which I listened to daily all last summer). I try to at least know of the top music stars right now. A compilation like this thus brings back many memories from the past year. It’s skillfully mixed together and a lot of fun to watch.

These songs have a certain nostalgic value because I associate them with people or times in my life. That’s fine, but it really just obscures their true nature. When you think about the songs themselves, there’s almost nothing there. They are nothing but sticky-sweet ear candy stretched over a gaping void. Some of these songs are uplifting and anthemic, but most are also overwhelmingly narcissistic.

If this is representative of our cultural consciousness for the past year (not an entirely unfair claim), it raises some scary questions. The songs in this anthology are utterly detached from anything real, significant, lasting or valuable. It’s a load of fakeness, fool’s gold, glam and glitter, lights, pretty faces, too-perfect bodies, fleeting feelings. It’s kitsch that has little reason for existing other than to make money. Out of the Pop Danthology’s 55 songs, I could probably count on one hand the ones that aren’t about “love.” Continue reading →

A Simple (but Terrifying and Profound) Observation

I recently made a simple, but terrifying and profound observation: the notion of “catching up on” something is a fallacy.

At least, in a certain sense, it is. If you fall behind in a task, you can get caught up with that particular thing, but you can’t really get caught back up with your life.

Let me explain with an example: I go out and spend my entire Friday evening having a fun, but largely pointless and trivial, conversation with several friends. I could have been doing homework or getting to bed early during that time, but I did not do those things because (I reasoned) I can make up for it over the weekend.

In a sense I did end up making up for it–I slept in on Saturday and did homework Sunday afternoon–but only at the cost of something else. I wasn’t able to spend any time reading and writing outside of class like I planned. As a result, I went two weeks without writing a blog post and postponed my already sluggish reading of Augustine’s Confessions. I can’t go back in time and write those posts earlier. It’s already in the books of my life. And if I spend extra time pumping out another blog post later, it means sacrificing something else I had hoped to do at that time (probably an hour or two of sleep).

If you change your plans to spend extra time in the present, you must sacrifice something in the future. And when you do that, you’ll never really be able to do that thing you sacrificed, because by the act of catching up you’re only pushing back something else.

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Freedom of Religion is Only for Christians

Photo: Gage Skidmore

As a human being, I have a bias towards certain things, and I think a large part of it is towards the media. It seems like everyone these days can find a way to criticize journalists and tear down the work they do. In any controversy (or lack thereof) the media is always one of the first groups to get blamed.

I’ll be the first to confess that journalists are human and make their fair share of mistakes. Worse, their presuppositions, religious beliefs, and political framework play into their coverage. However, I still want to believe the best about journalists and the stories they write. Most of the time, I don’t think they’re out to get one side or the other.

Sometimes, though, they really are “that bad”. Yesterday I nearly spit my drink out when I came across this AP story about the Aug. 6th prayer meeting headlined by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Dubbed “The Response” and attended mainly by conservative Christians, the prayer meeting was promoted as a time for believers to gather and bring their mutual concerns and hopes before their God.

Many of the stories and commentary I’ve seen on it have either emphasized the political aspect–Perry’s marshaling the conservative Christian base–or questioned it’s appropriateness. Is it okay for a governor to lead such a narrow religious event? What about separation of church and state? etc.

If you want to talk about that, fine, but in this case, it seems, the writer has let her fear and disdain of these evangelicals slip through in a really sad way. Where did the AP story trip up? Look near the middle, where April Castro writes:

Perry’s audience Saturday was filled with people who sang with arms outstretched in prayer — and wept — as Christian groups played music on stage. And Perry, himself, huddled on the stage in a prayer circle with several ministers who helped lead the event. It was Perry’s idea and was financed by the American Family Association, a Tupelo, Miss.-based group that opposes abortion and gay rights and believes that the First Amendment freedom of religion applies only to Christians. (empahsis mine) Continue reading →

Which Came First, God or Man?

Last week, the LA Times ran this little op-ed by J. Anderson Thomson and Clare Aukofer, authors of “Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.” The title of their piece is “Science and religion: God didn’t make man; man made gods.” I couldn’t resist taking a look.

Articles like these always catch my attention. I think part of it is curiosity to see what new “anti-god” rhetoric atheists have come up with this time, but on a more serious note, the question of God, morality and origins is pretty fundamental to how we look at the world, and it has huge implications for how we live our lives. One of the compelling things about Christianity, I find, is that it is awfully hard to explain away.

Thomson and Aukofer claim to be able to do just that, and it therefore deserves a great deal of both fear and fearlessness as we approach it. I mean a sort of “fear and trembling” in the sense that it speaks to a high-stakes personal decision, and “fearlessness” in that we must be willing to listen to both sides. If they are right, we have nothing to fear about the claims of religious believers, and if a certain religious belief is true, then it should be able to withstand scrutiny.

(that said, thankfully I never thought to start reading the 2000+ comments. . . rarely a good idea, especially on YouTube)

I admit that on one level they have a compelling case. A lot of it does make sense. . . given certain presuppositions. However, the interesting thing about some of the claims of the article is that one can argue in the opposite direction. In fact, some Christian apologetics does exactly that.

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