We had a small window of time between rain showers to get our hands in the dirt and deliver the plants to their forever home—soil that would give them ample space to plant their roots.
This is the first year that Eden can participate in our garden. And by participate, I mean that she will make the whole enterprise more difficult. Gardening with a two year old sounds romantic, or maybe it doesn’t. Either way, we gave her a shovel and told her to get her hands dirty because this is how we learn to become human beings—Adam, from the dirt, or adamah. My own dad tolerated the muddy boots, squashed plants, endless questions, and hampering hands when we were children, and I will do the same with mine.
Norman Wirzba, one of my professors at Duke, calls gardening a form of catechesis, or instruction about becoming humans. Or, it’s Wendell Berry who says that gardening is a habit of the mind, though I’m not sure where it’s written. When we start to play in the dirt, we are reminded that we are made from it, created to serve it, and remain dependent on it for our survival. One day we’ll return to it. "For dust you are and to dust you will return." Gardening is not utilitarian for my family. We only have a few plants that will not produce enough fruit to justify the labor and headaches, not to mention the expense.
It’s the beginning of a long lesson in discipline, patience, and attention.
I grabbed a hoe and Eden grabbed a small, plastic rake to start to break up the soil and remove the weeds. There’s already a lesson here—deep care must be taken to provide the best conditions for something to grow strong and produce fruit. Weeds grow effortlessly, while it takes tremendous care and attention to nurture something delicious. If you don’t tend to your life, your soul, the next time you turn around it might be full of briars.
Our collaborative labor didn’t last long; she took two or three swipes at the ground before discerning that ‘this is hard.’ It was humid from the morning’s rainfall and obvious that it would be much easier to drive two miles to Ingles and get a perfectly round, red tomato. Or better yet, we could pinch both sides of a bag of goldfish crackers and pull it open.
Why are we digging in the soil?
I'm afraid that the work won’t get easier. Just wait until a groundhog comes and takes off the top of the plants or the aphids get hungry for a little sap. If it were easier to grow food, then millions wouldn’t go without every day. We learn to thank the hands that care for our daily bread and harvest each fruit—drive it from farm to market. The self-emptying of others keep us full. It’s an act of prayer. Our hands fold in the dirt we offer thanksgiving for the goodness of lives, creation, and our particular place in the world.
As we dug a hole for the first plant, I accidentally struck an earth worm with the shovel. It began wiggling and writhing around in the dirt, much like I had pulled a fishing hook through it. I picked up the worm, held it, invited her to touch it. This was traumatic. She took off toward the opposite end of the yard. It’s hard to look at suffering. We'd rather pretend that our food doesn't have to die--that we won't suffer or die. You can ignore this inconvenient fact at the supermarket, but on the farm you become an active participant in life and death. The worm may live, but countless other microorganisms will die. As my professor said, “How do we become worthy of receiving another’s death?”
We place the plants in the dirt, which is Eden’s favorite part of the whole experiment. She pushed the mound of dirt closer to the stem, and pated it down. The dirt became wedged in between her fingernails and skin. It is good, even when navigating fungi, infestations, and temperamental heat and rain, because something delicious will emerge. It’s an act of hope. There will be seed, a plant, and then a bell pepper will hang from a stalk in her own backyard. And she may not care for the taste, but she’ll learn about hope—it only takes a seed for new creation to bloom.
When I was a little older than Eden, I planted a green bean plant in a small container and cared for it and watered it all summer. The plant sprouted one bean fruit by the end of the season. But I was the mediator of the whole miraculous process, seed to fruit. I harvested the bean and told my mom that “I wanted to be a seller of green beans.”
Isn’t this our vocation? Our Gardening God brought us forth from the dirt of the ground and we’re called to participate in the miracle of life. We serve the soil and it serves us. We become more human, or more of whom we were intended to be, reflections of God.
Every day we go out and check the plants. “Nothing yet,” I say. “We’re still growing.”
Our director of music recently asked me “what are we doing for Pentecost?” It was a warranted question. I am, after all, the pastor and she always keeps me on task. But I’m at a loss. I’ve tried everything and I’ve yet to crack Pentecost. This day, like the Holy Spirit, is mysterious and hard to package in a box with a nice bow. I’ve asked folks to wear red, which is cute, and we all look like we’re getting ready to tailgate for an NC State game. I’ve ordered a cake and had the congregation gather out on the lawn to celebrate the ‘birthday of the church.’ But no one really wants to eat a glob of sugar before they’ve had their grilled cheese and tomato soup.
There are many sentimental, even creative, ways to celebrate that quaint day when the Spirit erupted like a volcano spewing fire and chaos. On Hawaii’s Big Island, trees are being uprooted, homes are melting, and the whole topography of the landscape will change. On Pentecost, a group of frightened and ill-equipped followers of a charismatic preacher start proclaiming gospel resurrection in the streets. The shape of the world was altered forever.
So what are we doing for Pentecost, pastor? How do you plan to catch this violent wind that ‘blows wherever it pleases’ trap it in our church? How can we speak with tongues of fire and go out to set the world ablaze? Have you discovered a way to capture that dove and lock it in a cage?
Planning Pentecost is about as useful as trying to force a volcano to erupt and then figure out how to make it stop.
But wait! Here’s a new banner and a video I found on youtube.
It’s an incredible weight to bear—to believe that the Spirit’s presence rests on our shoulders. It’s functional atheism, or maybe responsible grace without the grace. And really, it resembles most of the modern philosophy of church growth that there must be a perfect recipe to woo the Spirit into the church. Here’s some foolproof bait to catch the Spirit: put away the pipe organ and get out the guitars. Hire a young pastor who (preferably) wears skinny jeans. A thirty minute message with a few jokes. That should do the trick.
Come Holy Spirit, come.
Meanwhile, as we’re cajoling the Spirit to show up, grace is erupting in the places we least expect—where folks are most afraid or where the world is most hungry for life. God doesn’t need our permission to show up. But maybe God finds more space to move in places that aren’t as comfortable and cozy as our lives.
I pray for the Spirit to come, even though I know that the better prayer is, “Come Ryan Snider, come.” Sure, our bodies will occupy space in a pew, but we’ll fail to stoke the spark in our hearts. Worse even, we won’t bother to adjust our sails when it starts getting a little windy. We’ll walk out the doors into the same unenchanted world, way too leery to go to places like Judea or Samaria and the ends of the earth.
So happy Pentecost! Any Pentecost plans? I have no idea. I hope that we’ll be expectant and hopeful, with eyes to see and ears to hear. Perhaps, there will be a brush of wind or maybe something will catch fire.
But please—don’t forget to wear red. I’ll hang the streamers in the sanctuary. Maybe we’ll find a way to catch the Spirit this time around. Or, maybe we’ll shoot and miss.
But hey, at least it will look like we tried.
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My first house was at the end of a cul-de-sac on a quiet street that was woken up by big wheels and tackle football. It was the late 80s, just before the term helicopter parenting had been coined. According my (romanticized) memory, our street stretched eternally and we were free to roam while our parents remained indoors drinking coffee. We cast lines into the pond and played Super Mario 3 until the sound of crickets called us home and lulled us to sleep. Those years felt like one endless summer, though I suspect it’s because I hadn’t yet started school.
I learned this about neighborhoods: adults may construct the houses and streets, but the children are the ones who take the pavement and brick and build neighborhoods. The laughter in the streets, bicycle bells ringing, and basketballs pounding against the pavement are the sounds of a street birthing a community. My own kid reminds me of this when she drags me into small-talk and play dates. I think this is why Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to children—they’ve yet to ask the question, “who is my neighbor?” A neighbor is whoever happens to be walking down the street. And if you’re up for a game of hide and seek, then come, let’s be friends.
Fences were curious to me as a child—they were only good as a wall to scale. It's basic psychology, right, that if something is important enough to be enclosed, then it must be significant enough for another to find. These tall wooden planks arranged side by side as soldiers to keep others at bay. It must have been a grown up’s idea. Who cares about property lines, privacy, and protection? The kind of people who read John Locke, that’s who.
In other words, me.
How did this happen?
Every morning a Golden Retriever walks straight into our front lawn and takes a squat. Suddenly, privacy has moved to the top of my dream home wish list and I’ve begun googling “BB guns.” I wasn’t always a curmudgeon who complained about the neighborhood dog. Maybe it was hammered up one plank at a time from wood of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as innocence was lost. We so quickly change from happy, naive children into hardened and cynical adults in a mistrusting and fearful world. There is creation. There is fall.
The first wall must have been erected in the bedroom that I shared with my older brother. He took masking tape and planted a line right down the middle of the room. At last, He-Man, Skeletor, and GI Joe were safe from little brother’s hands. Then another: don’t go past the stop sign. My siblings and I were hedged in away from places like 37th and Bulloch or Bolton, Lincoln, and Duffy Streets. Another day, a childhood friend called and told me that he wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore because a drug lord threatened our family. My dad later showed me a picture of said drug lord’s collection of assault rifles lined up against a wall in his house. Yikes. The only gang I knew about rode on big wheels.
New walls emerge, others grow taller—around a house, a heart, and a life—as we become cynical, guarded, paranoid, and fearful. The problem is that once you start building them, you might not feel safe until there’s a big, beautiful wall around your entire life. One can never feel too safe. What would this zoo become without its walls? All of these animals need to be in cages for their own good—and ours, too. Let’s impose some more order here, and some more over there. That's better. Now, I can rest with ease.
With so many walls, who has become the prisoner?
I wonder if these partitions are as effective as we hope, or if they make promises that they can’t always keep. In my first neighborhood one of our neighbors had a wooden fence, and to a six-year old boy it might as well have been the Great Wall of China. But the neighboring dog was a terror and we needed to be protected. One day my cat, Rags, well, she became an afternoon snack. I didn’t learn this until college. At the time, my brother and I were told that Rags had run away. Every evening for a week we went looking for her in thickets and holes in the ground. I came home from school one Christmas and asked about Rags. My dad snorted and then broke the news, “She didn’t run away. It was the neighbor’s dog.”
According to the Scriptures, God isn’t crazy about walls. God even takes a sledgehammer to them, starting with the one between earth and heaven. In Jesus’ own body, the walls of difference are broken down and a new humanity is created. He spent his life sitting at a welcome table shattering boundaries between enemies and friends, Jews and Gentiles, clean and unclean. All of this radical hospitality persisted until a group of neighbors turned out to be hostile. He’s put on a cross, enclosed tomb, and the world is protected from subversion. But even the great wall of death was shattered when the stone was rolled away.
It wasn’t the safest way to make a living, but God, as it turns out, isn’t all that worried about ease and protection.
We learn from Jesus that every encounter is potentially harmful—hostility is etymologically built into the word hospitality. You can’t have one without the other. A philosopher, Jacques Derrida, coined the term “hostipitality.” Every encounter with a stranger holds within it potential for hostility. This is true in our lives, in our country, in our hearts. Welcome someone into your house and something might get stolen; let another into your heart and it might get broken. So we hope to strike the right cord between welcome and security, or inclusion and exclusion. But we must decide whether encounters are worth the risk, or whether she are better off closing ourselves off.
Where’s the line?
I follow Jesus because I think he’s the one who might release me from the walls I’ve built and am tempted to construct. He offers forgiveness, which is about tearing down past fences I’ve built—grudges and resentment. Chains are broken and I am free to be the kind of person who sees the other as image of God. He grafts me into the vine and asks me to do the same with my life. Jesus imparts the love that opens up heart and life to create more space at the table for others to take a seat. I’m not sure I’d have the rationale or heart to live this way otherwise.
In the end, Revelation speaks of a holy Jerusalem and its gates will never be shut. People are free to wander in and out of the city, without fear and trepidation. One early theologian said that the end will be like the beginning. I hope he’s talking about the beginning of our lives— that one day we can return to a kind of childhood naïveté. We’ll play all night with no fear of being snatched and the street lights will never flip on because the sun won’t stop shining.
It’s a neighborhood without stop signs and old men telling you to ‘keep off my grass.'
If that's true, it must be heaven.
A new study on loneliness was released yesterday, and now making its rounds on Twitter and Facebook. “Loneliness is widespread in America, with nearly 50 percent of respondents reporting that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes.” But this is only the latest in ever increasing studies that demonstrate we’re all just depressed. Which reminds me, I need to call CVS to get my Zoloft refilled.
It’s what our congregation has been thinking about for three weeks now—people are lonely and the church has a cure, but we’re not sure how to get it out and use it.
The irony, of course, is that we’re more connected than ever with social media, work, opportunities for play, places for connection. It’s all too common to start a diatribe against technology and social media. Social media draws you deeper into the inward life of envy, comparison, and self contempt. Posting a picture and waiting for likes and hearts is not really connecting. But new research shows that social media is more neutral than we once thought. Our choices about how we implement the technology are the catalyst for either greater flourishing or deeper isolation. I met my wife with the help of AOL Instant Messenger. You might meet your forever partner on farmersonly.com.
I'm not convinced that our in-person interactions are much different from our digital ones. The coffee shop, for me, is a placebo community as I scroll through the room judging and comparing and coveting. Or, how about a church that curates a particular profile—wealthy or hipster, progressive or traditional. They subscribe to their own preferences and police belief systems that don’t neatly fit within their echo chamber. And everyone walks out the door without seeing or having been seen.
But social media is to blame for loneliness, of course.
Was there ever a time when we weren't isolated?
It seem much more complex, doesn't it? (Really, read this)
Cigna’s research on our need for relationships is not really new or surprising. Loneliness is not about being alone; it’s about not being known or knowing others in a deep, personal way. Aristotle taught that friendship was an essential component to human flourishing. And the early Jews suspected this prior to the philosophers. Community is inscribed in our biology and become the way we’ve adapted to survive. We’re carried in a mother’s womb, delivered by the hands of another until we’re finally delivered into the ground. In between, attachment affects brain development and deep friendships activate the same parts of our brains as a good meal. We’re hungry for relationships because that's how we were created.
At the beginning of our story God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Wait, us? Who is us? Christians suggest that it might be the Trinity: Father, Son, Spirit. Maybe that’s right. The Trinity, who is always making room, pouring out more for the other, always inviting another to sit at the table. God, who is community, formed Adam and Eve to be companions—to know God and each other completely. Abraham and Sarah were called to parent a new nation, Israel, to be a holy people, to bless the nations. Each of the Ten Commandments are about ones relationship to God and to one another. Jesus calls a group of twelve and spends his time simply being with people. Paul calls the assembly Christ’s body, eyes, ears, mouth, arms and legs. Community--it’s the image of heaven.
If heaven is community, then the inverse might also be true—hell is isolation, the anti-image of God. The flames and the heat sound frightening, but how about being alone, completely separated from God, people, and the dirt from which we were formed? Here’s a helpful image: picture being cast out in outer space. You have everything to keep you alive for eternity, but you’re alone, floating aimlessly in the dark. That’s hell (Donald Miller talked about this in Blue Like Jazz).
The truth is that many people live in hell on earth. Mother Teresa called loneliness the leprosy of the west. We get home from work, close the garage door, and don’t take another step outside. I can’t even ask a neighbor for a cup of sugar, because I don’t know their names. My daughter would love to know no stranger if I would let her. But I tell her not to trust every smiling face in Starbucks. That’s not our way. Because we are guarded humans, who are distrusting and broken.
But we are also a people who are baptized into Christ’s body and whose central act of worship is sitting at a dinner table. The God who pitched his tent among us certainly cares about delivering us from the hell of isolation. But I'm not always sure that the church does.
And what does it say about a church that does not know the names of its neighbors?
One that caters to only a particular subset of people? One that doesn’t challenge the systems that create inequalities? Or spend time visiting or setting up care facilities for the elderly and most vulnerable?
I’ve been challenging our church, and myself, to do better. And to start with our street.
Meeting people is difficult. And awkward. But neighbors, like an elusive four leaf clover, can be found. Every few evenings when the weather is warm, my family goes for walks around the neighborhood. Children are playing basketball, building forts in the woods, jumping on trampolines. Women are walking dogs and men are out for evening jogs. You talk, initiate a personal connection, and you stumble into them another evening. It’s chit chat today, but tomorrow it might be something more--maybe a street will become less lonely. And we'll have done the work of the church.
Here’s something we put together for our congregation to get started on being better neighbors. It was adapted from something I saw from another church:
Four Tips for Being a Better Neighbor
1) Learn Names--Get to know the names of the people who live near you. If you’re like me, then you’ll need to write them down so you won’t forget. I do this on my phone. I have a whole folder this people’s names and things I need to remember about them.
2) Go For Walks--If you’re able, walk through your neighborhood. This doesn’t necessarily require any social engagement. You might pray for the houses on your street. Or, you might bump into new people, develop new relationships, and find common interests.
3) Deliver Baked Goods or Write Letters--No one turns down homemade cookies. Attach a simple note and drop it off. Likewise, handwritten notes are not antiquated. Take one of the prayer cards from the pew and send one to your neighbors. Say, “Thanks for being a good neighbor.” Nothing more. Drop it in their mailbox.
4) Help and Be Helped--When you have a need, to be too shy to interrupt. Let’s start asking our neighbors for sugar again. We’re scared to ask for help, but most people love helping. And also practice the reverse— say, “yes.” Anytime someone interrupts you, be willing to help.