He might as well have told us that the kingdom won't grow unless it's buried in the dirt.
The kingdom of God begins in a womb of darkness where there's no air to breathe and life is pressing in from all sides, leaving the seed trapped with no escape. The weight of the world bears down upon it. Plus, if the dirt is any good then it's called compost, which is a fancy word for manure that's been aged long enough to become black gold. The seed is emptied into a world entrenched in violence, division, and deep loneliness. It takes root in the heart of the mourners, the meek, the poor. God's trajectory in Jesus is fundamentally down and he is only lifted high when he's put on a cross. The kingdom of God isn't this far of place; it's here, in the manure of our world.
If your life is imperfect and broken, then that's the kind of soil God prefers to be planted in.
God seems to have a propensity for small and insignificant things. When God creates there is only chaos and a dark void, but then there's light and order. God chooses the little nation of Israel amidst the world's powerful kingdoms. And when God lifts the veil to truly reveal Godself, we don't see a soldier or a king on a throne. Instead, God becomes a seed placed in a poor, teenagers body, Mary. Here's a list of synonyms for God: I Am Who I Am and an infant in a feeding trough; the Lord and an itinerant rabbi; El Shaddai and an enemy executed by the state.
The word we use to describe God is omnipotent, or all powerful, and that's a fine thing to believe, but God's almighty kingdom doesn't take the shape of a kingdom like Rome. The Kingdom of Rome was compared to an eagle flying at high speed, crashing into its prey, and latching its talons into its flesh. God's kingdom is less assertive--just a mustard seed. Shall we put this on our flags? We are as strong and mighty as, well, a seed.
Jesus' metaphor should restrain us from conflating God's kingdom with the United States.
My mom has this mustard seed necklace--a simple gold chain with a kitschy little heart that holds a mustard seed levitating in the center. It's so simple that she almost threw it away, but said to herself, "how can you throw away the hope of a mustard seed?" A seed, at least, is a promise that there will be something more. Wherever there is a seed buried in the dirt and the manure there is also hope. A tiny thing can become a bigger thing. A little seed in the ground. A little yeast in the batter. Michael Pollan, a food writer, said that ancient cultures used to think that bread-making was magic. You’d start with a little ball of dough and yeast, but the yeast feeds on the starches and releases carbon dioxide. The gluten traps the carbon dioxide. Then, your bread somehow doubles in size overnight creating enough sustenance for the entire family. It’s a miracle akin to the feeding of the five thousand.
Jesus says we have this small seed, but when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants.
Here's the problem: this is, to put it generously, not true. A mustard seed does not become a mustard tree. It grows into a mustard shrub, no bigger than, say, 20 feet with a single nest of birds. Ezekiel compared a mighty kingdom to a cedar tree, large enough for birds of every kind to nest and find shelter. But Jesus compared his kingdom to a mustard shrub, which to the original listener, was a weed. The Kingdom of heaven is like a weed. It's a nuisance like kudzu. It grows and spreads and you can't seem to get rid of it. God plants it in your heart and it takes over until it no longer belongs to you. It started so innocently--you joined a church and a few years later you're on the church council, member of the choir, and the soup kitchen team. It appears that your life is no longer your own. We think that God makes no discernible difference in our world, but at the end of a long day or year we may look back and realize that something has grown resiliently and obstinately through the rocks, thorns, and hardened soil.
Can we please have our garden back?
This is why, I presume, Jesus was arrested by the state. He was a nuisance and a threat to all of our manicured gardens. But you can’t get rid of the Kingdom of God with a bottle of Roundup or a cross. It's just not that easy. The powers of the state locked the seed into the darkness of a tomb and sealed the stone tight. But we know that the darkness is fertile soil for something new to grow. Three days later, new life began to peek out of the ground taking shape and sprouting new branches for the birds of the air to nest. Now the seed is planted and will one day grow in every heart and atom of creation. And if you look closely, you'll spot the seed hidden in all the world's crosses, the lives that are falling apart, and the crises that are too big for such a small seed. It's there, germinating, and waiting to burst into new life.
Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School has a poster on his office door that reads “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” Ask him about it and he might tell you, “It would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but you have to start somewhere." One would suppose we could agree on this modest proposal, if we could agree on anything.
We live in fractured world where division is the air we breathe. Turn on any news pundit and they’ll say, “Well, we’re just so divided now.” It’s deeper than partisan politics. We are a people of tribes—country clubs and civic clubs; Walmart or Target or the Asheville Mall; Ingles or Aldi or the farmer’s market. We are as divided by the logos on our shirts and the food in our pantries as we are by where we live and go to school. By the way, will Duke University and the University of North Carolina fans ever find a way to unite?
My own denomination, United Methodism, has a dubious relationship with unity. We began as a movement within the Church of England blending together strains of Anglicanism, German pietism, Catholic mysticism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Wesley’s ecumenical spirit led him to take the best of other traditions and juggle them together creating a hodgepodge theology of grace.
But schism is in our DNA. We’re Protestants, after all. Wesley, who vehemently opposed schism with the Church of England, eventually laid hands on Thomas Coke and sent him to America. Today, my ordination is traced back to John Wesley and no earlier. There have since been other splits and mergers. Schism, like divorce, seems to get easier with each iteration. The people called Methodists, and the holiness movement, morphed into pentecostalism and other forms of methodism. Most recently, we nominated ourselves a ‘united’ church only fifty years ago when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical Unity Brethren in 1968. We’re due for another break up.
There’s an old motto that circulates attributed to John Wesley, which he never said: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity." The problem is that we can’t agree on essentials and rampant liberty isn't a viable option to create a covenant together. Some doctrines and practices are so antithetical to the good news of Christ that they merit division, even if it’s to our lament.
The problem for me, at least recently, is this letter to the Ephesians. It’s really inconvenient, isn’t it, that we’re handed this letter when American politics are the juiciest and denominational split seems so appealing. Even when I want the denomination to fall apart and banish political foes to the innermost layer of hell, I read Paul's words and have to bite my tongue. There was no greater cultural or religious divide as that between Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) and Paul (or whoever wrote this) is pleading for God’s chosen people to start getting along with Gentiles who were the eleventh hour workers, the prodigal sons, the ones begging for crumbs on the floor like dogs.
Here’s a miracle that’s about as unbelievable as resurrection: Christ has created a new humanity—a third race, as the church fathers used to say. The person and work of Jesus is about tearing down walls beginning the wall between heaven and earth. Jesus forgave our sins, breaking down the wall between us and God. His own body accomplished this work, holding together both God and flesh—immortality and mortality—divinity and humanity. In his ministry, he crossed over into Samaria and invited the ‘far off’ to come home, like the prodigal son.
There’s no other sensible reason to sit across the table from someone you hate, unless you believe that Jesus Christ is present in the power of the Spirit breaking down barriers. If it’s true, then there’s a reason to have church. If not, then we should continue to sit with insiders and scapegoat and complain about those on the outside. Let's build another wall because who cares. But the Jews and Gentiles shared a table and broke pita and drank wine. Together, the different notes blended to make a harmony that neither could make alone.
Unity doesn’t exist where there is uniformity; diversity is the key ingredient.
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
It’s a unity based in the very nature of God. There's oneness, but there’s a complexity within the one. God is one, but God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No one person is separate from another nor is one consumed into another, but each is held in communion in a divine dance of love. It’s the love of a community that spills out to create, redeem, and sanctify the world.RSS Feed
A theologian I admire reminds us that we have one Bible, but it’s infinitely complex. Total consensus is never the chief end, not even in the Scriptures. There are diverse voices, contexts, opinions, and theologies that are all inspired by the same Spirit. The early church canonized four different Gospels with four different christologies, or imaginations of the significance of the person and work of Jesus. When an early Christian named Tatian tried to harmonize all four Gospels into a coherent, uniform story called the Diatessaron, the church called it a heresy. No one wants a drab, watered down story of Jesus that has no context and thus, no courage to say something meaningful to particular people in real times and places.
Can we belong to one another despite our differences in this fragmented world? Our Bible does this. The early church did this with the power of the Holy Spirit that blowed on them and set hearts on fire at Pentecost. Jesus does this in his body and his mission. God does this in God’s self. It’s much bigger than one denomination’s struggle over articulating human sexuality; it extends to our idolatry of political ideologies and even more so to our unwillingness to look a stranger in the eye and listen, have a hard conversation, and admit that we're sinners who might be wrong.
It’s amazing that we still care about this in our culture with our current squabbling. Division may be warranted and lamented as an order of preservation, especially if we disagree over the basic essentials of the faith. But other folks are obstinate in their love for the church with a pigheaded hope that we might become the foretaste of God’s kingdom that will include every race, nation, economic, and ethnic group. And it’s a profound Methodist thing not to believe in some vague sense of Christ’s imputed unity, but to pursue it and allow it be imparted by the Spirit among us today. We’re not there yet. There’s always a tension between where we are and where we are headed—the already and the not yet—and we have an optimism that God’s grace can close the gap.
I also think I'm sure of this: if we will ever bear witness to unity, it won’t be a result of some political ideology spouted from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or a Bishop's prophetic stance, and definitely not a blog. But it might start with us and the ways we live our lives as every day Christians--in our churches and in our communities from the grass roots. It's worth a shot. After all, Paul tells us that peace has come and we’ve seen it. It’s Jesus. It’s the body Christ. It must be us.
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Near the end of one of our five day walks, I was reminded that we could drive the length of the trail in about an hour. Thanks, but my blisters had informed me that a few days prior.
My motto is typically "Why walk when you can drive?" Netflix binges. Another hot take on Twitter. Self-driving cars? Even better.
But if you drive, you’ll never stop to rest. You’ll miss the picturesque rivers, the hidden waterfalls, and dense forests with soaring pines and rhododendron thickets. If you drive, you might not be slow enough, or tired enough, to appreciate what’s around you. For a year, I went every Friday into the woods (this was BK, or before kids, of course) to wander and meander, until like Forest Gump, I’d say, “I’m pretty tired, I guess I’ll go home now.”
Theologian Kosuke Koyama suggests that some things God can teach us only very slowly, at a walking pace. Scripture is a story about people who take small, baby steps over a few thousand years. In the beginning God walked with Adam in the cool of the evening. It’s Moses who notices the burning bush on a stroll up the mountain Horeb. Jesus walks among his people through the countryside, the city, even on water. He attends to the impoverished and down-and-out at a pace slow enough to notice Zacchaeus, the wee little man, up in a tree. He waits three days to be resurrected. But we forget that even bread, which is vital sustenance, takes time to rise.
The prophet Micah tells his people “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” We cross-stitch it on fabric and print it on plastic picture frames. Be merciful, be compassionate. And yet, I’m still struck by this last phrase: walk humbly with God. He could’ve said run. But God says, ‘walk humbly,’ which could also be translated— “walk attentively.” In other words, pay attention. Here’s a question we’d do well to think about: what does it mean to walk attentively with God in a society that wants to run everywhere it goes? Koyama says, “God walks three-miles-an-hour because that’s the speed of our walking and God walks beside us in love…And the speed of love is slow.” A marriage. Not a hot romance.
The Israelites spent forty years lost, walking in the desert with no compass. But God walked with them, teaching them about justice and kindness. Bread—manna—was provided each morning and God told the people to take what they needed and nothing more. While Pharaoh’s economy was structured on wealth and accumulation, the Israelites began the curriculum of redistribution and the common good. God’s people learned how to rest, after spending their lives in an economy that founded their worth on their work—laying bricks and mortar. The ‘school of the soul’ had a course in walking and it taught them compassion.
The point of walking, of course, is to slow down, but that’s too simple. It’s also about justice and kindness. The three are bound together. Justice and mercy only take place when you’re walking humbly with God. Before there is justice and kindness, there is attentiveness and listening—there is walking. Richard Niebuhr says we have to ask, “What is going on?” before we ask “What must we do?” There’s an urgency to our faith—we have the words of life—but we’re not sure how to share it.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons the church is lame is not apathy, but lack of humility and attentiveness. We want do justice and love kindness, but we don’t do the hard work of walking with God and God’s people. Our lives are self centered—we get caught up in our own lives and schedules, moving from one thing to the next, that the needs of our community are part of the blurry background that we race past. Or, maybe it’s the opposite. We throw ourselves at every opportunity and get spread too thin. There’s no staying power.
Walking is a discipline; it takes practice to slow down and become attentive. If we take the time to listen to each others’ stories, share a table with a neighbor, then God will guide us toward greater understanding—justice and kindness. Start walking in your neighborhood and you’ll see hurt, pain, and struggle—you’ll notice that one who is out of firewood, or the woman who needs her gutters cleaned, or the man who hasn’t had a visitor in months. Then, start walking further toward the outskirts of the neighborhood, seeking out the very people you understand least. I most often change my mind, and the way I live, after I've tried to walk in another's shoes. It's the best way to start taking steps in a new direction.
Saint Augustine says, “Solvitur ambulando.” It means, “it is solved by walking.” “Well,” you might be wondering, “what needs to be solved?” And that’s it...if you don’t know what needs to be solved, then you better start walking.
Thirty miles, scarce water, four 6,000 foot peaks, one of the most difficult trails in North Carolina. Two nights. Or, a perfect through-hike for a group of first timers.
My wife and I, along with two best buddies from Durham, hiked the Art Loeb Trail a few years back. The trail follows the Davidson River, ascends Pilot Mountain, cuts over to the peaks in Black Balsam, shoots down through the Shining Rock Wilderness, and then descends Cold Mountain into the Daniel Boone Scout Camp. One review of the trail notes, “If you are a glutton for punishment you will enjoy every steep step.”
Turns out we weren’t.
On the first night we were so tired that we set up camp in the middle of the trail, which is generally frowned upon in the outdoors world. We’ll talk about the bear bags another time. The thirty pounds on my back were heavier than I imagined and the thirty miles ascending and descending peaks were more grueling than I envisioned. Not to mention that the rain that never stopped falling; we traversed drenched trails, in water-logged socks, sleeping in moist bags. But I hear the views are beautiful. I mean, don’t ask me, because I wouldn’t know. The dense clouds and fog stole that from us.
We discovered the reason Shining Rock is called a wilderness. Only a few miles away from our vehicles and mere hours away from beer and pizza, we got lost. The white blazes had eroded or were concealed by brush. Maybe there weren’t any altogether. We stared at the map for hours, took a few steps, and stared a little more. The worst part of being lost wasn’t the flash of fear that we’d end up on the evening news or that we’d run out of water and get seriously hurt. But it was the frustration that we were living out of control. The time-table we devised and the vision we shared for this great adventure had to be discarded. We had to improvise—and each step brought with it the nagging anxiety that we weren’t going the right direction.
When I was a kid I trampled through the neighborhood woods with no destination or purpose. I’d get lost until I’d find something worth discovering. At this point in life I’d rather stay on the trail than get a spider web plastered against my face. I go into the woods with a purpose. I hike to a particular destination, with enough water and fuel for the journey. I turn around and go home. Never step off the well-worn path. And there’s a really good reason to stay on the trail: it keeps you from trampling over precious natural resources while preserving the area for future use. Even moving a rock can cause irreparable damage to time varnished pieces of granite.
It’s also safer. Life is difficult enough without choosing more ambiguity. We can wake up lost having never even left the house. Lose your job. Divorce. A spouse or child. Lose your mind. Fill in the blank. There’s so much wandering in our world. There is a record number of refugees in the world, some 65 million, who are forced into wilderness wandering. Why would we voluntarily choose more wilderness? There’s no GPS system and advanced technology for that kind of lost.
Maybe Jesus is attractive for this reason—he promises our lives a clear destination and boundaries with neat delineations. An end to all of the aimlessness. Christianity, we think, is about the straight and narrow. A lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. A house built on the rock and the foundness to all of our lostness. A good Christian follows the rules, never veers off into a life of danger or risk. Fine thing, this Christianity, a calm and predictable life within the four walls of the church. The kind of religion that will produce good Americans with good jobs, two kids, and a hefty retirement.
Christians, well, we can’t say much about Christians except they’re the kinds of people who stay on the trail.
It’s supposed to be the opposite, isn’t it?
I grew up in a Methodist church, went to youth group, four years in college, then three years in seminary, and now I’ve entered with work force with a wife and two kids. That sounds remarkably simple. But I didn’t end up where I am because I followed a map. I didn’t create a time-table, put together a packing list, and head out. I was pushed into the forest, one step after another, until I was in so deep that I had no choice but to keep walking. The only compass I could find pointed me to the church. And even then, I was sure the compass was broken.
God said, “Go that way.” And I said, “Where’s the trail? I don’t see the markers, the brush has grown over them.”
This is the story of many—from Moses to Noah to Jonah to the Twelve Disciples. God tells Abram, ‘Put everything in your rucksack and start walking. Go, until I say stop.’ God rarely works predictably. Nor, does God usually take the fastest route from here to there. God takes longer, oftentimes more difficult paths to get something done. Until, finally, God gets of His trail to walk on ours—becoming a poor, migrant Jew who walked the long agonizing path to the cross. The night before he died, Jesus prayed, “Isn’t there another, easier trail?” Nope. But even the most horrific trail ended with healing—salvation and resurrection.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that getting lost is a deliberate practice we should pursue. It reminds us that we aren’t fully in control, nor should we strive to be. God doesn’t promise a life without a little wandering. You will get lost, fall and sprain an ankle. Sometimes you'll get by with manna, just enough to survive. But if God has called, then that means that there’s something out beyond the next mountain peak. There might even be a land flowing with milk and honey, We cut through the forest to find out.
I should mention that we made it out of Art’s hell house. God, who is always faithful, sent us two kids smoking cigarettes and carrying machetes. This was better than nothing, because they would either point us in the right direction or kill us. And either way it would be salvation. We asked for directions and they lifted up their machetes and pointed us back toward the trail. Sometimes angels do smoke tobacco and carry swords.
We descended down Cold Mountain and reached our cars.
The journey was hard, nothing like we planned or would have chosen, but that’s life, isn’t it?