Your Own - thrive UMC Official Blog

Your Own


Today we’re beginning a new series that was inspired, in part, by a weird feeling I was getting that I was missing something, both as a pastor and as a human being.  And to be honest, I’m still not fully aware of exactly what that ‘thing’ is, or how to talk about it; but the experience was potent enough that I decided I had to scrap the whole series I had been planning on doing, and go in an entirely new direction.

Have any of you had that happen before, where you’re doing, or working on, something, and you spent significant amounts of time and energy on it, only to get to a point where you’re suddenly like, ‘uh, I don’t think this is actually going to go anywhere’? Maybe it’s a project, or a job, or even a relationship.  Then, for a while, you kind of go back and forth wondering whether or not to just push forward anyway and hope for a miracle, because you already worked so hard on it and invested so much of yourself in it.  Or, at the same time you think, maybe it’s time to just abandon ship.  Cut your losses and run. Take a leap of faith, jump on a new opportunity, even if you’re not 100% convinced that this new opportunity is actually and totally better than the one you might be leaving behind.

Any of you had that experience before?

It’s painful either way, isn’t it? And so unsettling.  You let the thing go and the thing dies.  And you will have grief in proportion to your investment. And then, on top of the grief, you have to face new, uncertain territory, which can create space for all kinds of anxiety.  But, on the other hand, if you hang on to it –if you keep trying to force something to work that’s just not working, then what you risk is you, right?  If you chain yourself to a sinking ship, you know what will happen –at least, you will if you’ve made that mistake before.  I’ve had moments where my metaphorical boat was just hemorrhaging water, and I’m hanging on to the helm of my project, submerged to my neck, and still I would think: ‘it’s not too late.  I can still turn this ship around!’ Anyone ever been there before?  Has anyone let it get to that point where it’s gotten so bad and you’re already in way too deep, so you just start telling yourself: ‘it’s okay; things are still fine. NO ONE PANIC! WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T FREAKING PANIC!  My only mistake here, as captain of this thing, was in not realizing sooner that this is actually a submarine! Here are some scuba masks: come on everyone, let’s see what’s on the ocean floor.’

I call those moments in my own life ‘exercises in trying to grow gills.’

But anyways, you do that a couple of times, and hopefully, eventually, you grow wise enough to swallow your pride and decide: ‘let’s not do that again!’ Let’s not chain ourselves to boats that don’t float.  Let’s not devote ourselves to anything that doesn’t deliver on the good it claims.  Can I get an ‘Amen?’ Besides, it’s never a loss if we gain wisdom and stories for our toils.

But for me, what really signaled a need for a different direction in our new series was my experience of listening to people.  Over the last two months, we had been reading through the Book of Isaiah, which deals with themes of judgment and responsibility. Isaiah was prophetically illustrating to the people of Jerusalem and beyond the sacred connection between their failings to care for their needy and the unprivileged, and their own horrible experience at the hands of their neighbors and foreign empires.  ‘Look!’ Says Isaiah and his disciples, ‘you wanted peace and a future and joy, but you’re already denying the gift you want to your own people, through your own practices of exploitation, usury and neglect. So why should you be surprised when others approach you in the same way, only with more naked savagery?’

And to me, there’s a message here that seems so incredibly relevant and urgent and necessary.  Can’t we all feel the very fabric of our global, communal life trembling?  Don’t we all experience at least moments of looking over the horizon of our lives and fear that some hidden doom might yet await us?  Isn’t there a direct and undeniable connection between our own national gun debate and the American entanglement in politics of nuclear war?  Don’t we have to admit that neglecting our neighbors to the point of their desperation sews seeds that will grow into violence and crime, which could naturally turn on us, personally?  Can’t we all taste how greed and self-centeredness and consumerism are poisoning our global atmosphere? After all, aren’t we all already choking? Can’t we bear witness to the truth that if we don’t stand up, as people of faith, to set a better example for how to love our neighbors and tend the fields of peace, then there will soon be no one left to do it?  And maybe no one left at all?

Over the last several months, in addition to studying the prophets and specifically Isaiah, I’ve also been reading an anthology about violence.  This anthology has looked at patterns of politics and cycles of social power –and it repeats the reminder over and over and over again: no empire ever lasts.  You don’t have to be any kind of a religious fanatic to know, to be certain, that being on top has an expiration date.  And America is, or at least had been the number one global super-power. We’ve had our hands and bombs in almost everyone’s business over the years.  Look at history and see how that turned out for everyone else who’s ever held that position.  Go all the way back to Assyria, that first truly global military power of historical memory. Isaiah tells us what happens to them.  Soon it was their turn to reap violence, displacement, rape, destruction, loss, torture, and so much blood.  And guess what?  It was their own mercenaries who overtook them!  The sickle they bought to harvest fields they didn’t own turned on them.  And it did what they had taught it to do, only that time, to them.

Witness that and tell me: are we any different?  Should we expect a better outcome than they have received?  Can we, as a nation, confidently say we don’t deserve some taste of the example we’ve set in other countries, only intensified from the slow-cook of desperation over decades?  Our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to inherit this world we leave them, so what I want to know is do we feel good about their prospects?

Are we joyful for the gift we’ll leave them? Are we currently setting them up to receive a lush and bountiful harvest?  And if not, what are we going to do about it? Because we have a responsibility to tend the fields of peace. Everything we know and love is at stake in this!  And that was the general plan I had to move us forward.

            But what I heard from so many of the people I’ve encountered over the last two weeks or so over and over and over again has been: no more!  We don’t have time for any more groups or activities!  There’s no energy for more projects or commitments or new people. The people we know already provide plenty of drama.  And, for the love of God, our quaking nerves could not handle one more call to responsibility!  We’ve got jobs that make the 9-5’s of the past sound like part-time work; our families are constant, often nagging, sources of demands; all of our stuff, from homes to cars to pets need maintenance; we’re already invested in some stuff that’s doing relative good; the news already makes me feel anxious enough; just –seriously, can I get a break?

Can I get a break?

And if you’re talking with someone who has kids living at home –forget it.  Whatever slender gaps you might have for some variety of ‘more’ is filled up by them and their stuff.  I get next to someone who has some degree of that going on –and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?- and I completely get it. I’ve lived that ship, man. I know. Still waiting for my gills.  I’ll even tell you, like five months ago, I had days where just the prospect of removing a breakfast sandwich from the freezer, to place in the microwave for 1:40 seemed like more than I could handle.

I was at the point where ‘can you just not even mention –not even breathe- one more need in my presence, because I feel like that’s it.  I’m full.  I’m drowning.  I’m about to snap.  That’s it.’  And so, thanks to a whole lot of help from a whole lot of you, I took some time for renewal in January and February, and that helped, a lot.  But now I’m back and I’m getting ready to go again, but as I go around and interact with other people, I’m starting to see the thing I had going on is happening in them.  So maybe –and maybe just for some of us- maybe we’ve got to put that call to responsibility on pause for a minute.  Maybe we’ve got to do something else.  We’ve got to, for a little while, go in a different direction.

So after a whole lot of stress and prayer and more listening, I settled on a different theme for our time together over the next month or so: ‘Tend Your Garden.’  As I was searching scripture, and as I unexpectedly found myself experiencing joy in doing yardwork this year –which had almost always felt like a burden before for some reason- I was reminded of this powerful good news that comes from garden imagery.  In fact, the Bible itself opens in a garden in the first chapters of Genesis.  And the last chapter of Revelation –the last book of the Bible- talks about fruits of the tree of life, which was the greatest produce of that first garden.  In fact, it’s hard to go very far at all in the Bible without seeing comparisons between the lives we live as human beings, and the subtle operations of a gardens and agriculture.

In fact, the scripture passage we’ll share together is one I sort of stumbled on, but I think it’s beautiful and true, if we’d sit with it for a while.  The reading comes from a book that’s not often read in many churches: the book of Numbers (the fourth book of the bible).  The passage we’re reading is in the 24th chapter.  As a very quick bit of background for this reading, it addresses again the issue of being a neighbor.  Here the Hebrew people have been freed from slavery, they finished wandering in the desert for 40 years and they’re looking to find a home.  The land they enter into, however, is already occupied.  So there are turf wars, and already these wandering ex-slaves have defeated two native tribes violently.  Another nation-tribe, that of Moab, sees this happening and gets nervous.  So the king calls for a prophet to announce a curse on these Hebrew foreigners, so that they won’t destroy the Moabites in battle.  But when the prophet, named Balaam, goes and sees the people he’s supposed to curse, and as he witnesses how the divine favor is with them, he is unable to curse them.  Turn with me to the 24th Chapter of Numbers, starting at the beginning.  It says this:

24 Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless the Israelites, so he didn’t go as the other times to seek omens. Instead, he turned toward the desert. Balaam looked up and saw Israel camping by tribes. Then God’s spirit came on him. He raised his voice and made his address:

“The oracle of Balaam, Beor’s son; the oracle of a man whose eye is open.[a] The oracle of one who hears God’s speech, who perceives the Almighty’s[b] visions, who falls down with eyes uncovered. How beautiful are your tents, Jacob, your camps, Israel! Like palm groves that stretch out, like gardens next to a river, like eaglewood trees that the Lord has planted, like cedar trees next to water. Water will drip from his branches; his seed will have plenty of water; his king will be higher than Agag, and his kingdom will be lifted up.  

Here, I think, we’re invited to try and see how God might view us, and the lives we’ve built for ourselves and for one another.  Is our home not beautiful?  Are our neighborhoods not pleasant?  Are our lives not also like a garden, growing strong trees and richly fertile plants?

Some of us, when receiving this invitation to look and see, can nod readily and easily, for life is indeed good and growing.  The produce of their energies is luscious and abundant. One needs only to put the hoe down to see and taste its fruit.  Meanwhile, the person sitting right next to them might be desperately scraping at dry naked earth –for their constant nervous disruption of the soil won’t allow anything to grow.  Or maybe the ground itself they scrape at is just barren.  For others, their garden might be overrun with the weeds of anxiety, despair, and an unending list of problems that smother their tender seedlings.  Most of us, however, probably live in between the luscious and the barren.  Our gardens produce, but to the extent that we stay both sweaty and hungry.  We don’t starve, thank God, but there’s little enough left over to take to market to share with others.  There’s a complex, eco-systemic economy at work here, of soil, seed, climate, and labor, which we’ll explore in the weeks to come.

But first, I wanted to offer you this simple, but often-overlooked encouragement: concern yourself with your own garden first.  Don’t let the calls and cries of your neighbors for help result in your own garden lying fallow. And please don’t feel guilty about it.  People who starve to death because they gave all of their necessities away are of little help to anyone, except for the morbid prospect of becoming compost. You were not given life and the divine image to be just compost.  But you were created to be gardeners –but to grow what is something you’ll have to discover.  And then the hope is that, when you get to the point in your life where tilling and weeding and gathering are beyond your physical powers, there will be other gardeners you raised up and encourage and nurtured who can return care to you from their strength.  So we are gardeners of not just plants, but also, and simultaneously, gardeners of people. Without others –without a tribe and a family- gardening becomes a lonely and tedious art.  Invest deeply in your people first. The ones you share the ground with, or your most immediate neighbors. And by this wise art, you’ll create allies and a tribe.  Pass on your craft of gardening to them, so that the wisdom and spirit of gardening might expand.

And then, give out of your abundance.  Don’t give what you don’t have.  And at the same time, don’t pretend you have less than you do.

So often shallow message of our culture –not only of the Christian church, but also of our secular industrial machine-  is give and give and give.  Give until there’s nothing left, and then give some more. Give first your abundance, and then your sweat, and finally your blood.  Too many times have I heard people who work what had, at some point in the past, been the work of two or three or sometimes even a whole team of people.  And I’ve come to believe there’s a quiet evil here.  It’s quiet, because it can work for a while –people draw from their well of inner resolve, and they push through –for a time. But it’s evil because it takes while simultaneously denying the possibility of that giver receiving what they need.  And the result is that it, quite literally, sucks the life and enthusiasm out of them.  Please don’t participate in those arrangements if you can avoid it.  Find a more fertile plot of ground to till, if you’re not already chained.  For there are richer fields out there, I promise.

I know too, that what we’re doing here at each and every moment threatens to fall into that trap of taking more than it can give.  And sometimes what is good doesn’t always feel good. But what I do want to say you can’t give what you don’t have, and you can’t have without receiving. So we need to make sure we have time built into our lives and our schedules to receive.

And that’s what where gathered here today to do.  I know church can often feel like just one more venue of demands and needs; but we are here to give, and celebrate giving.  We’re here because we’ve received and we have something to pass on.

In fact, in just a moment, we’re going to celebrate the sacrament of communion, where we participate in the event of Jesus pouring out his blood and offering his flesh.  Let us consider the cost, for him.  And the effect for all of us.  In this event, we’re called to give by first receiving.  The life and the spirit of Jesus has been passed on to us, through these gifts.  And yet, symbolically (and literally), his life was offered up as a final sacrifice.  His was the last gift unto death.  So that the Apostle Paul calls us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices.

Here we receive to preserve life, not to empty it.  And may we give abundantly, because we have received abundantly.

Let’s pray.