discipleship

A time to weep

I had an allotment post planned for today but although I believe with all my heart that growing food well is one of the most important, life-giving and even holy things we can do, now is not the time for me to write about gardening.

Of all the images that have filled our screens during this summer of horrors – and I do not remember a summer like this for horror – the ones that haunt me continually are from Ferguson, Missouri, where black teenager Michael Brown was gunned down by a policeman and his body left untended in the street for four hours.

Michael Brown was unarmed and he was shot at least six times, Eyewitnesses say he had his hands in the air. He was due to start college two days later.

I have a son just one year older than Michael Brown. I am writing this late at night and I know that soon he will be emerging onto the streets of Edinburgh, elated if his show at the Fringe has gone well, perhaps more subdued if it hasn’t.

Either way, he and his university friends may be a bit loud. There’s a lot of tension to release after a show. But they won’t attract attention from the police. (And even if they did, we in the UK do not, thank God, routinely give our police officers firearms.)

How is that one teenager can walk down the street freely with his friends, while another ends up dead in the road?

How is it that I can be rejoicing in my son’s achievements while a mother in Missouri has been robbed of the chance ever again to hug hers and tell him: ‘Well done: I’m so proud of you’?

I have read some powerful posts about Ferguson this week. Two that stood out were Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing and  The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland (links at the bottom of this post).

Both are strongly worded, disturbing challenges to people like me, white people who claim to follow Jesus.

These women – and the pain and anger I have seen in the news from Ferguson – have made me face up to what I know in theory but mostly try not to accept as reality: there are structural injustices built into Western society (let’s not kid ourselves this is just about the US) that work in favour of people like me and my son.

I can’t write about the allotment today  – not because the allotment is unimportant but because to ignore what I have seen these past days would be a form of walking by on the other side, pretending that the people who are bleeding at the edge of the road are somehow nothing to do with me.

In fact it would be worse than that because what I need to think about today is not just that the mother of a boy the same age as my son is grieving, but also my own complicity in the structures that are compounding that grief.

I need to think about how my life might shore up those injustices, and what I am going to do about it.

I highly recommend these posts: Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin Channing; The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland.

There is a very full and thoroughly referenced timeline of the events in Ferguson here.

 

Stepping out of line

I am done with not rocking the boat.

I am done with putting up with things in church that I would not for a minute tolerate anywhere else.

I am done with letting bigotry have the last word in the name of unity or respect.

The church is too important for that.

I walked out of a church meeting last week because it was clear that the visiting speaker assumed that everyone there would agree with him that an extremely controversial and homophobic view of sexuality is an essential part of the true Gospel.

Crap, crap, utter crap.

I was too shocked and emotional to stand up and challenge him, so I had to do the next best thing, which was to remove myself from a situation where my presence would imply that I condoned what he was saying

Many of the people I know would say I should never walk back into a place where that kind of speech is tolerated. They have a point.

The trouble is, that after so many years as a Christian I have learnt that I need to belong to the messy, flawed and ultimately hope-filled place that is the local church.

I have tried doing without church in the past, only to discover that there is a way of encountering God there that doesn’t present itself anywhere else.

I have found that being committed to a group of people who may not be the ones I would naturally seek out as friends brings about growth in a way that nothing else does.

(Let me be clear here: if I belonged to a church where the kind of dehumanising attitudes I encountered last week were a regular feature, then I would go elsewhere. But this was a visiting speaker and such an approach is unusual for us.)

As I struggled with the powerful emotions that came up after that meeting, I resolved two things, both of them appropriate for the year of dare.

First of all, I will err on the side of offending when I encounter prejudice in the Church. I would rather create an atmosphere of discomfort than remain silent about ugly attitudes that have no place in a community of love and truth.

People in churches – and I include myself – are too often quiet and inactive because we are afraid of stepping out of line. I don’t know how this happens when we are supposed to be following the greatest out-of-line-stepper who has ever walked the earth, but it does.

And the result is not just that we end up tolerating prejudice, we can also do great harm to ourselves and to our relationship with God.

We can develop a mindset of constant, anxious self-censorship that prevents us from doing the very thing we say we are committed to, which is becoming the people God created us to be.

Churches should be among the most vibrant, creative, risk-taking, innovative, life-giving organisations on the planet – but how often is that creativity stifled through fear of disapproval?

How many world-changers, prophets and visionaries are sitting silent in church pews because we have bought into the lie that unity is the same as uniformity?

If we believe what we preach, that God’s love is unending and unchanging, then shouldn’t we be marked by a joyful, childlike desire to try new things, to seek out adventure, to explore who we are?

My second resolution was that I am not going to spend my life sitting quietly. I am going to dream and experiment and go on adventures because I believe that is our calling as children of God.

That means I will make mistakes. I may well fall flat on my face in public. But if the church is even remotely what we claim it to be, then surely it should be the one place where we don’t need to worry about falling over because we can rely on people to pick us up, dust us down and send us back on our way with a hug.

What’s harder is the knowledge that if I am more active and adventurous I will almost certainly expose some pretty unattractive character traits that I would have preferred to keep hidden.

When that happens, I need to know that my church people will not be afraid to call me out on it.

But I also need to know that it’s not the end of our relationship, that even when they find my attitudes offensive they will stay committed to working with me to bring about change – change in myself and change in the world around us, just as we are called to do.

Frog days

cropped frogs

The frogs came this week. They are reclusive little things normally. Sometimes I hear them croaking from the crevices in our dry stone wall, or I might get a sudden jolt when I am weeding and one leaps unexpectedly from under a patch of damp foliage.

Once a year, though, they come into full view. For a day or two our tiny pond, less than a metre across, becomes a writhing, splashing melee of copulating amphibians. We counted fifteen on Tuesday, although I’m fairly sure that should be an even number.

Frog Day, as we call it, is the start of spring for our family, that and the wild garlic and celandines bursting into leaf down by the stream. Sometimes we manage to take photographs. Yesterday I was looking back through the albums from previous years and was amazed to see how regularly the frogs appear. The picture at the top was taken on Frog Day 2010 – it was 18 March, just like this year. Our other pictures are dated 13 March 2007 and 15 March 2009.

Frog Day 2009

Frog Day 2009

It thrills me, the thought of these shy, mysterious creatures responding to some inner prompting and arriving in the pond almost as though they had marked the day on the calendar. I wonder about the ponds in nearby gardens: are they also experiencing the same orgiastic celebration of the changing season?

I feel connected to these frogs, for we share a common territory; they are mating in a pond that we dug as a family, sheltering in a wall that Julian built one chilly Sunday afternoon a few years back. And yet I know so little about them and understand even less.

I am especially sensitive to this dissonance this year, this sense of being both connected to the garden and yet through my ignorance also alienated from it. I read a book called Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis, and it turned out to be one of those texts that moves into in your brain, unsettling old ways of thinking and forcing your mental furniture into new arrangements.

I knew the Hebrew Scriptures were permeated through and through with references to the land but if I ever thought about that at all, I assumed that was because they were written in a pre-industrial age. Davis exposed the superficiality of that.

Her book showed me that it goes far, far deeper and that the Bible speaks of God always intending there to be a kind of kinship between people and the land. She demonstrates how in Biblical thinking the relationships we have with one another, with God and with the soil are all interrelated: in the Biblical story, violation of the land leads to the destabilising of everything else we depend on.

Davis’s teaching made me see for the first time that our little garden is profoundly important: it is land and in substance it does not differ from the grandest scenery you can imagine. The frogs, along with the ladybirds, the woodlice and every other facet of this patch are part of a vast ecosystem that connects them and us to the rest of the created order and what we do with it really matters.

In Biblical terms, it is a gift and we have a responsibility to it. Gardening is not just a hobby, something I pick up and put down according to my whims, but an outworking of discipleship.

In practical terms, as industrial agriculture continues to swallow the countryside, suburban gardens are rapidly becoming one of the most important habitats we have. For example, a report by the charity Froglife in 2007 found that eighty per cent of ponds in the countryside were of poor or very poor quality, often because of nitrogen-run off from arable land.

frogs

Davis’s book has spurred me to take our garden more seriously this year than I have in the past.  I want to work our land properly, finding ways to make it as productive and eco-friendly as possible, pushing through my natural reluctance to go outside when it is cold or wet and facing down the the boredom that sometimes sweeps through me when the garden is yet again full of weeds and the vegetable plants failing to produce as I hoped they would.

I am not saying we will save the world just by cultivating our gardens. But I do think paying serious attention to the land on our doorsteps is foundational to responding to the environmental crisis. Another book I read recently, Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith, puts it well:

Gardening work creates in us an indispensable ‘imaginary’ that enables us to think, feel, and act in the world with greater awareness for life’s complexity and depth. Gardens are the concentrated and focused places where people discover and learn about life’s creativity and interdependence.

I think a lot of us need to develop this ‘imaginary’. In her book, Davis asks why we in the industrialised world are not ‘stricken to the core’ by the way we are relentlessly despoiling the earth. I think part of the answer is that we have become so desensitised to the natural world that we simply do not appreciate the enormity of what is happening.

One way of recovering that sensitivity is, I think, simply to get outside and grow stuff. I am hopeful that by engaging more deeply with our garden I will grow too and be able to live more intelligently at this critical time.

I am worried about the frogs, by the way. For two days after they came the night frost was so hard that the pond froze over. Then it snowed for 36 hours solid. I have taken it for granted that we will have tadpoles in the pond every spring. Now I am not so sure.