Sunday, October 04, 2009

God's Dirty Work. Our Dirty Hands.

The clearing rests in song and shade
It is a creature made
By old light held in soil and leaf,
By human joy and grief,
By human work,
Fidelity of sight and stroke,
By rain, by water on
The parent stone.

We join our work to Heaven's gift,
Our hope to what is left,
That field and woods at last agree
In an economy of widest worth.
High Heaven's Kingdom come on earth.
Imagine Paradise.
O dust, arise!

-Wendell Berry, "The Clearing Rests in Song and Shade"

A few weeks ago Zach Parris challenged his fellow SS bloggers to think and write about our next steps during LSTC’s Earth Year. In classic Zach fashion, he urged us, as we seek to join the growing green movement, not to shirk the strengths of our theological heritage, nor to skirt the messy nature of ethical choices in a sin-soaked world.

Zach is right. If we fall into the trap of thinking that voting for a Democratic president, eating organic food, and buying a Nalgene bottle is all it takes to save the world, we will indeed build up a "works-righteousness bubble” that will be punctured as soon as we encounter a political headwind, read Michael Pollan, or see REI’s new BPA-free Nalgene bottle. As the air rushes out, we finally realize that no cobbled-together cure-all, taken on its own in increasingly desperate doses, can save us. We are grateful for Luther’s rediscovery of this crucial truth, and we Lutherans would do well to carry our forebear’s insight with us into the future.

Yet our goodly heritage has, unfortunately and for a variety of reasons, too often been used to justify an all-too-typical Lutheran quietism. The story of Lutherans in North America – and in Europe, for that matter – is ripe with examples of our church giving short shrift to the world-changing work God has called us to do. Trapped halfway through our paradox, we have sat out too many social movements. Oh, we have our heroes, and rightly so – our Dietrich Bonhoeffers and our Jon Nelsons – but as a church we have too often been inactive enablers of evil, often with our theology as an excuse.

But – thanks be to God! – we are sinful and forgiven, sinner and saint, dust and yet arising. It is well past time that we claimed our full Lutheran heritage, the one that declares the great paradox that we are sinners, yes, truly, but we are also saints, yes, truly, empowered by God through our baptism to, as Zach puts it, “act and move” for justice. And though we, the sinner-saints, work in “what is left” of a world – indeed, a creation – already devastated by sin and its brutal effects, we are freed by the cross and yes, called through our baptism, to, in the words of Wendell Berry, “join our work to Heaven’s gift.”

So, in answer to Zach’s question, what’s next in Earth Year for me? It is the work of joyful discovering that - much to my surprise - this sinner-saint work-joining is already happening!

I am blessed this year to be on a pastoral internship in a place where I am seeing God working through our hands every day through communities of faith in the Pacific Northwest. Three-fifths of my time this year is spent at St. John United Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington, a congregation already engaged in innovative Care of Creation ministries. (The other two-fifths is at the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington State, but I’ll say more about my Earth Year discoveries there in a future post.)

Several years ago St. John United, together with its then-intern, decided to reclaim a sidewalk and adjoining parkway in a residential neighborhood in the heart of urban Seattle. Over the past few years God put their dirt-covered hands to good work: They planted crops, from green beans to bright yellow sunflowers, adding new varieties every year. They invited others in the community to join in planting, nurturing, and harvesting. They built an irrigation system to run through pipes under the parking lot. And they grew more and more wild plant life to beautify the neighborhood, and produced more and more good food to donate to their weekly soup kitchen ministry.

Of course, the harvest is still small by most standards. We often bring in only a shoebox full of veggies – a harvest that pales in comparison to the one reaped by Celebration Lutheran Church in East Wenatchee, Washington, where I am visiting this weekend. They regularly cover several fellowship-hall sized tables with food (big orange pumpkins this Sunday!). And if I were to compare our crop to the big industrial farms that stock the Safeway grocery store, well… let’s just say the economists would tell us to give it up. But, as we well know, they’ve been wrong before. And so we press on, confident of what God can do with a few loaves and fishes – or a few green beans and sunflowers, for that matter.

As for me, I still have a lot to learn about gardening. On my first garden work day, I pointed at an ugly-looking plant that had pricked me and asked whether it was a weed.

“No,” a fellow garden steward told me. “That’s a wild rose.”

I stepped back to marvel at the mystery of God’s creation, and to marvel even more at the mystery that God can do such work through such clumsy, dirty hands as mine. Heaven’s gift, indeed.

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