In this month’s Perspectives on Hope, we learn how to tend our spiritual soil.
REV. DR. JEROME (JERRY) DEVINE
Director of Connectional Ministries, Detroit Conference
On the early morning news a few days ago I watched as an incident of road rage played out on the news screen, with several cars significantly damaged and at least one injury. Why was someone so enraged they caused other vehicles to crash, bringing emotional and physical harm to others? It is not a new behavioral phenomenon, yet it does seem to be increasing.
A couple of weeks prior to this Ruth and I were driving down a country road to go visit our children and grandchildren when a vehicle from the opposite direction tried to pass the car in front of them and were headed straight at us. Had Ruth not rapidly stepped on the brakes we would have been in a head-on collision. What were they rushing for of such importance so early in the morning that they were willing to risk their lives and ours?
As I peruse Twitter and Facebook or listen to the sound-bites of our “cable-ized” and polarized news media sources I have sensed for quite some time that the human species and many individuals within that grouping have reached far beyond their capacity to handle the lives they are living, or perhaps have not equally nurtured the inner and relational resourcing needed to thrive in those environments. I say that out of a deep concern and sense of spiritual calling, not simply as a rude judgment upon humanity. I also confess that I can be in that state of being when I am not attentive to my journey.
Author and illustrator Ray Buckley, a United Methodist of Lakota/Tlingit/Scots descent, gives us a poetic and poignant glimpse into the human dilemma in his children’s book The Give-Away. Now, to be clear, when I call this a children’s book I do so because it is very accessible for children to grasp the profound message within the pages. It is by no stretch of the imagination a childish book. On the contrary, it holds deep and healing truth for adults who are willing to see, know and live out what is being shared within those brief pages. The essence of the story is that the non-human animals have gathered in a thick grove of trees out of a deep concern for what they see happening to the two-legged animals, which is us human beings.
Hear just a few of their observations of concern:
“They have lost their way,” Whooping Crane said. “There is no pattern to their journey.”
“They have lost their purpose,” Deer Mouse said softly. “They do not know who they are.”
Tatanka, the Bull Buffalo, dropped his head low. “They take more than they need and give nothing back. They do not give away.”
“They must make others small, so that they will look big,” Bear’s deep voice answered. “In the end, they must destroy themselves or others. They have lost their names, and do not know who they are.”
“They have lost their names, and do not know who they are.” For me this helps describe the diminished humanity being exhibited in the multiple behaviors that are playing out across our country politically and socially. And, at times, across our denomination. And perhaps, at times, even in our conference and local churches. Our own scriptures challenge us to consider the pathways we walk and what others might perceive of us:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Those who say, “I love God”, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (I John 4:20-21)
Any one of us, whether we are a follower of Christ or not, can lose sight of who we are, how we are in relationship to the world around us, and why we are here in this life. Caring for this is a caring for the soul. By way of illustration, a short interview quip on the radio the other day shared that as much as 40% of the people interviewed believed that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. At first it sounded a bit absurd to me, yet I had to acknowledge that I have an advantage over some people in that I grew up in an agricultural setting and have a close connection to where our food supplies come from. People who have never seen a field of grain planted, cared for or harvested may understandably not have any idea where their cereal or bread started from. Those who have not painstakingly cared for a flower garden may not have as deep an appreciation for the little bundles of cut flowers at the supermarket. And definitely, those who have never raised hogs, or been a hog, will not fully understand the sacrifice it takes to make their delicious summer BLT sandwich.
Perhaps this is true of the distortions we see in human behavior today as well. Perhaps someone that has never known the unconditional love of God cannot fully know how to love without judgement or conditions. Perhaps someone that has not been taught that the “other” is created in the image of God just as they are cannot fully know how to allow for the gift and uniqueness of the other, whether it is an individual other or a group or cultural other.
So how do we restore that knowing of self and the balance that comes from that place? It is not automatic. I also do not believe that it is instantaneously perfected in us just because we came to know the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The embracing and entering into that relationship is the beginning of a significant new stage of the journey forward.
The journey itself is the tending to the garden of the soul. It requires tilling of hardened soil. It requires removing of decay, toxicity and debris. It requires bringing nutrition to the soil. It requires selecting the kinds of plantings that will bring both healthy food and beauty to our lives and to the lives of others. It requires supporting the growing plants within the garden, as well as vigilant removal of the continuingly invasive weeds that life produces. It requires watering and oversight before we can ever enjoy the harvest.
Love and behavior are like those garden plants. Our spiritual disciplines are much like the tending tasks of the gardener. I cannot seek to plant new gardens in the lives and hearts of others in the world if I am not tending to the garden of my own soul. I cannot expect a change in the world around me if I am not tending to the needed change within me.
Can it be that this is true for our local churches and for our new Michigan Conference as well? Together we can care for the souls of our local communities and for the soul of a newly birthing annual conference as we also care for the gardens of our own souls. We do so knowing who and whose we are:
“I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”.” (John 15:15)