Last spring, a seasonal intern who had a knack for matching my snark, gave me a copy of a book titled Talk to Your Plants. (“Gave” as in she wrapped it in tissue paper, but it was really from the Koinonia library). She would often suggest talking to my plants, but I was never quite sure whether she was serious about it or not. I never took the book seriously.
This summer I had a few seasonal interns help me hoe through a three sisters plot that was overtaken by weeds after a month of constant rain. One (extroverted) intern took to talking to the fledging squash plants that were suffering beneath the crabgrass and pigweed, encouraging them with pep-talk. “You can do it! Come on, little squash.” Some people talk to their plants. Some people, even researchers, will claim that it has an effect.
Perfectly reasonable people do talk to their plants, and raise healthy plants; there are also some not so rational people who think one ought to commune with plants in a sort of telepathic, spiritual connection, as in a document I found called “A Simple Harvest Ritual.” According to this writer, you ought to sit for a while with the plants to be harvested, then “Seek out the grandmother plant, the elder of the community. Focus on this plant and yourself together. Place intimate energy around the two of you by visualizing warm light surrounding you or by shaking a rattle and feeling a field of cohesive energy encircle you. . .” After a period of mediation, you “communicated clearly your harvest intent“ and “ask permission to harvest, asking when to harvest, where, how, and how much.”
As I was hoeing and my fellow worker pep-talking the squash, I felt that somehow talking to your plants is failing to perceive their mystery. Part of their mystery is that they live, but unlike the animal kingdom, they make no sound. Plants do not speak, nor do they hear. Yet somehow they communicate to us, and somehow we were designed to listen. I do not mean this in a telepathic sort of way—that if we somehow listen properly there’s a message they are speaking, that we can communicate with them as we do with other humans. I do not mean it in a metaphorical, poetical sense either, that they are dispensing knowledge or insight (as in a Romantic-era poem).
Plants communicate, through signs; they have a sign language of their own. They are telling us whether or not they are healthy or ill. They tell us what they need. They tell us about the soil and its health—what it lacks, what it is abundant in.
I do not speak to plants, but I feel that there is a communion, something I have only ever so slightly experienced, between the listening human and the community of plants. This is not some new age drabble, I think that it is a reality of those daily life is to work with the land. But, we cannot understand, as in human community, unless we are present.
I have seen the same mentality in inner-city missionaries and charity-workers that come into a neighborhood to help or fix a problem but do not live in the neighborhood in the agriculturalists who try to fix problems with chemical solutions. Both lack, among many things, presence—to be in a place and to listen. To find root causes, and not just try and heal the surface level symptoms.
The former takes time, sometimes a very long time, and many are unwilling, and not encouraged to by our hypermobile society. The good farmer listens to plants; though I doubt that farmer says much.
Don’t Look Back
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
The phrase “remember your baptism” has always stuck with me. I was baptized as a 16 year old, having moved out of an old life into a new one as a disciple of Jesus. I have to remember that I was a dead man walking, and that I was ruled by sinfulness, but that man was buried and raised to life.
The phrase took on new meaning when I heard Walter Brueggemann use it in reference to the American church, which has forgotten its Baptism, in its collusion with American Empire, with the Powers of racism, materialism, nationalism. The church needs to remember its baptism in Christ. We aren’t here to follow the American Dream, but Revelation’s Dream of a New Jerusalem; we are a people in exile, out home is not in Babylon.
And here in Colossians, I hear Paul warning the church not to forget its baptism. Paul says, we can “See to it that no one takes [us] captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” The language of captivity is poignant, because earlier in the letter, Paul has used Exodus language of captivity and deliverance to describe the people of the church in 1:13: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” To be deceived and go back is to leave freedom, and return to captivity.
I think of this paragraph that follows as a crescendo from 9-15. Verse 9 returns us to a fact he alluded to earlier, and that I’l talk about, that Christ is preeminent, and over all powers and authority. He reminds them in vivid language of their baptism, which joined them in the work of Christ—in his death and resurrection, nailing our debt to the cross. And reaches a peak at v 15: And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
As a freshman in college, I read a book that shaped my understanding of the Gospel and the New Testament, John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. In it, I found not just that nonviolence and a radical social and political ethic were compatible with Christianity, but it was Christianity, the message of Jesus and the life of the early church. Yoder references a small work, probably not well-known today, by Hendrik Berkhof called Christ and the Powers. Which I sought out in the dustier, mustier sections of the Biola University library. It’s a short work, but dense, and packing a theological wallop, and it further shaped my understanding of Jesus, and my understanding of this passage in particular is indebted to Berkhof.
Stepping back a little into 1:15-17, we see Christ as the creative force behind all, the systematizer, who holds all together. We see that all, even the Powers are a part of the good creation, hold together human life. They bring order to the universe. But they are fallen and broken because of sin, working in ways counter to God’s nature and purposes. We, also consequently, are subject to them, enslaved to them.
But what are they–the Powers? Berkhoff suggests some concretes in a few lists: “Human traditions, the course of earthly life conditioned by the heavenly bodies, morality, fixed religious and ethical rules, the administration of justice and the ordering of the state.” Another list includes, “The State, politics, class, social struggle, national interest, public opinion, accepted morality, ideas of decency, of democracy. Another, “the place of clan or the tribe, the respect for ancestors and the family in Chinese life, the Hindu social order, the astrological unity of ancient Babel, the manifold moral tradition of codes of which moral life is full . . . the powers of race, class, state, and Volk.” Yoder groups them into religious structures, intellectual structures, and political structures. In ancient times they had names like Apollo, Athena, Artemis, Baal, Marduk, Mammon. We sophisticated modern people don’t believe in all that anymore, right? Well, the paganism is still there, only the names have changed, of the forces beyond our control that people are entrapped by: “The Market,” “The Military-Industrial Complex,” “The Man.”
But Paul says that the power of the Powers is broken by Christ, and portray Christ and the powers using three verbs: disarmed, made a public example (or, put them to open shame), triumphed over.
Now, in the gospels, Christ rather than take the route of the powers, subjected himself to them, submitting to death. Jewish religious authorities and the Roman political powers colluded and put him to punishment and death, so they disarmed him–they took away his following, put him in chains, imprisoned him). They made a public example of him–they beat him, mocked him verbally and symbolically with a crown of thorns and a purple robe, and a sign “King of the Jews,” stripping him naked and lifting him up high nailed to the cross for all to see. They triumphed over him, by ending his life, and cutting off his movement.
But this leads to the great reversal Paul writes of. Berkhof says,
It is precisely in the crucifixion that the true nature of the Powers has come to light. Previously they were accepted as the most basic and ultimate realities, as the gods of the world. Never had it been perceived, nor could it have been perceived, that this belief was founded on deception. Now that the true God appears on earth in Christ, it becomes apparent that the Powers are inimical to Him, acting not as His instruments, but as His adversaries.
Jesus, in his death and resurrection disarmed the Powers! He took away their stronghold on humanity, their bonds or slavery to the Powers, that they can live new, resurrected lives. He de-fanged the serpent. He made a public example of them—he showed them for what they really are, removed the mask, that their power is illusion, deception.And he triumphed over them. The power of the Powers is death—it is the right hand of empire, state. It is their power to instill obedience, from execution to ethnic cleansing, suicide bomber to drone bomber. It’s the power they thought they exercised in killing Jesus, but Paul tells us that he triumphed over them. He’s taken away their ultimate weapon—death—by both willingly accepting it and by rising from the grave, ushering in a new reality.
And remember, Paul is writing this from prison, which makes this evermore meaningful. In the same way, the authorities are trying to hold Paul at bay, but his message hasn’t been silenced. He is obeying God by submitting to them by accepting to consequences of his disobedience. (This is the real ethic behind Romans 13’s command to obey, or more appropriately according to Yoder, subordinate oneself to the rulers or government.)
Prison is a place, as I saw so vividly on Friday, visiting a man in Stewart Detention Center, that can suck the life out of people, and lead them to despair and hopelessness. At the same time, in another Detention center in Arizona, I have read about the Dream 9—nine young undocumented immigrants who grew up in the US who crossed back into the US to protest and give hope in the fight for reform, and are now engaged in a hunger strike. There’s a new slogan in this movement: “Jails the Best You Have? Because Our Organizing Starts in Jail.” Somehow prison, the place of despair, the control mechanism of the powers, becomes the cauldron of some of the greatest movements for justice, back to Mandela, to King, to Gandhi, all the way back to Paul.
So, walking back through verses 11-14, Paul tells the Colossians, and us by extension, that they are freed people. We were dead, we joined him in this death, and raised with him. We were stuck, and God got us unstuck. Jesus liberated us into life. Our debt is paid—we owe nothing but living in thanksgiving, gratitude translated into life, as a part of the church that now stands in opposition to the powers of death and destruction. We aren’t perfect, but we can’t go back. So let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep growing
Berkhoff gives further implications for the church,
All resistance and every attack against the gods of this age will be unfruitful, unless the church herself is resistance and attack, unless she demonstrates in her life and fellowship how men can live freed from the Powers. We can only preach the manifold wisdom from God to Mammon if our life displays that we are joyfully freed from his clutches. To reject nationalism we must begin by no longer recognizing in our own bosoms any difference between peoples. We shall only resist social injustice and the disintegration of community if justice and mercy prevail in our own common life and social differences have lost their power to divide. Clairvoyant and warning words and deeds aimed at the state or nation are meaningful only insofar as they spring from a church whose inner life is itself her proclamation of God’s manifold wisdom to the Powers.
I believe that Christ forgives us and sets us free from our sins—lust, envy, greed, hate, selfishness—but there are also social sins that he sets us free from, our participation in the powers. Part of our sanctification, too, I believe, is the unwinding of the tapes in our heads, how we have been patterned in the ways of the world, thinking according to its narratives. This passage in Colossians is a place where the personal and the social are interconnected. We would like to think that we are free agents, and our outcomes in life are solely based on individual choices, but social science would tell us otherwise. Individuals do make choices, but it within a web of social structures and patterns. Paul is writing to a community of Jews and Gentiles, men and women, bonded laborers and masters—this new community, this new society within the shell of the old couldn’t live in the patterns of the old, because its identity was in the New Thing brought about by Jesus. It couldn’t be slave to the powers because they realize the emptiness of their promises and their threats.
We sit as an “already, not yet people.” The powers are still active and seem very powerful. They are exerting their force and leading people to despair. Like the man I visited on Friday, people are chewed up and spit out by the socio-economic systems that govern our lives. They seem so strong and we seem so powerless sometimes. But, they don’t, and won’t have the final word.
Initially, I didn’t know how to fit in the gospel reading for this weekend, but I saw it so clearly now. It comes from Luke, and it is his recounting of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. It’s a prayer that we say every day. I think it’s fine and appropriate to pray it verbatim, but I think more than that, Jesus was giving his followers a template for prayer it doesn’t say what is says how and “like this.” This is the way people who have died and risen to live this new life in the Kingdom are to pray; it unifies us with Jesus and with each other as we seek his Kingdom. If we pray it we are remembering, and we won’t be deceived and led back into captivity.
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.
Don’t go back, let’s keep on moving forward into the light and freedom of the one who conquered sin.
Two experiences of mine are windows for me into this text. One comes from Mission Year, and a man named “Radio.” I met Radio as he was sitting in the middle of the bike path across the street from our house. It seemed strange, so I eventually went up to check out what was going on. I learned that the house he was staying in burned down, he had spent his last dollar on food at the convenience store down the street, and he was thinking about walking up onto the freeway bridge and ending his life. Fortunately, Radio walked the other direction as we parted. There wasn’t anything I could do to make Radio feel more hopeful but be there. And I kept being there, and gradually—and after a period of him gone missing—got to know him better.
One of the most disheartening stories I heard from him was about being turned away from a historic, prominent African-American church in Houston because of his indigent appearance. Here he was seeking community and God, and he was turned out because he wasn’t wearing “respectable” clothing.
The other experience involves my hair. I haven’t cut my hair in over two years. Not because of conviction, just originally because I wanted to try long hair—and I don’t want to pay for haircuts. Some of you know that this streak is not devoid of inner conflict, whether or not to cut my hair. There are practical questions, but it also has to do with something more. Some of you have seen, or may have enacted, an interaction that happens every once in a while, someone will say “you look just like Jesus.” I know there is no ill intented in this, and some of you might wonder why it matters. But every time I hear it, even if I don’t react strongly, I cringe inside, especially when it comes from people of color.
Why do I get so worked up about something so seemingly minor? Because loaded in that phrase is a history of oppression, with religion as it’s side-kick, of non-European people groups. And the side-kick Religion’s secret weapon was religious images. White missionaries brought images of a white God, of white Jesus to Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Pacific Islands, perhaps oblivious, but as African psychologist Na’im Akbar has said, images of God in the “image of somebody other than yourself creates the idea that that image, that person, is superior and you are inferior. Once you have a concept that begins to make you believe that you are not as good as other people, your actions follow your mind.” The new societies were dominated by white colonial rulers, so this idea of inferiority was not drawn from merely from art, but a social, political reality. These inferiority complexes persist into today, perpetuated by the media and popular concepts of beauty, and are even perpetuated by the church. Many associated, and still associate Christianity with Whiteness, Jesus as White, and thus reject the Christian message.
The Epistle reading for today might seem to have nothing to do with this at first glance. But this, is I believe it is a window into the issues in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. I don’t often understand how lectionary texts are spliced up, but the Epistle reading selected comes from Galatians, which I was excited to talk about. The text is the final four verses:
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.
From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
Now this is a case with any book of the Bible, but especially the Epistles, They have to be read as a whole in order to interpret them. I don’t mean that as a suggestion, but as an interpretive principle. We can then go back and mediate and study shorter sections in detail, but these are letters. We don’t treat letters we get in the mail this way do we?
One important thing to consider in approaching an epistle is that they are occasioned. There is a reason it is being written—either a question or issue directly addressed to the writer, a conflict or crisis to be sorted out, a belief that needs clarity. Galatians is one that is easy enough, through close reading and not many background references to understand the occasion, the conflict Paul is hashing out.
So, without reading the whole thing out loud, I want to briefly walk through the Epistle to understand how we get to these final lines and understand what Paul is saying not just to the Galatian church, but to us.
After a typical greeting that opens the letter, Paul writes about some people who are preaching something fundamentally different than the gospel that he has shared (v 6-9). That there is “no other gospel” implies that whatever else is being preached is false, and Paul goes on to say that what he preaches is from Christ, not from people or to seek anyone’s approval. He then goes into an autobiographical sketch, as a sort of paradigm or window, from his zealous religious life as a jew and a Pharisee, defending the “traditions of my fathers.” But God revealed Christ to him, and he was changed, that he might preach Christ among the Gentiles. He eventually revealed himself to the Jewish Christian leaders in Judea and they accepted him as an Apostle to the Gentiles.
14 years later, he returned to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus, a Greek/Gentile Christian who was not circumcised. Someome Jewish Christians stir up conflict over this. If we remember Acts 15, we know what is going on: some were teaching that unless one was or became circumcised one wasn’t saved, not a part of the church. Paul and Barnabas testified to their experience and the church affirmed that Gentiles do not have to accept the Jewish custom to enter the church. Paul continues to recount his confrontation of Peter, who ate with Gentiles, but when Jews came, would separate himself.
From all this, we know that in the Galatian church, we have a struggle of inclusion and exclusion—of Gentile inclusion into the community, and Judiazers who persist in insisting that to enter means to take on Jewish identity. Now, this is our window into understanding Paul’s thesis in 2:15-17, which the body of the letter goes on to explain and support:
We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Now, what does justification mean? To be justified is a synonym for to be considered righteous, which is to be a member of the community of God’s people. It means inclusion in the covenant community. Paul says that this is given by Christ, by faith, not by “works of the law.” So, what are “works of the law”? This does not refer to the Law, the Torah, as a whole, but to the regulations that maintained national Israelite identity (ie, food laws, circumcision, Sabbath regulations).
Paul then moves through salvation history, and this is where Abraham comes in. God promised to Abraham, “in you shall all nations be blessed,” and he established a covenant with him and his descendants. Paul says that just as Abraham’s “righteousness” was his belief in God—his following God—so too are all children of Abraham, not by bloodline or entering into it’s blessings through the law’s stipulations, but by faith.
The former was the prevailing Jewish view in Paul’s day, which scholar E.P. Sanders gave the title “Covenantal nomism.” It is
the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant, and that the covenant requires obedience to its commandments as the proper response of the human partner of the covenant. The covenant itself provides the means of atonement for transgression. Obedience maintains one’s position in the covenant, but it does not earn God’s grace as such.”
This may be hard to grasp because we’ve understood “justification by faith not by the works of the law” in terms of individual salvation and a dichotomized view of Grace and Law. In this view, in the Old Testament there was Law. One must obey every letter. But because no one can, we needed Jesus, who came and gave us Grace.
The problem is that the Old Testament is dripping with grace: grace in God giving the Garden of Eden, grace in saving Noah and his family; grace to Abraham, to Israel delivered from Egypt; in manna and water and the bronze healing snake in the desert; in the Land, in deliverance from enemies, in David, in sending the Prophets, in a remnant returning from exile in Babylon.
And the New Testament is dripping with Law: the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s letters, James’ epistle. Right here in Galations we have “do nots” (5:13a, 20, 26) followed by a list of “dos” (5:13b, 22-23, 25). Grace versus Law not a biblical distinction.
Back to covenantal nomism for a moment. We saw this operating recently in our Bible study in John 3. Nicodemus understands the Kingdom and salvation in this way, so he cannot see, cannot understand Jesus talk of being born again/being born of water and spirit—not born as Abraham’s blood, but by his belief, entering into his family of faith. Paul reaches his climax on this point at 3:26-29:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
“Father Abraham” is an obnoxious, cheesy kids song but it’s so theologically true—and it’s exactly what Paul is saying:
Father Abraham had many sons,
Many sons had Father Abraham.
And I one of them, and so are you,
So let’s all praise the Lord!
Again, we often miss this, and I did for a long time, because of Luther and co., who were not necessarily all wrong. They were confronting a broken religious system of the day—the problem is that they imported the rigid, legalistic 16th century church onto the 1st century Judaism. Indeed we cannot be saved by our own works, or by religious/church tradition; salvation is by grace through faith. But justification in Galatians, according to Paul, is about being included in the people of God.
This tells us then, that salvation is a corporate, communal matter. It is a matter of community., not just an individual, personal thing. God’s new creation is this people of every tribe, tongue and nation—not losing their uniqueness, ethnicity, culture, language to fit in a melting pot, but not excluded because no distinction are made about who is welcomed in Christ. This is what, at the end of the letter, Paul calls the “Israel of God.”
I have two concluding thoughts. The first is that I’ve hoped to demonstrate the importance of the New Testament epistles for Christian community—both here and as a whole. Many, like Clarence and Eberhardt Arnold were inspired by the koinonia of Acts 2 and 4, but is not enough. The narrative of Acts doesn’t climax here, but at chapter 15—after the monocultural Jewish church in Jerusalem is forced out of its walls and comfort zone, after it’s forced to deal with culturally marginalized groups in its midst in chapter 6. After it goes out to the Gentiles and the multi-ethnic community in Antioch in chapter 13 spurs Paul and Barnabas onward, and all the issues are hashed out in chapter 15.
Paul’s Epistles, especially, show the church wrestling with this new mystery unfolding, of how to live together. So he is instructing, clarifying how this new Israel of God—Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free—can live in communion and know the one who set them free.
The second is a question: How do we continue to see, and maybe even perpetuate barriers to people entering the community of faith. Radio comes to mind, again for me. Are we concerning ourselves with who’s in and who’s out [a lot of Christian leaders are] or how to make those outside fit the box? (Like Nicodemus, we’ll be left in the dark, as God’s Spirit moves in the least and the last.) Or, are we concerned with living a life of faith, listening to God’s movement in all people(s), and drawing them into a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
when you wake up as tired as when you went to bed. This had been most of my year.
Writing is difficult when you have much demanded of your body during the day, and end it in exhaustion.
This is part of my struggle. So I found a way out by finding a “way in” to a poem through an old form I used in college.
light is too much coming without recession—
the blur around silhouettes: a yellow, yellow
increase that my tired eyes are not ready for.
May morning, in sweat and dew, I’m searching
for new lamb’s quarters, chickweed, violet leaves
to fill a salad bowl now short on greens—
stiff knees, wet boots soaking in dew
and crimson clay. The prickly pear awakening—
blooms coming unstuck with marching sun,
as I am retreating, revealing themselves
at its apex. All this day’s young light
absorbed, luminescence in yellow petals.
To stand now with arms raised,
to hold still the sun, I would lose the battle.
But the cactus rose would have its glory.
I wonder what they did on Saturday.We know what they all did on Friday.Probably nothing, since it was a Sabbath day. They probably stayed where they had hidden. Unable to eat, stomachs still turning, minds racing, restless. Waiting for the sun and end this horrible day.
And what was he doing on Saturday?We know what happened to him on Friday. Nothing. His body rested. It was the Sabbath day. The creator-Word-made-flesh finished his work: A new creation. And it was good. So he rested, and waited for the sun to rise for the new day.
In my year and a half at Koinonia I’ve found work on the land that I love, that I find beautiful yet challenging, suiting many of my gifts yet demanding growth and learning.
In my year and half at Koinonia I’ve struggled with being unable to find the time and energy to do the work that statement previously described. The evidence is that this is the first time I’ve written anything on this blog in 2013.
Every once and a while, though, something comes together. About this time last year, my friend Becky Harlan sent me five photos, and I sent her a pantoum in response. She posted it on her blog recently.