Watershed Discipleship

A few years ago, I was excited to learn about the concept of watershed discipleship, which combines the best of all my worlds: environmental concern from a Christian perspective, with an emphasis on social and environmental justice, with excellent scholarship combined with practical action. Not too surprisingly, many of its originators are from a peace church, the Mennonites (though people practicing it are now from a broad range of denominations). I wrote about the book Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice a couple months ago, if you want to get more of a sense of what watershed discipleship is.

This summer, I’m fulfilling the service-learning requirement of my PhD program by helping Ched Myers and his crew at Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries revitalize the watershed discipleship website. One of the major things I’m working on is writing and soliciting blog posts, so I’m pouring most of my writing this summer into that site, as well as the journal I edit, Whole Terrain. For those of you who are interested, I wrote a blog post about a project we did for Earth Day in April: planting 150 trees at Eloheh Farm with the Wilderness Way Community and North Valley Friends. Check out my post here. While you’re there, feel free to check out some of the other content on the site!

I’ll also post the great video that one of the youth from the Wilderness Way Community made of the day so you can get a flavor for it!

Reedwood Friends Scholar in Residence

Today marks my first day as scholar in residence at Reedwood Friends in Portland, OR. I’ll be offering a six-week series on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings on the topic “Quakers & Creation Care: ecotheology & action from a Quaker perspective.” I’m excited to begin tonight by sharing my story of how I came to be interested in environmental concerns, and hearing others’ stories of connecting with God in nature. We will also be choosing eco-challenges to work on throughout the six weeks through the Northwest Earth Institute. See below for other topics we will be learning about and discussing together throughout the series. All are welcome to attend!

 

Book review published: Watershed Discipleship

I reviewed Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith & Practice (ed. Ched Myers, Wipf & Stock, 2016) for Sojourners, and it’s in the April 2017 issue. This is an excellent book of edited chapters from individuals around the USA and Canada who are working to put environmental care into action within a Christian framework. You should all read it! I’m excited about watershed discipleship as a way of looking at environmental care, which has great potential for moving Christians from paralysis into action on their beliefs in the need to care for creation. Perhaps we think of the immensity of the environmental problem and we feel we can’t do much about it, but if we think of ourselves as members of a particular watershed, and we concentrate on caring for that space, it feels more doable. Wendell Berry rewords the Golden Rule to explain how this is an act of care for the entire planet: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you” (quoted in Myers, ed., 2016, 60).

Caring for our watersheds can be an act of discipleship that moves us out of a deer-in-the-headlights response to the enormity of the environmental problems we face because we can see ourselves taking small actions to care for God’s creation directly around us. As Sojourners readers learned in the May 2014 issue, Ched Myers and Todd Wynward define watershed discipleship as a triple entendre:

  1. It recognizes that we are in a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental and social justice and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians and citizen inhabitants of specific places;
  2. It acknowledges the bioregional locus of an incarnational following of Jesus: our individual discipleship and the life and witness of the local church take place inescapably in a watershed context;
  3. And it implies that we need to be disciples of our watersheds. (Myers, ed., 2016, 2)

In this first book-length treatment of the subject of watershed discipleship, Ched Myers explains the concept, and a collection of authors under age 40 share their stories intermingled with scripture, theology, and historical reinterpretation. Placing themselves in context in the Midwest, the South, the Pacific Northwest, and California, these authors explore ecotheology in place. They tell the stories of their actions within particular watersheds, recount the history and current setting of their regions, explore information about the local flora and fauna, and point out deeply relevant passages of scripture in which the unaccustomed Bible reader might not even notice an ecological implication. After reading this book, it is impossible to read scripture without noticing how connected to the Jordan River watershed Jesus’ life and parables are, in addition to the prophets and the Hebrew people throughout much of their recorded biblical history.

“Water is life,” as Native Americans have recently reminded us in protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The authors of Watershed Discipleship connect the sacred symbolism of water throughout the Christian Scriptures with struggles for environmental justice today. Drawing on biblical imagery such as water baptism, various passages involving the Jordan River, and eschatological images of the River of Life in Revelation, the authors skillfully connect these themes to modern conflicts over access to clean water in regions across the country and around the world.

Baptism is connected with repentance, and the pieces in this volume call us as American Christians to radical repentance for our part in creating the current situation of environmental degradation. Through retelling our history of colonialism, linking our overuse of resources to the culture of systemic oppression experienced by marginalized human populations, and lifting up the biblical focus on the health of the land as a measure of whether or not the Israelites were following God faithfully, these authors show clearly that our disconnection from the land is a spiritual issue. By telling their stories of awakening to the intersectional justice issues faced by the land and marginalized people groups, and their stories regarding how they are going about reconciling relationships with land and people, they offer hope: hope that our small actions of care make a difference, and give us a literal place to start.

I highly recommend this book to any who recognize that caring for creation is something related to their faith, but they don’t know exactly how to go about it. I also highly recommend it for courses in ecotheology, creation care, and other environmentally related religion courses at the college and seminary levels. There is excellent theology in evidence here, interpreting scripture in light of modern issues, while grounding it in actual places and historical reality. You will be challenged to take a step, build a network, get to know the place in which you live, and seek for and find God there.

Eating Local, in Season…and with Grace

The other day, my mom brought us a bag of frozen blueberries, because she knew our boys like to have them as a snack, and we were out of blueberries. While I appreciated the gesture, I hesitated. Why?! Why, you might ask, would you hesitate, when your kids’ nana brings them a HEALTHY snack (as opposed to sending them home hyped up on sugar, like many loving nanas are wont to do)?

Well, I hesitated, because blueberries are one of those things that I try to hold a little bit sacred as a food that we eat in season, or until our local, u-pick batch runs out from the previous summer. If the boys didn’t want to stay in the field long enough to get enough berries to last through the entire year in the freezer, tough luck. No more blueberries until June.

Have you ever tasted a sun-warmed Oregon blueberry, fresh off the blueberry bush? Sweet and tangy, warm and luscious: just the right amount of squish and substance.

blueberries
Picking blueberries when my now-10-year-old was about a year-and-a-half young. (Look at those cheeks!!!)

Truth be told, my boys generally don’t want to spend any more time in the field because they have eaten so many that they have nearly made themselves sick. We’re working on that…one year at a time.

At any rate, all year long, blueberries remind us of the summer, of seasonality, of waiting and longing and hope. They remind us that sometimes, we go without—something we as Americans are not used to practicing often or for extended periods of time.

Well, we ran out of blueberries recently, and only made it about half way until the next blueberry season.

“Mom, why can’t we just buy more at the store?” asked my 10-year-old.

“Well, because it reminds us to eat things that grow here, when they’re growing, or to think ahead and plan well enough that we have what we need for the whole year,” I replied.

But, my mom took pity on the boys, and got us some Costco blueberries, and I hesitated, but then I said, “Sure.” Because there’s idealism, and then there’s legalism. There are best intentions in teaching lessons through life experiences, but there also needs to be grace for the times we fail to live up to our own (or other people’s) standards.

Anyway, what do we replace the bedtime snack with when we run out of blueberries? Graham crackers! And who knows what is in Graham crackers or where the ingredients are grown or the product is manufactured? Not me!

Lessons I’m learning from this, and you’re welcome to join me:

1) Sometimes it’s easy to get so caught up in one cherished rule or standard (even one set by oneself) that following it has consequences that are the opposite of what your rule or standard intends.

2) Pick more blueberries.

3) Looking back at the last several years to note and celebrate my family’s progress on eating more seasonally and food from our region:

  • 4 years ago, I made the commitment to eat one thing each day that I had grown or acquired locally, and did so almost every day of the year.
  • 3 years ago, I decided to try for at least one thing a meal that I grew or acquired locally, and did this for a majority of meals that year.
  • During this time, I also learned to can and preserve new things, which continues our ability to eat locally or personally-grown food throughout the year.
  • Last year, a friend started the Newberg Dundee Food Buying Club, and a network of folks in our town are able to access food grown by farmers in our region, much of it organic/grass fed/cage free, at relatively reasonable prices because we purchase it together. As this network grows, we’re able to get more and more of our food locally and affordably!

4) Giving myself and others grace when we fail, and celebrating the successes. Baby steps, y’all! We can’t change everything all at once, but we can change SOMEthing. As Margaret Mead put it, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Quaker Vulnerability

Today, I’m thinking about the incredible amount of vulnerability required in Quaker business process. It’s vulnerable in that we each have to be willing to show up, do our best work of listening, hold out our piece or angle on the truth with the fiercest, most solid conviction we know how, and let it go, trusting one another and the Spirit to sift and sort and aim us toward the best direction we collectively know how to find.

It’s also vulnerable to authoritarian intrusion, and this is what has, sadly, occurred of late in Northwest Yearly Meeting, the group of Friends I have belonged to since birth.

Because our polity and decision-making is based on the process of consensus, we must trust one another to bring everything to the table and truly listen to the Spirit, rather than making backroom deals or pushing one’s own agenda to the exclusion of listening together. The ideal Quaker process works in such a way that, although we each share our own conviction and sense of leading, we listen for the Spirit’s guidance. We let go of our own understanding, our own need to be right, our own fears, and we submit to the will of the Spirit: the one who enlivens the scriptures and who we will recognize by the embodiment of Love.

Instead, of late, our yearly meeting became divided and untrusting. People chose “sides,” did not trust others, and worked through political strategy rather than through a sense of leading to get “our” people on boards and in positions of leadership, rather than “their” people.

In the culmination of this dysfunctional behavior, the “leadership” laid down an ultimatum: the yearly meeting “restructures” (read: kicks out the four meetings who have minuted LGBTQ welcoming and affirming stances), or everyone at the representatives meeting last month had to come to consensus around another option. The rationale was that, since the four meetings were acting in ways contrary to our Faith & Practice, they can and should be removed from the body. (The irony, of course, is that the authoritarian action taken by the Administrative Committee to force this decision is so far outside of Faith & Practice’s policy as to be laughable.)

I don’t want this post to be about that split so much as about vulnerability, however.

I recognize now, more than ever, the extreme vulnerability of the polity we espouse as Friends, and it is incredibly painful that people could come in and use the good faith and trust of others in the yearly meeting to push through their own agenda. It is so difficult, now, to even imagine trusting others, and in some ways I would like to just give up trusting people altogether. It would be much easier to just become cynical, and to attempt to use political means to manipulate my way in the future.

Much more difficult, however, is remaining vulnerable and open, trusting and hoping, and remaining open to the radical and intense freedom and joy of coming together as a group of Friends to discern together, fully and wholly, unreservedly, bringing our whole selves.

I say it is more difficult, but to me, it is also the only Way worth living. I do not want to become cold and shriveled, protecting and controlling. Instead, I choose life, I choose joy, I choose trust and vulnerability: I choose Love.

It may not be the way of most power and prestige. It may be a difficult Way. But it is the Way of Christ for any who choose to follow it.

It is a Way that includes boundaries: while I choose to be radically open and vulnerable in settings of Quaker worship through business, I choose to set a firm boundary regarding an abusive and authoritarian structure that no longer resembles anything close to the Law of Love. While I can love the people who did this, and desire what’s best for them as they continue their journey, I set a strong boundary with a firm, No. This is unhealthy behavior and I will not participate in it; I will not tolerate it. I will remove myself from this unhealthy relationship. I will go to the margins, where others have been sent, and I will find Christ there, amongst those cast out by the “church” based on a dead reading of words on a page, rather than a willingness to courageously engage in a dynamic reading led by the Living Word. I will live out love. There is no other Way I would wish to go.

This is the path of strength through vulnerability, and I think I have never understood the verse, “my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor 12:9) before this and other similar experiences bestowed upon me by NWYM. It’s a path of courage, of taking heart, of opening and opening again to the Light, filled with grace and truth. It’s a willingness to trust myself and the Light of Christ I know and connect with inside, connecting with that Light in others, and being guided by it.

May the Spirit guide your path, as you choose the strength of vulnerability today and always.

May the breath of the Spirit enliven you, wake up the Society of Friends, and draw us toward a new intensity and conviction of justice through love in these difficult times.

Book review: Lady Midrash

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the voices and stories of women are not always told in the Bible, and even when they are, they reflect a male perspective, and, presumably, mostly male authorship. There are many women in the biblical text, from Eve, Sarah, and Rachel to Mary the mother, Mary Magdalene, and Elizabeth. But we do not always hear very much about them or learn their stories, thoughts, and experiences. In Lady Midrash: Poems Reclaiming the Voices of Biblical Women (Resource Publications, Wipf & Stock, 2016), Elisabeth Mehl Greene asks the question, “What if?” What if these women’s stories had been told in the text, or what if they had been the ones telling the stories? Who is missing or unnamed in the text, and what might they have had to say about the stories depicted in the Bible?

Elisabeth Mehl Greene

Greene is engaging in a form of midrash, a Jewish tradition of wrestling with the text: asking questions of the text, and letting the text question us. This not only occurs through logic, through questions that can be answered, but by writing in the form of poetry, Greene is able to express and open up in the reader “informed imagination” (xi). Her poems are well researched and she clearly understands the context of the Ancient Near East and Judea under Roman rule in first century Palestine, but she also engages in playful creativity, irony and critique, expansive and prophetic truth-seeking alongside the mundane tasks performed in the everyday lives of the depicted women.

Jewish scholars engaging in midrash.
Jewish scholars engaging in midrash.

Engaging in a “hermeneutic of remembrance” (a quote from Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in Greene, xviii), Greene invites us along on a journey of imagination, bringing to our awareness the stories of women who are “unnamed, unexplored, or even erased” (xii). She explores through poetry the stories and perspectives of 60 biblical personages, some named in the text (Eve, Ruth, Hannah), some unnamed (Jephthah’s daughter, the lover of Solomon, the sister of Jesus), and some presumably present but not mentioned (the women at Mt. Sinai, wise travelers from the East).

What if we heard their voices? What if their interactions with and understanding of God were also recorded? What more might we know of God, and of humanity’s relationship with God, if we were open to hearing from God through all present? This begs the question, who are the unheard ones in our midst today? Whose voices are we missing, and what might we hear and know of God if we listened more deeply to those around us today? How might we record and pass along such stories to those who come after us in such a way that a well-rounded perspective of the creative dance between God and humanity can be known?

Elisabeth Mehl Greene and co-presenter, Mitra Motlagh, give workshop on Lady Midrash at Christian Feminism Today conference, June 2016. Photo credit: Jann Aldredge Clanton.

I had the privilege of meeting Elisabeth Mehl Greene last summer at a Christian Feminism Today conference, where she led a workshop on this text. She invited us to sit with a text about a woman from scripture and ask questions of the text. What do we learn about the woman from the text? What do we not know of her story? What might she add to the story if we could hear her voice? Greene invited us to write some reflections, and even to try our hand at midrashic poetry, pursuing some of the questions and wisdom God might have to offer as we explore these stories using our informed imagination. I found this to be a challenging and fun way to engage with these texts that can often become sort of dry, and in some cases painful and sad, when seen again and again at face value.

Greene and Kendra Weddle Irons (who wrote the Foreword) acknowledge that some may worry about applying this poetic license to the scriptural text. Irons says, “It is much safer to believe God never changes and therefore the Bible reflects a similar inflexibility. But such intransigence fails to take seriously the teaching method Jesus used. His parables with their twists and turns never provided easy or tidy answers…. Similarly, midrash requires active listening so that questions rather than statements are cultivated and considered” (xi).

I enjoyed reading these poems slowly, letting these female characters come alive in my imagination. No longer two-dimensional figures offering a backdrop to (male) heroes, these poems offered a window into the human beings behind the biblical depictions. I wonder what it would be like to read Lady Midrash with a women’s Bible study group, reading the biblical texts from whence these poems arise, asking questions, and seeking after God through new entry points into ancient stories. I would also recommend assigning these poems in Bible classes, providing a different way of approaching biblical texts, and encouraging students to take note of the women in the text, as well as to recognize the humanity of biblical authors and other characters within the biblical narrative. This book might be especially apropos for courses such as Women in the Bible, or feminist explorations of the Bible.

In Lady Midrash, Greene simultaneously upholds the importance of the scriptural stories in continuing to offer meaning to spiritual seekers today, as well as a willingness to question, dig deep, seek after and find God, and grow in one’s faith through tenacity, hope, creativity, birth, prophecy, grace, wisdom, and friendship. By bringing these women’s stories to life, we are better able to see ourselves represented in the text, in all our failures and successes, loves and broken heartedness: in short, in all the glory and tragedy that makes us human.

Here is one poem that is speaking to me particularly today:

Nebiyah*
(The prophetess who bore Isaiah’s children)

Hear me, you heavens!
Listen to me, earth!
For God has spoken,
spoken through me.
God spoke to Isaiah also,
but I birthed God’s messages
in my body,
burning coal on my lips,
words in my mouth,
children in my arms.
Know this.

Therefore the Lord
will give you a sign:
a prophetess will conceive
and give birth
and will call the child Immanuel,
which means God With Us.
I did as I was told.

Take a great scroll
and write on it
with a woman’s hand:
Go to the prophet,
conceive and bear
“the remnant,” and “the plunder.”
They will answer to these names
and in the echo
you will hear deafening wing claps.
Here am I, send me.

Another mother went to a prophet
and now her precious ones answer to
“without mercy”
and “not my people.”
O Lord, how long?

And after all of this,
angels and infants,
visions and promises,
I was never his wife.

No eagles bore me up,
but I ran, ignoring weariness,
I walked and did not faint.
I carried the messages.
God was with me.
Perhaps one day
my strength will be renewed.

(*Nebiyah is the transliteration for the female version of the Hebrew word for prophet. There is some uncertainty among scholars regarding whether this woman who bore Isaiah’s sons was his wife, a prophetess, or both. What is clear is that, although she bore the children of the prophecy through her body, we know very little about her. What is her story? What else did God say through her? How does God speak to you through this scrap of a reclaimed story?)

Book review published: Good Food

I recently reviewed a book called Good Food: Grounded Practical Theologyy by Jennifer Ayres (Baylor University Press, 2013) for the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, & Culture. You can see the review here.

Jennifer Ayres
Jennifer Ayres

While I was a bit critical of the book for the review, I did actually like it. What I didn’t like was that Ayres said she was doing “grounded practical theology,” specifically saying she’s using the social sciences research method of grounded theory, but she did not do that. I’d like to see more theologians utilize social sciences methods, but if we’re going to do so, we need to do so well! Otherwise, if we try to use the language of social sciences but we do the research poorly (within that methodology), it doesn’t help us.

That said, I did like the book, and I appreciated how she developed her theology of food. She did so by telling stories as well as finding the theology of food present within the scriptural text, and I think this is really important to recover in this day and age.

As a Quaker, I acknowledge that our lack of physical Eucharist makes it difficult for us to really make use of this kind of table imagery, which is an excellent entry point into environmental care, interconnectedness with the rest of creation, and those sorts of liturgical resources present in most of the rest of Christianity. When I think of the Eucharist as an actual meal, one that physically ties us to a particular place, time, and community, while also reminding us of the sustenance we get from God, I have a lot more respect for the practice of the physical elements in communion. That said, I would rather recover the actual table fellowship practice of eating a meal together, as it seems many early Christians practiced, rather than a commercial-grade wafer and tiny cup of grape juice from who-knows-where, as is practiced by most church communities. Eating a meal grown from the land around one’s region is a great practice that can connect us with the ecology, economy, and society in which we live, as well as with Christ, giving thanks (eu-charisto) for the grace-filled sustenance we receive each day.