From the Letter to the Hebrews:
Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 6:7-8 (NRSV) – January 22, 2014.)
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is speaking of folks (the “ground”) who have received the Gospel of Jesus Christ (the “rain”) and have either produced some sort of fruit of good works (a “useful crop”) or have fallen away from the church (producing “thorns”). Of the latter, he says they are “impossible to restore” because “they are crucifying again the Son of God.”
It’s a hard metaphor and a harsh judgment that doesn’t leave any room for repentance and reconciliation. It seems a denial of hope, frankly.
But the writer’s original intent is not what attracts me to his metaphor of ground, rain, and plant growth this morning.
It’s been more than a week since I scribbled down a poem. In fact, it’s been more than a week since I even made any notes that might later become a poem.
I keep a notebook in which I write down things that occur to me, images that I’ve seen or conceived, emotions that have been oddly triggered, anything. Driving down the road I may see (as I recently did) an overturned birdbath and begin playing with that image – it will go in the notebook. Singing along with the radio or a hymn in church I may get choked up with emotion for reasons not entirely apparent at the time – emotion and lyric will go into the notebook. In conversation with someone or just standing in line in the grocery store I may hear an odd turn of phrase from someone, a thought put into words in a way I wouldn’t have put it – it will go into the notebook. Eventually some of what is in the notebook will work its way into a sonnet or a work of free-verse (my usual form).
My time the past week, however, has been devoted to preparations for my congregation’s annual parish meeting. Which means I’ve been reviewing attendance figures and financial reports and numbers of communions, baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc. Not, for me, the stuff of wonder and delight. Not the stuff that goes in the notebook and, to be honest, nothing has gone into the notebook while I’ve been working on these reports.
While I’ve been doing the statistical and financial work (and not keeping the notebook), the news has been filled with the story of a chemical leak, a spill of toxic waste in West Virginia that poisoned a river and left 300,000 people unable to use their household water for anything other than flushing toilets.
And reading this morning’s metaphor of ground, rain, and plant growth, it occurs to me that although the ground may be ready, and though it might usually produce a useful crop, if it is not watered with the proper rain, it will produce nothing good. In fact, it may produce nothing at all! Perhaps, for me, the seeds of images, feelings, lyrics, and odd phrases are not growing into poems (nor even getting planted in my notebook!) because they are not being watered correctly. I’m not suggesting that year-end statistics and financial reports are toxic, but they certainly don’t nurture the muse!
Sometimes, it isn’t the ground’s fault that it’s not producing. And it isn’t the rain’s fault that it’s not falling on the ground that isn’t producing. Sometimes there’s something blocking the rain, or adulterating the rain. It is the church’s job to see that the rain of the Gospel falls on the ground of people free of toxic adulteration . . . but all too often the church is guilty of adding the poison! (These are church statistics and church finances, I’m dealing with!) All too often it isn’t the fallen-away that need to repent and be reconciled to the Gospel; it’s the church. The toxic church . . . .
The metaphor and the judgment of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is hard and harsh. And, like most metaphors, it can be stretched too far. I don’t think I’m doing so, however, because, like the writer, I am “confident of better things . . . things that belong to salvation.” Although the church can be, and often is, toxic, I still believe that it is also the Body of Christ and the means of salvation. We can, by the grace of God, clean up our toxic spills. (And get passed the annual meeting with its statistics and financial reports and maybe get back to some poetry!)
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.