Not long ago, Ryan and I began to plant in the Seminary Garden. We scattered carrot seeds, nestled broccoli and cabbage plants into their beds, and placed the onions firm in the ground. Due to an unusually warm spring, we began our planting early. It is unnerving, but what else can you do? You place the starter plants in the ground, hoping that water will come and the sun will shine just enough light without scorching the seedlings. As we were leaving the garden, we decided to check in on the sturdy kale plants that had been overwintered. Upon closer inspection, we realized that the kale was in the process of bolting. We were startled. When a plant bolts, death soon follows. But infinitely more disturbing than the end of our fresh kale salads is the sad fact of kale bolting in March, months before kale typically bolts.
Bolting is a common evolutionary mechanism in plants: cilantro, basil, radishes, and spinach all bolt. When the temperature of the ground reaches a warm state for a consistent amount of time, it sends a message to the plant: save the species, you won’t be able to survive much longer. So it does. When a plant bolts, you initially see small tendrils of flowers shooting up from the heart of the plant. It starts to create seeds that will be accessible to the wind and bees and birds through those tendrils. It refuses to use its dwindling nutrients on its edible leaves. It is a built-in mechanism to sustain the future life of the plant species, not the current, individual life of that specific kale plant. The bolting kale plants are the site of simultaneous life and death: dying plants for a living species, self-denial for greater preservation.
Perhaps the church is going through a season of bolting. Everyone is anxiously chattering on about the church’s looming death. The pews are empty, the pews are empty, they cry! There are no children – and where are the young adults? The Pew Research Center says this, the Pew Research Center says that, etc. With all the fuss, you begin to believe that it is true. And then you see glimpses of that bolting reality: churches eating their endowments, buildings too cumbersome to properly take care of, dioceses calling for innovative priests instead of “normal” priests. We’ve entered an era in which the church’s institutions (and many others…) are no longer guaranteed. Our edible leaves are almost gone, yet we keep attempting to harvest them as if they were still tasty (they’re not). This reality has inspired a boat-load of anxiety, so much so that we can hardly see past the numbers and empty naves; we barely see the world “out there,” ready to be loved.
We are grasping at the dying church, unable to look to the tiny wildflowers, pods of potential. The visions of “what could be” and “what is not yet” are not guaranteed; which, of course, is what makes ministry unbelievably scary sometimes. The visions or new manifestations of the church are only seeds; they are waiting for attention, pollination, and new roots. The seeds are remarkable, though, for even if those seeds are denied attention or neglected, they may well find their way to a nutrient-filled plot of soil via bird or bee. The Spirit’s pollinating power will prevail. Nothing is comfortable about the stage we are in; the leaves for the salad are gone and we are left with a quickly decaying plant. When left to the wind of the Spirit, we are stripped of certainty and control. But what will come and what is beginning to show itself even now is subtle, beautiful, and dependent upon the work of God – the work of resurrection.
Sara Miles, in her book Take This Bread, tells the story of the Spirit’s work in her neighborhood in San Francisco– her version of “church outside of the walls of church.” It is a story that struggles with the institutional church – the majority of the pushback for the beginning stages of the food pantry was found on the inside of the walls of the church, not on the outside. Though, committees and vestries can be deeply faithful forms of mission when they work towards the goal of the church and not only the goal of self-preservation. Miles, with the eventual support of her parish, opens a flourishing food pantry; she often describes the logistical quandaries of having too large of a crowd on a Friday afternoon to receive food around the altar of St. Gregory’s. Hundreds show up each week and money flows in to support new food pantries across the city. This is not your average church and this is not your average food pantry – and it looks exactly like the handiwork of the Spirit. An inspired hunger, Miles says, ushered her into this work: “Everything I’d yearned for when I first tasted that bread was never going to be found neatly wrapped up inside the comfortable rituals of religion…” She goes on to say that the hunger to feed others led her to “rough places” – exactly where the church is called to be. So she did just that. Miles fed people week after week after week, feeding the homeless and the hungry first, then her volunteers, then entering homes with grocery bags for numerous families, then a handful of other communities around San Francisco. Miraculously, funding fell in her lap numerous times, and her work was multiplied.
You get the sense that her encounters with the attendees of the food pantry are some of the same people that Jesus broke fish and bread with. They are living portraits of the unloved, the poor, the foreigner, the imprisoned. Miles says of the people she communed with “The thing that astonished me sometimes – listening to tales of terrible damage, psychosis, loss – was not how messed up people could be but how resilient; how, in the depths of suffering, they found ways to adapt and continue.” And this, of course, is the great mystery of humanity, the mystery of creation, the mystery of the Church. Regardless of our fear, our psychosis, the loss we encounter along the way, there is a reservoir of resiliency waiting to rise up.
When a kale plant is bolting, it creates hundreds of new seeds, multiplying its potential in whatever direction the wind blows. The sudden death of one plant is resisted with the hope of new roots in new places. If we, the Church, can step back from the damning statistics for a moment to smell the tiny flowers of a bolting kale plant, then we could see that this is not the end. In fact, we are given a most marvelous opportunity to begin again.