From Small Seeds, Great Things Grow

In 2005 I realized that too many people were dying young in my home town of Conetoe, North Carolina. In one year alone, I officiated at the funerals of thirty congregants under the age of thirty-two. Many of the deaths were health-related: poor diets, no exercise. Nearly two-thirds of the congregation were obese. It started to feel unconscionable to me to see someone one hundred pounds overweight on Sunday morning and not say anything about it. Then they’d die of a heart attack and we’d have another funeral. Although I had been a minister for a quarter century – nearly half my life – only now did I see that my pulpit went beyond the church.
Only a third of the adults had jobs. Most didn’t have insurance and lived in poverty. I wanted to find a way to lift up my community and improve its members’ mental, physical, and economic health.
Conetoe is a little town in an area once filled with cotton plantations. It has long been a “food desert”: fresh vegetables were rarely available, and even when they were, people couldn’t afford them. I realized we could grow fresh, healthy food for ourselves. That’s when we started the Community Garden and Family Life Center, which began as a summer school program to grow healthy food and keep the children physically active.

Farming may sound romantic to some, but it was a painful hardship for me growing up. I was one of thirteen children in a sharecropping family, which meant doing work for another man’s gain. I will never forget my father’s face when he was underpaid by the farm boss. He was unable to respond to the injustice because he knew the consequences for his family. Farms would hire him because he had all these children – thirteen males, including my brothers and boy cousins – and time after time I watched him struggle against poverty and my mother’s disappointment. I saw him turn away to avoid my mother’s eyes, and her anger. That life was not for me.
I am a carbon copy of my father, but I tried to escape his fate by joining the army after high school, serving overseas in Germany. I loved the structure and the sense of order, and when I came home I enlisted in the National Guard. In 2001 I was called to serve the church in Conetoe, and I returned to build a future in a place that had long held many sorrows for me.
Starting our own garden in Conetoe meant that the fruits of our labors would be our own. It was a chance to rewrite that old story into something new and hopeful, but I had to confront old memories that were easier to forget.
Now nearly a decade has passed since we started our garden, which feeds our community in body and soul. It began with two acres of land donated by members of the community, and now has grown to fifteen farm plots around the county. The largest is twenty-five acres, with four fields, two greenhouses, and about 150 beehives. The young people do the hard work, taught by their elders, who have their own stories of sharecropping and of the family gardens that used to mean the difference between hunger and a full belly.

You can see the change happen. And it’s a change that lasts.

We have afterschool and summer camp programs that teach the children to plan, plant, and harvest the produce, which they then sell at farmers’ markets, on roadside stands, and to restaurants. We gather honey from our hives and sell it or share it with our low-income neighbors. While much of the produce stays within the community, we’ve also been growing a business, which now makes around $5000 a year. We raise and sell seedlings to individuals and businesses, and our honey is on supermarket shelves seventy-five miles away, in Raleigh. The money goes to school supplies and scholarships. Now that more of our youth are graduating from high school and going on to college, it’s been put to good use.
Adults donate time to help with homework, transportation, and the garden work. Everyone participates in Healthy Sunday suppers, where healthy, garden-grown food is cooked and served by the youngsters in “right-sized” portions.

Season by season, Conetoe is growing healthier and stronger. Many people have lost weight. We’ve seen fewer visits to the emergency room and, thankfully, fewer deaths.
People from outside Conetoe are asking us what we’ve done. We are one of several churches participating in a study of diabetes and heart disease being conducted by The Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, which has verified the health improvements over time. Churches in twenty-one counties are using our model to build their own community gardens, sowing the seeds of good health one row, one acre, one field at a time. That’s the lesson which is important to share: this work took time to build and grow, but over time, it has become the center of our community, and a source of physical and spiritual sustenance. Everyone has a role, everyone has a voice, and everyone can make a difference.
Our young people take pride in their work, and that pride shows in how tall they stand and how they speak. When an older member of the community gives a child a blessing – placing her hands on that child’s head with the prayer that the child grows strong and does good in the world – you can see the change happen. And it’s a change that lasts.
Now in my sixties, I am still healing from my youth. Seeing the young people learn and have fun while farming has redeemed the humiliation I felt as a sharecropper’s son. I don’t know when I’m going to die, but I know I’m not going to go with all the anger I once held inside me.
A few years ago a child in our community stole money from the church. Some of the congregants wanted to press charges to teach him a lesson, but we decided to ask our young people to handle the matter. A bunch of teenagers from Conetoe talked to the prosecutor and the youth was sentenced to community service in the garden. Today his life is back on track. He is in community college and I see him in church almost every Sunday.
The moral leadership the kids showed is an antidote to the pain and negativity they could be carrying around. Just as our young people learn from us, we learn from them. Together we get closer to the spiritual, physical, and economic healing that I dreamed of ten years ago when we planted our first garden.

Morning Prayer

Dear God and Father of us all, sanctify us in your truth. Your Word is truth. We come before your presence and ask you to touch us with your Spirit, to shape our lives in the truth and in the joy of your name. Touch us with your Spirit, that we may carry out our tasks in your service. May your face shine on us and on all needy people who turn to you. May your power be given ever more fully, and may your cause become great in the world until at last it brings new life to all nations. Amen.

How to Help Prevent Your Child from Becoming an Atheist

The Story: According to a new study on adult atheists, the less that parents “walk the walk” about religious beliefs, the more likely their children are to walk away from the faith.
The Background: In 2009, psychology professor Joseph Henrich proposed the idea of Credibility Enhancing Displays (CREDs) to signify people that convey one belief but actually believe something else or have a low level of commitment to the belief. For example, researchers have found that past CRED exposure—such as being around people who engage in religious activities—is an important variable for predicting who does and does not become a religious believer
A recently published study in Religion, Brain & Behavior used the concept of CREDs to determine when a person rejects the religious beliefs modeled to them during their upbringing.
The study questioned thousands of atheists to assess the ability of CREDs to predict the age at which an individual became an atheist. In the first analysis, CREDs were positively associated with a delay in the age a person becomes an atheist, with family-level religious variables (religious importance, religious choice, and religious conflict) moderating this relationship. In the second analysis, CREDs remained a stable predictor of the age an individual became an atheist while controlling for demographics, parental quality, religious variables, relational variables, and institutional variables.
The research found that religious importance (i.e., families in which parents acted upon their religious beliefs) predicted a delay in the age which people became atheists, while choice (leaving faith decisions to children) and conflict within the family hastened the process.
What It Means: The conclusions of the study aren’t exactly encouraging, since delaying the age at which a kid becomes an adult atheist is not the goal of any Christian parent. But while limited in application, the study helps to confirm the importance of parental religiosity for children.
Another recent study for the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard found that parents who bring up their children religiously can be reassured that, on average, they are creating important psychological and behavioral health benefits that their children will carry with them into adulthood.

As researcher Tyler J. VanderWeele says, children who were raised in a religious or spiritual environment were subsequently better protected from the “big three” dangers of adolescence: depression, substance abuse, and risk taking.

Compared with no attendance, at least weekly attendance of religious services was associated with greater life satisfaction and positive affect, a number of character strengths, lower probabilities of marijuana use and early sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners. A religious upbringing also was shown to contribute towards a number of positive outcomes, such as greater happiness, more volunteering in the community, a greater sense of mission and purpose, and higher levels of forgiveness.
As adults, children who attended religious services regularly were 33 percent less likely to use illicit drugs and 30 percent less likely to start having sex at a young age. They were also 87 percent more likely to have high levels of forgiveness and 47 percent more likely to have a high sense of mission and purpose.
The Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Pr. 22:6). That’s a proverb, not a promise. But we can help ensure our children gain the benefits of a life of faith by being a real-life example. We must tell our children, as the apostle Paul told his own spiritual children, “Watch me.”
As Paul told the church at Corinth, “for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me” (1 Cor. 4:15-16). He also told them, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Paul repeated this admonition several times to the various people and churches to which he served as a spiritual father (Phil. 3:17, Phil 4:9, 2 Thess. 3:7-9, 2 Tim. 3:10-11).
We have an obligation to follow Paul’s example. As Don Carson says, “Do you ever say to a young Christian, ‘Do you want to know what Christianity is like? Watch me!’ If you never do, you are unbiblical.”
Paul was able to say “follow my example” because he was worthy of imitation. And he was worthy of imitating because he was himself committed to imitating Christ. If we love our children we’ll do the same, lead them to God by showing them what it looks like to follow Jesus.

An Army of Outcasts

Given the focus of Jesus’ ministry, carried on through His body, it is not surprising that James makes the following observation about the early church: “Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5). Similarly, Paul drives this point home in his letter to the very unlovely Corinthian church when he says:
“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Cor. 1:26–29)
Commenting on these passages, Mark Gornik, a theologian, pastor, and community developer in the United States, says, “Here then from both James and Paul is a central witness drawn from all of Scripture: God has sovereignly chosen to work in the world by beginning with the weak who are on the ‘outside,’ not the powerful who are on the ‘inside.’”
The claim here is not that the poor are inherently more righteous or sanctified than the rich. There is no place in the Bible that indicates that poverty is a desirable state or that material things are evil. In fact, wealth is viewed as a gift from God. The point is simply that, for His own glory, God has chosen to reveal His kingdom in the place where the world, in all of its pride, would least expect it, among the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised.
It is strange indeed to place the poor at the center of a strategy for expanding a kingdom, but history indicates that this unconventional strategy has actually been quite successful. Sociologist Rodney Stark documents that the early church’s engagement with suffering people was crucial to its explosive growth. Cities in the Roman Empire were characterized by poor sanitation, contaminated water, high population densities, open sewers, filthy streets, unbelievable stench, rampant crime, collapsing buildings, and frequent illnesses and plagues. “Life expectancy at birth was less than thirty years—and probably substantially less.”  The only way for cities to avoid complete depopulation from mortality was for there to be a constant influx of immigrants, a very fluid situation that contributed to urban chaos, deviant behavior, and social instability.
Rather than fleeing these urban cesspools, the early church found its niche there. Stark explains that the Christian concept of self-sacrificial love of others, emanating from God’s love for them, was a revolutionary concept to the pagan mind, which viewed the extension of mercy as an emotional act to be avoided by rational people. Hence, paganism provided no ethical foundation to justify caring for the sick and the destitute who were being trampled by the teeming urban masses. In contrast, Stark notes:
“Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violence and ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.”
God’s kingdom strategy of ministering to and among the suffering was so powerful that other kings took note. In the fourth century AD, the Roman Emperor Julian tried to launch pagan charities to compete with the highly successful Christian charities that were attracting so many converts. Writing to a pagan priest, Julian complained, “The impious Galileans [i.e., the Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
As Christianity expanded across the Roman world, the urban poor were on center stage of the drama. And the same is true today. Historian Philip Jenkins documents that Christianity is experiencing explosive growth in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, regions of the world often called the “Majority World.” For example, by 2025, in terms of numbers of adherents, Africa will have replaced Europe and the United States as the center of Christianity. By 2050, Uganda alone is expected to have more Christians than the largest four or five European nations combined. And like the early church, the growth in the church in the Majority World is taking place primarily with the poor on center stage. Jenkins observes: “The most successful new denominations target their message very directly at the have-nots, or rather, the have nothings.”

Taken from When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert (©2014). Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), 92.

The Primal Sin

The primal sin of humanity is idolatry, worshipping and trusting that which is not God and so losing the glory of God. This stands in stark contrast to what happened when Abraham believed God and trusted that He could do what He had promised (Rom 1:18–25; 3:23; 4:18–21). That is part of the larger logic of Romans 1–4 as a whole. The reversal of the fall of humanity and the renewal of the whole cosmos is the theme of God’s overall plan of salvation. Within this scope, the saving plan for humanity is one vital part; we are justified in order to be justice-bringers, saved to be the agents of salvation for the world. God’s plan always was to rescue the world through Israel: This has been accomplished through Jesus, Israel’s representative Messiah.

The Glory of God in Paul’s Letters.  Lexham Press.