Today we are pleased to share the latest post in our weekly series, Beyond the Book. This month A.J. Swoboda will be discussing the deep connections between Christian faith and environmental stewardship.
I admit that as a local church pastor, I’ve found Jesus ongoing discussion about soil and farming and the life of agriculture to be quite alienating. I’m a city guy. I’ve known virtually nothing of the agrarian life as a pastor a church in urban Portland. I work in coffee shops and church buildings. My mission field consists of city people. Jesus’ parables from creation have been challenging for this city kid. And in the process of doing three full-length book projects on creation care, I grew frustrated with my own agrarian amateurism. As opposed to reading books, I began to wonder, about what the parables meant, what if I actually started to try them out? What if I started growing stuff? What if I started planting things? What if I started to look at the soil?
Over the course of the last two-year, my little urban family began a rudimentary backyard garden. At first, we had no idea what we were doing (as if we do now?). But we threw ourselves into it. What happened has astounded us all. The morale of home life has improved greatly. Our confidence has improved as I started learning little lessons about the land. Even our reading of Scripture has changed—the parables about growing things actually make a little sense now (although the Vineyard ones are still a little foreign). Still, mostly, my health has greatly improved and my anxiety levels have diminished. So much, that I actually stopped chewing my nails as an anxious habit—something I’d been doing for over a decade since entering public ministry.
Then it happened.
The combination of not chewing my nails alongside gardening a day a week brought about a condition I’ve never ever had at any point in my adult life. For the first time, I got dirt under my nails. It was only possible because I stopped chewing my nails and worked in the soil. That had literally never happened before.
That soil under the nails goes with me everyday. For the first time ever, here I was showing up to pastoral appointments, to elder meetings, to the pulpit, all with this odd sensation that something was under my nails. Dirt was under my nails. It changed conversations. People in my church began asking—because they see dirt under my nails—how the garden was going. And gardening and all the dirt under my nails also centered my life on a small piece of land. It has grounded my ministry—literally. The garden has forced me to be home more. I can’t travel as much, mostly, because someone has to do the watering.
You could say it has changed everything.
Carrying that soil in my nails has become almost a sacramental reminder of who I am. But, most importantly, where I am. I have a place, a space. I’ve got some roots somewhere. Jaci Maraschin, a priest working closely with the poor, has talked about what happens when we bring ourselves into God’s presence on Sundays with the dirt from our weeks.
…bodies enter the ‘liturgical space’ led by their feet. These feet walk the roads and the streets, they ascend and descend steps and mounts, and they walk across hallways and through rooms…They walk on what we might call the ‘space of life’. In this space, there is pain and exhaustion. These feet carry the dust of these roads into the liturgical space, and the liturgical space becomes the space of these feet with their sweat and their exhaustion, and thus the space of bodies.
That dirt has become a sacred reminder that I have a place called home. And that someone has to care for it. Part of ministry, now, is the dirt I bring into the world. I am that dirt under my nails (Gen. 2:7). I will be again the dirt under my nails (Gen. 3:19). But I am dirt that God loves deeply.
My garden has become Jesus’ parable to me. He is teaching me—as I water, prune, primp, cover, and plant—what God’s Kingdom is all about in ways I never thought possible. The garden has taken me to an “unfamiliar territory,” as it were, where I have found God all over again. Or, if we are more accurate, where God has found me all over again.
That simple garden back there full of dirt and worms and dust, it’s a gift. And gifts are always given to draw us to the Giver. I echo the words of Dumitru Staniloae which I believe are timely:
The world is a gift of God, but the destiny of this gift is to unite [humanity] with God who has given it. The intention of the gift is that in itself it should be continually transcended. When we receive a gift from somebody we should look primarily towards the person who has given it and not keep our eyes fixed on the gift. But often the person who receiveds a gift becomes so attached to the gift that he forgets who has given it to him.
A. J. Swoboda (PhD, University of Birmingham) teaches biblical studies, theology, and church history at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and Fuller Seminary, among others. He pastors Theophilus church in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of A Glorious Dark and coauthor of Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology