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Liturgy in the Garden (Thoughts from the Festival of Faith & Writing)

We planted a new garden this year. We tried once before at another house, but the yard was nearly all in the shade. We spent months worrying over it and weeding it, until it all paid off when we harvested four pieces of okra and a cherry tomato. Lesson learned: Don’t plant a garden in the shade. I learn most things the hard way; gardening is no different. But this year we found a nice sunny spot, fenced it in to keep the deer and chickens out, and built seven raised beds. Big hopes.

I mentioned deer and chickens—but let me be thorough. We have seven hens (Babs, Clementine, Henrietta, Wynona, Goodness, Mercy, and Early) and two roosters (Tom Bombadil and Shirley (Yes Shirley. Don’t ask.)), in addition to our three guineas (the Swat Team), six ducks (Mr. & Mrs. Meatball, Mrs. Waddlesworth, Mrs. McGillicutty, The Colonel, and Miss Peggy), dog (Penny), and a rabbit (Gus McCrae). Yes, we own a rabbit; no, I can’t explain why (Jennifer’s defense will no doubt entail a measuring of the exponential increase in cuteness when multiplied by a factor of cuddliness). If you count all that up, you’ll find we have twenty critters in our little parish.

So each morning I get up and set the ducks loose in the yard, feed the chickens, walk the dog, feed the dog, and mostly ignore the rabbit (I leave him to Jennifer). Then I walk through our newly planted garden and inspect each seedling, noting its growth, attending its health, pulling a weed if necessary, and when I’m finished in the garden I walk the rest of the property, inspecting the trees and flower beds and piled-stone walls, the lawn, the outbuildings, and other such things. Often Jennifer accompanies me and we talk of the apples we hope to eat in a few years, or the ways we hope to reclaim and reinvigorate various areas of the property.

Each morning I get up and repeat these rituals, and I’ve begun thinking of them as a form of liturgy. This repetition of tending and watching and waiting has grown beyond labor and become a comfort. In fact, I’ve suspected for a while now that these rites have been tending me as much as I tend to them. That was one of the thoughts tumbling through my mind as I drove north to Grand Rapids for Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing.

Truth be told, as I drove I was already anticipating my return home in five days, anxious to see my plants and animals again and appreciate how they’d grown while I was away. Spring was abloom in Tennessee, and I was sad to miss even a little of it. Still, if you’ve got to leave, an awesome writing conference is a good reason to do it.

If the words “faith” and “writing” have any intersection in your life, you should put the festival on your list of things to do. It’s a great event, drawing together authors, poets, and filmmakers from multiple faiths and cultures to discuss and celebrate a huge range of issues. I can’t recommend it enough. It’s no Hutchmoot, but that’s a good thing because it’s a wholly different animal.

One morning, I walked into a session titled “Crafting a Christian Creation Imagination.” Sounded interesting. I hadn’t heard of the speaker, but here’s how the program described the topic:

“Norman Wirzba explores the difference between narrating the world as “nature” or as “creation.” The grammars of these two terms can be vastly different depending on context, and Wirzba proposes that a “creation imagination” gives us access to a new vision of life’s movement, meaning, and purpose.”

It didn’t take long to be amazed by how thoroughly Wirzba was ringing my bells. His thesis was that when we think of the physical world as “nature” we put up a barrier between ourselves, our human world of culture and technology, and the world of plants and animals, earth and soil. But when we recognize our surroundings as an all-encompassing Creation, we are forced to reckon with our integral place within it—and that should necessarily change the way we interact with the world around us.

Yeah, but that sounds like a bunch of hippie talk. What does it actually mean? It means he’s putting a sound theological foundation beneath all the stirrings I’ve had while planting my garden and tending my animals.

It doesn’t do his session justice to boil it down, but let me try. When we divorce ourselves from our appointment as the caretakers of Creation, we suffer consequences. We lose an entire set of complex sympathies and skills that have been a vital part of the human experience for millions of years. So when I plant a seed and watch it grow, when I worry about the soil, when I hatch a chick and nurse it into a rooster named Shirley, I’m reacquainting myself with those nearly-lost traditions, and suddenly the whole world begins to look like a garden. When that veil is pulled back, I find there’s a holy responsibility that I can no longer so easily shirk.

Think about this:

Wirzba points out that in the beginning, God created a garden and set us within it. He walked with us, tending us, training us to garden alongside him. We screwed that up pretty soundly, but when God arrived once more in the flesh, in the person of Christ, we find that he spent much of his time here engaging in acts very like those of a gardener: tending his creations by healing them, giving them wine to drink, food to eat, casting out disease, pulling up weeds. And then, on Easter morning, whom does Mary mistake him for? Is this a random act of mistaken identity? Or has she seen to the truth of the matter? God in the Garden once more—only this time Christ is the gardener of a newly planted Creation, one of which he is himself the first fruit. If we are the Body of Christ, are we not also called to be gardeners and caretakers of the New Creation?

When you tend a thing and pour yourself into it, it loves you back with the fruit it bears. It loves you, literally, when it feeds you, giving its life so that yours may thrive. Pete Peterson

Scripture is rife with the metaphor of God as gardener (seriously, it’s everywhere). So is it any wonder that when I turn my compost pile and look with awe at how my table scraps have been transformed into rich black soil, that I’m moved by a mystical sense of communion? Or when I raise a chicken from a hatchling, caring for it, feeding it, tending to its welfare, should I wonder that I weep when I find it’s been attacked by a predator and has to be put out of its suffering?

Or think about this (again, Wirzba’s wisdom, not my own): Because so many of us have left the land, left behind those peculiar sympathies and skills so long a part of who are, because we’ve forgotten how to love the land in an intimate and physical way, we’ve denied ourselves the opportunity for the land to love us back.

Yes “love.”

When you tend a thing and pour yourself into it, it loves you back with the fruit it bears. It loves you, literally, when it feeds you, giving its life so that yours may thrive. The scriptures tell us to “taste” and see that the Lord is delicious. Isn’t that amazing? Creation is one of the biggest ways in which God is expressing his love for us, and we are cutting ourselves off from the possibility of experiencing that expression.

After Norman Wirzba’s session, I was full of questions he didn’t have nearly enough time to answer. I snatched up a copy of his book, Faith and Food: A Theology of Eating, and I’ll be back with a more thorough recommendation once I’ve finished, but I can tell you it’s good—very good.

As I drove back home from Michigan, I passed, in a matter of hours, from the gray, leafless pre-Spring of the North into the verdant full-swing Spring of middle-Tennessee. It was like watching Creation happen right in front of me, and thanks to the festival and Norman Wirzba, I was seeing it with new eyes.

I brought home a lot of great things from the festival, but this was by far the best: Each morning when I wake, I am the celebrant in a liturgy that leads me through the sacrament of Creation. I process through garden aisles. I pastor the beans, and the grape vines, and the apple trees, and, yes, even the chickens and ducks. They sing praises in crows and quacks. They make offerings of eggs, or fruit, or even simple beauty. They come forward to partake of the food I offer, and I leave them with a blessing.

Among my little flock, I am at once priest and parishioner. They minister to me, I to them. Together we are co-participants in Creation, gardener and garden, watching, waiting, working toward a Garden yet to come. World without end. Amen.

I can hardly wait for the harvest.

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