Christians and Creation, Part 1

Lake Superior, McLain State Park, the U.P.

As promised, I’m going to offer some reflections on Steven Bouma-Prediger’s For the Beauty of the Earth.  The book begins much like I expected, with depressing statistics about the present state of the earth and our inevitable demise if we don’t drastically correct our influence on creation.  This is, of course, a necessary starting point for the case he is making; but, unfortunately, will do little to persuade those who are convinced these statistics are slanted and inflated by those with something to gain politically.  In spite of Prediger’s well-substantiated evaluation of the ecological problem, many of us have no problem walking away unaffected.  (And this reality, I believe, is truly one of the biggest impediments for Christians in taking this issue seriously:  It has become so politicized and even fashionable lately, that any recognition of the ecological problem is seen as a political and secular move that many conservatives and evangelicals aren’t willing to make.  I’ll have to address that troubling dilemma later.)

After spending some time explaining the charge some ecologists make against Christianity as the primary cause of our ecological crisis, Bouma-Prediger does a nice job debunking this accusation.  Not only are our ecological problems the result of a complex interplay of industrialism, modernism, consumerism, population growth, etc., he asserts that Christianity, rightly understood, actually places a high value on the created order.  Even if Christians and the church haven’t always faithfully applied this, Scripture and the Christian vision are not to blame.

This leads to what for me has been the most interesting and helpful section of the first half of the book.  Bouma-prediger visits five biblical texts from which he draws out thick themes significant for ecological ethics.  He seems hermeneutically faithful with these scriptures and avoids the temptation to simply dance around waving his arms every time the term “creation” shows up in the Bible.  I’ll highlight two of his more unique and refreshing interpretations:

Looking at the flood narrative in Genesis 6-9, Bouma-Prediger asks the question, “With whom does God make a covenant?”  Those who are familiar with the story are aware that it ends with a rainbow as God promises to never flood the earth again, but Bouma-Prediger makes some interesting observations.

First, it should be blatantly significant to us that God deems it necessary to preserve two of every species on the earth.  This wasn’t just about saving righteous humans, it was about saving all God’s created beings.  More important, however, is the covenant made by God in Genesis 9:8-17.  Most notable here is that the covenant is between God, Noah, and every living creature; and the rainbow is a sign of the covenant between God and the earth.  In all my hearings of this story throughout my life I had never caught the significance of that reality:  Every living creature on God’s earth is covenant-worthy.  There’s no minimizing the significance of covenants in the biblical narrative, and the fact that God makes a covenant with even non-human creatures says something about the importance of the created world in the divine program.

The second argument that caught my attention was Bouma-Prediger’s explanation of the ecological significance of the Job story.  He focuses on the divine speeches, which, if we recall, are those humbling words of God that ask Job to stand in awe of the overwhelming magnitude of God’s creative power.  For Bouma-Prediger, the question being answered here is “Who is at the center of things?”

We may be (or try to be) the measurer of all things, but we are not the measure of all things.  Behemoth and Leviathon – not to mention the mountain goat and the wild ass – remind us that the scope of God’s creative will reaches farther than any human individual or community.

Then, quoting Carol Newsom, he writes:

The contrast between the horizon [of meaning] within which Job presents himself and the horizon within which God asks Job to locate himself could not be sharper.  Job’s primary horizon of meaning was the village and the family. God challenges the parochialism of Job’s moral imagination by making the starting point nothing less than the whole of creation.  We, too, often tend to think of the moral world as having simply to do with the relation of humans to other humans…

This was so startling to me.  It’s as if, in the midst of Job’s unthinkable tragedies, God says, “Look around you, Job, there is more to consider here than yourself and your own present experience.”  As much as this is relates to our self-understanding in the midst of suffering, I think Newsom is right in showing how the divine speeches assert that the human perception of goodness and justice is only properly formed when considering the vastness of the created world.

And finally, dealing explicitly with suffering, Bouma-Prediger writes:

…in times of grief and pain, there is great solace in fierce landscapes.  When God is at the center, and the human thereby displaced, there is a world wide and wild enough to absorb the pain of human suffering.

Most of us can relate to that last point, and I think Christianity across the spectrum has done a pretty good job of asking people to appreciate the wonder of God’s creation on things like spiritual retreats and camps.  We have no problem doing that.  The problem comes when we are asked to consider the ways our lifestyles and habits may be adversely affecting this creation.

I’m wrestling with how we are going to get past this hang-up.  More on that later.

Still Here

Greetings.  It’s  been about a month since I’ve posted anything, and those few who care are perhaps a little annoyed with me.  Sorry.

spinning my daughter in Yellow Birch Lake

My family and I had a great July, spending time in the woods and waters of Fergus Falls, MN; Eagle River, WI; and the eastern shore of beautiful Lake Michigan.  With so many lakes to ski across, fish to reel in, and loons to be haunted by, I found little time to sit in front of my computer and type.  I hope you can understand.

Nevertheless, I recently started reading Steven Bouma –Prediger’s For the Beauty of the Earth and I plan on sharing some of my reflections on his “Christian vision for creation care.”  The book is a little dated (c. 2001), but I picked it up at a thrift store last year and I’m only now getting to it.  I’m interested in the approach Bouma-Prediger will take in this book – he has a PhD. From Chicago but teaches at the largely evangelical Hope College in Holland, MI – so it will be interesting to see if he is successful in bridging the liberal-conservative divide that characterizes this issue.  Too often one has to assume a purely evolutionary cosmology or an impersonal God’s–energy-in-creation pneumatology to follow the arguments for “creation care,” which is why many evangelicals have failed to take it seriously.  Whether or not I share these assumptions is irrelevant; I’m wondering if there is anything here that will make sense to those Christians who throw darts at images of Al Gore.

Until then, enjoy some of these pictures from our July adventures and our recent garden harvests.

my Grandma's dock in Fergus Falls

coffee and cribbage with Dad

waterskiing on the Eagle River chain

backflipping off the raft

one of many meals on the deck

friends and family picnicking in the northwoods

visiting Aunt Maria in Traverse City

a rainy day on Mission Peninsula

admiring our delicious tomatos and basil from the garden!

Patriotism, War, and My Friend

This last weekend, like most Americans, I celebrated our country’s independence with grilled hamburgers and parade candy and sparkly explosions in the sky.  I love the 4th of July and I like the country I live in, so it’s all good.

But these past few weeks I’ve been doing some thinking about this country, and our armed forces, and my friend who will be off to Army training camp in a little over a month.  It is taking me a while to process how I feel about all this, all this patriotism and war and people who wear our flag on their camouflage uniform – my friend soon to be one of them.

My friend and I are Christians.  We grew up in the same church and sang the same songs.  We try to serve Jesus as best we can; but somehow, in my efforts to follow Christ I have come to a place where I don’t want to be involved in the military.  And it’s not just because I don’t want to get up at 4 a.m. and run around with a heavy backpack and potentially get shot at sneaking around in another country.  It’s because I have read the New Testament as offering a different picture of how the world will be changed, and it seems like Jesus’ Kingdom operates with a different currency than the world’s.  Instead of violence and retaliation, the Kingdom offers love for the enemy and forgiveness for those who hurt us. And the King who rules this Kingdom actually got beat up and bloodied and killed, and commanded us to take up our cross and follow him.  For me, I have trouble reconciling that with participation in the military.  And it used to be easy for me to say that Christians who join the military are missing an obvious point of Jesus’ message.  But something tells me it’s just not that simple.

The problem is, however, that for many Christians (arguably the majority of the American Church), it is quite simple.  For them, there is no tension between Jesus’ command to love our enemy – to take up our cross to follow Him, and our own country’s call to overcome the enemy and retain its power in the world.  The solution is in some sort of “two kingdoms” approach in which we argue that the Church may try to function the way Jesus commanded, but we can’t expect our country to do so, thus we adopt a love for our enemy on a very private, personal level in which we try not to freak out when someone cuts us off in the interstate.  But in a political, national level we recognize that we can’t really love our enemy or else America would sort of lose its edge.

Even more dangerous, however, is that a lot of us don’t even take a two kingdoms approach, but have somehow confused the political and nationalistic efforts of America as congruent with the mission of God in the world, so we think that God might actually be behind America’s tanks and fighter jets.  There’s a certain premillenial-dispensationalism that lends itself to that thinking, especially in America’s political alliance with Israel.

So I’m uncomfortable.  I’m uncomfortable with those who think America and the Church and Israel are all working together.  I’m uncomfortable with those who think we can’t possibly hold our country to a Christian standard of loving our enemy, but we can hold it to a number of other Christian standards about abortion and homosexuality, etc.  And I’m uncomfortable with myself, for often being disrespectful and insensitive to Christians in the military because I’ve thought they were totally wrong.

And now that one of my best friends is joining the Army, it has become a deeply personal issue.  I know this friend.  I love this friend.  And I know he loves Jesus and he really loves others, often better than I do.  If you keep reading I’ll explain some of the things that make this guy so great.  And he’s joining the Army, so now what do I do?

About my good friend:

During my wife’s first pregnancy, this friend fasted junk food and meat and committed himself to prayer for my wife and me and our child to be.  In my wife’s ninth month he came to a campout with us and ate bread and coleslaw and had to forego the delicious entrees and desserts that covered the picnic table.  It was humbling to be with him those few days, watching him paw away at whatever meatless, sweet-less dishes he could find.  I am grateful for his friendship and prayers during that time.

This friend is more helpful than anyone I know.  He came to visit a month after our second child was born, and while I was busy chasing our two-year-old and my wife was keeping our newborn alive, he was in the kitchen, elbow deep in soap-suds and dirty dishes.  It’s always like that with this guy – picking up our bags or cleaning things up before we can even ask him for help.

And in that same visit he dozed on my couch while holding my oldest daughter after rocking her for what seemed like hours.  She slept peacefully in his arms as his head rested against the back of the couch in our quiet living room.

I’ve stood next to this friend in the blazing Colorado sun, our tool belts weighing on our hips while we carried bundles of shingles across a scorching rooftop.  And I’ve stood next to this friend in the blazing Colorado sun, our snowboards strapped to our backpacks while we traversed an 11,000 ft. peak in the fierce and bitter January wind.

When we were young we were both dragged through his backyard on the legs of his older brother, trying to bring him down before he carried the football to the edge of the field.  I played more backyard football with him and his brother than anyone else in my life, and while many games ended with punching and swear words and tears, we rarely stayed mad long enough to keep us from teaming-up the next time the snow filled our tracks and we could armor ourselves with thick coats to pad the blows from his powerful older brother.

On hot July afternoons we crouched in his backyard with matches and smoke bombs as we tossed Blackcats into his mom’s flowerbed. We arranged toy soldiers and plastic trucks along the flowers like an enemy base, and we barraged the small hillside with explosives and BB’s from my Daisy.

But soon those Blackcats will be replaced with an M-16 in the hands of my friend, and those plastic figurines will be real men with skin and muscles and weapons that can shoot back.  And it scares me.

This post began with some reflections on the Christian Church and American patriotism, and whether or not they should have anything in common.  One of the ways this relationship is often expressed is through churches that offer prayer for the troops or put American flags on their stage.  So as I think about my friend joining the Army, and my own internal conflict with patriotism, militarism, and Christianity, I have to consider what my prayer for the troops will look like – what I will and will not pray for.

What I will not pray for:

I will not pray that he kills lots of bad guys, or blows lots of stuff up, or “gives all them terrorists exactly what they deserve.”  I’m glad giving people what they deserve is not a prayer we pray in Church, or we’d all be in big trouble, we’d all need to hang from a cross.

I will not pray that America is successful in whatever our military exploits are, with little regard for whose family we are displacing or whose son is being killed.  I pray we find lasting solutions that are good for America and good for the world.

I will not pray that we “win” whatever war he might find himself in.  Certainly as an American, and someone with children, and someone who enjoys baseball and apple pie, I don’t want us to lose our country or our freedom or whatever it is we might lose.  But as a Christian, my first allegiance is to Jesus Christ and his Church, which has no country or military.  So if my country does someday fail, I pray that my friend and I, and every other American Christian, can hold fast to the hope we have in Jesus Christ and his ultimate victory, recognizing that this hope far surpasses any hope we could ever have in the Red, White and Blue.

What I will pray for:

I will pray for peace and stability in the world, so that my good friend doesn’t have to jump out of a plane into hostile territory.

But if he is asked to fight in a war I will pray that he is safe, and that he doesn’t die, and that he comes home when his tour is over.  When it’s supposed to be over – not earlier or later, because the reasons for that are rarely good.

I will pray that as a drill sergeant screams in his face, or in his long walks through the dark carrying heavy packs and stiff gear, or when he sees blood and limbs and death on the battlefield, he will not become hardened and cold.  I pray he does not lose that gentleness that allows him to fall asleep with my daughter in his arms.

I pray that as he swears allegiance to our country, and he promises to follow the orders of his superior officers, he is still able to hear the voice of Jesus reminding him where his true allegiance lies, and who he really belongs to.

And like the soldiers gathered around the Cross when the Temple curtain tore, I pray that my friend will follow Jesus in such a way that those around him might come to Christ and say, “Surely you are the Son of God.”

The Book of Common Prayer page 823

25. For those in the Armed Forces of our Country Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Kids and Contextual Theology

My wife and kids are staying with my wife’s family in Wisconsin for the week while I attend a summer school intensive 8 hours a day.  After class yesterday I went for a long run, and as I climbed the hill approaching the seminary apartments I was pleased to find a number of children careening down the slip-and-slide and splashing in the miniature kiddie-pool.  My head was pounding with dehydration and sweat dripped from my chin, so I knelt next to 3 yr old Timmy and his older brother Calvin and I asked,

“I’m hot, should I go stick my head in the sprinkler?”

Calvin shook his head in approval, then a few moments later, after a silent pause in which Timothy seemed to ponder the question with utter seriousness, he looked up at me and said enthusiastically, as if a great idea had just occurred to him,

“I think you should go stick your head in the sprinkler.”

Well okay, Timmy, that settles it.

After soaking my head in the cool water that poured over the slip-and-slide, I walked back toward Timmy and noticed Kenneth, my 7 yr old neighbor, sitting on a towel in the grass.  Kenneth was wearing a winter stocking cap.  It was 87 degrees and sunny.

“Kenneth, why are you wearing a stocking cap?” I asked.

“I am wearing a stocking cap so that mine hair doesn’t get wet.  Because if mine hair gets wet, the water might drip down into mine mouth and then I might drink it.  And if mine hair gets wet it might drip into mine eyes, too, and it will hurt mine eyes.  That’s why I’m wearing a stocking cap, so that mine hair doesn’t get wet on the slip-and-slide.  But I don’t always wear a stocking cap, only when it’s the slip-and-slide.”

Good enough for me.

So after spending 8 hours a day talking about redemptive-trajectory hermeneutics, or the relentless contextuality of interpretation, or the interplay between cross-communal dialogue and communal self-reflection, I get to come home and have conversations like this.  And it keeps me from thinking I’m more important than I really am, or taking myself too seriously, or feeling I need to maintain a certain level of pretense and sophistication.

Kenneth and Timmy don’t care about my theology or my ability to articulate myself.  They care if I can relate to them while they run through the grass carrying sticks like sabers.  And my two-year-old doesn’t care what sort of hermeneutic I hold to; she wants me to sit by her while she does a puzzle and run underneath her while I push her in the swing.

That doesn’t mean theology is unimportant; in fact, it informs the way I treat my kids and those in my community.  But if doing theology becomes an end in itself instead of a means toward greater worship and service and relationships with my neighbors, then I’m in big trouble.

My current course has challenged us to consider who really cares about our theological discourse.  If the only ones who are going to give a crap about your latest project are you and the professor who will read your paper, or your fellow Ph.D. candidates, or the faculty in your department, then we are missing the point.

Theology ought to serve the Church, and the Church is made up of people writing dissertations, and single mothers who must choose between groceries and rent, and kids like Timmy and Kenneth.  Our theology ought to take that into account.

I’m grateful for this contextual theology course, and for my family and community at the seminary, and for the youth in south Minneapolis who come to our church, for reminding me who and what theology is for.

A Thought on the Sacraments

Joos van Cleve (Dutch artist, 1485-1540), detail "The Last Supper," oil on wood" (c. 1530)

I’ve been doing some thinking about the Sacraments lately.  The Body and Blood.  The Water.  This past quarter in seminary I had to form some personal theological statements about the Sacraments – about what I believe and why.  It was challenging and formational and significant for me.  I guess that’s part of what seminary is all about.

In its most basic and traditional definition, a Sacrament is a visible means of an invisible grace; something we can experience with our senses that carries with it the gracious work of God.  There are various nuances and interpretations of what this means and what these are, but the most universally accepted Sacraments are the Lord’s Supper and Baptism:  The Church’s tangible experiences of God’s grace.

The Anabaptist John Howard Yoder offers another helpful definition, arguing that the Sacraments are those activities of the Church for which God has said, “When you act, I act.”  There are certain things the worshipping community does that are both symbol and source of the activity of God; and when we do them, God is there.  In this sense the Church must continually worship and celebrate the Sacraments in order to participate in the work of God.

And in a similar sense, the Church’s life must also be sacramental in Her ministry to the world.  The Church itself is the visible means of God’s grace to the world.  In other words, just as the worshipping community knows and experiences God through the nourishment of bread and wine, the world will begin to know and experience God when the Church feeds the hungry and clothes the naked.  The Church is established in the grace of God and thus She can convey that grace to the world for which Christ died.

Here’s an excerpt from something I wrote to my brother as we discussed these thoughts:

The church’s activity in the social sphere is only sacramental if it is rooted and grounded in the Grace of God, i.e. the Sacraments.  Thus, the Church does not do social feeding ministries just because food is good, but because God graciously gave Himself up for us, and was broken on our behalf, and will one day feed the world at the Great Banquet.  The Sacraments make sure that our table fellowship is rooted in the Lord’s Table.  And we do not make friends with people who are different from us because diversity is good, but diversity is good because we have all been baptized into our death and raised with Christ and we are all the family of God, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.  It is the Sacrament that makes that real, and not the other way around.

That about sums up my view of the Sacraments.

But then I recently finished Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (yes, I have a break from class for a while so I am back to reading novels), and I am reminded of another aspect of the Sacraments – the place where the mystical presence of God meets the flesh and blood of our world.  In Greene’s novel, the character Sarah struggles with her disbelief in God, and after looking at an image of Christ on the Cross she thinks:

“So today I looked at that material body on that material cross, and I wondered, how could the world have nailed a vapour there?  A vapour of course felt no pain and no pleasure…

…Suppose God did exist, suppose he was a body like that, what’s wrong in believing that his body existed as much as mine? Could anybody love him or hate him if he hadn’t got a body? I can’t love a vapour…”

The Sacraments make sure we never forget that God isn’t just a vapour, and God’s work in us isn’t merely an idea.  The bread sticks to our tongue and our teeth bump the metal cup… and we swallow something that is real. We hold our breath and fall into the water and feel the cold and the wet and the darkness all over our bodies.  And it’s real.

Jesus is real and we don’t worship merely a vapour.  The bread and the wine may not be Jesus in full, but they affect and involve our physical senses the same way Jesus affected his disciples – reclining beside them at the table with smelly hair and hot breath.  And we experience Jesus now at the Table as a foretaste to our experience with him when he returns, when we will touch and feel him like a friend.

What I’ve Been Up To

For those few of you who may have been wondering why I haven’t added anything new for a while, I’ll post a few pictures of what I’ve been up to lately.

I was still in class all the way into the first week of June, and then my family escaped to Colorado to visit my parents and dedicate our two babies.  My wife’s folks and her younger sister also met up with us for a few days — here are some of the highlights:

Caitlyn and her parents and younger sister on the left; my grandmothers, parents, and lil' sister on the right; our children in our arms

playing around in Estes Park

the thunderstorm sky in Rocky Mountain National Park

a family portrait (even our two-month-old in the stroller behind us) at the alluvial fan

our families enjoying steak dinner on the deck of the cabin

All the above photos (other than the one on the deck) were taken by Caroline (pictured directly below).  She has a a skill for photography and our family has taken full advantage of it, obtaining beautiful pictures for little more than the occasional frozen pizza or cherry pepsi that Caroline might request when she visits.  It’s a pretty good deal, thanks Caroline.

And thanks to my family, both Bangs and Belchers, for a great week of vacation out west.

My blog activity should pick up soon as I have a break from class and won’t be chasing hail storms through the Rocky Mountains any more this summer.

Caitlyn's younger sister holding her niece (my daughter)

Life from the Land

My brother posted this interesting quote from J.R.R. Tolkein, reflecting on the relationship between fantasy and the pre-industrial era.  My blog hasn’t tackled those same issues, but the quote actually gets at some of what I’ve been trying to say in the gardening posts.

[Family life must have been different] in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense real (not metaphorical) connections between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air and later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardized international diet…are artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.

Let’s reacquaint ourselves with some of that strength.

Why We Garden, Part IV: Special Spaces

There’s a place at Grandma and Grandpa’s house where everything is always good.  Up the hill behind the kitchen window the woods are cleared and the sun hangs out all day above a little crest of earth where Grandpa used to pull tomatoes.  This June marks six years since he last turned a shovel in that ground, yet still, in the middle of the overgrown grass and twisted thickets is a small wooden sign proudly announcing “Grandpa’s Garden.”

Grandpa’s Garden has always held a sort of magic for me.  Before we lived in Minnesota my family used to vacation at their little house in the woods, and while Grandpa would be up there yanking weeds I’d be chasing garter snakes at a safe distance or catching the leopard frogs that sprung from the grass as I ran by.  Once, when it was just him and me, he picked a tomato and I followed him back to the kitchen where he sliced it and put it between pieces of toast and melted cheese.  I received that sandwich from Grandpa like a child at his first Communion – goodness and grace from the ground he’d toiled over.  The woods and rivers surrounding their house are full of all sorts of mystery and adventure, but that bright garden atop the hill is a special place, alive with critters and sunshine and images of Grandpa before he passed.

I often work night shifts patrolling our relatively quiet campus, and last week, during our third consecutive night of rain, I walked up to the garden with my powerful Maglite and studied the ground in its darkness.  I was in a place not used to visitors at that hour, and it felt like I was intruding on some mysterious secret, like a child walking downstairs late at night for a glass of water only to find his parents playing cards and drinking wine with strangers.  And there in the dark, with the rain falling sternly, the garden seemed to possess its own urgency.  In the daytime when the sun is bright the humans come with their watering cans and shovels and they poke around as best as they know how, but here in the darkness the earth and the rain seemed to be getting some real work done.  And the worms! Oh the worms! Wherever the light fell, the giant, swollen nightcrawlers slurped back into the dirt as if I’d just burst in on them changing underwear or toweling off after a shower; and there were hundreds of them, some as thick as fingers and others like spaghetti, working the soil as only worms can.

The more time I spend around gardens the more I appreciate them for their energy and beauty.  Whether it’s the wisps of steam curling from the giant compost piles at Growing Power or the way Grandpa’s hilltop feels warm even in the frozen January sunshine, gardens are fascinating and full of life.  Yesterday morning, as we enjoyed our first seventy-degree day in several weeks, a fellow seminary gardener commented in wonder at my impressive sunflower seedlings, “It’s amazing how dirt and sunshine can somehow take these little seeds and turn them into plants taller than you or me.”  And then, as I mixed rich compost at the base of my young tomato plants I marveled about how weeks previous this dirt was nothing more than the eggshells and coffee grounds I’d discarded after breakfast.  What wisdom and strength the earth must possess!

About the Triune God the Nicene Creed reads:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible…


And in one Lord Jesus Christ… by whom all things were made…


And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life…


Those last words strike me – The Giver of Life.

The life-giving work of the Spirit can be perceived in various ways, but I can’t help but sense that the same Spirit that gave life to Grandpa as he shouted from his pulpit is the same Spirit that gives life to Aleah as she drops her granola bar in the dirt…and it’s the same Spirit giving life in a garden where the soil and sun make strawberries so sweet you can hardly stand it.  All of creation hangs on the life-giving breath of God.

Gardens are special places.  Some of Jesus’ last moments before his Passion were in a garden, his sweat turning to blood as he anticipated his death.  And Grandpa’s sweat dripped upon his garden as often as his wheezing chest and failing heart would let him six years ago.  And now, in my family’s corner plot of the seminary community garden, I can spy on worms as they soak in the midnight rain or listen as the stems seem to stretch and straighten in the morning sun, or kneel next to my wife while our necks turn red and sweat darkens our shirts.

Gardening isn’t always profound.  It doesn’t always remind me of Grandpa or witness to the Spirit’s work in creation.  Sometimes it’s nothing but blisters and ambitious bugs.  But spend enough time in a garden and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.  Gardens are fascinating, and if bright vegetables and stunning flowers aren’t enough to keep you interested, consider gardening simply for the fact that something amazing is going on in there.  You’ll see.


I wanna fit in to the perfect space,
feel natural and safe in a volatile place.
And I wanna grow old without the pain,
give my body back to the earth and not complain.
–The Avett Brothers, The Perfect Space

Bethel Blackface

This happened last week at my alma mater.

It’s too bad.

It’s too bad a group of seniors who will be graduating from  Bethel in a week were oblivious as to why blackface is not okay.

It’s too bad the majority of the student body doesn’t understand that even if racism isn’t intentional, it’s still racism.

It’s too bad that some white students at Bethel have argued, “I wouldn’t be offended if a black person painted their face white in a comedy skit so why should they be bothered?”

It’s too bad that nearly a week after the incident a number of people haven’t even thought to ask their fellow black students what is blackface and why is it so offensive? Instead, we sit around and laugh about how easily some people let their feelings get hurt.

It’s too bad we think just because we don’t personally dislike black people it means our hands are completely clean of racism and we aren’t responsible for any indirect, corporate, or structural injustice that may occur.

We can do better than this.

Why We Garden, Part 3: Responsibility

Back when there was no such thing as the green movement, the food justice movement, or the organic movement, people gardened.  Before the industrial revolution and the rise of urban societies there was almost nobody who didn’t garden in some form or another; and in our recent history, most of our grandparents or great grandparents gardened to survive the World Wars and the Depression.  People have gardened in various ways and for various reasons since the beginning of time.  We are not entrepreneurs, pioneers or trailblazers.  We stand last in a long line of people who have held rakes and picked dirt from their fingernails throughout history.

But in another sense, people who garden nowadays actually are pioneers.  The reality is, there’s no reason we have to garden.  Most of us can drive to our local grocer and find anything we want at a reasonable price — we can survive quite well without ever having to put our hand to the plow.  So people who do choose to garden today do so for reasons other than sustenance and survival.  This series of posts has reflected on some of these motivations, but the “movements” mentioned at the beginning of this post reflect a different kind of motivation, motivations that aren’t primarily personal or recreational but draw from the social, economic, and environmental implications of a homegrown onion.

The danger of writing a post about the different movements that inspire gardeners is that we risk classifying those who garden and those who do not as either concerned or unconcerned with the various issues, but this oversimplifies the matter.  There are plenty of people who garden diligently but think the green movement is something led by Kermit the frog or crazy Irish people.  And there are people deeply concerned with environmental justice issues who do not garden because of certain practical limitations.  So this post is not about advancing a certain agenda or aligning gardeners politically, and it’s not supposed to be a slap on the back to gardeners and a slap in the face to non-gardeners, but it is about highlighting some of the benefits of gardening that you may or may not have been aware of when you first started digging holes.

Environmental Concerns – One of the growing motivations for gardening these days is that it offers an alternative to some of the environmentally harmful practices associated with major food production.  The first environmental issue often raised involves the distance your food has to travel to get to you.  The produce in your grocery store was probably grown thousands of miles from where you live, which means trucks and ships loaded with oil, emitting greenhouse gasses, were used to bring you your carrot.  Also, the further you are from your food source the less likely you are to concern yourself with the sustainability of the farming procedures.  If the forest next to your kids’ teeter-totter is burned down for a big factory farm that sprays pesticides, you might raise an eyebrow, but when it happens in a country across the Gulf we don’t offer it much thought. Thus, many people have taken up gardening because they don’t want to rely on major grocery stores that draw from large-scale food producers; and instead of eating a tomato that took I-75 up from Florida, they’ll settle for the one that made the walk with them from the backyard.

Social Concerns- A few months ago a friend and I road-tripped to Milwaukee for an Avett Brother’s concert, and before we drove to the concert hall we stopped at a community gardening headquarters called Growing Power. There’s a lot that could be written about our time there, but one of the simplest lessons I learned is that gardening in urban settings is about far more than environmentalism and the green movement, it’s about health and justice for people living in low-income, urban neighborhoods.  Here’s the gist of it:

Major supermarket grocery stores, by and large, cannot survive in low-income neighborhoods because the residents do not have the excess cash or savings to purchase large quantities of groceries at one time.  They cannot go to the supermarket and fill a cart with food for the week, which is exactly what supermarkets are designed for.  So instead, low-income neighborhoods are littered with corner stores, fast-food restaurants, and mini-marts that offer cheap, high calorie processed food that can be bought in small quantities over and over again.  The result is, of course, extremely unhealthy diets for low-income residents.  The concept of a community garden, then, is to provide access to affordable healthy food for the people of these neighborhoods.  Community gardens are often organized and subsidized by a non-profit organization, but are worked by the people of the neighborhoods, and everyone gets to eat fresh vegetables at the end of the day.

Even beyond urban community gardening, the social benefits of gardening are significant.  Whenever someone gardens their own produce, shops at a farmer’s market, or buys from a local grower, he or she ensures that the person who worked the land and picked your pepper receives a fair wage for their effort.  The same cannot be said for most large factory farms that hire workers who may or may not be legal citizens and may or may not earn a livable wage.  As nice as it is to enjoy a ripe tomato in the middle of December for a price that doesn’t make us return our kids’ Christmas toys, part of the reason we can do this is because someone else didn’t get paid much to pull that tomato.  Gardening is one way to avoid relying on that type of production.

Economic Advantages– This last discussion is probably the most universal in its appeal:  Gardening can save you some money.  Well, this is not entirely honest.  Gardening may save you money, but it will cost you time and energy, energy that could have been used making money doing something like delivering pizzas or mowing lawns (Yes, these are awesome ways to make that extra cash you need for baseball cards and firecrackers).  Anyway, the obvious point is that when I collect a bucketful of strawberries at the end of June, this means I don’t have to go buy strawberries for my wife’s inevitable pie – an annual symbol of summer.  More homegrown veggies means less money spent at the grocery store, less trips to the supermarket for those carrots we swore were still in the back of the fridge, and less money spent eating at restaurants because, of course, homegrown veggies and good ol’ home-cooking make a friendly pair.  There is nothing profound about this.  If you are tired of spending so much on groceries or at mediocre restaurants, start gardening.

(pie image borrowed from here, city image taken from Growing Power)