Scripture Culture and Agriculture

2013: learning about hope

derwent bridge

When I chose hope as my one word for 2013, I must have thought I knew what it meant. Writing about the choice here, I said it would be my touchstone for year, a prism through which to view whatever unfolded.

It turns out that was a bit over-ambitious. If I think about the role hope has played in my life this year, I seem to have mostly been working out what it means! It’s been worth it, though.

Partly, my new understanding of hope has come about through reading. Some truly formative books have fallen into my hands over the past twelve months, and the most important of them was Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination (thank you, Kelley Nikondeha!).

Brueggemann helped me to identify false hope, which is actually a form of hopelessness. You can recognise false hope because in the end it doesn’t change anything.

The false hope offered by our affluent Western culture is that the answer to any discomfort is to consume more. In the short term, and on an individual level, this works (hello, new shoes and chocolate cake). In the long term it makes things worse. Our pain could be a catalyst to action but over-consumption dulls our emotions and takes away the energy we need to act.

In effect, the more we eat, drink and buy, the more deeply we reinforce the very structures that imprison us.

Brueggemann introduced me to the unsettling notion that the only way to real hope is through pain. We have to begin by looking unflinchingly at the darkness that is both around us and within us.

This idea was reinforced for me during the Advent just passed, through many of the Bible readings traditionally associated with that great season of hope.

It is the people walking in darkness who see the ‘great light’ promised by the prophet (Isaiah 9:2).

Or as Richard Rohr puts it in his book Preparing for Christmas: ‘We must wait and work with hope inside of the darkness – while never doubting the light that God always is … That is the narrow birth canal of God into the world – through the darkness and into an ever greater Light.’

It sobered me to think that if we manage to dispel the darkness temporarily, with all kinds of artificial things that are ultimately themselves part of the darkness – then we could miss the true light.

Which leads me to Leah Kostamo’s Planted. This book tells the funny and grace-filled story of how Kostamo and her husband established a branch of the Christian conservation organisation A Rocha in Canada, and also weaves in some serious wrestling with issues of justice, community and how to live simply in a world in crisis.

Unsurprisingly, hope is often in short supply among those who care for the environment. As Kostamo puts it: ‘Knowing what conservationists know, it’s only logical they would be tempted to despair.’

Gently and convincingly, Kostamo explains how her Christian faith roots her in hope – ‘hope that some day, some how, some way redemption is possible for all things’.

This is not another airy-fairy, false notion of hope. It is a hope born of what Kostamo calls ‘a divine adventure of reckless love’ – namely that other great Advent theme: the incarnation. An all-powerful God could choose to engage with creation in any way at all. The decision to become a part of it by taking on human form has endless implications for the way we think about the world.

As Kostamo says: ‘The incarnation shows God’s commitment to creation. The Creator becomes the created in the ultimate act of solidarity.’

The ultimate act of solidarity. Therein lies the third thing I have learnt about hope – it is inseparable from action. Another book that influenced me profoundly was Ellen Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture. Described as an examination of ‘the theology and ethics of land use’, it sounds dry but it is the opposite. It propelled me into the garden, determined to care for it properly, recognising for the first time that care of the land is a non-negotiable part of my Christian discipleship.

I still have so much to learn as a gardener but already I am understanding that the actions of caring for soil and seed, leaf and bud, bring about a new kind of consciousness, an opportunity to disrupt some old and hitherto unquestioned notions about how to be in the world.

It’s not a bad place from which to enter 2014. I’m glad I joined in with the ‘one word’ idea. It turns out it was, as I hoped, a much better way of starting a new year than making lots of soon-to-be-broken resolutions.

The picture is of the Derwent Reservoir, Derbyshire, on Boxing Day 2013

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Frog days

cropped frogs

The frogs came this week. They are reclusive little things normally. Sometimes I hear them croaking from the crevices in our dry stone wall, or I might get a sudden jolt when I am weeding and one leaps unexpectedly from under a patch of damp foliage.

Once a year, though, they come into full view. For a day or two our tiny pond, less than a metre across, becomes a writhing, splashing melee of copulating amphibians. We counted fifteen on Tuesday, although I’m fairly sure that should be an even number.

Frog Day, as we call it, is the start of spring for our family, that and the wild garlic and celandines bursting into leaf down by the stream. Sometimes we manage to take photographs. Yesterday I was looking back through the albums from previous years and was amazed to see how regularly the frogs appear. The picture at the top was taken on Frog Day 2010 – it was 18 March, just like this year. Our other pictures are dated 13 March 2007 and 15 March 2009.

Frog Day 2009

Frog Day 2009

It thrills me, the thought of these shy, mysterious creatures responding to some inner prompting and arriving in the pond almost as though they had marked the day on the calendar. I wonder about the ponds in nearby gardens: are they also experiencing the same orgiastic celebration of the changing season?

I feel connected to these frogs, for we share a common territory; they are mating in a pond that we dug as a family, sheltering in a wall that Julian built one chilly Sunday afternoon a few years back. And yet I know so little about them and understand even less.

I am especially sensitive to this dissonance this year, this sense of being both connected to the garden and yet through my ignorance also alienated from it. I read a book called Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis, and it turned out to be one of those texts that moves into in your brain, unsettling old ways of thinking and forcing your mental furniture into new arrangements.

I knew the Hebrew Scriptures were permeated through and through with references to the land but if I ever thought about that at all, I assumed that was because they were written in a pre-industrial age. Davis exposed the superficiality of that.

Her book showed me that it goes far, far deeper and that the Bible speaks of God always intending there to be a kind of kinship between people and the land. She demonstrates how in Biblical thinking the relationships we have with one another, with God and with the soil are all interrelated: in the Biblical story, violation of the land leads to the destabilising of everything else we depend on.

Davis’s teaching made me see for the first time that our little garden is profoundly important: it is land and in substance it does not differ from the grandest scenery you can imagine. The frogs, along with the ladybirds, the woodlice and every other facet of this patch are part of a vast ecosystem that connects them and us to the rest of the created order and what we do with it really matters.

In Biblical terms, it is a gift and we have a responsibility to it. Gardening is not just a hobby, something I pick up and put down according to my whims, but an outworking of discipleship.

In practical terms, as industrial agriculture continues to swallow the countryside, suburban gardens are rapidly becoming one of the most important habitats we have. For example, a report by the charity Froglife in 2007 found that eighty per cent of ponds in the countryside were of poor or very poor quality, often because of nitrogen-run off from arable land.

frogs

Davis’s book has spurred me to take our garden more seriously this year than I have in the past.  I want to work our land properly, finding ways to make it as productive and eco-friendly as possible, pushing through my natural reluctance to go outside when it is cold or wet and facing down the the boredom that sometimes sweeps through me when the garden is yet again full of weeds and the vegetable plants failing to produce as I hoped they would.

I am not saying we will save the world just by cultivating our gardens. But I do think paying serious attention to the land on our doorsteps is foundational to responding to the environmental crisis. Another book I read recently, Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith, puts it well:

Gardening work creates in us an indispensable ‘imaginary’ that enables us to think, feel, and act in the world with greater awareness for life’s complexity and depth. Gardens are the concentrated and focused places where people discover and learn about life’s creativity and interdependence.

I think a lot of us need to develop this ‘imaginary’. In her book, Davis asks why we in the industrialised world are not ‘stricken to the core’ by the way we are relentlessly despoiling the earth. I think part of the answer is that we have become so desensitised to the natural world that we simply do not appreciate the enormity of what is happening.

One way of recovering that sensitivity is, I think, simply to get outside and grow stuff. I am hopeful that by engaging more deeply with our garden I will grow too and be able to live more intelligently at this critical time.

I am worried about the frogs, by the way. For two days after they came the night frost was so hard that the pond froze over. Then it snowed for 36 hours solid. I have taken it for granted that we will have tadpoles in the pond every spring. Now I am not so sure.