Farming as a Spiritual Discipline

There are two heresies we must avoid when it comes to thinking about our relationship to creation.

  1. Creation is that aspect of the created order that we value based on its usefulness or value to our way of living.
  2. Humans are a blight upon the earth and our presence is only and always negative.

Surely we can value creation beyond it’s mere pragmatic implications and certainly God was serious when he said of the sum total of creation (humans included), “It is very good!”  Farming as a Spiritual Discipline, by Ragan Sutterfield, offers some fresh correctives to theses heresies.  Below are those passages that spoke most clearly to me as I read this book.

Tilling, when done well, is serving the land; opening up the ground for new life.

farming as a spiritual discipline

Similar to farming, tilling the soul – when done well – can open the landscape of life for new life.

However much we try to control the conditions, in the end farming is a mostly reactive art, relying on response as much as planning. A farmer can intend to plant peppers on the 20th of May, but then it could rain for two straight weeks without a single break. The best a farmer can plan for is ranges with large margins for change and contingencies.

One of the first things we must understand about the means of grace is that it is not us who steer them.  Rather, it is the Holy Spirit who works through them to do the will of the Father.  The best that we can do is prepare for the ride.

Cultivation and control, those are our two options. And it is in realizing our limits through cultivation that the path of remembering our role as creatures can be found. The other option is a perversion of agriculture toward false hopes of control and omnipotence that offer no spiritual help other than a lesson in the dangers of pride.

We can cultivate the Holy Spirit in our lives, but never control the Holy Spirit.  As Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wants, so it is with the Holy Spirit.”

Good farming adapts its practices to the way of the landscape.   In the permaculture movement for instance, farmers are advised to spend a year observing a piece of land before beginning cultivation. Though all aren’t able to do such observation the principle is still sound. How does the land slope, where does water gather after a rain, what kinds of grasses, legumes and forbes are growing on the land? All of these are important indicators of soil health and the presence or lack of certain nutrients.

Before we jump in and try to fix ourselves through spiritual disciplines perhaps we should sit before the Lord and allow Him to assess the condition of our soil.  He knows what is needed in order to grow good fruit.

The weeds are present in part to heal the soil. Rather than just dowsing the field with RoundUp the good farmer will listen to what the weeds are telling him about the soil and try to add back the right amendments to correct the problem.

Our weaknesses and woundedness should not be ignored.  Rather, they can point the way to healing through the inner work of the Holy Spirit.  Living in denial is like pouring RoundUp on our souls.

Every seed planted is an act of faith — we can only provide some of the conditions for growth and hope that the watermelon vines will spread, flower and fruit or the corn will grow, pollinate and spring ears. As any farmer will tell you — a good deal of farming is waiting.

As we seek first the kingdom of God we must learn how to wait.

Our system of valuation is off balance, and as a result we destroy what is valuable and save what is worthless, give to those who do not need and deprive those who do need. Humility and frugality are our paths to find our way back to a true understanding of what is valuable, they are the way through which we can understand the abundance of goods in the world and yet avoid the evils of excesses.

If we do not quickly learn our limits, if we do not learn that it is by spending little and wasting little that we find our way to abundance, then we are doomed to scarcity, now and in the future.

Farming can teach us to live simply.  Simplicity is the key to sustainability in farming, life and ministry.

Humility allows us to sigh: “Enough, the day is done; enough, my body and mind are tired.”

Work on a farm is never done.  Kingdom work is never finished.  If we are not careful we can delude ourselves into thinking it is okay to give up sabbath for one more act of goodness.  Yet, humility reminds us that we are finite and limited.  If we refuse to sabbath then our bodies will force us to sabbath through sickness.

The first step toward the agrarian mind is to become aware of our proxies. … We may not be able to produce our own electricity, but we can surely reduce our dependence upon them. Our power bill then becomes a moral statement. In all the areas of our lives where we rely on others to produce goods for us we must become aware that as consumers of those goods they are doing it for us by proxy. What they do, they do in our name. It is our responsibility to make sure that they do this work as we would have them do it.

The second step toward the agrarian mind is to reduce the number of proxies we live by. … The more we take on production rather than consumption the more we will have to change our entire pattern of living. We will, for the most part, spend less money than we once did, but we will have to spend more time as well. This will mean that we may have to look at our work differently. Rather than work being purely a way of selling our time for the money needed for consumption, we may begin to want to sell less of our time so that we can spend more of it making a productive home.

This is a rather good exercise for raising awareness.  Our lives and lifestyles have a profound impact that goes beyond what we can see in the comfort of our own living rooms.  Certainly I am not going to give up all of my proxies, but I can become more conscious of which proxies I employ.

Farming, more than anything else recently, has made me evaluate how I spend my time.  I now have to be up at a certain hour to let the animals out and make sure they have fresh food, water and straw.  I have to be home at a certain time to make sure they all get put away for the night.  I need to be alert and ready when the coyotes come into the yard.  (Found one this morning roaming around my goat pen checking things out!)  I have to know when the rabbits will give birth, when to collect the eggs, when the right time to slaughter is, and so on.  Farming brings into sharp contrast the life of routine and structure and that of on-the-go craziness that characterizes our culture.

If we are going to bring Eden into our cities we are going to have to do it subversively, starting at the margins, in the “abandoned places of Empire.” Before we can uproot golf courses with vegetable gardens, we must start with weed lots and grass-cracked parking lots.

Lord guide us to your work in this city, show us where you have sown seeds for us to water.  Give us the tools and character to carry out the work, Continue to inspire and give growth And let us celebrate your abundant gifts with all those who share in your work and labor. Amen.

We need to invite the church to get dirty. Too often churches see a community farm or garden and want to give their money, but we need their time, their hands to pull weeds, their bags of leaves, their table scraps turned in compost piles. Money is easy, the most ready wealth is sometimes the hardest.

Many communities have job training money for high school students that usually means doing filing in some office building. We should offer job training in our community gardens, giving youth the skills, character and discipline that is required to get up early, work hard, and bear heat, cold and exhaustion.

Eating seasonally will help us get in touch with the life of a farmer.  Here are some suggestions: 1. Eat seasonally at least twice a week. 2. Buy those meals from a local farmer and get to know him and his farm. 3. Plant a small garden (4×4) and practice.

Now it’s time to get dirty!


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