Good Work

My work with Shalom Farms is now behind me but as I continue weekly theology readings, this summer’s experiences remain fresh in my memory. Last week I read “The Body and the Earth,” an essay in which Wendell Berry illuminates the analogous plights of the human body and the land (agricultural land in particular) in modern society, and the potential for their common healing. As so often is the case with Berry’s writing, a good portion of the essay is concerned with the meaning and value of good workin that healing process. Having only recently finished my work with Shalom, I find Berry’s thoughts on the subject of good work to be of particular relevance. I’d like to use this blog post and my next to explore just a bit the notion of good work and perhaps to unearth a constructive definition and approach to its pursuit.

Let’s turn first to a helpful presentation of good work:

There is work that is isolating, harsh, destructive, specialized, or trivialized into meaninglessness. And there is work that is restorative, convivial, dignified and dignifying, and pleasing. Good work is not just the maintenance of connections – as one is now said to work “for a living” or “to support a family” – but the enactment of connections. It is living, and a way of living; it is not support for a family in the sense of an exterior brace or prop, but is one of the forms and acts of love. (The Art of The Commonplace, 133)

What is most striking to me about this passage are the many simultaneous goods that are enacted by good work, both within the person who is working, and in the world he works upon. This is perhaps the hallmark of good work. Not only will good work be “restorative, convivial, dignified, dignifying, and pleasing,” for the person performing the work, but it has also a positive outward influence as “the enactment of connections,” and “one of the forms and acts of love.” The enactment of connections Berry refers to here is his solution to the pervasive alienation and fragmentation he observes in everything from agriculture to the modern psyche to the household to contemporary medicine. Healing is to be found in integration, restoration of those vital relationships that sustain life. Berry writes, “Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection ishealth.” (132) In other words, health is wholeness, and wholeness is realized by the reconciliation of parts, both interior and exterior.

The work of Jesus is our perfect example of good work. Jesus’ ministry was one of healing – physical, spiritual, and relational. His message is one of reconciliation – amongst all of the human family, and of every son and daughter to their loving Father. Health, wholeness, holiness – this is God’s will for His creation. In Colossians 1:20 we read that Jesus came, “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” All of Creation is destined for unity in the loving embrace of the Holy Trinity, itself the perfection of unity.

Amazingly, we are invited to participate in that unity even now, and in so doing to be part of the Creation’s reconciliation and healing. We are the Body of Christ, one Body of many bodies. As the Body of Christ, we are to do the work of Christ. To complete the Body of Christ means that each one of us must use our unique gifts to continue Jesus’ work in the way only we can. This diversity in the Body of Christ is not a cause of division; rather it is unified in God’s purpose.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12)

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27)

This image of the body beautifully expresses that inseparable relationship between the integrity of the individual and the health of the whole that is achieved through good work. When each part of the body is whole and healthy and functioning as it was created to function, then so too does each part of the body contribute to the wholeness and health of the entire body, and its good and proper functioning. This is that very hallmark of good work we identified earlier – that it is both interiorly and exteriorly restorative, healing for the individual and for the whole.

For Berry, good work is epitomized in good farming. By it, “we enact and understand our oneness with the Creation, the conviviality of one body with all bodies” (133). But what the image of the Body of Christ affirms is that there is much good work to be done, and innumerable good ways to do it. There are as many expressions of the conviviality of one body with all bodies as there are bodies. To discern that particular expression of oneness with the Creation that we must enact is to discern our unique part in the Body of Christ.

In my next post I hope to continue my exploration of good work and apply it to my own work experience this summer.


Strength of Community

Although adjusting to life in Kenya was by no means easy, the truly difficult chapter of my journey has presented itself in the last week, since returning from Kenya. Adjustment from the third world back to the first, I have found, is a process that leaves one with more questions than answers.

Sitting in the house of my childhood, where everything is left as I remember it, and where old friends and family have been and continue to pay me regular visits, all sorts of stimuli nevertheless surprise, offset, offend and confuse me. Even though I’m home, I feel like a stranger.

Going to a restaurant, I’ll take one glance at the menu and immediately my eyes will dim into the thousand-mile stare. The coffee costs three dollars here? I knew a man in Kenya who delayed medical treatment for his ailing wife because he couldn’t come up with that much! Perhaps television will offer solace? No, it does not; in Kenya, what little television I saw advertised cooking oil, soap, cement and other basic necessities. Here, I witness programs interspersed with advertisements for sports cars, children’s fashion (children’s fashion!) and casinos. My sensation is that, in one day of aerial travel, I must have accidentally stumbled into another dimension.

The dichotomy is this: America is a culture constructed around the individual, while Kenya is a culture of community. In the United States, an eighteen-year-old is expected to move out of his or her parents’ house and begin work or studies shortly after high school. In Kenya, one is welcome to live with their parents indefinitely. In the United States, it is forbidden to touch children who are not your own. In Kenya, children will climb onto the laps of complete strangers to make room for other adults on public transportation, and the strangers will happily and wordlessly embrace them. In America, most meals (except dinner) are eaten alone. In Kenya, it is taboo to eat alone, and someone must always join you, even for a snack. I found this latter trait the most surprising and the most admirable: I brought a large quantity of granola bars and beef jerky to Kenya to give to friends as a novelty, and every time I shared this food, without fail, it was placed in the pocket of the recipient, only to be opened and consumed later when the whole family could have a taste.

Those commercials I mentioned earlier reinforce this idea. Kenyans advertise antibacterial soap to protect one’s children from disease, cement to construct a sturdy home, and cooking oil to provide better nutrition at family meals. Americans advertise clothes that turn children into fashion accessories, cars whose sole purpose is to flaunt wealth, and casinos where whole paychecks are blown on cheap thrills and vice.

Apologists of individualism often make the claim that America’s individual-oriented culture is responsible for its fantastic wealth and productivity, and that communalistic cultures like Kenya’s are comparatively slow at the generation of wealth. I don’t dispute this claim; to some extent, it is likely true. But is this really a good reason to strive toward individualism?

I say no. Indeed, although I’m enjoying sleeping on a real mattress, eating a wide variety of foods and having a car to drive, my heart still pines for Kenya. I had something there that America (or at least my corner thereof) seems to be lacking:


I feel as though I, along with most Americans, are described perfectly by the following passage from Ecclesiastes:

“There was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked,
‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’
This too is meaningless—
a miserable business!” (4:8)

I would trade all of my first world conveniences in a heartbeat to reenter the tightly-knit community I had in Kenya. Over the course of eight weeks, I learned to listen to people like I’ve never done before, to invest emotionally in them and allow them in turn to invest in me, to eat together, pray together, solve disputes together, keep no secrets and be proactive rather than reactive in dealing with others. Truly, I caught a fleeting glimpse of what it means to love one’s neighbor. And, just as my roots began to fasten me to the land, the language, the people, and the culture,

My time expired, and I was uprooted.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer. […] God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself” (Life Together, 19, 23). I couldn’t agree more.

In America, I feel isolated. Ours is a society of human love rather than spiritual love, and human love is simply no substitute for what I became accustomed to in Kenya. Bonhoeffer explains, “Human love is directed to the other person for his own sake, spiritual love loves him for Christ’s sake. Therefore, human love seeks direct contact with the other person; it loves him not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself. […] It creates of itself an end, an idol which it worships, to which it must subject everything. It nurses and cultivates an ideal, it loves itself, and nothing else in the world” (34-5).

A quote from Ecclesiastes is once again appropriate: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!” (1:2).

There is, however, one positive aspect to my having lost the Kenyan community: now, in the land of consumerism, irreligiously and superficiality, it is the time for me to test my spiritual mettle. Indeed, “this is the place where we find out whether the Christian’s meditation has led him into the unreal, from which he awakens in terror when he returns to the workaday world, or whether it has led him into a real contact with God, from which he emerges strengthened and purified. Has it transported him for a moment into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns, or has it lodged the Word of God so securely and deeply in his heart that it holds and fortifies him, impelling him to active love, to obedience, to good works? Only the day can decide” (Bonhoeffer, 88).

Thus, my uprooting has taught me that we cannot escape from the world into the security of our Christian communities, no matter how intoxicating that idea might be. God commands us to confront the real world, and to transform it. As I stated in my last blog post, one of the duties of Christians is to live their lives as testimonies to the love of Christ, in a sort of passive evangelism. This cannot happen if Christians are entirely insular.

In conclusion, community is indispensable to the Christian, because it gives him or her strength, proper understanding of the Gospel and an opportunity to witness the first fruits of God’s Kingdom. Simultaneously, time apart from the community is equally necessary, in order to test the resolve of individual Christians and spread the message to nonbelievers. Only a proper balance of both will ensure a Christianity that is as true as it is strong.

Honoring the Goodness of Creation (a sermon on Creation Sunday)

On Sunday I had the humbling (and somewhat terrifying) experience of preaching at a Richmond Methodist church. The church was Bel Air United Methodist, an incredibly supportive partner of Shalom Farms over the past several years. Every August this church celebrates Creation Season, reflecting each Sunday on a different aspect of God’s creation and the call to stewardship. It was a real privilege to get to share many of the themes and ideas I have been reflecting on this summer with the beautiful and welcoming community at Bel Air. Below is my sermon on Genesis 1:1-25 and John 1: 1-14.

Today’s readings from Genesis and John are two of the most familiar passages of the Bible. They are our creation myth. They tell our story – the story of God’s relationship with God’s creation. This is a story we have heard more times than we can count. But it isn’t a story for the history books – over and done with, put on a shelf to gather dust. This is a story that is continually unfolding, made timeless in the realm of eternity, and made particular in our own lives by the reality of the incarnation. The same God who started it all in the beginning of creation is still creatively active in the world – and in each of us – today.   

All throughout the creation narrative in Genesis 1 God reveals to us who He is through His action of creating. Again, perhaps we have heard this story so many times that we don’t notice the peculiar way God creates in the Genesis account. If we pay attention, we see that God literally speaks Creation into being. God said “let there be light,” and there was light; Godsaid “Let there be a dome in the middle of the waters,” and there was sky, and so on and so forth.

We know that words are powerful – they can hurt and heal, build up and bring down, tell a story, evoke a feeling, rouse us to action, preserve a history. Perhaps the best example of the power of word is poetry. Anyone who has ever been moved by a poem or a song – and I think that’s all of us – knows this. In poetry, words are used in their most efficient, concentrated, potent form. Robert Browning, a Victorian poet wrote, “God is the perfect poet, / Who in his person acts his own creations.”  All of creation is God’s poem. God’s Word is so powerful, that it actually fashions and shapes reality. So when God says at the end of each day in the Creation Story that what he has made is “good,” we can trust his Word.

In the second reading today, from the Gospel of John, we learn more about this powerful Word of God.  We learn that this awesome Word, the Word that was there in the beginning, the Word through which “Everythingcame into being,” the Word that is with God and is God, the Word that brings Life and Light, that very Word “became flesh and made his home among us.” God stepped into His poem. It’s as though God was so absolutely certain of the goodness of His creation that He made himself a part of it – a creature, fully human (yet still, mysteriously, fully God) – to speak to the world the truth of its identity. The incarnation is the ultimate affirmation of the goodness of creation. It is God reclaiming and reasserting that goodness.

We of course know that this goodness isn’t the whole story. Our passage from John also talks about darkness. We know the reality of that darkness – we know it in our own hearts and in our own lives; and we know it in the war and hunger, poverty and injustice, discrimination and exclusion, greed and exploitation that afflict every corner of Creation. But darkness, evil, sin – whatever we wish to name it – is not the final word in God’s poem. The final word is, of course, The Word. And that Word is light, and life, and love. “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn’t overcome it.”

John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” We see here that the world is good – not by its own merit, but purely by virtue of the fact that God loves it. This is the most fundamental truth of God’s creation – it is good because it is beloved. This is also the most fundamental truth of our identity. We see in our reading from John that when we welcome this truth, this light, this life, we find ourselves as God’s children.

As God’s children we can claim our special calling as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. We can, like God, affirm the goodness of God’s creation in ourselves, in one another, and in the world. We can, like God,love God’s creation in ourselves, in one another, and in the world. This is our calling. In Romans chapter 8, we read “the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed… in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” God names us His beloved children and calls us to participate in His divine will for all of His creation to know the freedom and glory for which it is created. God invites us into His poem that transforms darkness into light, death into life and continues to bless his Creation, calling it good and loving it into that reality.

In this way, our mission is the same as the mission of John the Baptist that we hear about in the second reading – “to testify concerning the light.” Our mission is to bear witness to the light, to echo the good Word. To let God’s great love poem to His creation be reflected in the living poetry of our own lives. To live in a way that honors the goodness of God’s creation. In the words of one of my heroes and a great lover of Creation, Wendell Berry, “to love all Creation in response to the Creator’s love for it.”

This is a tall order. But we can begin just by reading God’s poetry – by being attentive to God’s presence in and among us revealing His love for His creation. We can experience God’s loving presence when we come together in community to worship like this morning, or to share a meal. God may speak His poem to us in a still small voice when we sit in prayer. We may come to know the goodness of creation and Creator in the beauty of nature. There are infinite ways God can make Himself and His truth known to us if we pay attention. My work with Shalom Farms this summer introduced me to new ways of reading God’s poetry in the world, new ways of appreciating and praising His goodness in His creation. From the great generosity of people who have so little in the eyes of the world, to the downright miracle of compost that resurrects life and abundance out of death and decay, at every turn I have met God, alive and active in His good creation. Where does God greet you with the goodness of His creation? How does He tell you that you are His beloved? How is God speaking His poem to you in the day-to-day – at home, at work, at school, at church, in the garden, in relationships, in failures and weaknesses, in joys?

Even as we practice reading God’s poetry, we start to participate in it. We find that we are part of the poem – part of God’s plan for drawing all of His creation into the fullness of light and life and love. We find that we are called to grow our own hearts ever closer toward the heart of the Perfect Poet. We find that we are empowered by the Spirit to challenge anything that disgraces the goodness of creation – war and hunger, poverty and injustice, discrimination and exclusion, greed and exploitation – and usher in God’s Reign of peace, justice, generosity, abundance, and love. We hear God’s ancient blessing of goodness on creation resounding even now, conforming the world to that truth. And our lives start to ring along with all of Creation in praise to the Creator.

Attention as Prayer

I have a devotional book called Seven Sacred Pauses based on the Liturgy of the Hours observed by many monastic communities who pause for prayer seven times each day – at midnight, dawn, midmorning, noon, mid-afternoon, evening and night. The book offers reflections, prayers, Psalms, and quotations that speak to the themes of each of those seven holy hours. The author, a Benedictine sister named Macrina Wiedekhehr, invites the reader to move more mindfully through each day by pausing and being prayerfully present to each hour. I have underlined, starred and dog-eared my way through the book in the past six months, turning and returning to it in an attempt to be faithful to that practice. Attempt is of course the operative word here, and in recent times my practice has waned to a brief word of praise or petition, once before running off to work and then later before falling quickly asleep. Aside from the fleeting moment of awe at a perfect silver moon, or the desperate plea for divine intervention when car trouble strikes, there is little in my day that closely resembles prayer between the waking and sleeping hours. But in the past week or two, one of those starred, underlined and dog-eared quotes in my book of hours has taken up new meaning, calling me to return once again to the sacred discipline of presence. The quote comes from John Kirvan and reads, “There comes a moment when attention must be paid… A time to embrace mystery as my native land. And silence as my native tongue” (Seven Sacred Pauses, 176).

Paying attention is something we talk a lot about at the farm. My theological mentor and Shalom’s farm manager, Steve, says it’s the only way to be a good farmer. You can be as calculating and precise and hardworking as you like, but you will never be a good farmer if you don’t pay attention. That’s because there is no definitive formula for success, no foolproof plan or program to be imposed or applied to guarantee a perfect crop. (Really, there is no such thing as “the perfect crop.”) Any good farmer knows there are simply too many variables, too many unknowns – and unknowables – in the complex interrelationships of all the manifold living and inert elements and forces of nature to ever claim complete command (or even understanding) of a farm. There is always more to learn. Nature is the teacher and the judge, with all her baffling intricacies and inscrutable patterns, unfolding not only over seasons and years but centuries and eons. Norman Wirzba, in his book Food and Faith, writes, “The key to successful gardening is that the gardener be available to learn what the garden has to teach” (58). The farmer’s (or gardener’s) is necessarily a posture of deep humility and vigilant attention before what Wendell Berry and many other agrarian mystics call mystery – that fundamentally illusive and incomprehensible character of the natural world. To pay attention is indeed, as Krivan says, “to embrace mystery.” It is to leave behind all certainties, diagnoses, and preconceptions, and offer instead a receptive silence.

Wirzba writes, “When we become more attentive, a most important result becomes possible: we begin to see the world as it more nearly is rather than as we wish it to be” (55). He continues, “The discipline of attention works to remove the destructive ambition and ego so that what lies before us can speak for itself” (55). Here we see that for Wirzba, paying attention is a practice with applications and implications extending far beyond the realm of agriculture. In my work with Shalom off the farm I am realizing more and more the truth in this insight.

One of the most challenging and also worthwhile parts of my internship is working with the kids at the Neighborhood Resource Center. Shalom Farms provides produce each week for these students to sell at their pop-up farm stand. The Farm Stand model is one Shalom is developing in order to address both immediate need and long-term food security in food deserts by making nutritious food available at a reduced cost and providing an educational opportunity for youth. Kids are exposed to fresh local produce as well as the ins and outs of running a small business while the neighborhood benefits from an affordable and convenient outlet for vegetables and fruit. The Neighborhood Resource Center sits on Williamsburg Road in Fulton, a low-income neighborhood on the Southside of Richmond. Most of the kids who participate in after school care and other programming at the NRC suffer some combination of poverty, abuse, neglect, home-life instability, violence, learning disability, emotional disturbance or behavioral problem. And so a few crates of organic vegetables and a fun activity can seem like a pretty meager offering. But Penny, the wise, loving, and truly saintly programming coordinator of the Neighborhood Resource Center assured me, “The most important thing you can give these kids is your attention.”

Beyond the truth of these words in terms of childhood development and encouraging personal self-worth, I think there is rich theological insight to be explored here. Much like paying attention on the farm means forgoing preconceptions, assumptions and prognoses, so too must we meet the mystery of the other with a welcoming space and silence. Truly paying attention to another is perhaps the most deeply life affirming power we have. By it we acknowledge the individuality of the other, their inherent value as subject, neither object nor means of some personal end. But our language about attention – that it is something one pays the other – doesn’t convey what I am discovering to be its fundamentally reciprocal action. When we make ourselves attentive we create room not only for the other to be present as they truly are but also to receive in ourselves the gift of their presence. As I have experienced first hand with the students at the NRC, “paying attention” is actually as much about receiving as giving. Anything I might give to these kids in the form of my attention is returned to me many times over in unabashed affection, laughter, creative energy, hope, and broadened perspective.

To pay attention is to enter a sacred and mutually transformative reciprocity of relating. In being attentive to the other, we turn outward from ourselves to acknowledge the other and invite them in, affirming their otherness while simultaneously welcoming their experience into ours. This deep form of sharing begins to approach perichoresis – a word theologians use to describe the interrelating or communion of the Holy Trinity. Wirzba characterizes perichoresis as ”mutual abiding,” describing it as “the one ‘making room’ in itself or the other” (9, Food and Faith), while Leonardo Boff defines it as “mutual presence” (24, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor). Thus, paying attention becomes an experience of utmost theological significance inasmuch as it draws us toward the very heart of Trinitarian communion. Wirzba writes, “In its deepest and most concentrated forms, attention becomes a form of prayer, a practice in which the truth and integrity of the world and the grace of God can shine” (55).

True attention – to our work, to the natural world, to the people around us, to the mystery that surrounds, penetrates and saturates each of our lives – is true prayer. But how can we achieve such perfection of attention? I can attest (and did, in my first paragraph) to the great challenge of such a discipline. But I think it is helpful to remember that paying attention is a practice, which means it must be practiced. And constantly. It is not just in “sacred pauses” that I am called to be attentive – although this is an undoubtedly valuable discipline. Rather, every moment is an invitation to presence: “A time to embrace mystery as my native land. And silence as my native tongue.” As in so many previous blog posts I find myself rediscovering the truth that the spiritual life draws us not away from the world but more deeply into it.  Attention can indeed be cultivated among the crops and amidst vegetable-vending middle-schooler mayhem, and practiced everywhere in between. In this way our very living can be transformed into prayer,  “in which the truth and integrity of the world and the grace of God can shine” (55).