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.


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).

Mildred in the Desert

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.  – Isaiah 43:19

Last Monday a group of residents from Hillside Court piled into a passenger van and drove forty minutes outside the city to Goochland County to volunteer at the farm. These visits are one of many ways Shalom is working to address the diverse and complex contributors to food insecurity in targeted neighborhoods. Volunteers come and see the farm in action, learn a bit about growing food, get down to work mulching, composting, planting or harvesting, and walk away with bags of produce they had a hand in producing and what was hopefully an instructive and meaningful experience. For some folks in the group last week this was their first time stepping foot on a farm; for others it was their first trip to Shalom; but for Mildred it was like going home.

Mildred lives in Hillside Court, one of many government housing projects in Richmond. The closest grocery store is over four miles away and, like over fifty percent of residents of Hillside, Mildred doesn’t have a car. For most residents that trek must be traversed on foot or on the city bus – either endeavor is a serious time commitment, given the bus ride is about an hour and a half one way. Aside from the collard greens growing in a tub beside Mildred’s front door, the closest sign of fresh food might be a few sad-looking, overpriced, under-purchased bananas or apples on the counter at the corner store. Hillside is what urban planners and other people who study food systems would call a food desert. Mildred is what I would call a deep spring.

When I first met her I was on a site-visit with my boss, Dominic, to an expansive grassy plateau that sits above Hillside, a potential location for Shalom’s first urban farm. Mildred greeted Dominic with a wide grin and the biggest embrace her tiny frame could offer my 6’7” boss. Turning her dark, glowing face to me, she offered one of those great smiles and her wrinkled hand, small but strong. After catching Dominic up on neighborhood happenings, she led us to her front door where she proudly displayed the cluster of collard greens growing from the tub Shalom had provided in a container gardening workshop at Hillside several months before. She glowed as she told us about the many collard-garnished meals she’d enjoyed out of that one little collard patch. It was a tiny oasis in the food desert that stretched for miles around, kept verdant by Mildred’s well-deep devotion, free-flowing love and weathered hands. As Dominic and I drove off, he assured me Mildred knew more about growing food than either of us.

I didn’t remember her when she stepped out of the van on Monday; our previous meeting had been so brief that her wide smile and tiny frame seemed to me only vaguely familiar. It wasn’t until I watched the deep way she looked at the fields, heard how profoundly she breathed in the fresh country air, that I recognized her as Mildred, keeper of the oasis in the Hillside desert. Then I could almost see the dewy contentment hovering cloudlike over her wide brimmed hat, the joy pooling around her boots. As we picked cucumbers together under the baking sun, memories, stories, and bits of farming wisdom flowed out of her like sweet water, and I drank it all up.

She told me about the farm she grew up on with her eleven brothers and sisters. It had been in her mother’s family for generations. She told me about how hard they all worked, her sisters around the house with her mother and she in the field with her father and brothers. You couldn’t keep her inside, she said. She told me about her father’s old plow mule (he never did switch to a tractor), how he’d head for the barn at noon everyday, like clockwork. Mildred’s father could be in the middle of shaping a bed and that mule would start off toward the house, clear across every one of those straight rows. She stood up from her bent-over cucumber-picking position as she told me this in order to gesture dramatically with her arms before bending over again, this time from laughter. She told me about the chickens and the milking cows, and the shelves stocked with canned and pickled things her mother put up for the winter. She told me about how bitter times could be – she went a whole year without shoes – but how sweet the watermelons were on a summer afternoon, straight off the vine, a Sunday treat.

Mildred told me, “Ask me something about the city and I won’t have any idea. Ask me anything you want about the country and I’ll know. I’m a country girl.” I don’t know about all the turns in Mildred’s long road from the farm in North Carolina to projects of Richmond – her father got sick, her mother went blind, she followed her fiancé north, then the wheelbarrow filled up with cucumbers and we were on to the next task. And I was left with my head swimming, my heart saturated with Mildred’s story. To think that Mildred’s tub of collard greens is the only remnant of her beloved farming life makes you wonder how that bubbling spring of a lady isn’t a bucket of tears. Yet somehow, miraculously, there doesn’t seem to be even a drop of bitterness in her. She’s a deep spring – she draws from a deep Source.

My encounter with Mildred has left me not with any particular or profound theological insight, but with a thirst – for righteousness like a mighty stream, for justice like rolling waters – and a hope in the deep spring in the Hillside desert.

Nuns on the Bus and In(ter)dependence Day (Some More Thoughts on Community)

Standing in church last Sunday I could sense in myself a familiar unease as the beginning chords to “America the Beautiful” soared from the organ pipes to the vaulted gothic ceiling above. Despite the Catholic Church’s recent politically charged actions, I, more often than not, take my church and state to be separate, and comfortably so. I have always felt a decided distaste towards religious patriotism and patriotic religiosity. The idea that the United States has any special right to God’s truth, favor, or love strikes me as not only uncomfortable but untrue. And I have been often deeply troubled by the religious right’s narrow appropriation of Christian teaching and values. But even as I squirm at the thought of religion and politics mixing, I am beginning to understand the necessity of their interaction and the great potential for their healing dialogue.

Last week I reflected on the need for and pursuit of community in light of a global industrial capitalist economy. For Wendell Berry, a body politic or a “public” is very different from a community. In his formulation, the least common denominator of the public is the individual, whereas a community cannot be reduced beyond a marriage or a family – microcosms of community. A public does not hold the same sense of belonging to the land and to one another cultivated in community nor the responsibility that accompanies that sensibility. And while I believe the pursuit of community is deeply needed, at times in Berry’s writing the goal seems idealistic or archaic, achievable only in some agrarian small-town fantasy. But if community is to offer any hope to this country and this world, as I truly believe it does, then its principles must be practical and scalable in this country and in this world. And that means they must somehow function in and through the two major human organizations of our day – the church and the state. That same Sunday I half-heartedly sang the patriotic recessional hymn, I caught a glimpse of how community might be the common ground on which religion and politics meet, nourishing the integrity of each.

On Sunday the “Nuns on the Bus” visited Shalom Farms. This group of religious sisters toured the nation to raise awareness broadly about how Catholic social teaching should inform Catholic political sensibility and specifically regarding the morally reproachable Ryan budget, which proposes reducing the deficit by cutting funding to programs that support the most vulnerable members of our society. Having stopped in eight other states, the nuns made their way to Richmond and the office of Representative Eric Cantor before finishing their tour in Washington, DC. At each stop, the Nuns on the Bus visited a congressman supporter of the budget and a “mission site” that represents a community response to the needs of the people this budget would most hurt. When they visited Shalom, I was struck by how the sisters’ position as members of a particular community had equipped them to engage the political realm – and the world – in a special way.

Monastic community is often painted in an unflattering light – pious navel gazers hoarding their holiness in a life safely removed from the squalor of the real world, or something along those lines. Even having met monks and nuns who utterly defy unfair stereotypes of this kind, I sometimes struggle with whether or not religious community adequately answers the call to be “in the world,” particularly with regards to cloistered communities. While the Nuns on the Bus are not of the cloistered variety – many of them are social workers or work in other helping professions – they do represent something of great value that I think all monastic communities can teach us: they “get” community. It was after-all a religious sister, Mother Theresa, who said, “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” That sense of belonging, of community, was so evident in the Nuns on the Bus. And what was so amazing to realize was that the same sensibility nurtured by the sisters’ communal life informs their engagement with the rest of society – i.e. church and state. It is their intrinsic sense of community that allows them to understand their responsibility to the world outside their order – that they belong to it and are responsible for it. Far from cutting the sisters off from society, their religious life draws them more deeply into it, in service to their neighbors and toward an ever-expanding sense of community. Their value of community, learned and practiced in their immediate religious community, enables them to hold the Church and the state to the same standard, and pursue the transformation that would make the Christian community and the American community worthy of that word.

Wendell Berry has probably never used the word community to describe the church or the nation. A community for Berry is necessarily local – it cannot be abstracted from its relationship to a particular place. But I am realizing now how our immediate communities can teach us a way of being in relationship with one another that is not confined to a church building, a city district or a county line. If we can see the interconnectedness – mutual belonging and responsibility – of our individual selves within small communities, we can begin to see the same principle holds true on the larger scale. When we understand ourselves as belonging to a particular community in a particular place, we can begin to understand that our community belongs to a larger one, and that to a larger one still until we can finally see ourselves as belonging to the entire world. Our communities are not self-sufficient any more than we as individuals are. Rather, every individual is taken up into a community and with it into the membership of all creation. Thus local communities can become classrooms for learning the values that create and nourish a global community.

Priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen observed, “There are many groups that have been formed to protect their own interests, to defend their own status, or to promote their own causes, but none of these is a Christian community. Instead of breaking through the walls of fear and creating new space for God, they close themselves to real or imaginary intruders.” This describes the sort of religiosity and patriotism I balk at. If our devotion to our church or to our country is based on an “us and them” mentality, it will never lead us to the Kingdom. A “community” understands little of community if it cannot see itself as belonging to something larger than itself, if it is insular or exhaustively self-serving. If, however, our love for our church and our country grows from a sense of mutual belonging and toward a community that encompasses the entire world, then I can’t see how it wouldn’t. If we could celebrate interdependence (as my boss instructed me to do upon giving me the 4th of July off from work) and practice it as a nation, this would radically change our government and our relationship with the rest of the world. If we could embody as a church the interdependence that we as a church teach, we could be that change – the Body of Christ building up the Kingdom.

“Community,” Nouwen writes, “is grounded in God, who calls us together… The mystery of community is precisely that it embraces all people, whatever their individual differences, and allows them to live together as brothers and sisters of Christ and sons and daughters of his heavenly Father” (Making All Things New, 83).

Some Thoughts on Community

My readings last week were a collection of essays by Wendell Berry regarding community. This is a topic of real pertinence to my work with Shalom Farms, an organization that recognizes itself as a “community development project” (quoted from the website About page). Community development is a relatively new and admittedly ambiguous category of work. The phenomenon of community is surely as old as humanity itself – so why this recent emergence of organizations like Shalom Farms working in community development? Is community – in principle and practice – threatened? If so, why might its restoration be deemed a worthwhile pursuit? And how might we make it a successful one?

To approach any of these questions we must first ask a more fundamental one – what is community? This question, seemingly the most basic of all, is not easily answered and perhaps not actually answerable in any final way. There are likely as many articulations of community as there are entities that identify themselves as such. So I will turn to Wendell Berry on this matter as he is, if not an expert on, then at least a true devotee of community. In his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” Berry posits that community “has to do first of all with belonging,” that is, “it is a group of people who belong to one another and to their place” (Art of Commonplace, 161). Berry is adamant that this relationship of belonging is not simply characteristic of but in fact unique to community – it is what distinguishes community from any other collection of individuals. “We would not say,” he reasons, “We belong to our public,” but we do indeed say, “We belong to our community” (161). This belonging is not an abstract common sentiment; rather it is a recognition of and a response to what Berry calls “the constraints of community life” (163).

Thus belonging and responsibility emerge as hallmarks of community in Berry’s formulation. That is, members of a community share in a sense of mutual belonging “to one another and to their place” understood and actualized in real responsibility to the life of that community – those members and the common ground beneath them. Equipped with this working (albeit incomplete) definition of community, we can return to the original questions.

How might we explain the recent emergence of organizations working in community development?

This question is perhaps sufficiently answered via the question that follows – is community in peril? But first, we would do well to note that current efforts in community development reflect not necessarily a lack or need but unquestionably a value judgment. It is quite clear that many peopleperceive that community is under threat and that they are disturbed by this reality, as evidenced by their effort to change it. That is, we believe community – however it is conceived – is something of great value and, if endangered, entirely worthy of saving.

So, is community – in principle and practice – threatened?

Berry’s writing resounds with an unequivocal “yes” to this question. He alternatively cites globalization, industrialization, capitalism, radical individualism, and “the present economic and technological monoculture” (162) as serious threats to the livelihood of communities. Most basically he faults the ascendency of the private interest in the public sphere. As Berry sees it, the thrust of modern politics is the single-minded protection of individual liberties under the law. This emphasis is, Berry suggests, dangerously misplaced, for “one individual represents no fecundity, no continuity, and no harmony” (162). What’s more, “the individual life implies no standard of behavior or responsibility” (162). Thus, “freedom” is misconstrued “as a license to pursue any legal self-interest at large and at will in the domain of public liberties and opportunities” (163). “People,” Berry writes, “are instructed to free themselves of all restrictions, restraints, and scruples in order to fulfill themselves as individuals to the utmost extent that the law allows” (163).

The deep irony Berry distills is that in this globalized, industrialized, capitalistic, technological age, most people are actually “free to make very few significant choices” (163). The “freedom” we have achieved has landed us in “a rootless and placeless monoculture of commercial expectations and products” (164). Berry writes, “The net result of our much-asserted individualism appears to be that we have become ‘free’ for the sake of not much self-fulfillment at all” (164). As we assert our independence, turning away from community interests and responsibilities, we become more reliant upon systems that scarcely recognize our humanity, much less our individuality. Berry puts it powerfully – “if you are dependent on people who do not know you, who control the value of your necessities, you are not free, and you are not safe” (166). It would seem that the principle and practice of community are indeed in peril. Forces internal and external to themselves threaten to disintegrate communities as individuals become decreasingly accountable to the lives of those near to them and increasingly subjected to dependence upon a placeless economy. Any real sense of belonging or responsibility to a life other than our own or a place other than our private property is being unremittingly dissolved in the modern political, social and economic climate.

Is community restoration a worthwhile pursuit?

Again Berry’s answer is unmistakably affirmative. Championing community for Berry is perhaps the worthwhile pursuit and certainly definitive of his project as a writer, theologian, farmer, and neighbor. But let us explore for a moment ourselves the value of community and its worthiness of defense. On the most basic level, community is necessary for our survival. If this alone seems too basic or mundane a justification for protecting community, may I suggest that our ingenuity and adaptability as a species sustain themselves over time by that same force. Culture, wisdom and tradition too depend entirely upon community for their accumulation and transmission. On a more explicitly theological note, community has essential ontological significance and an eschatological aim: we are told in scripture that where two or more gather in Christ’s name, He is there with us; we proclaim our belief in “the communion of saints” in our creed; we pray to a God who is community – three in one; we talk about the Church as the Body of Christ – many parts but one body; and we announce the Kingdom of God in which all will finally be brought together in Christ. Then the survival of community is absolutely necessary for our physical, cultural, and spiritual survival, and thus unarguably a worthwhile pursuit.

How do we restore community?

We have determined that community is under threat and that it is deeply important that we respond. Now, how do we begin to enact that response? This question is surely as broad as the prior query regarding the meaning of community and is a topic to be given further consideration in future blog posts. But for now it is perhaps useful to look to areas where there is already a concerted effort to restore community. Of particular interest to Wendell Berry, Shalom Farms, and me are community efforts in the food movement. Community gardens and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are becoming fixtures in cities all over the US. People are reclaiming a sense of belonging – to a watershed, a food shed, a local economy – and are embracing the responsibility that follows as they confront the realities of “neighbors downstream,” food deserts, and shared finite resources. Food is the great equalizer and a powerful revelator of our interdependence – we all must eat and we are all fundamentally dependent upon other creatures to do so. It is only natural then that food would impart a sense of belonging and responsibility to our fellow creatures and the places we inhabit. For Christians, food takes on even greater significance and unifying power. Jesus Christ gives Himself to us as food, and that food is our Communion. As Christian communities gather around the table, they become that which they receive: the Body of Christ. This Communion is a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet we await in faith and announce in our living.

Berry’s prognosis on the current state of affairs is a grim one. But his hope in the power of community is as real and as deep as his love for this troubled, miraculous, broken and blessed world. I will conclude this post not with any cohesive conclusion but a poem that conveys that hope:

A Vision
by Wendell Berry

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
there, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windows. The river will run
clear, as we will never know it,
and over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility

And the Last Shall Be First

Last week I attended Lobby Day for Bread for the World in Washington, DC with two of my co-workers at Shalom Farms. Bread for the World is a non-partisan ecumenical Christian advocacy group that works to promote policy that ends hunger here in the States and abroad. Christians from all over the country gathered in the capital last Tuesday to urge our representatives in government to “create a circle of protection around programs vital to hungry and poor people in the U.S. and around the world.” As I listened to the inspired and articulate speakers from Bread for the World and participated in conversations with fellow Bread lobbyers and Senate and Congressional staff people, I was reminded of Leonardo Boff’s presentation of liberation theology in Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor.

Boff explains that liberation theology begins with the poor, that is, “the poor occupy the epistemological locus.” It is from the standpoint of the poor that we are able, not only to “conceive of God, Christ, grace, history, the mission of the churches, the meaning of the economy, politics, and the future of societies and of the human being,” but also recognize “to what extent current societies are exclusionary, to what extent democracies are imperfect, to what extent religions and churches are tied to the interests of the powerful” (107). According to this paradigm, the success of a nation cannot possibly be determined by its GDP nor can the success of a church be measured by the donations it collects each Sunday. Rather, liberation theology looks to “the least of these” as indicators of the health, efficacy and moral soundness of systems and society as a whole. As Boff puts it, “from the standpoint of faith, the poor represent the suffering Savior and the supreme eschatological judge” (109). For Boff, the verdict is clear – the situation of poverty is a social sin, and we are all gravely culpable (109).

Liberation theology places the “last” – the marginalized and victimized – first and so denounces and disrupts the systems of inequality that produce such a class of people in the first instance. For Boff, this “option for the poor” must be enacted – “it means assuming the place of the poor, their cause, their struggle, and at the limit, their often tragic fate” (107). This is exactly the message and mission of Bread for the World – to advocate for those in need and to confront the powers that directly or indirectly produce that situation of need. A speaker at Lobby Day identified Moses’ prophetic mission as a fitting model. Moses’ demands of Pharaoh challenged the economic, political, and cultural norms of the day, effectively dismantling the very fabric of an unjust society. In the tradition of Moses and so many other instruments of God’s redemptive action in the world, Bread for the World seeks the liberation of the poor by “speaking truth to power.”

Boff, however, insists that authentic liberation is possible only when it originates in the poor themselves – that is, when “the poor become the agents of their own liberation” (108). If this is so, is there a place for advocacy? Or is the work of Bread for the World in vain? If we ourselves enjoy some level of privilege – human rights, civil liberties, public services, self-determination, health care, education – are we disqualified from working to secure these same opportunities for the vast majority of the world’s population that is not so fortunate? Surely this cannot be.

While Boff is adamant that “Only when the poor trust in their potential, and when the poor opt for others who are poor, are conditions truly created for genuine liberation” (108), he does not dismiss the participation of the “haves” in the liberation of the “have-nots.” On the contrary, Boff calls us to be “allies of the poor” (108). But this implies a particular kind of relationship. We must move beyond and indeed far away from any paternalistic model of “charity.” Instead, we must recognize the poor not simply for what they lack but for what they have – “culture, ability to work, to work together, to get organized, and to struggle“ (108). What’s more, Boff tells us, we must humbly acknowledge our own poverty:

It is not only the poor and oppressed who must be liberated but all human beings, rich and poor, because all are oppressed by a paradigm – abuse of the Earth, consumerism, denial of otherness, and of the inherent value of each being – that enslaves us all. (113)

Thus we come to find that liberation can only be realized by a collaborative upheaval of what Boff calls “the logic of means at the service of an exclusionary accumulation” and a collective adoption of  “a logic of ends serving the shared well-being of planet Earth, of human beings, and of all beings in the exercise of freedom and cooperation among all peoples” (114).

Like Bread for the World, Shalom Farms, the food security non-profit I’m working with this summer, advocates for the hungry. However, where Bread seeks change on the governmental level, Shalom is largely a grassroots effort working in neighborhoods, schools and church communities. I am becoming more and more convinced that it will take immense efforts and great faith in policy and on the ground to alleviate hunger, poverty and all forms of injustice. And that in both of these arenas it will be critical to maintain what Boff has emphasized and what scripture teaches – that the last shall indeed be first.

Lived Theology, Embodied Theology

The phrase “lived theology” has been turning over in my head for the past several weeks in anticipation of my Lived Theology internship – What does it mean for theology to be lived? What are the implications of such a theology? How might theology be brought to life in one’s being? At some point during this first week of my intership I struck upon the idea of embodiment – that lived theology is embodied theology. Of course to live in this world is to be embodied. From the tiniest single-celled microorganism to the tallest redwood, to you and me, all that lives in this reality finds physical expression in a body. Thus theology that is lived would be theology that is embodied – word made flesh. As I come to recognize theology as something that is necessarily realized in embodiment then I can begin to think about my own embodied nature – and those of all the creatures that surround me – in what I believe to be a more reverential, humble, and ultimately truthful way.

The thinkers whose writings will accompany my work and theological reflection this summer have already proven instructive in this idea of embodiment. Modern agrarian mystics Wendell Berry and Norman Wirzba and Brazilian eco-liberation theologian Leonardo Boff in particular write extensively on the theological significance of the physicality of the world and the bodies that inhabit it. In his essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Berry urges us to move beyond the body-soul dualism that has for centuries broken man into two distinct parts, a body and a soul, placing the latter far above and before the former in theological import. Berry instead recognizes man as “a single mystery,” reminding us of the creation narrative which affirms that “The breath of God is only one of the divine gifts that make us living souls; the other is the dust” (314, The Art of Commonplace). Unlike so many antiquated modes of religious thought that denounce the material realm in an effort to access the spiritual one, Berry’s agrarian theological sensibility holds that “God too loves material things; He invented them” (301, The Art of Commonplace).

The brilliant and sometimes bewildering 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart was certainly of the same mind when he wrote, “Earth cannot get away from heaven: let the earth drop downward or rise upward, heaven still penetrates it” (4, Sermons, Writings and Sayings). Thus a lived or embodied theology cannot be of that dualistic mentality that confuses escapism for piety, rather it must be firmly rooted in the sacred dust of our own body-souls and dwell richly in this good Earth. Such a theology will revere the sacred in not only the community of mankind, that is the Mystical Body of Christ, but in what Boff calls the “cosmic community” as it recognizes the “radical interdependence of living systems” (106, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor). Berry describes this same “radical interdependence” in his own words when he writes, “Between any two humans or any two creatures, all Creation exists as a bond” (297, The Art of Commonplace). Norman Wirzba, in his agrarian mystic essay “The Dark Night of the Soil,” similarly affirms that you and I are essentially “communal and relational;” that each one of us is “a creature formed and sustained through the dynamisms of soil and soul” (153, Heaven’s Earthly Life).

A theology that upholds the sanctity of our bodily existence will concern itself deeply with the manifold relationships that sustain our creaturely state of radical interdependence. Thus, our recognition of ourselves as living bodies lays the groundwork for an ethic that preserves the sacred in the whole membership of God’s creation. Wirzba writes,

There is a correspondence among creatures, a mutual and created harmony and sympathy, that finds its unity and wholeness in God. If we are to come into the presence of God, we must learn to find our place in this created correspondence and live responsible and charitably within it (151, Heaven’s Earthly Life).

Berry too writes of the charity that is required by and grows from what I am calling an embodied or lived theology. “Charity even for one person does not make sense except in terms of an effort to love all Creation in response to the Creator’s love for it” (298, The Art of Commonplace). For Berry, to “love all Creation” is not at all the sentimental abstraction it may seem; rather it is the profound, relentless, and above all practical work of “right livelihood.” He describes the requirements of “complex charity,” writing, “Real charity calls for the study of agriculture, soil husbandry, engineering, architecture, mining, manufacturing, transportation, the making of monuments and pictures, songs and stories” (298, The Art of Commonplace), for charity cannot be practiced without skill. Thus, the response to a true recognition of the sacred in ourselves and our fellow creatures is the pursuit of a living and a society that is “responsible to the holiness of life” (309, The Art of Commonplace). This is the difficult yet necessary project of lived theology and the project that I hope to engage through my work this summer.