Time spent in God’s creation reveals the face of God.
by Nancy Sleeth
Flourish, Spring 2012
Shortly after we moved to Kentucky, a new friend, Sharon, invited me to her house. Sharon lives in an economically challenged section of town alongside people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, including refugee families. Since we are both social exercisers, we decided to go for a walk. Two blocks from her house, Sharon stopped in front of a large empty lot wedged between the fire station and an old cemetery. The lot was filled with trash and broken bottles and had a well-deserved reputation as Drug Deal Central.
“Can’t you just see it? This is the perfect place for a community garden.”
Even at three in the afternoon, I did not feel comfortable entering the abandoned lot, so I was grateful that Sharon stayed on the sidewalk while she shared her vision. “I’ve already talked to the church that owns the land, and they’ve given me the tentative green light. The fire department says it will provide water. And since firefighters are coming and going around the clock, their presence will help prevent vandalism.”
In truth, I could not “see it,” but Sharon was so enthusiastic I tried to stay positive. “That cemetery is beautiful. What’s the history of this place?”
“Thanks for asking.” (I later learned that this is one of Sharon’s trademark responses, and it never fails to bring me joy.) “I’ve been doing some research. Here’s the short version: in the 1840s, there was a terrible cholera epidemic throughout Lexington. A saint of a man, London Ferrell, was an African American pastor in the area. He and the white pastor of the Episcopal church here went around visiting the sick and burying the dead together. Long after the epidemic passed, London Ferrell died and the city held a huge parade honoring him. He was the only African American ever allowed to be buried in this cemetery.”
When she gets going, Sharon’s eyes remind me of sparklers on the Fourth of July. This was shaping up to be more than the normal community garden. I was intrigued.
“How did you get the church interested in the garden project?”
“The elders have been looking for a way to show restitution to this now predominantly African American neighborhood. They see the community garden as an opportunity to bring about racial reconciliation, with people of all ethnic backgrounds working side by side in what is essentially a food desert.”
Ever the pragmatic, I asked, “Okay, I’m sold. What do we need to make it happen?”
“Volunteers, funding, and a whole lot of prayer. We’ll have to build a fence across the front, for security. And I’d like to plant a demonstration orchard with fruit and nut trees. It would be great if we could bring in a local artist to involve school kids in making colorful signs . . .”
God must have a thing for gardens. Within weeks of this conversation, a grant opportunity appeared in my in-box. Sharon’s vision and this funder were truly a match made in heaven. The dream became a reality.
[Related post: Famine to Feast: The Story of Anathoth Community Garden]
Gardeners have a saying: the first year a seedling sleeps, the second year it creeps, and the third year it leaps. My, how this garden has leaped! With several dozen individual plots, a large community garden to provide fresh produce for a local homeless shelter and an after-school program, a meditation space and labyrinth with perennial flower gardens, and a demonstration orchard, the London Ferrell Community Garden is thriving. The project continues to expand with cooking classes, experiential education in the local schools, and composting partnerships with local businesses.
Last Christmas, when Matthew and I downsized to our town house, the hardest thing for me to give up was my garden. My solution: contacting the London Ferrell garden and signing up for a plot—just a short bike ride from our new home.
One early morning in June, I was watering and weeding in the garden. Thanks to the community compost bins and a mountain of aged manure, my vegetables were growing like gangbusters—which this garden has literally done (bust up drug gangs). I worked alone until an elderly woman arrived with her dog. The woman showed me around her plot. The tomatoes and peppers looked healthy, though a bit thirsty, so I offered to drag the hose over. We chatted for a bit, and then I asked if she could use some extra produce—we could barely keep up with our lettuce and peas. She gladly accepted a bundle, and I gratefully accepted her smile. What a perfect way to start my day, working in the garden with a new friend, as God intended.
A Bit of Amish History
Appreciation of nature is a core Christian value, and central to the Amish way of life. If we love the Creator, we should also love his creation. Living off the land serves as a daily reminder that everything we have depends on God.
Because of persecution in the Old World, the Amish fled from Switzerland to isolated regions where they taught themselves farming skills as a means of survival. When they came to North America, they sought and settled in rural areas with rich farmland.
For the Amish, God is manifested in the soil, the weather, the plants, and the animals that surround them. One of humanity’s highest callings is the care of this creation. The first chapter of Genesis repeatedly states that God believes his creation is “good.” One way we show our love for God is by loving what he loves. If God loves his creation, so should we.
Stewardship of the land is a tangible way for us to demonstrate our love for the Creator.
Another key way the Amish show their love for God is through obedience. One of the first instructions in the Bible is for man to tend and protect the garden—abad and shamar in Hebrew. This is not a suggestion; it’s a command. As the Old Testament repeatedly demonstrates, bad things happen when we disobey God. Stewardship of the land is a tangible way for us to demonstrate our love for the Creator.
The Amish also understand that the earth does not belong to us; rather, it is on loan from God. Psalm 24:1 teaches us that “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” If we borrowed a horse and buggy from God, we would not want to return it with the mare unfed, dehydrated, and lame or the buggy full of beer bottles and cigarette butts.
While fewer Amish make their living entirely on the farm, nearly all live in rural areas and supplement their income with gardens and livestock. Feeding a horse is a far different activity than is feeding the gas tank of a car; cars and horses get us where we want to go, but the lessons we learn from birthing, grooming, feeding, mucking, and loving another of God’s creatures cannot be gained in driver’s ed.
Knowing God through Nature
The Amish are not the first to see earth stewardship as a Christian responsibility. From the beginning of church history, sages have told us we need to spend time in nature in order to see the face of God. The Amish, by sticking to a traditional way of life, have resisted the trends that these sages warned against. Here is a sampling of what some fathers of the faith have taught:
The initial step for a soul to come to knowledge of God is contemplation of nature.
-Irenaeus (ca. 120–ca. 202)
Nature is schoolmistress, the soul the pupil; and whatever one has taught or the other has learned has come from God—the Teacher of the teacher.
-Tertullian (160–ca.230), De Testimonio Animae
I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that wherever you go, the least plant may bring you the clear remembrance of the Creator.
-Basil the Great (329–379), Hexaemeron, Homily V, “The Germination of the Earth”
Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?
-St. Augustine (354–430), De Civit. Dei, Book XVI
The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.
-St. John of Damascus (675–749), Treatise
Christ wears “two shoes” in the world: Scripture and nature. Both are necessary to understand the Lord, and at no stage can creation be seen as a separation of things from God.
-John Scottus Eriugena (810–877)
I see You in the field of stars
I see You in the yield of the land
In every breath and sound, a blade of grass, a simple flower,
An echo of Your holy Name.
-Abraham ibn Ezra (1092–1167)
In more modern terms, George Washington Carver captures the wisdom of these church fathers as follows: “I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.”
Love of Nature versus Love of Technology
Of course, spiritual writers are not the only ones to hold the natural world in high esteem. Many twenty-first-century biologists and social scientists are warning that our attraction to technology is separating us from nature. Here’s how I summarize their arguments: gardens grow vegetables; technology turns us into vegetables.
E. O. Wilson is a biologist at Harvard who believes that human beings have an innate attraction to nature. He calls this attraction biophilia. Oliver R. W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic are two researchers who came up with a related word, videophilia. They use this term to describe our attraction to electronic media.
Pergams and Zaradic contend that our tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media is separating us from nature. We are spending less time in parks, less time camping and hiking, and less time in unstructured outdoor play because videophilia is replacing biophilia.
This research certainly seems to be borne out in daily observations, doesn’t it? Yet as valid as these premises are, they do not go far enough.
We are spending less time in parks, less time camping and hiking, and less time in unstructured outdoor play because videophilia is replacing biophilia.
They speak amply of the natural component, but they fail to take into account the spiritual one.
We do have an innate love of nature (biophilia): God loves his creation, and we love what God loves because he made us in his image. But there is ample evidence that green time is being replaced by screen time (videophilia). Four minutes of unstructured play outdoors versus more than six hours of screen time each day certainly does have a profound effect on our children—physically, mentally, and emotionally.
[Related post: Videophilia replacing love of nature]
And what these researchers are not addressing is the spiritual illiteracy that results. Unlike the Amish, who are still connected to the outdoors, the rest of us are forgetting the language of God’s creation.
Gifts from the Garden
While relaxing on a friend’s back porch over a spicy vegetarian stew and homemade bread, the conversation turned, naturally, to food. Everyone around the table expressed concern over how much junk food kids eat and how little time children spend outdoors. Our host said that she watches every afternoon as a group of elementary schoolchildren head to the corner market to purchase their after-school snack. Each child comes out with a supersized soda and a bag of potato chips. Not a small bag—the family size, for each child, every day.
A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine tracking more than 120,000 people for a period of up to two decades identified potato-chip consumption as the number one culprit in weight gain. Two-thirds of American adults are now obese or overweight. Childhood obesity has tripled in the last three decades. If these children were harvesting potatoes after school instead of potato chips, their health would benefit.
I doubt that many of these schoolchildren connect the puffy fried wafers that come out of a cellophane bag with the spuds we buy from the produce section. Even fewer know that potatoes grow underground. With no backyard garden, would they recognize potato “eyes”? Have they seen white potato flowers swaying in a summer breeze? Do they know that the visible part needs to die before full maturation takes place—just as parts of us need to die before we can grow in Christ?
These latchkey kids—as well as the average urban or suburban child—have never experienced the miracle of watching one seed potato produce a handful of Yukon Gold. They do not know the joy of unearthing a dozen small “new” potatoes for dinner. They have never experienced the springtime joy of stumbling upon stray potatoes that escaped last fall’s harvest.
Oh, if every church and school had a garden, how different this world might be! Caring for a garden provides something that cannot be purchased at the grocery store: the satisfaction of eating food planted, tended, and harvested with our own hands. A garden cultivates gratitude, reminding us that every ounce of food that passes our lips ultimately comes from God. And as any experienced gardener will attest, a garden keeps us humble—constantly aware that the enemy, entropy, is very much alive.
Since the beginning of time, God has been teaching humans in the garden. I am no master gardener, but here are a few lessons I’ve managed to glean:
- Satan lives in the garden. His name is Cutworm.
- There are good bugs and bad bugs. Wisdom comes in knowing the difference.
- Good bugs eat bad bugs. But some good bugs, such as the praying (and preying!) mantis, also eat good bugs. That’s why God invented entomologists.
- Planting and harvesting are exciting. Weeding and watering are not.
- Three zucchini hills are two too many.
- If we could invent a way to run power plants using overgrown zucchini, our energy woes would be over.
- Humus is good for the garden. Hubris is not.
- Tomatoes warm from the vine taste (at least) as good as candy.
- Children who do not like vegetables will eat sugar peas from the shell.
- When Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener, it was no mistake: Jesus is the new Adam, and the garden is God’s eternal classroom.
The Almost Amish Way: Spend Time in Nature
There is so much to be learned by choosing to spend more of life outdoors. In twenty-first-century terms, nature is tweeting and text messaging communications from God constantly, but we are too busy to tune in. Here are some ways we can block out distractions and abide with God in his natural world:
Grow a garden
I have a friend who is a master gardener. She believes that nearly every spiritual lesson can be taught by a garden. I agree, especially if those lessons are accompanied by fresh raspberries eaten straight from the bush.
Some first steps: If you have never had a vegetable garden before, start small.
Oh, if every church and school had a garden, how different this world might be!
Even a ten-by-ten space can grow a lot of produce, especially if you train your vines to grow vertically. If you do not have access to a yard, start with patio planters or investigate community gardens. Another option: join a CSA (community-supported agriculture) and barter labor for part of your “share.”
[Related post: Grow a churchyard garden]
Begin with vegetables you know your family likes—if they don’t like beets or radishes, don’t bother, even though they are easy to grow. When you get more experienced, you can try introducing some fun varieties, such as blue potatoes or sun-loving tomatillos, which mature in a paperlike husk. And don’t forget the herbs: they are simple to grow, don’t take up much space, and add color and flavor to almost every meal.
Pack a picnic
Picnics can make an ordinary meal anything but routine. My husband Matthew and I picnicked on some of our first dates, and we’ve continued to dine alfresco regularly for three decades. Most meals have been simple but romantic—a blanket spread in the backyard makes even PLT (pickle, lettuce, and tomato) sandwiches taste special. I try to pack picnic meals when we’re on the road as a cheaper, healthier alternative to fast food. We’ve picnicked at the beach, in the woods, in fields, in cemeteries, at rest stops, in parks, and on playgrounds.
For our thirtieth anniversary, we packed up homemade crab cakes (thanks to my mother) and ate them on the grounds of a local estate. The historic buildings are closed in the evening, but the grounds are left open. We had the gardens to ourselves—with extra ambience supplied by friendly fireflies.
Since moving to downtown Lexington, we have been picnicking more than ever. Within easy walking distance we’ve discovered three parks with picnic tables. The park closest to us also has a gazebo, where we’ve enjoyed watermelon after our family Friday night dinners.
In addition, we’ve found that picnics make for easy entertaining. A couple of weeks ago, we picnicked with friends and their three small children in the park behind our house. The kids played on the equipment while the grown-ups talked. My friend made a warm pasta and pesto salad, and I brought cheese, fruit, and carrot cake to round out the meal. Bonus: no clean-up. The birds ate all the crumbs.
Picnics create a memorable oasis—a time set apart from everyday life—to be in nature and to enjoy God’s sustaining gifts. What could be more holy than saying grace and breaking bread together in the shade of a life-giving tree?
Pick up trash
Last Saturday, Matthew and I went for an early morning walk. We were pleasantly surprised when our son, Clark, and his wife, Val, approached us from behind. They had spied us leaving our courtyard and hurried to catch up with us. We wandered back to their place, through a hedgerow and a flat meadow near the university. Clark pointed to a mess of soda cans and discarded fast-food bags: “I just cleaned up this pathway a few weeks ago. Guess it’s time to come back out with some trash bags.”
My mother’s heart swelled. Clark has received many awards in college and medical school, but this humble act gave me more joy than all his academic accolades put together. Why? Because it showed he has a servant’s heart. He was obeying the command to tend and care for the garden (Genesis 2:15) while showing his love for God and for his neighbors, with no expectation of thanks or recognition.
Often on our morning walk through the park, I bring two bags—one for trash and one for recycling. The park is well used by little kids on swings, skateboarders with tattoos, basketball players in high-tops, and baseball teams young and old. One afternoon, we saw college students string a cord a few feet off the ground between two trees and try tightrope walking—far harder than it looks in the movies. A few days later, we watched a young man impressing his date—and us—by juggling bowling pins. With dozens of countries and ethnic groups represented, the park is a regular United Nations.
The garden aspires to Eden, yet is marred by litter. Each morning, we are presented with new opportunities to pick up cans and bottles. Yes, our hands get dirty, and once I even negligently cut my finger on a broken bottle. But these are minuscule prices to pay for the joy of participating in God’s restoration.
Survey your neighborhood. Do you have a ravine where old items have been dumped for years? A favorite teen hangout that gets trashed every Saturday night? A street (maybe your own) with garbage along the shoulders? Anyone can help clean up public spaces.
[Related post: Restoring waterways as a church]
Get in the habit of carrying a bag when you go on a walk and picking up trash along the way. Gather a bunch of kids from your church, school, or neighborhood to clean up a streambed. Ask your church or school to adopt a highway. Work with your neighborhood association to be sure there are trash and recycling barrels in convenient locations. Plant and tend a flower garden at a busy intersection. Make it a goal to leave every place you live more beautiful than when you arrived.
Plant a tree
One of the best investments you can make in the future is to plant a tree.
I grew up Jewish, in a tradition that values tree planting. Here’s a story from the Talmud, the central text of mainstream Judaism:
While the sage, Honi, was walking along a road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked him, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
“Seventy years,” replied the man.
Honi then asked, “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?”
The man answered, “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise I am planting for my children.” (Taanit 23a, third century or before)
A couple of centuries later, the rabbis concurred: “Even if you are old, you must plant. Just as you found trees planted by others, you must plant them for your children” (Midrash Tanchuma, Kodashim 8, fourth to fifth centuries).
When I was growing up, we commemorated special occasions by planting a tree in Israel. Deaths, births, anniversaries, marriages, bar mitzvahs—all were occasions for planting a tree. Send in a donation to the tree-planting Jewish National Fund in honor of Grandma’s birthday or Johnny’s graduation, and you will receive a beautiful certificate.
Lots of small saplings add up. When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, it was a barren land. Now, lush belts of green cover 250,000 acres, providing green lungs around congested cities and recreation and respite for all Israelis. Trees indigenous to the Middle East such as native oaks, carob, redbud, almond, pear, hawthorn, cypress, and Atlantic cedar have brought the desert back to life.
We can do the same here. If you take a walk in many well-off neighborhoods, you’ll notice that the streets are tree lined. Go to the poor sections of town, and they are barren. Trees give shade, increase home values, reduce crime, clean the air, add beauty, and glorify God. Just as the Jewish National Fund has planted 240 million trees in the barren land of Israel, churches can plant “trees of life” throughout blighted urban areas of the United States. (Shameless plug: If you want to help, visit the Blessed Earth website.) And poor areas are not the only areas that need trees. When a church plants trees in towns devastated by tornadoes, floods, and other weather-related disasters, they are also planting hope.
[Related article: "Why does planting trees help poor people"]
Too often, Christians are known for what we are against. Tree planting offers a wholesome opportunity to be known by what we are for.
Many of us parents are afraid to give our kids chores. Because both parents work or parents are divorced or there never were two parents in the picture, we feel guilty. So, instead of following scriptural principles that warn against spoiling children, we coddle them. But coddling is copping out. It circumvents the hard work of parenting. In our desire to sidestep sulking or hissy fits, we sedate kids with digital distractions.
What we forget is that giving kids chores is exactly that: a gift. Does Junior really need to know how to rake leaves? Perhaps not, but raking leaves will teach him important lessons about staying on task, teamwork, and delayed satisfaction. Watering the garden encourages responsibility: if plants get too dry, they die. Mowing the lawn requires that safety procedures are followed; sticks and stones can break bones (or at least the lawn mower’s “bones”) if not picked up before mowing.
Teaching children the satisfaction of a job well done is a positive feedback loop. The more skills they develop, the more confidence they have. Greater confidence leads to more complex jobs, which expand their proficiencies even further.
For better and for worse, children learn from our example. If we believe that outdoor work is beneath us, they will too. If we see it as a time to be with God while enjoying sunshine and fresh air, they will too. Inviting our children or a friend to work alongside us allows us to experience companionship and learn from each other. In order to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch God’s creation, we need to work alongside him.
From an early age, Amish children are assigned outdoor chores. These responsibilities grow along with competencies. If you live in a rural area, as most Amish do, there will always be plenty of outdoor work—either on your land or a neighbor’s. If you live in a suburban setting, ask young children to help pick up twigs, sweep the walk, water plants, and spread mulch. As the children get older, they can mow grass, shovel driveways, and weed beds for you and for elderly neighbors.
In urban areas, you can clean up a playground, start a children’s garden at the library, or begin a healthy soil for healthy food program. The goal is the same: to spend more time outdoors, so people can know the Creator through his creation.
Physical work is necessary to keep us healthy in mind, body, and spirit. My husband, the medical doctor, prescribes an hour of physical work a day and a day of rest a week (Sabbath). But how do we get an hour of physical activity outdoors when machines and minimum-wage workers perform much of our labor?
Outdoor play is one solution. By “play” I do not necessarily mean organized sports. I mean taking a walk around the neighborhood, climbing a tree, riding bikes, running around the playground, jumping on the rope swing, digging for archaeological treasures in the creek bed, picking dandelion bouquets, playing in the leaves, making fairy houses, constructing drip castles in the sand, building snow forts, ice-skating on the pond, flying kites. The possibilities are as big as all outdoors if we do not zap our imaginations with digital addictions.
[Related post: Why your child needs a knife]
One deterrent to outdoor play is fear. Many parents, and their children, believe it is unsafe to play outside. I’m not advising parents to be foolish: you know your neighborhood and how safe or unsafe it is. But before ruling out fresh-air play altogether, we should consider whether we are succumbing to a proven danger—diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, which come with a sedentary lifestyle—because of exaggerated fears fueled by media sensationalism. For example, it is certainly a sad truth that children are abducted in our country, and since we bear the responsibility for our children both morally and legally, we do need to be careful. But it is also a sad truth that kidnapping stories sell magazines, plain and simple.
In a Mayo Clinic study, nearly three-quarters of the parents worried that their children might be abducted. One-third of the parents said this was a frequent worry and that they worried more about kidnapping than any other concern, including car accidents, sports injuries, and drug addiction.
Abductions by strangers are rare in the United States; the chances are about .000001 to 1 that your child will be involved in a kidnapping by a stranger. The chances of your child dying in a car accident are sixty times greater, and yet we do not banish our children from automobiles.
If you are concerned about safety, be choosy about location. But set a goal that you and your children will spend at least an hour each day outdoors. It will change your physical, emotional, and mental health. It will change your relationship with God. With practice, it can shift your focus from “all about me” to “all about we.”
Let’s Sum It Up
Sometimes when Matthew is giving a talk, he pauses and asks folks to buddy up for a few minutes and discuss how God speaks to them. We’ve heard a wide range of answers: God speaks through Scripture, through events in our lives, through people we encounter, through dreams and visions, and in dozens of other ways. But one of the most frequent places where God speaks to us is in nature.
I like to call these “Romans 1:20 moments.” In this verse Paul says, essentially, that we are without excuse for not knowing God if we simply take a stroll in our backyard. Romans 1:20 moments are when we stand on a beach watching the sun go down, or climb a mountain, or sit beside a stream; in the stillness, we hear God’s voice. Many of the pastors we work with say they heard God’s call not in a church, but in his other cathedral—in nature. Such exchanges are biblically based. As my husband likes to say, “Jesus mostly taught on field trips.”
Once again, we can take a cue here from the Amish, who make the outdoors a central focus of life. The more time they spend in God’s creation, the more they come to know the Creator. But the opposite is also true. The less time we spend outdoors, the more alienated from God we can become.
Scripture tells us to live in the world, not of the world. The Amish might suggest that we should live less in the man-made world and more in the God-made world. Adjusting the ratio can be the difference between a paradise imperiled and paradise restored—an abandoned lot or a community garden. The choice is ours. The time is now.
As co-founder and Managing Director of Blessed Earth, Nancy Sleeth travels throughout the U.S. speaking and writing about faith and the environment. Prior to heeding this spiritual and environmental calling, Sleeth served as communications director for a Fortune 500 company and as an educator and administrator, most recently at Asbury University. Sleeth is a graduate of Georgetown University and holds a masters degree in journalism. She is the author of Go Green, Save Green, the first-ever practical guide for going green from a faith perspective. Nancy specializes in leading workshops on the nuts and bolts of stewardship practices at home, work, school, and church and facilitating women’s retreats on Sabbath practices, simplicity, and sustainability. She and Matthew Sleeth recently celebrated 30 years of marriage. They are the parents of Clark (a fourth year medical student) and Emma (creation care speaker/author for teens and young adults).
Taken from Almost Amish by Nancy Sleeth. Copyright © 2012 by Nancy Sleeth. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.