Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
These words from God’s curse on Adam in the opening pages of Genesis play through my mind on repeat as I dig up potatoes at Overgrow Farm, a small organic homestead near the central Oregon coast. It is October, but the sun is clear and bright overhead and the region is having a late summer. Even with my shirt off and a bottle of water close at hand, I feel beads of sweat forming on my brow and dripping down my temples and shoulders.
For every potato I dig up with my hefty, four-pronged steel fork, there is a thistle plant growing in the garden bed that must be uprooted and thrown aside. My cheap plastic and fabric gloves are no good for this. The thistles still prick my fingers. I leave them to a friend working behind me with thick leather gloves. She will pull them out of the soil and feed them to the pigs.
This is my first time doing serious garden work since I was a child. As I feel callouses building on my hands and squat down to avoid straining my back, I understand in my body—not just my mind—why the ancient Genesis narrative has been such a foundational text in shaping the worldviews of people for millennia. For those in an agrarian society (read: the vast majority of recorded human history) it must have seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. Of course work is cursed! It’s painful. It’s hard. It’s full of opposition and risk at every turn. The damn thistles just keep coming back! But it’s the price one must pay to eat and survive.
The curse, however, is not the whole story of my experience here in the field. Despite the sharp pricks of the thistles and the ache in my muscles, I find a distinct and remarkable joy in turning up potatoes. It’s like finding a buried treasure, plunging those prongs into the ground and turning up a handful of yukon golds. Sometimes it seems as if they are just waiting to be found, longing for that disturbance in the soil ushering them up into the light. “I’m here!” I feel them exclaiming as they burst up out of the dirt. I want to whoop and shout—eureka!
In these happier moments my mind wanders further along in the biblical text to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I marvel at how many of his parables are set in the context of agriculture. They’re full of things like vines being pruned and bearing fruit, day laborers working in the fields, harvests of wheat and tares, good soil and rocky soil, seeds falling and dying before coming to life.
This connection is profound and obvious at the same time. Of course they are! It’s an agrarian society! This is the language of the people in Jesus’ day, the language of farmers and laborers and craftsmen. This is their lived experience of a world that is both predictable and full of divine surprises.
The bodily and spiritual implications of this, I am beginning to see, are potentially huge. Here in the dirt, pulling weeds, turning over soil, and harvesting vegetables, I begin to suspect that I am as close to the living core of divine wisdom as I have ever been. I have only to open my eyes in the sunlight, listen to the birds singing around me, breathe deeply of the forest air, and feel the dirt beneath my feet. I’ve heard it said that the thrust of Jesus’ teachings through his stories and metaphors isn’t so much to usher his hearers into a higher, hyperspiritualized reality as it is to open their eyes to the incarnational presence of God that is already active and accessible all around them. If God would dare to become a man and show up in their midst as the son of a carpenter from a podunk town in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, perhaps he was already there and had been there from the very beginning, speaking to them in the growth of the tiny mustard seed and the wine fermenting in new wineskins.
It makes me wonder if the spiritual ignorance, apathy, and shallowness that is so widespread in the American church (and lamented by many Christian leaders, especially in the Reformed circles I come from) isn’t due to a lack of theological teaching and catechism so much as a physical disconnection from the earth. Sure, I’ve taken science and biblical studies classes and understand conceptually a fair bit of how seeds grow and how farming in the ancient near-eastern world worked. But after just a few days on a small organic farm, I suspect that hearing Jesus describe the Kingdom of God in agrarian terms doesn’t feel as real to me as it would if the deepest rhythms and well-being of my life revolved around achieving a sustainable, fruitful harvest.
Indeed, it seems this one significant way in which modernism and consumerism has atrophied the spiritual vitality of our souls. I’m tempted to go so far as to say that any regimen of discipleship or spirituality that purports to follow the way of Jesus will fall woefully and palpably short of our Spirit-empowered potential if divorced from the embodied agrarian context in which Jesus lived and ministered. Want your faith to become more substantive and alive? Maybe consider going outside and planting a garden.
Is it any coincidence that faith and spirituality didn’t begin falling out of fashion on a broad scale until the world became industrialized and urbanized? Even today, regardless of whether they happen to claim the name of Jesus specifically, farmers tend to be quite spiritual people. They’re surrounded by the miraculous, life-sustaining wonder of the created world every day. They understand how unpredictable life is and that their fate is subject both to their own diligent labor and to forces utterly beyond their control. This is one of those paradoxical intersections of true spiritual wisdom, more valuable, as the Hebrew psalmist sings, than much fine gold.
I see little of this earthy connectedness in the practices of modern American evanglicalism other than the occasional summer camp or weekend retreat to a rural or alpine setting (which, don’t mistake me, are good and wonderful things). There’s a lot of talk about biblical instruction and righteous living, but not as much said about embracing the dirty, messy process of growth and the cycle of death into life that characterizes the entire created order. Healthy crops, after all, usually begin their life beneath a layer of excrement and rotting plants.
In contrast, the monastic traditions of the ancient church traditions seem to have a stronger grasp of this. Adherents to these traditions are steeped in tactile, physically grounded practices like cultivating gardens, keeping bees, crafting soaps and candles, and tending to the poor and infirm. They may not be “in the world” or on the front lines of popular culture, but I suspect these more earthy rituals actually open their hearts and bodies—rather than just their minds—to a deeper and richer understanding of the way of Jesus than any seminary training could ever achieve.
I once heard a wise and thoughtful man say, “Prayer is the work.” As I dig up potatoes and weed out thistles, I begin to understand this in a more mystical way. This whole business of farming and cultivating does feel awfully cursed most days, full of pain and opposition and harmful turns of fate. But at the same time I find God is with me and speaking to me in all of it. He is there in the ache of my back and the cooling drops of sweat on my skin, in the swing of the hoe and the feeling of dirt beneath my fingernails, in the harsh cawing of the crows flying overhead and the squealing of the pigs at the arrival of another bucket of greens. And—perhaps most beautifully—God is there in the face of my neighbor laboring beside me, with whom I will feast tonight on the satisfying fruits of our labor.