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Gardening the heart. 1 – ‘For since the creation of the world’

 

‘For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that human beings are without excuse’. (Romans 1:20)

God ordained creation, in his perfect love, to sustain life and relationship, to communicate spiritual lessons about his Kingdom, to help us work out our salvation with fear and trembling and to relate to Christ intimately. Tony Horsfall, a popular author on spiritual formation, in his book ‘Mentoring for Spiritual Growth’ 1)Horsfall, 2008. Mentoring for Spiritual Growth. BRF, Abingdon., suggests that “…creation can speak to us personally and individually, for God has filled the created order with his word. …if we are alive to it, we can hear God speak to us even as we encounter his creation. This is why Jesus trained his disciples to open their eyes and consider the detail of what was happening in Creation around them…

Farmers and gardeners would agree that the task of creating a beautiful or productive garden is a ‘labour of love’, the fruit of constant battle with poor soil quality, diseases, and pests, weeds, invasive plants, changing seasons and weather patterns. Faith is exercised through planting a seed into soil, watering it and hoping that it will bear fruit. Synonymous with the work of cultivating plants for food or pleasure, humanity has since the earliest times drawn upon the endless metaphors offered by seasonal cycles and processes in nature to help make sense of the physical and spiritual journey from conception, birth, life and death. Cultivating the soil, creation care and creativity are foundational to God’s covenant with humanity. God, the planter, designed this interrelationship when he brought into being the earth that is our home.

In the midst of these humanly, ecologically and spiritually tempestuous times over recent years there is evidence of an increased theological, spiritual and practical re-engagement with creation’s sacramental character and purpose. This is true of across all Christian traditions, both mainstream and non-denominational.

Aspects of cultivation and the language of gardens, including engagement with seasons and cycles in nature, have been actively re-appropriated as ‘sacramental’ tools in community building, evangelism, discipleship, pastoral care and spiritual formation. These movements parallel nature and creativity-based restorative practises that are now common within healthcare and education communities.

A working farm is integral to Latimer Minister, a growing Anglican church established on a minster model, in London’s green belt; outdoor church and church-run allotments are becoming more popular; Christian led social therapeutic horticulture and creativity initiatives have been growing in number, gardening including food growing initiatives, spiritual gardens and Forest School are just some of the outdoor-focussed initiatives that schools are investing, with benefits for young people as well as staff.

Peter Carruthers in his insightful article ’Covid-19’- is there any word from the Lord?’, in the Spring 2020 edition of Village Link, highlights the fact that nature‘s response to our global lockdown in many places across the world, but not all, has been to broadcast breath-taking seasonal beauty. People of all ages and cultures, in both urban and rural areas across Britain, during lockdown have described the benefits of being able to be outdoors more, ‘noticing and responding to nature’s seasonal and invitational flourishing’.

Whilst we continue within profound and challenging human restriction, depth of compassion, self -sacrifice, relationship, prayer, creativity, community, concern for creation– core elements of God’s Kingdom and modelled by Christ himself, are to the fore. Key workers are risking their health and even lives to serve people of all ages on our nations behalf, armies of volunteers in communities across the country are doing all they can to show love to their neighbour, God’s word and his hope through church services online, are reaching into the hearts and homes of millions. In the face of individual as well as collective national distress, caused by illness and grief from loss of life, efforts to care for safeguard family, friend and stranger, many have instinctively sought comfort, respite and healing through connection with nature and cultivation.

Garden centres from the outset of Covid outbreak have struggled to keep up with public demand for compost. More community-based growing initiatives have sprung up including Harvest at Home in Oxfordshire for people struggling to access food during the pandemic.

How have you reflected upon and engaged with creation during this ‘lockdown’ experience? How might this have impacted your own faith journey and support of others?

The need for fresh air, green space, wilderness and freedom has caused families and young people from urban areas to flout rules regarding travel and social distancing since the start of lockdown, in an effort to reach mountains, forests, lakes and beaches. Who can blame people for following their basic survival instincts to go in search of refreshment and freedom outdoors in the face of this life limiting health crisis?

This innate draw of humanity to nature in medical and scientific circles is described as ‘Biophilia’, a theory first put forward by E O Wilson,2)Wilson, E O, 1984, Biophilia, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, cited in Gullone, E, 2000. ’The Biophilia Hypothesis and Life in the 21st Century: Increasing Mental Health or Increasing Pathology?’ Journal of Happiness Studies, 1(3), 293-322. which contends that humans have a ‘tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes’ and that knowledge about the natural world (especially plants and animals) contributed to the survival of the human race and is thus innate. In practical terms this implies that people feel most comfortable in settings where they can identify with life processes.3)Gullone, E, op cit.

Creation was designed this way for our sustaining and enjoyment by God from the beginning. God’s ‘walking in the garden in the cool of the day, within earshot of Adam and Eve suggests that he enjoys gardens, both for his own pleasure and as a boundaried pre-planned place which to enjoy his intimate love relationship with humanity. (Genesis 3:8) In a garden, not a wilderness, God established his sovereignty and his covenant, designating spiritual and physical boundaries for preserving right relationship between himself, humanity and creation. Flouting the head gardener’s rules Adam and Eve forfeited the wholeness, intimacy and well-being that they experienced in their relationship with God and his Creation, the very ‘state of being’ that every human heart since, has longed for. Adam and Eve’s rejection of God’s love and their interconnectedness with creation rewarded them instead with a life of sin, separation from God, soul searching and struggle.

Ecological balance and care, cultivation of field and garden are inextricably linked to spiritual connection with God and human flourishing, though science would ignore this. Throughout the old and New Testaments, particularly in Genesis, Isaiah, the psalms and the Gospels cultivation and its metaphors serve as a strategic spiritual map of God’s sovereign purposes. Through the language of seasonal cultivation – planting, nurturing growth, pruning and harvesting God describes his nature and love relationship with humanity and creation, as life giver, provider, protector and redeemer.

God trained his own people, previously city dwellers, in the practices of cultivation, leading them out of captivity in Egypt into the promised land of Israel, settling them in villages with land to cultivate. Their success at farming depended upon them listening to God.

Creation, some would describe as the 5th Gospel, still remains as ‘the other go to place’, albeit misunderstood and underused, for connecting with God, nurturing our spiritual growth and well-being, enriching our prayer lives, personal study and understanding of scriptural truth alongside the wisdom of the body of Christ.

Rev’d Graham Booth, warden of the Northumbria community, writing in his article ‘A Call to Connect’ (Retreats Association, 2014), about the central part that creation plays in our relationship with God, describes the process of Christians meeting God outdoors, as ‘not some fluffy, tree-hugging exercise, or new age or Neo -Pagan diversion, but an utterly orthodox and biblical journey deeper into God’.

Many individuals recorded in Old Testament history set us an example of spiritual literacy in relation to creation. Job in a place of extreme testing acknowledged that animals and the earth reveal God’s wisdom “ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you.” (Job 12:7-10).

King David modelled his interconnectedness with God, emotional and spiritual literacy about creation and the wisdom it embodies, through the enduring gift of the psalms – ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19: 1-4)

King Solomon was extraordinarily knowledgeable about plants and trees and people came to seek his wisdom, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop (1 Kings 4:33). Song of Songs, with its intense poetic dialogue, invites us to inhabit a beautiful allegorical picture of the relationship between Christ and his bride and to enter ever deeper into heart to heart intimacy with God (Song of Songs 2:3-11).

 

[We are pleased to welcome Rachel Woods as a guest author here on the Village Hope blog. Rachel was introduced in the Spring issue of Village Link. To find out more, visit Rachel’s website and order her booklet, ‘Into the Garden’ (S136) from Grove Books.]

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Notes   [ + ]

1.Horsfall, 2008. Mentoring for Spiritual Growth. BRF, Abingdon.
2.Wilson, E O, 1984, Biophilia, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, cited in Gullone, E, 2000. ’The Biophilia Hypothesis and Life in the 21st Century: Increasing Mental Health or Increasing Pathology?’ Journal of Happiness Studies, 1(3), 293-322.
3.Gullone, E, op cit.
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