‘God’s gardening ways’ is theme for Duke professor

By Ruth Ann Grissom, Special Contributor…

I’ve long thought that belief and faith intersect in our gardens. In Piedmont, N.C., where I grew up, we plant English peas in late February. April teases us with warm, sunny days, but it’s risky to set out cucumbers, tomatoes and squash before Mama’s birthday on the 23rd. Field peas are sowed in early July. We avoid wild persimmons and creasy greens until a hard freeze. These are things I’ve come to believe, but every time I drop a seed or tamp the dirt around a plant, it becomes an act of faith. So many things can ruin a harvest—the vagaries of weather, a plague of insects or disease, an unexpected injury or illness—yet I’m rarely as hopeful as when I’m planting a garden.

Norman Wirzba, a professor of theology, ecology and rural life at the Duke Divinity School, believes knowledge and appreciation of gardening is essential for a deep understanding of the Bible.

Ruth Ann Grissom

In Genesis, God is portrayed as a gardener, breathing life into the soil. He relates to the world with attention, patience, careful observation, responsibility and commitment—the virtues we bring to our gardens. God calls us to come and work with him in the garden, so it disturbs Dr. Wirzba when people consider the work of a gardener or farmer beneath them. “If we think gardening is beneath us, we’re saying God’s work doesn’t matter. If God withdrew his animating breath from the soil, everything would fall to dust again.”

I’d hoped to interview Dr. Wirzba at his garden near Hillsborough, N.C., but he demurred. There wasn’t much to see. Deer had eaten everything this season except the garlic, carrots and potatoes. They even had a go at his fruit trees—the trees themselves, mind you—not just the fruit.

Instead, we planned to meet at Anathoth Community Garden (www.anathothgarden.org), a ministry of the nearby Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, but we were thwarted by torrential rains. When we rescheduled, we were promised a glorious autumn day, but it failed to materialize, so we shivered through the interview at damp picnic tables under gloomy skies. And so it goes in the garden. Dr. Wirzba says gardens bring us face to face with our own impotence and ignorance. They teach us humility. Through them, we see that so much of what we need to live comes to us as a gift.

Norman Wirzba is a professor of theology, ecology and rural life at UMC-affiliated Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.. He’s also the author of several books including ‘Living the Sabbath, Making Peace with the Land’ and ‘Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating’.

In his latest book, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (written with Fred Bahnson), Dr. Wirzba lists some of the innumerable gifts from God that allow us to grow our food—soil decomposition, photosynthesis, hydrological cycles, plant and animal health, pollination, pollinators and animal reproduction. Last summer, I sliced a Cherokee Purple tomato and was awed by its beauty and complexity. When I thought of how a scraggly plant had used the soil, sun and water to conjure such an amazing fruit, it seemed miraculous. Dr. Wirzba likes to tell his students that food is “God’s love made delectable.” When people say they don’t feel God’s presence in the world, he thinks, “Have you been in a garden?”

We can acknowledge this presence and these gifts by saying grace. Dr. Wirzba explored this topic in his book Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating.

“When we say grace over a meal we had a hand in or know the people who did, it changes the experience,” he says. So often today we see food merely as a commodity. We’re content if it’s cheap, available and attractively packaged. “Food has been hollowed out of any of its deeper moral and spiritual significance,” Dr. Wirzba says. “But food is so much more than a bag of nutrients or heap of calories.”

He believes saying grace is more than a pious act; it’s also political. Amen, he notes, means let it be so. “How can you give that blessing to destructive agricultural practices?” he asks. To be an authentic gesture, what you eat should be deserving of praise, not just in a delectable sense but also in a moral sense. As a bonus, he says, “Doing the right thing tastes good.”

While some people believe Christianity is about getting souls to heaven, Dr. Wirzba thinks our goal is not to escape the world but to make it worthy of God. “Heaven will descend to earth, because God’s dwelling will forevermore be among mortals,” he says, summarizing Revelation 21:1-4. One of the first principles of an agrarian mindset is living with the effects of what we do to the earth. If we’re willing to do the hard work of a farmer or gardener, we can grow some of our own food. We also have to do the equally difficult work of recognizing that the wounds of the world are deep and there are consequences to our consumer choices. We have to ask ourselves, “Where can I get the food that honors God?”

The vast majority of us won’t be full-time farmers, but we can reconcile with the land through our flower gardens and food plots, just as God is reconciled with all of his creation. We can also properly compensate farmers who care for the earth and their animals. At my condo in Atlanta, I’m limited to a container of herbs on the terrace, but I stay connected to the land and the people who produce my food through my local farmer’s market. In July, it’s hard to imagine a fulfilling life without fresh tomatoes, but by October I’ve had my fill, and I’m giddy at the prospect of eating what’s on offer—sweet potatoes, winter squash, broccoli, carrots, turnips, beets and all sorts of greens.

I recently had a hankering for a dry-aged rib eye, but the meat vendor told me they were still hanging and wouldn’t be ready for weeks. Instead of rushing off to the grocery store in a huff, I gracefully accepted what was available. I tailored my recipe and grilled a sirloin tip. It satisfied my spirit as well as my craving.

As Dr. Wirzba writes, “By taking the time to understand where we are and how best to live gently and gratefully there, we participate in God’s gardening ways, which give and ennoble life.”

Ruth Ann Grissom divides her time between Atlanta and the Uwharrie Mountains of North Carolina. More of her writing can be found at http://ui.uncc.edu/users/ruth-ann-grissom/.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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