Tending to the Soils

The most important thing to me about this year of Earth Church gatherings is patience. Whenever I start a new project I’m so eager to bring it about to fruition, to set ambitious goals, and get working. But Earth Church is all about adopting the pace of nature, which is inherently slow. And learning from Her wisdom. So our presence on the farm this year is just about taking a pause, listening to the land, holding the intention of a new relationship to earth for each one of us, and being a blessing in the space… just embuing it with our hope.

 The perfect analogy for Earth Church 2019 is that we’re cultivating good soil. And everything about Earth Church will be both literal and figurative and that’s what recontextualizing worship is, hearing our sacred stories in a new way by having the land as our teacher and guide.

 Jesus had something to say about good soil and its potential to yield “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown…” (Matt 13:3-9)

There’s perhaps nothing more spiritually compelling to me in scripture than references to the harvest, it is a reference to eternity and to all of our own potential to bear to spiritual fruits, that has an awe-inspiring expression right here on earth. It fascinated the ancients and it fascinates me; the abundance that comes from a tiny seed, if only nurtured properly. After naming my own daughter Harvest, new and deeper understanding of its significance continue to come to me wave upon wave, and I feel they are a part of my own story because she is a part of me.

 Three years ago, when Harvest was just a little bit over one, I attended the Just Food conference at my alma mater, Princeton Theological Seminary. I was the only person there with a child, and because they didn’t offer childcare I thought they should all have to deal with my bringing her along. She was handing people toys in the lectures, and picking tomatoes from their garden (Princeton’s “Farminary” institute is the host of the conference - I hope to make future connections between Earth Church and the work they’re doing there) but the only part that was a problem was keeping her still during their formal Princeton-esque Presbyterian worship in pristine Miller Chapel. What a missed opportunity, I thought, to not have worship on their farm property - its a more inclusive and appropriate space. But I digress…

The keynote speaker that year was Fred Bahnson who wrote a wonderful little book called Soil and Sacrament where he describes - “there is an entire ecosystem in a handful of soil; bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms. Through their breeding and dying such creatures vivify the world… Soil is not dirt. It is a living organism, or rather a collection of organisms, and it must be fed. Soil both craves life and wants to produce more life, even a hundredfold. The true profundity of soil [is] difficult to gauge. One day I slid my hand into one of our greenhouse beds, gently pushed down and kept pushing until my arm vanished and my shoulder touched the soils surface. It had seemed then as if I could keep burrowing downward, until my entire body was swallowed by the warm, dark earth…. Soil is a portal to another world.”

Indeed. And yet how we regard it as mundane. Conventional agriculture experts view the soil as merely a convenient way to hold up a plant while it is fed from the top in the form of ever increasing doses of chemical fertilizers. Joel Salatin describes this process as “superimposing a mechanistic mindset onto a biological world…” But nature, in contrast, feeds the plants from the bottom up, through the soil. So for conscientious farms like Roxbury the health of the soil is the top priority.

 So our priorities will be likewise. We’re devoting this year just to the soil. Because that’s what spirituality is. While people who have a purely existential and material view of the world will seek happiness by superimposing artificial pleasures from the top, the spiritual person looks inward to find true joy, or what we call in Christianity “the peace that surpasses all human understanding….”

MIT Professor Otto Sharmer, who grew up on a farm in Germany, wrote “…our interior condition is like a field… each field has two dimensions: one that is visible, whats growing above the surface, and one that is invisible – that is the quality of the soil. The same applies to social fields. We can see what people do, the practical outcomes that they accomplish in the visible realm. But what we rarely pay attention to is the deeper root condition: the source and the interior condition from which we operate… The invisible source dimension of the social field [is] the quality of relationships that we have to each other, to the system, and to ourselves…Our job is to cultivate [that] soil.”

Earth Church is looking to integrate the rhythms and seasons living inner selves with the living organism that is this earth – and to reflect more largely on our living in relation to this planet through a spiritual framework. Liturgy and ritual will be the container that holds this reflection:

On Ash Wednesday, we burned prayers of confession into ashes and blended them together with soil. During Eastertide we blended biodynamic preparation #500 and blessing these fields, nourishing the soil while taking a moment of pause as we walk, each one of us, reflecting upon what is truly nourishing to us, versus what superficial and fleeting, not what feeds our wordly appetites but what feeds our soul. I think those things are inherently slow to produce “results,” and thats why they’re liberating. We seek to be a community of liberation; in the earth’s liberation we will find our own. The soil is being tended to. The fruits are yet to come. But we have great hope.