From The Dusty Ones
The spiritual journey is not a career or success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that becomes more and more profound. (Thomas Long)
This book is about wandering.
What does the image of wandering provoke in your mind’s eye?
Wandering is a surprising image to pay attention to in the Bible. Similar to a good many other Biblical images, wandering is an image that’s repeated with relentless consistency throughout the Good Book. But even such a relentlessly consistent image inspired by the Holy Spirit does not guarantee that the reader will appropriately interpret the image in the way it was intended – we’ve become masters at misunderstanding Biblical images. That an image is inspired doesn’t necessarily ensure its proper understanding or use by the user. It takes great work to unpack the meaning of a message. To help us not make some common mistake about the image of wandering as has often been done, let’s settle ourselves on this image for a bit in order to give it some clarity.
Like words, images are easy to misinterpret. Because words have the power to create and kill, as the book of Proverbs tells us, one must be careful to use words appropriately and accurately. Images have a similar power. Therefore, they demand the same caution. A good reader of scripture should learn not only the skill set necessary for reading but also the skills to see, and hear, and smell the Bible. The Bible is multisensory, inviting all of our senses to partake in its beautiful bounty and provocative artistry. It isn’t surprising, then, that Jesus’s nearly unending torrent of parables about fishermen, coins, and sheep constantly confused, confounded, and frustrated his audience and disciples alike. If words can be confusing, images can be even more confusing. If we are going to speak about the image of wandering, we must be willing to interpret the image with great care.
Despite the ever-present danger of a misinterpreted image, scripture continuously uses images from everyday life to make its point. In fact, the Bible opts to utilize images more than anything to convey deep spiritual realities – it speaks of invisible realities by discussing visible ones. Broadly, there are many ways the Bible uses images. I’d like to draw your attention to a few. For one, the Bible will often take two entirely conflicting or contradictory images and awkwardly place them side-by-side to make a point about God or reality. In short, it uses seeming contradiction to reveal a more full-bodied understanding of reality. Consider for a moment the prophet Hosea’s approach to images. In one chapter (Hosea 5), God is simultaneously described by the author as a “moth” – that little fluttery, graceful, soft creature that can’t be touched without being killed – and a “lion” – that fierce, strong, powerful king of the forest.
Hosea describes God as a “moth lion.”
How could God have the attributes or qualities of both a lion and a moth? Of course, Hosea was after a big point in making this very odd connection between two very different creatures. What was he after? In harmony with so many other sections of scripture, the paradoxical nature of God is being highlighted. God is as tender as a moth yet as fierce as a lion. God isn’t a mean old curmudgeon in Heaven doling out rules. Nor is he a kind “bro” who softly loves and admires everything we do. God is at one moment a fierce lover, a graceful judge, and a demanding friend. Paul would later give great clarity to this idea when he wrote to the church in Rome: “Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God,” (Romans 11:22). The minute we see God merely as a moth, he becomes in our minds a fluttery, sentimental, personal improvement coach who never says anything hard. And the minute he is solely a lion, he is furiously unapproachable.
That is why God is a moth lion. He is simultaneously graceful and fierce.
Along the same lines, consider that the apostle Peter opted to speak of Christians as “living stones,” (1 Peter 2:5). Such phraseology is akin, I would argue, to speaking of a peaceful tornado or a gentle star implosion. Peter’s point was that Christians have both a life and a strength available to them unlike anything else in all of creation. They’re alive like a baby but strong like a rock. Again, this is the same exact lesson that’s being offered by John the apostle when he speaks of Jesus as “grace and truth,” who came into the world, (John 1:14). John not only begins his gospel offering these conflicting images, but he will draw an illustration of this in the following chapter. In Chapter 2, John tells us Jesus first goes to a wedding and turns water into wine. Then he enters the temple with whips to drive out the animals and turn the tables over. Now, I suspect many may think that such passages reveal a Jesus with an acute personality disorder. But Jesus didn’t suffer this way. John, like any good preacher, was making a point utilizing images to convey that Jesus was both graceful and truthful at the same time. John was illustrating the “grace and truth” of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who brings grace (new wine) into the world but also bears truth (a whip) in the world. And John’s way of telling us this is that Jesus bears both wine and whips, grace and truth, simultaneously.
These images reveal a spiritual world of conflict, or paradox. Similar to these conflicting images, the Christian life is a life of holy conflict. The Christian life reflects a knowledge and respect of this paradoxical nature. Isn’t it telling that in the New Testament, a Christian is called both “God’s child,” (Galatians 4:7), and “Christ’s slave,” (1 Corinthians 7:22)? We are at once welcomed into the family and invited to a life of radical obedience. In the same way, Christ followers are both followers and finders. They have found eternal life, but they will need to take a lifetime to learn all about it.
To embrace the cross is to embrace a life at odds with itself. A Christian invites personal conflict as a pathway to Christlikeness in the same way the cross consisted of two boards going against one another that eventually became the scene of the salvation of the world. This conflicting-image approach that I’ve described is one of many ways the Bible plays with images to convey a point.
A second way that the Bible uses images is through offering the same image or picture in two very different ways. For example, the image of sexual intercourse is a mixed bag in the Bible. Sex, as we will see, is used in many ways to get across different points. For one, it is used in the Song of Songs as an elongated, play-by-play love scene depicting two people on their first night together. It is downright provocative, erotic, and sensual.
Of course the Bible isn’t using erotica for mere erotica’s sake. The point of the Song of Songs is that God loves his people in a way similar to a husband’s physical love for his wife. The Song of Songs is an inside look at how God loves his people, and his love looks very intimate. But the use of the erotic image is so diverse that we find it used in the book of James to describe sin. James describes sin as a sex act. “But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it,” writes James, “then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death,” (James 1:14-15). James would tell us that sin is the process of someone being lured into the act of sex. What is the point? Sex, as an image, is used in the Bible to describe both intimacy with the living God and walking away from God in sinful desire.
Enter the image of wandering. It turns out that the image of wandering is likewise a conflicting image. In short, the image of wandering cannot be seen as either merely good or merely bad, angelic or demonic. Wandering is both a virtue and a vice in the Bible – it is good and bad. The people of God wander in the Bible as a result of sin and disobedience. However, the people of God wander in the Bible as an act of obedience and being in the will of God. It is neither one nor the other. Now, I am keenly aware that one might critique my use of wandering as a thematic framework for this book by pointing out that the image of wandering is almost exclusively used in negative terms in the Bible. I concede this point. Generally speaking, wandering does have many negative elements in the Bible. However, this is not universally the case. The image of wandering is used both negatively and positively. Wandering is what happens when God’s people sin, worship another god, and lose track of who they are and where they are going. But wandering can simultaneously be a by-product of following God.
Consider the words of the author of the book of Hebrews, who wrote of the ancient saints,
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground, (Hebrews 11:32-38).
That phrase, “not worthy of them,” should hit hard on the floor of our spirits. The ancient faithful were of a different league; the world was not worthy of them. And because of it, they were never really at home here. And so they “wandered.” Wandering, we can see, is a unique image in the Bible that can be used of those ancient saints who epitomized the life of Godliness. Wandering can be good and it can be bad. I have reflected on that fact from time-to-time – the holy ones were all relegated at some point to wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes. Wandering, the author of Hebrews tells us, is the way of the faithful – the world was not worthy of them, and because of this, they never really found their home. And the faithful never really do. For this reason, Jesus had no place to lay his head at night, (Matthew 8:20). The world was not worthy of him. Christ wandered for thirty-three years to his eventual death on the cross for the world. And so we must enter into the complexity of wandering. Wandering can be good, bad, hurtful, and unhelpful. Wandering, as an inescapable theme of the Christian experience, is just as much an inescapable theme in the grand story of the Holy Bible.
Søren Kierkegaard, the ever-so-wise Danish Christian philosopher, was known to be quite the storyteller. He told the parable of an auditorium filled with people sitting in their seats. In the room were two doors. Above one of these doors was a sign that read, “Heaven.” The other door, however, read, “lecture about Heaven.” Everyone in the auditorium, said Kierkegaard, eventually made their way through the door labeled, “lecture about Heaven.”
Kierkegaard’s words are as worthy today as they were in his day in that they speak to human nature. For, I suspect, when given the chance, most would rather hear a TED talk about God than actually know God. We are more enamored of good content than we are of reality. That’s our time. It’s who we’ve become.
We love knowing about God the way we love knowing about biology or about the state capitals or, vaguely, about what goes into Aunt Diane’s Thanksgiving Jell-O. Our knowledge is very heady. Yet Christianity isn’t solely concerned with knowing about God the way we know about photosynthesis, Olympia, or Jell-O. A problem arises when we frame the Christian faith primarily in terms of objective, sterile, test-tube knowledge about God that we would get from a lecture. In the early twentieth century, there lived a famed German Protestant theologian by the name of Helmut Thielicke. In a small book called A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, Thielicke said there are two kinds of theologians. He began to notice that when seminary students entered into their various studies about God – learning the languages of the Bible, learning doctrine, memorizing scripture – their newly acquired knowledge would lead them down one of two paths. There are, of course, true theologians – those bold souls who put into practice all they learn. True lovers of God metabolize into their lives all the great truth Christ has spoken. But the danger of another type of theology always lurks – Thielicke called it “diabolical theology.” This kind of theology, like the first, is known. The problem is that it is not lived. This, Thielicke says, is the theology of the demons.
We know so much more about God himself than we know of God himself, a tragedy indeed. I think if we actually got to know God as he is, we’d appreciate him so much more than our objective knowledge about him. He is more incredible than our facts about him. Don’t mishear me: the objective knowledge of God is important. But nothing, including perfect facts, can replace him. The words of A. W. Tozer still ring true:
There’s scarcely anything so dull and meaningless as Bible doctrine taught for its own sake. Truth divorced from life is not truth but something else and something less. No person is better for knowing that God, in the beginning, created the Heaven and the Earth. The devil knows that, and so did Ahab and Judas Iscariot. No one is better for knowing that God so loved the world of people that he gave his only begotten Son to die for their redemption. In hell, there are millions who know that. Theological truth is useless until it is obeyed. The purpose behind all doctrine is to secure moral action.
In short, truth divorced from life isn’t truth. Unlived truth hasn’t actually become true yet for us when it stays up in our brains. Knowledge, it goes, is nothing but a rumor until it has moved its way into our muscles. In the end, the truth of Christianity is found by those who are gutsy enough to walk it out, not those who are heady enough to merely reflect on it. Nor is it found by those who know the most facts about it, have the most wisdom concerning it, or know a lot of others who have done it. Christ is primarily found along the journey, not in a lecture. And anyone who desires to actually know God for God’s sake is in for quite the journey – a journey, mind you, that doesn’t just happen for happening’s sake. God has an agenda. He always has. And he always will.
We come back to Paul’s personal mantra of the Christian faith: “I press on.” Paul didn’t end there. Paul also said that in his pressing on, he had a goal in mind; he didn’t seek without intent to actually find. He had a goal. He pressed on “toward the goal to win the prize,” (Philippians 3:14). Paul seemed to love sports metaphors. And he utilized them to get a very important message across. Paul knew that the Christian life is a race with a finish line – a place where it all finds its goal. The Christian walk isn’t some amorphous, ambiguous journey that never comes to completion. Quite the contrary. Christianity, for Paul, isn’t just about the journey; there’s a concrete destination, a goal, an end, a completion. At the onset of his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul puts it succinctly in such a way only Paul could: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 1:6).
But what is this goal to which God is working to bring about completion in us?
As we will see, there is an ongoing work of God in every one of our lives. It will be completed at some point, but it is still in motion. If you are reading this, then it isn’t done yet. And it must be continuously walked out. In the meantime, we press on. Our pressing on has a hope. Our pressing on has a goal. Our pressing on has a purpose. We don’t just do it to do it. Paul was not into head games or knowing about God. Paul wanted to know God. He wasn’t into intellectualism for intellectualism’s sake. He wasn’t into academic knowledge about God. Paul wanted to know God. And in Christ, Christ alone, Paul was complete.
I started a garden because I wanted to make Mom’s Gazpacho.
A garden is like a poem – it teems with life. The poet Marianne Moore once defined poetry with eloquence. In her poem called, “Poetry,” she describes poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Poetry and parable are often fictional. They don’t necessarily concern themselves with real stories, but they are unquestionably about real truths. Poems are where made-up stories bear eternal truths. Poetry may be imaginary, but it bears great truth. Likewise, a garden may seem useless. A garden – plants, dirt, tomatoes, hoses, blueberry bushes, compost, chickens, and fences – may seem mundane and uncomely. But a garden bears great truth. I’ve learned a good deal from the garden. I swear.
It’s like there’s something in that dirt.
The Bible begins in a garden. In that garden, Eden, Adam and Eve are thrown into their vocation of caring for and tending it. Immediately, I’m aware that some of my more critical, suspicious readers will retort that Adam and Eve weren’t real, and neither was Eden, and neither were those vegetables that they grew with God in the cool of the day. To be clear: I would disagree. I find no reason to believe that they weren’t real people in a real place with real carrots. But even if you are tempted to envision Adam and Eden and the carrots as some mythical invention, try to suspend your suspicion for a moment and imagine that even perhaps in the “imaginary garden” found in the Bible, as you might suppose, there are some very real toads of truth.
Adam and Eve find themselves in a garden. What a jostling experience that must have been. To be sure, Adam and Eve didn’t first take a correspondence course on agriculture. There were no lectures about gardening. They just did it. No one learns to garden in an auditorium. You have to learn to garden in a garden. That’s at least how all gardeners begin – they are thrown into it. I certainly was.
When I was a child, my mom didn’t teach me the mechanics of gardening, wax eloquent regarding nuances in gardening philosophies, or give me a book on the topic. Mostly, my mom taught me in her love for the garden. That love is my good fortune. In that little garden of my distant childhood, she would hand me, unknowingly, a passionate love – a love deep in her own bones – for that little parcel of land in our backyard. My mom was the best teacher in that way. And as with all the best teachers we have in life, we find that we learn more from their love of the content than the content itself. I still can’t remember a darned thing old Mr. Krumdick taught us in seventh grade American history; what I do remember is far more important. I remember his love of history. To this day, his love has infected me with a love for history in the same way my mom’s love for the garden has transferred into my bones.
We learn most from people by what and how they love, not what they tell us. Now that I have a child and a home and a desire to grow my own food and have my own chickens, I’ve come to love and appreciate gardening as I’ve practiced it. You learn quickly as a novice gardener. Or I should say you must learn quickly. If you don’t, you won’t have a garden. Every year you learn just a little bit more. While I received a love for gardening from my mom, her gardening skills were anything but intellectual or theoretical or abstract. Her knowledge of the seasons and soils were tacit, felt, and instinctive – the way a bird knows where a worm passes underground unaware. Few gardeners have a deep, academic knowledge about the various components or origins of soil. Nor do they need these kinds of intellectual tools. My mom could almost sense the soil. She knew what it needed. She could almost talk to the wind. And her magic knowledge of our backyard paid off.
More than anything, I remember Mom’s tomatoes with vivid clarity. Her tomatoes were almost famous in our family – big, thick, luscious tomatoes, the kind of tomatoes that look like they’re full of life. Year after year, I’d watch from my bedroom window as Mom planted those famous tomatoes – I’d sit on my bed in my upstairs room and peek out the dusty window to see her prepare the ground. Like a nun praying, down on two knees in the sacred soil below, head in the bushes, bucket at her side, she’d till and sweat and get soil under her nails. Then, like the parable, she’d sow the seeds in the goods soil. Even the soil took work. Good soil doesn’t just happen. Indeed, good soil takes sweat, she’d say. Mostly I’d sit there and dream of the Gazpacho that was to come in a few months’ time. I bet there’s still dry drool on that windowsill.
People who are used to shopping at the supermarket don’t often like the cost that comes with caring for their own garden. Gardening isn’t convenient. “Sure,” they might say, “I’d love my own carrots and tomatoes and asparagus, but the smell of the compost rotting in the corner of the yard, the work it takes to water everything, the sheer time it takes to keep it all going – well, it’s just too much.” Gardening is a messy venture. The gardener is constantly putting his or her pride to death, knowing that the backyard is eternally a work in progress.
God was in Eden. And I swear, he’s been in my garden, too. When all is said and done, my experience of gardening has had a deeper transformational impact on my reading of the Bible than just about anything else. Living life actually makes the Bible come to life, in a certain sense. It is only possible to understand certain aspects (not all, of course) of the fatherhood of God if one has been a human father. One can truly appreciate the Book of Job only if one has experienced a great loss. Likewise, having a garden has unlocked whole sections of the Bible for me. Alongside years of attentive reading of the Bible, a good deal of what I know about the Garden of Eden I’ve picked up from our garden. It’s funny how you learn so much about “tending the garden” and “naming the animals” when you actually have to do them. There’s something holy and fixed in our bones about gardening, like we were made to do it or something. I mean, if the Bible is right, gardening was the first thing we did as a human race. I’ve come to see how Adam might have seen the Garden of Eden.
It’s funny to me that the garden preceded Adam and Eve in the creation story. That is, the garden was not the result of Adam’s work and toil and knowledge of gardening. God gave the gift of the garden before Adam would have known what to do with it. Adam’s work was the result of receiving the gift that came beforehand. Sometime – roughly, I’m told – between seven thousand and 13.8 billion years ago, everything that can be seen, tasted, touched, and felt in this vast, expansive, blow-your-mind universe showed up inexplicably as if from nowhere. Whether its origin was that of a big bang or a Heavenly word (or both), few can agree, but one thing is sure: it appeared out of nowhere at some point in history. To imagine the chaotic moment of creation is difficult. What a brilliantly picturesque sight the whole ordeal must’ve been.
The stark reality, however, is that the epic creation narrative of the Bible relays to us a simple, almost humiliating, fact: in his infinite sovereignty, God elected to insert the human cast members into the ancient script of creation last. Humans were the final physical creations of the Creator. In fact, one is quick to discover, human beings weren’t even created and placed in all their majesty into the Garden of Eden until the sixth day. And that is after five other entire days of God creating all other kinds of things, from light to artichokes to topsoil.
One wonders why. What divine rationale led God to choose such a late act to insert the humans? It’s very likely that some will say that God did this because God saves his best for last, like the way Jesus gave the best wine at the end of a wedding in Cana. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever – right? Indeed he is. But such a notion of human exaltation is rooted above all in human arrogance. We humans are not the only part of creation that God takes a liking to; God loves everything he makes. And any idea smacking of the notion that we are the pinnacle of God’s handiwork is both rooted in pride and bound to fall to oblivion in the age to come. Narcissism is never holy.
There is a lurking temptation for all of us to think that we are far more important than we really are. I was reading the story of Corrie ten Boom. She was a wealthy Dutch woman who rescued countless Jews during World War II by hiding them in a room in her house. She was a hero. She was also a follower of Jesus. Ten Boom wrote a book called The Secret Room about her experience. At the end of her life, she is thinking back on her heroism and what she got to do with her life’s energy. She poignantly reflects on the donkey that brought Jesus into Jerusalem, and wonders what that donkey thought about itself.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on the back of a donkey, and everyone was waving palm branches and throwing garments on the road and singing praises, do you think that for one moment it even entered the head of that donkey that any of it was for him? If I can be the donkey on which Jesus Christ rides in his glory, I give him all the praise and all the honor.
Humans tend to be prideful donkeys, really. To see everything as being about merely us is to be the donkey that brought Jesus into Jerusalem and think people are clapping for us. The story of creation, of course, has a story that is greater than just us. Yes, we are important, but we are not the sole character in the story. I think the creation narrative does not permit such arrogance to think the whole story is about us. What other rationale might there be for God creating humanity so late in the game? The reason, one might consider, is humility. That’s it: humility. I would maintain that God created humans so late in the creational game so that we would eternally know how little we know. Being made so late is kind of a built-in humility for humanity. Think about it: slugs and dung beetles and bacteria came before us in the Biblical creation story. A day-six creation would leave in the back of our minds the eternal notion that there were five good days of work in there before we had the gift of showing up on the scene. Humanity wasn’t in the front row for creation. It certainly gives God great pleasure when we realize – no matter how much we think we may know about everything – that even the dung beetle had a better front-row view than Adam and Eve. Listen: My grandfather’s birthday was on the Fourth of July. He grew up thinking the fireworks were about him. I think that we too often think all the fireworks of creation are just for us. They aren’t.
Perhaps that’s precisely why nobody can agree about how or when creation came about. None of us was there. Some would say it came about in seven literal days; others that it took billions of years. Regardless of where we stand on that question, we’re stuck with one unquestionable thing: only God was there on day zero. We weren’t. Or if one of us was actually there, it’s about time that person spoke up. Tell us what happened, won’t you? Write a piece. Do an interview. Podcast. Begin a blog. Start a denomination. At the least start a Twitter account.
No matter how energetically certain one might be about what exactly one thinks happened at creation, we must at the least reserve a humble space for the simple reality that we just weren’t there. In a rare fit of humility, a scientist and a Christian agree: neither was there at the beginning. “In the beginning God….” implies, well, in the beginning weren’t people. The Bible doesn’t say, “In the beginning Adam….” God was there. No one else. When you’re this late to the game, humility is a must. But we like to act as if we were made on day one.
That is not to say that we weren’t in the mind of God, which I believe we were. In a way we were created in the mind of God first. Humanity wasn’t an impromptu add-on to the creation story. God created everything knowing us before we were in our mother’s womb, (Jeremiah 1:5). Certainly God knew about Adam and Eve and you and me before the creation of the world. And so we’ve been around quite some time in idea more than in flesh. I’ve heard rumors of an African tradition that states a person’s birthday is not the day they were physically born but the day their mother first thought of them. How beautiful is that? God knew us way before we actually came along. Our true birthday isn’t the day we were born; rather, it was the day we were imagined.
The Garden was a gift. Regardless of when humanity came along, one thing is for sure: humans weren’t there at the very beginning. The Garden was prepared for us. By definition, a gift is something that’s originated from outside one’s own self. In that sense, the Garden preceded Adam and Eve. The Garden was a gift. The Garden was not the result of their efforts or sweat or tilling. Adam did literally nothing to earn it – they could only work it. They inhabited and kept the Garden with the love they had seen in the Creator for it. They loved it because God loved it. No other reason. It is interesting for me to consider the fact that the word, “to keep,” (Genesis 2:15), used in reference to Adam’s task is the same word in the Hebrew language as “worship.” Working the Garden was Adam’s way of worshiping. Worship, in short, could be described as what we do with the very gift that originated from outside our own selves.
Adam’s world was a gift from God. The land. The animals. The sun. The stars. The water. His wife was received as a gift. The first words off Adam’s tongue after Eve is created are words of poetic ecstasy – literally. He says, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,” (Genesis 2:23). Of course, to say he “said” this is quite the understatement. The first words Adam says are actually a song as he behold the naked woman. The minute Adam saw Eve for the first time, all he could do was be filled with the Holy Spirit and speak in poetry. That is what a gift does to you. It causes you to be overwhelmed with the knowledge that someone loves you more than they should.
Mom didn’t just garden to garden. There were other purposes in her mind indeed. Namely, in our case, a cold vegetable soup known as Gazpacho. I can’t really describe Gazpacho, for it would be like trying to describe looking at the Earth from space. Gazpacho transcends description. Gazpacho was pretty much what our garden existed for. After the harvest – taking the tomatoes, carrots, cucumber, and spices – Mom would magically mix it all together in her white blender and out came the best cold summer Gazpacho you could imagine (if you can even imagine it). I’ve searched the world to discover something similar, but assuredly, my mom’s Gazpacho is the best Gazpacho. And every year, as she would set out planting, sowing, watering, tilling, gardening, and reaping, she would have that Gazpacho in mind.
For my mom, gardening had a purpose, a destination, and an endgame. It was Gazpacho. For others, it’s simply the sustenance of food for the winter. But a real gardener has an end in sight, a direction, and a reason behind the whole thing. Yes, there are certain psychological and physical benefits to being out in the garden, but gardening, in the real sense, is about something that is yet to be complete.
The parallels between the Christian life and gardening are endless. For one, gardening reminds us of the ongoing work of God in our little lives as we try to follow Jesus. God works in our lives the same way a gardener works the soil. Salvation is as much a process as anything. In recent years, Christians have increasingly been comfortable discussing the life of faith as “a journey.” In one sense, the metaphor of faith as a journey is good and helpful and should be appropriated. For truly, Christ followers are, at their core, pilgrims on the way. Yet this image of the Christian “journey” isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a novel one. Teresa of Ávila’s iconic Interior Castle narrates one walking through a mansion as a metaphor of the life of Christian faith. And in recent years, this metaphor has become all the rage. In his very helpful little book, The Journey, Alister McGrath wisely looks at the Christian experience as akin to a road trip or a hike. Clearly, the themes of journeying and wandering harmonize quite well in that they both assume we still have a long way to go.
Yet as with any trend in Christian theology, the image of spiritual “journey” is one I hold some major reservations about. For to describe the Christian life merely in terms of “journey” is to describe gardening merely in terms of “tilling.” But it ain’t just about the tilling. A journey, as such, can only be an authentic journey if it seeks to go somewhere – if there’s the proverbial Gazpacho at the end of the line. In the end, the inherent danger of constantly talking about the “journey” is that we can easily become duped into thinking we never have to arrive somewhere. In fact, I might show my own cards and suggest that this is one of my own critiques of using the image of wandering as a way to look at the Christian life. The danger is we see spirituality as one big walk with no destination. But we are called to arrive. Paul “pressed on toward the goal.” A journey without an arrival is a race without a finish line. And Paul would have none of it.
I contend that our “journey” language needs to be nuanced. If the Christian life is a journey as we say it is, it’s a journey unlike any other. When we imagine a journey, we often think of an ongoing, smooth, uphill hike. But the language of conversion in scripture isn’t really described this way at all. New Testament language regarding conversion is much more dualistic – in or out, black or white – than we’re likely comfortable with. Colossians contends, “He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the Kingdom of the Son he loves,” (1:13). Jesus similarly spoke of being “born again,” (John 3:3). Such in/out, black/white language is far removed from that progressive, uphill, smooth-over-time journey we imagine. Rather, we transfer from one kingdom to another in the blink of an eye – one moment we are in the womb, the next we are in someone’s arms. The moment of birth isn’t a process – it’s a moment. Yet therein lies the contrast between conversion and salvation. Certainly, while conversion remains momentary, the ongoing process of salvation is a progression, a journey.
In a sense, we have arrived; in another sense, we continue to walk. Funny paradox, isn’t it? For this exact reason theologians are prone to speak of salvation as a “punctiliar process.” By that we mean it is an experience marked simultaneously by a period and a comma. We are converted in a moment, but salvation is a work in process. Rethinking this helps us rethink the metaphor of journey in a more thoughtful way. While in a sense we have arrived (at conversion), we have, in another sense, a long journey ahead (“to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul writes in Philippians 2:12). The journey is a lot like a marriage. Often we see the wedding ceremony as the endgame, the finale, but of course it is anything but. A wedding ceremony is a conversion to the married life, but that is merely the beginning. There is then the whole marriage thing. Conversion and salvation are just that: a ceremony and a marriage. In a sense we have arrived, but boy, there is a long way to go. That is why Jesus could tell his disciples who had left everything to follow him to ask, seek, and knock. Being a disciple does not preclude our need to continue striving. As one brilliant theologian has put it, conversion takes a moment, and salvation takes a lifetime.
We see this exact same theme through the lens of Israel as they wander in the desert after leaving Egypt. Israel has been redeemed from Egypt’s controlling oppression, but there is a long way to go to the promised land. In a moment’s notice (like a birth) Israel leaves Egypt. But it would take years to enter the promised land. Salvation is always entered and worked out. We don’t just leave Egypt and go about our business. We leave Egypt and continue to enter salvation. Conversion is the first word; salvation is the whole book.
God’s plan is a finished and ongoing process with a goal, an arrival. To journey for the sake of journeying is to garden for the sake of gardening. When Jesus spoke of asking, seeking, and knocking, we have to assume he meant that there was something that could be found and that he wasn’t sending us on some kind of eternal goose chase. Seeking merely for the sake of seeking isn’t true seeking. Seeking after something is what makes it true seeking. The Christian journey always has a goal in mind. My mom would tell me, when you sow, remember the Gazpacho. That’s why we garden in the first place. Don’t forget that there is an end of all of this toil. Sometimes, when we talk about faith as a journey, I wonder if it gives us permission not to have to land anywhere. But faith without a goal is shallow sentiment.
Sometimes I think we’re scared to actually arrive anywhere.
Like grace, a garden must be cared for. One can have grace, but unless they learn to work with it, grow stuff in it, get it under their nails, it is just a plot of dirt. Gardens take time – lots of time. And they are way messier than you’d ever hope. Gardens and grace both share this: they are gifts that must be kept.
It’s easy to forget that there is a vast chasm between receiving and keeping a gift. A gift must be kept, not just received. It’s become our family’s liturgy two days after Christmas to go all over town to return all the gifts we received but didn’t necessarily want. Even the week before Christmas, we are doing everything we can to regift the things from last year we want to give way. Again, it is one thing to receive a gift; it’s quite another to keep it, care for it, and hold on to it. One can be given the gift of a garden but choose not to keep or tend it. If people procrastinate in their gardens for too long, they put themselves in the position of one long year of buying foods at the local supermarket – or, worse yet, going hungry. In times past, there was a word for procrastinating gardeners. They were called dead gardeners. Procrastination, of all things, isn’t the gardener’s privilege.
Again, there are striking similarities between a garden and the Christian life. One can believe but never fully inhabit, keep, or live out the gospel to one’s fullest capability. Again: one can receive the gospel only to give it away because it didn’t fit one’s desires. That’s precisely why, in the timeless words of Saint Paul, we’re invited to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling,” (Philippians 2:12). Paul never suggests that we work to get our salvation – Paul would never endorse such a putrid theology in his writings. Rather, we “work out” the salvation we’ve already received. We receive it only to find that we are simultaneously provoked to till it and care for it and steward it the way my mother would her garden. You are given a garden; then you work the garden. You don’t work and earn a garden. Nonsense.
A garden is the gift; gardening is what one does to keep and live out the gift.
Mom didn’t garden just to garden. Nor does God start a garden just to garden. God is after something. There is an end point. A goal. An arrival.
I guess what I am saying is that our lives are kind of like God’s Gazpacho.