I suppose some introductions are in order! My name is Sam Chamelin. I am an ordained clergyperson in the United Church of Christ, and I serve as the Sustainability Coordinator at Gettysburg Seminary. For our purposes, I am also the co-founder of The Keep & Till, an aspiring church plant in Maryland centered on a model of spiritual formation, sustainable agriculture, and ecological responsibility. Our commitment is to the creation of agrarian disciples to serve rural communities.
As a core group of people got to work on The Keep & Till we spent a lot of time talking about the words we would use. This moment in the Church’s life told us that if we are going to do something “new,” we better be able to describe why it’s “new” and not just another temporary entry into the ecclesial nursing home of Christendom. To paraphrase a popular saying: we shape our words and then our words shape us. Likewise, for those of us in the Christian Food Movement, we have a sacred responsibility to think carefully about the words we use among one another and with the world.
A pastor taught me to care about words. In the opening pages of his book The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson bemoans the drained meaning of the word “pastor.” He argues that the word used to be robust, calling to mind “a person passionate for God and compassionate with people.” (1) Now, it means little more than a religious professional. Peterson warns, “…if the noun is culture-damaged or cultured-diseased, adjectives are necessary….The need for strengthening adjectives is critical.” (2) Our places, and especially our churches, are full of desiccated and hollow words. When we go to the grocery store, what is truly meant by “organic,” “all natural,” or “local?” When we enter the church, “disciple” creates the same uncertainty.
“Disciple” has been culture-diseased from an industrial-style church that has made the journey of spiritual formation into an assembly line of Bible memorization, congregational servitude, and evangelical zeal. It is rooted in a spirituality that is (ironically) insufficiently spiritual, leaving no place for the soil under our feet and the neighbors on our street. Rightly so, it is now viewed with suspicion. But here’s the problem: it is the word we are given in the Christian tradition. There is no way given to us by scripture to follow Jesus other than the way of a disciple. We cannot abandon the word, so it falls to us in this moment to give it a proper strengthening adjective.
At The Keep & Till, our word is “agrarian.” When we use this word, we look to Wendell Berry’s patient wisdom, “agrarianism begins with givens: land, plants, animals, weather, hunger, and the birthright knowledge of agriculture… Agrarian farmers know that their very identity depends on their willingness to receive gratefully, use responsibly, and hand down intact an inheritance, both natural and cultural, from the past.” (3) An agrarian model starts with an eye towards health and sustainability, rather than production. To accomplish this, it assumes deep complexity and connectedness is vital for healthy ecosystems. It does not suggest that environmental health need be set over and against human welfare, but vigorously believes that one is reliant on the other, anticipating the new heavens and the new earth where there is provision for all. And it seeks to hand these gifts to the next generation for their health and well-being also.
With this robust, complex, and beautiful meaning, we hope to give “disciple” the strengthening adjective it so desperately needs. Discipleship cannot be a departure from the places we live and the land we live on. Proper discipleship begins with the givens – our real selves, our real places, our real ecosystems. It raises up proper praise and proper criticism of our life together. And we acknowledge that real discipleship understands that if the Kingdom of God is truly breaking in, it will bring salvation to all things. To see the Kingdom of God is to see all things being brought to health, wholeness, what some call shalom. That’s what we hope to achieve as agrarian disciples.
But words are complicated. Where we see hope, others may see despair. Indeed, “agrarian” has also been a strengthening adjective for racism, gentrification, income stratification, and a host of ills that plague our past and threaten our future. We acknowledge the pain and sorrow that this word can bring. But we hope that Berry’s robust definition eventually wins the day, and that a new discipleship that begins in the soil can bring in a renewal of the Church that remembers its incarnational Savior.
The only way that can happen is if the words we use become flesh. At the Keep & Till, we hope to trace this definition in our lives by drawing straight lines from our worship to our work. To this end, we see our agricultural expression – growing food to support the food-insecure, as well as to support our own “Go Local” movement – not as a nice thing we do in response to our faith, but it is the act of faith itself. It is spiritual formation. It is discipleship. That style of discipleship may not change the world, but it may make a difference in our corner of it. That’s a discipleship that unites heaven and earth in anticipating the Kingdom that is here, among us, and yet still on the horizon.
So from us at The Keep & Till, we are deeply humbled and thankful for this emerging community of faith, and we look forward to lending our voice, our ears, and even our hands to this movement of the Spirit in our hearts and in our soil. Peace and good!
(1) Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1989), 15.
(2) Ibid, 15.
(3) Wendell Berry, “The Agrarian Standard,” Orion. (2002).
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