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Norman Wirzba

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Gardening with God

Posted: 07/12/10 05:29 PM ET

God is the first, the best, and the eternal gardener. Viewed biblically, the day God ceases to garden is also the day we all perish. I have never heard a preacher say that, but it is true.

When you open the Bible, one of the very first stories describes a desolate landscape. There is land and a stream to water the ground, but there are no plants or herbs. God forms the first human being (adam) out of this plantless dirt (adamah). The Hebrew etymological connection, much like the English pairing of human and humus, tells us that our identity is irrevocably tied to dirt.

God then does another astonishing thing. God plants a garden in a place called Eden (Genesis 2:8) and puts the human "earthling" there. Eden means "delight." It must have been amazing, because the adam, having just come from the ground, now watches as God makes grow out of the ground every tree that is pleasant to look at and good for food.

God's creating does not end with the plants. Next, God forms out of the same ground all the kinds of animals and birds, hoping that one might be a companion and partner for the adam. None turn out to be suitable, so God uses one of adam's ribs to fashion a woman. She is the only creature not directly fashioned out of the ground.

If nothing else, we should be astonished by God's fondness for dirt. Soil is the life-bearing medium that God repeatedly uses to create plants, animals, and of course us. Life grows out of the soil together. We all depend on the soil. No wonder, then, that God takes the adam into the garden and says, in effect, "Take care of this delightful and delectable place. Till the dirt. Protect it. Your life and the life of all the creatures you have just seen me make depend on it."

This story says that gardening is the basic, perhaps even non-negotiable, human vocation. We are made by God the Gardener to do the work of gardening in a place called the Garden of Delights. When we do it well, we participate in God's own work of protecting and nurturing the world. We assist in life's unbelievable fertility and splendor. We enjoy life's beauty and its unbelievably good taste and aroma.

God has been gardening from the beginning of time, looking after all creatures and cultivating the conditions in which life can flourish. God is also gardening at the end of time in the new heaven and new earth. In the New Jerusalem there is a river of the water of life, and on each side of the river is the tree of life providing fruit for the feeding and the healing of all nations (Revelation 22:1-2). God continues always to look after the life he creates. That is what gardeners do.

This first garden story ends badly. The man and the woman find themselves exiled from Eden because they were not happy to take care of the garden. Rather than being gardeners that nurture and protect the life that God continually draws out of the ground, Adam and Eve wanted to secure life on their own terms. They reached for forbidden fruit, fruit that would make them like God.

This ending should not surprise us because their story is being played out again and again throughout our histories. Gardening is hard, physical work. It takes patience and attention, as well as a complex intelligence, to know how to nurture multiple forms of life. It takes love to get outside yourself and count the life of another as worthy of your energy and devotion. It also takes courage to admit to personal ignorance and incompetence when crops fail, and a great deal of humility to face the amount of death that occurs despite our best efforts. For many, it is a lot easier simply to walk away from gardens. We don't need God to kick us out. We go willingly, in search of an easier, more convenient and comfortable life that does not demand as much from us.

Our walking away from our gardening responsibilities has led to an unprecedented moment in creation's history. Humanity's abandonment of the humus -- our refusal to take up the gardening task of nurturing and protecting life -- has yielded a harvest of degraded and eroded soils, poisoned waters, diminishing forests and wetlands, and the erasure of uncountable numbers of plant and animal species. Our failure to be the gardeners God has made us to be has turned Earth as the place of delight into "Eaarth" (as Bill McKibben has recently renamed it), a place of needless suffering and death.

It is time for us to come to our senses. I mean this quite literally. We need to learn to appreciate how much our senses have lost in every bite of artificial flavoring, every whiff of polluted air, every noisy sound, and every gulp of contaminated water. We need to re-educate our senses so that they can appreciate life's needs and savor its delectable qualities.

This sort of education happens best in gardens. It happens when we learn to garden with God, the first, the best, and the eternal Gardener.