Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Born to Be Gardeners

Azalea planting at Secrest Arboretum, Wooster, OH
This past week, I fulfilled an invitation of The Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer (MGV) Program to speak to a group of volunteers at the Secrest Arboretum on the campus of The USU-Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, here in Wooster, OH.   The mission of the MGV program is to educate others with timely research-based gardening information.  Qualifications of successful applicants are very clear:  One must

·         want to learn more about plants and gardening
·         be eager to participate in training
·         have a passion for sharing what you learn
·         have time/willingness to attend training and serve your community

Early arriving MGV's in the Miller Pavilion, Secrest Arboretum
This four-point progression provides an important message for qualifying MGV candidates.  The MGV program wants volunteers who are teachable, participatory, passionate, and unselfishly service-oriented.  These qualities were evident in the enthusiastic participation of the volunteers who composed my audience.  Knowing the spirit of Paul Snyder, program assistant at Secrest Arboretum, I was not surprised by the quality of these volunteers.  Their vocations, representing such diverse fields as education, law enforcement, farming, and industry made for interesting points of discussion during my presentation.

With Paul Snyder, Secrest Arboretum
Paul had charged me with presenting “my passion” for prairies, prairie plants, and prairie restoration.  Because of the mission and qualifications for the Master Gardener program, I devoted some discussion to the notion of how a robust environmental ethic can help us value the world around us and motivate us to invest our time, energy, and passion as gardeners or habitat restorationists. 

I began by explaining that my passion for prairies is based on the Judeo-Christian teachings about gardening and restoration.  [I’ll elaborate a bit more here than in my talk to the MGV.] The Scriptures in Genesis 1 and 2 provide the following foundation blocks for a biblical stewardship environmental ethic:

1.   What many call “the natural world” originated by God’s creative acts and it belongs to Him. 
2.   God, the Owner of creation, appointed humankind as stewards or managers (Gen. 2: 15).
3.   Because God loves His creation and has benevolent purposes for it, our stewardship must reflect our best attempts though good science and sound ethics to “serve with,” or con-serve creation so that God’s purposes for humankind and all of creation are realized. 
4.  A gardener or restorationist who possesses an awareness of God’s purposes at work in the intricacies of living creatures—nutrition, growth, development, reproduction, and adaptation to environment—possesses a more objective and comprehensive ethic or basis for valuing creation, loving God’s creation, and justifying efforts to promote the flourishing of creation and mankind’s relationship to it and ultimately, to God.

Prairie remnants can expand into set-aside farm fields.
After this introduction, I presented the past geologic and human historic factors that explain the origin and current condition of the North American Prairie (See “History is Important.”).   Sadly, the extensive prairies of North America exist now only as very fragmented remnants surrounded by extensive agricultural and urban development.  It is these prairie remnants that prairie restorationists attempt to conserve by managing against the encroachment of woody plants and agricultural weeds. (See “Serving with Our Neighbor.”)

Naturally, a discussion that disparages weeds and values native plants is based on value judgments.  So, why are native plants more valuable than weeds?  The short answer is that “native” animal and plant species are those that resided in the “natural” landscape prior to human settlement within the North American prairie system.  But, this answer raises another question—what do we mean by “natural?”  Did “natural” biotic communities exist until European-American settlers entered the land?  Or, had Native Americans already altered “natural” communities many centuries earlier by setting fires to promote grazing or to burn the villages of enemy tribes?
Considerations used to distinguish gardening from restoration
The discussion of what is “natural” led us to ask whether the typical practice of gardening is any different from the practice of those who manage prairie remnants or who attempt to restore prairie communities on “unnatural” landscapes.  For example, how is the effort we undertook at Cedarville University to restore a prairie on tilled agricultural land any different from the actions of a gardener or farmer establishing a garden of flowers or field of corn?  We used a graphic that lists considerations associated with gardening and prairie restoration to determine if there are substantial differences between the two.  Although some restorationists may suggest that the considerations toward the right side of the graphic are given higher priority by restoration efforts, some gardeners may employ these as well if they are ecologically and conservation minded. 

Is a prairie restoration in a former cornfield a type of "garden?"
Stuart Allison cites the writing of Moore and co-authors in The Poetics of Gardens (MIT, 1988) and concludes there is no difference between restoration and gardening.  He writes (emphasis mine), I think that "gardening" is the perfect word to describe what restorationists are doing because it emphasizes the personal relationship between individual humans and the land. Allison follows with this conclusion:

The hangup some environmental philosophers express about whether restorations are natural or not, or even whether the natural still exists, misses the point.  The connection between humans and the environment is real and cannot be denied. The fact that the relationship is not working well cannot be denied, either.

Allison’s conclusion resonates with the biblical environmental stewardship ethic because both acknowledge the malfunction in the relationship between humans and creation.  The Scriptures explain this malfunction in Genesis 3.  Because of humankind’s rebellion against God, the fall and curse upon creation has marred human ability to follow perfectly the Dominion-Stewardship Mandate issued by God (Genesis 1: 28).  However, Christ, the second Adam, came to Earth, died for the sins of mankind and was raised victorious over death to redeem us from the wages of sin and provide reconciliation between God and mankind, and between mankind and creation (Colossians 1: 13-20). 

The “Good News,” or the Gospel, is the message that God now offers “spiritual restoration” to all who will accept by faith in Christ the free gift of reconciliation .  God has called those He has redeemed and restored by faith to become gardeners and “restorationists” through appropriate ministry in the lives of others who have not heard or believed the Gospel.  As Adam was commanded to “serve and keep the Garden” so Christian believers today are called to follow the second Adam in His Great Commission to make disciples from the fallen and dying (Matthew 28: 18-20).

Gardening in Great Commission
The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8: 19-21 that the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God [and was] subjected to futility… in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  Whereas, Adam had rebelled against his assignment as a gardener, God reissued the gardening assignment through His Great Commission to born again disciples of Christ.  The Apostle Paul uses the “gardening metaphor” for the Great Commission when he writes in 1 Corinthians 3: 6:   I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the [spiritual] growth.

We have seen that gardening and restoration have similar aims in the physical world of creation.   They also make excellent metaphors for the human responsibility of submitting to God in the service of the Great Commission in which we serve as gardeners to sow seed and water it with the aim of bringing a harvest of new believers and nurturing them in the faith.  Because of the closeness of physical gardening to the notion of spiritual gardening, I believe the practice of gardening can teach valuable lessons in spiritual growth and maturity.  I can testify of the role of gardening in my life while I was growing up on our farm.

One of several cantaloupe fields on the Silvius farms
My father, Bert Silvius, was a farmer and a gardener.  Each year on our 200 acres of farmland, he would lead us in the planting, hoeing, weeding, and harvesting of about 4 acres of cantaloupes.  If you can picture 1 acre, you will realize we had one large garden!  Lots of hours of manual labor were required, but I am thankful for the spiritual lessons I learned in the process.  Early in the spring we planned for the dates of planting, tilled the soil, planted the seed in hundreds of “hills,” and then, depended on the weather to bring germination with the help of “hotcaps” that protected the young seedlings against frost.  When the seedlings reached an inch or more in height, we sliced open the paper hotcaps to allow adjustment to cooler temperatures, then eventually removed the hotcaps and thinned the seedlings several times, ending up with one healthy plant per original hill.  Then came at least two summer months of hoeing, weeding, and spraying while anticipating the first delicious ripe melons.  Throughout the sweaty and often tedious gardening effort, I leaned the character qualities of orderliness, patience, responsibility, cooperation, unselfishness, and dependence on God for the ultimate harvest.

Bradley & Mindy growing a prize pumpkin.
Gardening was not only spiritually rewarding in my own development as a young man but it became important in teaching a work ethic in my own family years later.  My wife and I who both gained from our gardening backgrounds were able to pass along the same character development experience in gardening to our children.  Even though our family garden was much smaller than the 4 acre-garden of my younger days, our children dreaded the labor no less than I.  However, we all have many good memories of those days of planning, planting, watering, harvesting, and enjoying the delicious fruits and vegetables fresh from the garden.

And so last week, many years after my boyhood days of gardening, and many years after our young family had gardened together, I stood and spoke to Master Gardener Volunteers in the Miller Pavilion of Secrest Arboretum.  As we discussed the benefits of gardening, not only to the landscape but to the gardeners themselves, I looked out of the pavilion and thanked God for my dad and mom who many years before had brought my siblings and I to Secrest Arboretum to enjoy the garden plants and trees. 

Speaking of the physical dimension of gardening and restoration, Stuart Allison writes,

There are many items on the plate of restorationists, but the most important item must be the restoration of that human-environment relationship.  Without that restoration, none of our other efforts will matter.

As we engage in wise gardening and restoration, we are acting out God’s metaphor for our stewardship responsibility to His creation.  All the while we are cultivating and restoring our relationship to God and creation.   Finally, as our family learned and as I have experienced in working with students over the years, gardening and restoration work provide an excellent opportunity to develop godly character qualities that will last for a lifetime.

Gardening and Restoration Websites:

   Ohio Prairie Association (Explore many helpful links) 
   God as Gardener (Psalm 80: 7-9); God like Garden Soil (Isaiah 61: 11)

How about You:   Perhaps you’d like to respond with a “Comment” about how gardening has played a role in your life or with your family; or, share more insights from Scripture on garden, gardening, and restoration metaphors.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Life as It Ought to Be - Part 2: Set Free…to Renew Our Minds

Tomorrow is Inauguration Day and many Americans will be watching as Donald John Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.  But indications are that America has never been more divided at any time since the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, in 1861, near the beginning of the Civil War.  Voices of opposition and distain for Trump are heard from people representing the sciences, politics, human rights groups, and the entertainment industry.  Here is a sampling:

America was also divided in 1861 at Lincoln's first inauguration.
I am literally on a remote tropical island and I, even I, don't feel safe. – Hollie Smith (singer-songwriter) 

Having a person in the position of U.S. President who does not acknowledge scientific facts establishing the clear reality of human-caused climate change is a disgrace
. -- Dr. Twila Moon, (University of Bristol)

We will fight to make sure that Planned Parenthood health center doors stay open, and that people in this country can get access to basic reproductive health care
…   Cecile Richards (president, Planned Parenthood)

The world will never be the same.  – Cher (singer-actress)

Winning the electoral college does not absolve Trump of the grave sins he committed against millions of Americans.  If Trump wants to roll back the tide of hate he unleashed, he has a tremendous amount of work to do and he must begin immediately
.  -- Harry Reid (U.S. Senate, (D) Nev.)

We've let a hatemonger lead our great nation.  We've let a bully set our course.  I'm devastated
.  -- Chris Evans (actor—“Captain America”)

The battle of angry words and rude behavior between Election 2016 winners and losers has continued right up to Inauguration Day.  Thanks to the internet, these angry expressions are broadcasted far and wide.  Occasionally, President-elect Trump throws fuel into the fire with angry tweets of his own.

What makes us act this way?  The cause is not Donald Trump.  Nor is it the two-party system; or, the internet.  The cause is not even fear of “losing our rights”—e.g. reproductive rights, gender rights, voting rights, health benefits, welfare entitlements, government job security, etc.  The ultimate cause lies deep within the human hearti.e. the mental frameworks of logic and values each person has constructed with their mind.

When we are honest with ourselves, we admit we have personal struggles with pride, lust, and deceit.  These in turn influence our moral beliefs and hence how we think about the social and economic issues listed above.  Regardless of our stand on these issues, many of us experience fear and angst over how the new administration will influence our future.  When we reflect on the violence and destruction throughout human history we realize that humans are not naturally “good-at-heart,” or should I say, “good-at-mind.”  The Bible states, there is none righteous, not even one (Romans 3: 10).  And, the Apostle James asks (James 4: 1), What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you?  Scripture answers immediately-- Because of your lusts that war in your members.
All of us have to deal with lust, an intense desire for something that is not rightfully ours to have.  Although many including Google mistakenly limit lust to “sexual desire,” it applies more broadly to any inordinate desire. We may lust for things like food, wealth, fame, intellectual prowess, or power.  The root of the problem is not that sex, food, guns, or fame are bad.  Instead, it is the way we think about these gifts of God.  What’s worse, we can use our minds and thought processes to deceive ourselves into believing that we don’t lust, or at least not very much.  As the prophet Jeremiah explains (Jeremiah 17: 9 NET), the human mind is more deceitful than anything else.  It is incurably bad.  Who can understand it?

Thankfully, God’s moral revelation in Scripture comes to us with the Spirit and power to help us attack the root of the problem within our minds.  In Part 1 of “Life as It Ought to Be,” we emphasized how God has power to “set us free….to serve Him.”  As the Apostle Peter writes (1 Peter 3:18), For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…  Sin, is rebellion against God as a result of the prideful, lustful, and deceitful ways of thinking in our minds.  But sin does not need to have dominion over us.  Paul writes in Romans 8: 10, If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.

In Part 1, we explained how God sets the sinner free from sin’s mastery and gives the person of faith His Holy Spirit to reside within as a “New Master.” The “old master,” representing sin, selfishness, and Satan can now be brought under the righteous authority of God’s Spirit.  But, as a believer, I must submit to God’s Spirit as His Word tells me to …consider yourself dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus…[not allowing] sin [to] reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts...(Romans 6: 11-12).  Specifically, I must recognize that I cannot serve two masters.  My “death to the old master” representing sin, as expressed in pride, lust, and deceit becomes reality as I submit to my New Master, Jesus Christ.  Romans 12: 1-2 describes what God asks me to do daily (emphasis mine):   

present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not [let your mind and thinking] be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Notice that our responsibility is to continually allow God’s Spirit through His Word to renew our minds so that our wills are attuned to God’s will.  Dr. Caroline Leaf, a communication pathologist and audiologist has conducted research for years in the field of cognitive neuroscience.  She believes that God created our minds in His image and has given us the “free will” to choose how we will think and react to our circumstances.  Dr. Leaf writes in her book entitled Switch on Your Brain (Baker Books, 2013):   

Your mind is the most powerful thing in the universe after God, and indeed fashioned after God.  Free will and choice are real, spiritual, and scientific facts. Your mind (soul) has one foot in the door of the spirit and one foot in the door of the body; you can change your brain with your mind and essentially renew your mind.

Dr. Leaf rejects the view that the human brain is hard-wired and unchangeable, a view that gained popularity in the 1980’s.  She has based her research on her insights gained from the Scriptures such as Romans 12: 2 in which God commands us to be transformed by the renewing of your mind and Deuteronomy 30: 19 in which God lovingly invites us to choose life in order that you may live….  Dr. Leaf reasons correctly that God would not ask His image bearers to exercise choice if He had not created us with brains that have the neurological capacity to change, and with the free will to make right choices that in turn help build healthy brains.  

In a future article, we will address more specifically how our mind can affect the status of our brain and in turn how we think when we use our God-given free will to make right decisions through the power of His Spirit and the guidance of His Word.   But for now, notice how James 4: 5-10 reveals the blessed benefit of submitting our minds to God’s will.  When we submit to God, we realize that His Spirit is actually longing for relationship with us.  What’s more God wants us to turn our longings back to Him as our Creator.  Listen to God’s loving mind speaking out to our minds (emphasis mine):

Or do you think the Scripture means nothing when it says, “The spirit that God caused to live within us has an envious yearning”?  But he gives greater grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.”  So submit to God.  But resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and make your hearts pure, you double-minded Grieve, mourn, and weep.  Turn your laughter into mourning and your joy into despair.  Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.

How does a God Who created mankind explain the current division in America, and the divisions and strife around the world?  As we have explained, God’s Word tells us that our minds are naturally prideful, corrupt, and prone to lust or desire that which we do not have.  Therefore, God’s Spirit desires that each person submit to Him and allow their minds to be transformed by the renewing of their minds so that each will know what God’s will is for them.  The above challenge from the Apostle James seems very pertinent to this year’s politics.  It is the prideful, lustful, deceitful mind that causes the outpouring of prideful speech and actions.  Our only remedy is to allow God’s Spirit through His Word to go deep into our system of thought, causing repentance (change of heart/mind), submission to God, and confession of sin.  These actions bring New Life in Christ for the unbeliever, and they bring regular renewal and spiritual growth to the Christ-follower. 

If all goes as planned, tomorrow Donald J. Trump will be our new president.  Life will not immediately be “as it ought to be.”  But, if we take to heart the instructions of the Apostle James to submit to God Who will help us resist the devil, God will enable us to replace our own tendency toward divisiveness, anger, and rudeness with the virtues like patience, kindness, and self-control.   We can then be a much-needed, fresh aroma in our struggling homes, schools, workplaces, and churches.  The inspired Word written in a letter by the Apostle Paul to Titus during harsh times of the Roman Empire ought to encourage us to be thankful for the privilege of watching the inauguration and then praying for the Trump family and his new administration (emphasis mine):

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.  For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.  But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior so that being justified by His grace we would be mad heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 
– Titus 3:1-7
How about You?   If after reading this article, you sense that you need to do some mind and soul searching, here is a suggestion.  Read Part 1 of this series and prayerfully consider and apply the “four disciplines” outlined there to assure our daily submission to the “New Master.”  They were (1) forging ahead for God while confessing and forgetting past failings; and, being disciplined to (2) feed on God’s Word, (3) adopt a lifestyle of prayer and repentance, and (4) seek fellowship regularly with fellow believers.  If you have particular questions or comments, please use the “Comment” box below or e-mail me at silviusj@gmail.com