“For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grows old in the earth,
and its stump dies in the ground,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant."
--Job 14: 7-9--
Job is one of my favorite books of the Bible. In it we find a conversation that takes twists and turns that are not always expected but always revealing. For example, Job’s friends are the epitome of Pastoral Care as long as they keep their mouths shut. As soon as they try to explain to Job what his problem is they make a mess of things. In fact, they do such a spectacularly bad job of explaining to Job what his problem is that God decided to punish them unless Job intervenes on their behalf. Wisdom in the proper application of silence.
There is a heartfelt pleading in Job to God and the demand that God explain why Job is being punished. Not only is it heartfelt it is persistent and as the book unfolds the pleading becomes more and more insistent until God finally reminds Job of his import in the grand scheme of things. The chapters where God defends himself against human wisdom are withering and do a fabulous job of opening our eyes to all that God is responsible for beyond our collective tiny lives.
And then there is proverbial wisdom that I have quoted above. Wisdom that comes from the observance of creation doing its own thing and responding to challenges that are, all things considered, extreme. Thanks to science we understand a little bit better how trees like the ones Job references are able to do what they do.
One summer I had the privilege of working on an Asparagus farm. As a city kid there was much, I didn’t know about the science of growing asparagus and because I felt I should know a little bit more about Asparagus than how to harvest it I asked questions of farmer Dave who patiently gave answers. I imagine I was a distraction from the repetitive nature of farming Asparagus.
One of the lessons we talked about was the science of soil. I have to say I didn’t spend much time thinking about dirt before and I don’t find myself stopping beside random patches of dirt to examine them closer, but I haven’t forgot on of Dave’s more important lessons in soil science.
The balance of your soil is integral to the crop you want to grow. While you can plant any seed in any soil and have it grow the quality of that growth depends on the match between the nutrients that the soil may offer and the nutrients that the seed demands. Crop Rotation came about when farmers noticed that trying to grow the same crops in the same soil year after year resulted in diminishing returns. And certain crops repaired the damage to the soil that the previous crops did.
The basic crop cycle if you start with a leafy vegetable like Lettuce continues on to Legumes (beans) then to fruits (summer squash) then to root vegetables (potato or beet or carrot). With advances to fertilizers crop rotation is an older practice so my friend Farmer Dave will continue to grow Asparagus (which is good because of the nature of the plant) and every year samples the soil to know just how much of any component (there are four) need to be added to the field for maximum growth.
The Church is a living thing like any plant. And like any plant it needs certain qualities to be present to thrive. Churches rarely, if ever, sample the soil they grow in to know if the reason why their fields are getting smaller and smaller is due to something going missing. Something that could be reintroduced if only we had known it had been depleted. In the Church we spend more time worrying about quantity (the production in the field) than we do quality (the strength of the soil and the crops it produces). Maybe we need to fix that relatively simple thing before we see the kind of change that we earnestly desire for George Street United Church.
In the weeks to come I want to take space in these Pastoral Letters to prepare us for the season of spring and the time of planting. I want to teach you what I know about the science of Church soil so that together we can replenish the fields we have farmed forever and start to realize some of the harvests we remember as history. Welcome to Natural Church Development I hope you find it as exciting as I have.
-Reverend John Maich