Shamar and Sustainability

A Farminary Photo Essay
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By Lindsay Clark — Nine years ago, I was living in Washington DC, working as a communications director for a trade association that represents the crop protection industry [read: pesticides]. Like many jobs, it was something I fell into rather than sought, but my role in the organization was a relatively creative one, and I rather enjoyed it. My work involved writing, taking photographs, and communicating insights and updates about the organization to its membership. Eventually, my position included creating and supervising our social media accounts (I declined to run our Twitter myself, firmly believing it was a fad), and strategizing how best to communicate how the crop protection industry was feeding the world.

If you had told me at twenty-six that less than a decade later, I’d wind up at Princeton Theological Seminary pursuing an MDiv and that one of my side jobs while in that program would be as “Chief Social Media Officer”—writing, taking photographs, and communicating insights and updates about a 21-acre organic, sustainable farm project owned and run by the Seminary—I would have laughed at how preposterous that sounded. And yet...

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I am not a stranger to the work that goes into growing food. My mother would dismiss the title of Master Gardener, but has always kept beautiful gardens (some for beauty, others for food), and though she did ninety-five percent of the work, I experienced planting, weeding, and composting enough during my formative years to have a basic idea of what is necessary to cultivate plant life—and what is human effort versus alchemy. I signed up for the Farminary class entitled “Scripture and Food” not because I was dying to get my hands dirty (truth be told, I have often referred to myself as the “Troop Beverly Hills” of youth pastors), but because the course description included this sentence: “The story of Judeo-Christian faith cannot be told, and the life of Christian faith cannot be lived apart from food.”

I came to Princeton convinced that shared meals provide a unique vehicle for discussing and enhancing the Christian life.

Most recently before enrolling at Princeton, I spent four amazing years as a youth pastor, where far and away my most successful program was Breakfast Club, a 6:30 a.m. before school devotional meeting for high school students that was held around an increasingly larger table at a local diner. Teenagers are biologically wired to be night owls and to sleep late, and yet they showed up every Tuesday morning, waking up an hour earlier than necessary to be a part of this group. I found that Bible studies and lessons shared over a communal meal seem to penetrate faith and friendships more deeply and rapidly than activities conducted without food. I came to Princeton convinced that shared meals provide a unique vehicle for discussing and enhancing the Christian life. As one who loves to cook, bake, and throw a dinner party, I loved the idea that food might be another way of reaching people and of shedding new light on Scripture and our understanding of it.

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One of the challenges of seminary is that while we are full time students, we are not full time practitioners. We sit in classrooms and take in information, but must often wait until after graduation to apply the knowledge we glean. The Farminary turns traditional theological education on its head, dropping students into the real mess and beauty that the post-graduation world holds for us, and in a very literal way; the compost pile has rendered at least two pairs of my old running shoes unwearable.

The Farminary turns traditional theological education on its head, dropping students into the real mess and beauty that the post-graduation world holds for us.

One couldn’t ask for a better metaphor for life or Christianity than a garden. At the Farminary, students experience life and death in its garden beds and resurrection on the compost pile. We practice faith and hope each time we tuck a tiny seed into the soil; gratitude when seedlings take root; steadfastness as we pull weeds from among crops; humility in the daily recognition that the weather is completely and totally beyond our control. Abundance is an occasion for rejoicing and an opportunity for sharing with the community. Beauty is everywhere—in what has been intentionally planted, and in what grows wild. It is in the poetry we read beside the still waters of the Farminary’s pond— in the Psalms as well as in works by Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry. It is in the smorgasbord potlucks where individual contributions multiply in such a way that all are satisfied. Mostly, it is in the acute sense that the Spirit is present and active on these 21 acres—in the garden, the barn, and our conversation.

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Classes at the Farminary center around shared work followed by a shared meal. We labor together, and then we break bread and share the fruits of that labor. As I witnessed in youth ministry, relationships often develop faster and deeper at the Farminary than they do facing a blackboard in a traditional classroom. There is something equalizing about working alongside one another in the garden; something connective in dedicating oneself to a plot of soil; something unifying in sharing a potluck meal that, like the body of Christ, somehow becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Spending an hour on our knees weeding a garden bed changes the way we think about being brought to our knees in prayer. The opportunity to take “taste and see” to mean exactly that as we harvest and sample cherry tomatoes, basil, and snap peas changes the way we think about what Scripture instructs. It can be tempting to read much of the Bible as figurative or metaphorical and to box it into our 21st century understanding of “fact.” But then we miss the mystery, miracles, and revelation to be found in these stories of God and God’s people. When we take Scripture literally—when we place a sweet leaf of fresh basil on our tongues instead of imagining its flavor, or observe drops of early morning dew that catch the sunlight on green leaves with our own eyes instead of our mind’s eye—it makes us pause and wonder how much more fully we could experience God’s word if we used all five of our senses to feel it. “Taste and see” becomes both an invitation and an imperative. What does it mean to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength? Can it be that God calls our physical bodies to service and worship, just as God calls our hearts?

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My understanding of and appreciation for creation is much more nuanced now than it was a decade ago as I wrote newsletters and oversaw social media related to agricultural pesticides. I grew up in a city that prized recycling and had always thought of the environment and its preservation as critically important, but of humans and their preservation as of paramount importance. Thus “feeding the world” seemed an acceptable reason to advocate for the use of synthetic chemicals to better guarantee crop yields, despite any cost to the land.

Though the debate over pesticide use has been about safety and health—it has largely centered around what is safe and healthy for humans. We are quick to righteous anger over the risk synthetic chemicals present to our bodies, but perhaps not as quick to think about the environmental impact of industrial agriculture, and even slower to contemplate the treatment of the people (often migrants) who must hand-weed vast acreage to provide us with organic produce.

I have come to think about theology, ecology, and creation in a new way—no longer can I see care for human beings and care for the earth as mutually exclusive.

The Hebrew word shamar* is used to describe why God puts Adam in the Garden of Eden in the first place. We are to care for and protect one another the same way and with the same love that we are to care for and protect the earth. It is what we are created to do, to be: shamar.

Through classes at and coursework related to the Farminary, I have come to think about theology, ecology, and creation in a new way—no longer can I see care for human beings and care for the earth as mutually exclusive. Time at the Farminary has reinforced for me that our responsibility to one another is inextricably linked to our responsibility to the earth. We love and honor God through care of creation as well as through love of neighbor.

I have accepted that Twitter is here to stay, and embraced the use of hashtags during my tenure as “Chief Social Media Officer” of the Farminary. One of my favorite pairs of hashtags with which to close a post about the Farminary remains #sowinghope #growinglove. May those 21 beautiful acres continue to do both in the lives of its students and this community for many years into the future.

*Shamar means to keep, watch, or guard, and can be applied to crops, animals, or a dwelling.

Educating faithful Christian leaders.

Associate Pastor, Faith Lutheran Church, Bismarck, ND

Sylvia Bull, Class of 2015

“My field education placements lifted up my gifts for ordained ministry, and the dual-degree program helped me develop the skills for ministry.”