We were not expecting only young women to sign up for the annual youth mystery trip. But when they did, we knew we had an opportunity. Their church’s leaders had arranged for them to join us at the Farminary, which is a project to integrate theological education with small-scale sustainable agriculture at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was part of a small team of seminarians, which was in charge of designing and teaching the curriculum for the trip. Knowing that context matters, we were excited about what this particular group of young women could learn through this unique setting at the Farminary.
Youth ministry does a disservice to youth if it participates, explicitly or implicitly, in messages that young people can earn or buy their goodness instead of receive it as a gift from God… To be a “good girl” theologically is to be created and loved by the God who is good.
Genesis 1 jumped out as the obvious place to start. The opening words of the Bible that may have once been dulled by familiarity came alive in a new way at the Farminary. As the young women and their leaders mulched tomatoes, Genesis 1 was read aloud. The tomato plants with their earthy scent and the dark, fertile soil embodied the biblical imagery of the earth bringing forth vegetation. As the Scripture was read, the group joined in at every refrain of, “And God saw that it was good,” by shouting, “GOOD!” together in unison. Through living at the intersection of thinking theologically and caring for creation, the Farminary highlighted God’s delight in all of creation and God’s proclamation that it is good.
What Is Goodness?
As the group circled up to process their first day at the Farminary, the question emerged: “How do you know what is good?” The buzz of energy around the circle this question created signaled its importance. The young women had encountered God’s delight and God’s declaration of goodness in the garden, but now they needed to do the work of translating why that was important for their particular lives.
Many competing ideas of goodness were acknowledged. Consumerism reared its head early in the conversation. One young woman talked about getting messages about what is good from magazines and by seeing what products were popular among friends. Yet, she shared in a way that showed she was ultimately dissatisfied with the superficial and fleeting goodness consumerism could provide. Others shared about the pressure they felt to be good enough. As young women, they have likely received explicit and implicit messages their whole lives about what it meant to be a “good girl.” These expectations can range from appearance to achievement to affability. Striving to live up to expectations to be good enough is not only exhausting, but also cannot ultimately quench the thirst for goodness.
Goodness As Gift
Luckily, we had two living parables in our midst—an old oak tree and a newborn baby girl. The old oak tree was simply being what it was created to be. The baby girl mostly ate and napped, and the group adored her for it. The challenge to the young women to think of themselves in the same gracious way that they thought about that baby girl resonated deeply with the group. The lesson taught by the parable of the oak tree and the baby girl is that one cannot earn or buy goodness. As Genesis 1 reminds us, goodness comes from being loved and created by the very One who is good. Goodness is a gift of grace that cannot be earned or bought. The Farminary, with its focus on locating humanity theologically and literally within God’s creation, was fertile ground for youth to grasp that truth.
Youth ministry does a disservice to youth if it participates, explicitly or implicitly, in messages that young people can earn or buy their goodness instead of receive it as a gift from God. The embodied experience of these young women also serves as a reminder that the pressure to be good enough can be a gendered experience, which is worth paying attention to and addressing theologically. To be a “good girl” theologically is to be created and loved by the God who is good.
The Price of Goodness
Young people understand that goodness that can be earned or bought can also be lost. The goodness of God does not have a price, but it does have an invitation. The invitation of grace is to respond in gratitude. Out of gratitude, we can invite young people to orient their lives around the goodness of God. Rather than always searching for a way to be good enough, they can be connected to the source of goodness. At the Farminary, the way to orient one’s life around the goodness of God is to grow in love for God, others, self, and creation.
As we accepted the gift of God’s grace and the invitation to respond in gratitude, our week with these young women at the Farminary abounded with God’s goodness from the old oak tree to the newborn baby that rested in its shade. What messages does your community explicitly and implicitly model for young people about what makes them good? What is keeping you from believing that God created you, and saw that you were GOOD? I invite you, as God’s beloved, good creation, both to become and discover your own living parables of God’s goodness.
Want to learn more about the Farminary and how to think theologically about food? Check out the JUST FOOD Conference (September 22–24), where you’ll get the opportunity to have conversations about food justice, agriculture, and how they intersect with our faith. Your body and soul will leave nourished.
Amber Slate is a fourth year M. Div./M.A. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. Previously, she worked for five years at Sammamish Presbyterian Church where she was director of the middle school ministry. She grew up on a farm in Eastern Washington and wonders if one day she will get to be pastor of a church that would be excited about having goats.