I’m not your typical Farminarian…
Let me back up.
“Farminarian” is an inside term that only a handful of people connected to Princeton Theological Seminary’s Farminary Project would employ or understand. As I use it, it describes someone for whom the Farminary is an irreplaceable component of their theological education. Usually, a Farminarian would be someone who needs to get out of the traditional classroom and rarely finds much life reading old, dead, theologians under florescent lighting. A Farminarian loves to get their hands dirty, is filled with joy at the very thought of picking fresh cilantro and holding it to their nose for a smell before taking a tiny taste of God’s goodness. A typical Farminarian feels God’s presence in the garden more than in the sanctuary.
But, as I said, I am not your typical Farminarian. I don’t care much for vegetables. I prefer McDonald’s breakfast over anything you could pick in a garden. I consider myself an “avid indoorsman” and I LOVE reading old, dead theologians under florescent lighting. In the garden, where some find God, I just find dirt… and occasionally bugs… it’s not my thing. The traditional classroom suits me just fine, and if I want to find life, I tend to gravitate to places like Starbucks where there aren’t any ants.
An Indoorsy Farminarian?
The Farminary is where the question of human action receives the answer of divine grace… I take young people to the Farminary not because I see God there, but because I trust that when we “grasp with empty hands,” God discovers us there. And there’s a lot we can learn there that we could never learn from reading old, dead theologians under florescent lights.
I graduated from Princeton Seminary in May of 2016, just a few months ago. So what was the first thing I decided to do after I began work as the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River? I decided to take the young people of my church to the Farminary. We went there for our “service project” during our “Youth Week” and we’re planning on becoming regulars.
So why do I—someone who isn’t your typical Farminarian—choose to take young people to the Farminary? Because I believe that the Farminary is more for those who don’t see God there than it is for the people who do.
The people who intuitively experience God at the Farminary probably aren’t the ones who really need it. The people who need the Farminary, and stand to learn the most about God from it, are the people who bask in florescent lighting—the people like me who are naturally inclined to keep busy in the pages of books and on the keyboards of computers. The people who need the Farminary are young kids from places like Toms River for whom cilantro is just something that shows up in their salsa. The Farminary is for people who imagine the world more like a machine than a garden—people who imagine that the meaning of the world is in what we do to make it.
The Farminary is where the question of human action receives the answer of divine grace. While I took young people to do work (human action) at the Farminary, what I hoped they would experience is the divine grace of God.
Creation and Grace
What you learn when you are given the opportunity to work the soil and receive its fruit—rather than just picking your tomatoes off the shelf in the produce section—is that creation is a gift. The vast majority of what happens in order for life to come from dirt is completely outside the realm of human possibility. Everyone who works the soil knows that the life that comes from it can hardly be considered their achievement. You turn the soil you didn’t create, you plant the seed you didn’t grow, you direct the water you didn’t make, and then you walk away. A person can help cultivate the conditions, but nothing that comes from the ground is a person’s achievement. The person can do nothing to make the life of the garden actually happen. It wasn’t your idea. The most basic lesson of the garden is the most basic lesson of the gospel—this is all a gift and you just can’t earn it.
Grace is not just something God gives us after God notices that we’ve sinned. That would represent a tragic reduction in the meaning of grace. Grace is a category of the creation of the world, the creation of the life that shoots up from the soil. As Jürgen Moltmann writes, “There is no purposive rationale for the proposition that something exists rather than nothing…. When [God] creates something that is not God but also not nothing, then this must have its ground in God’s good will or pleasure” (Theology and Joy, 40-41). Creation does not exist out of necessity. The only reason there is creation at all is by the grace of the Creator and that Creator’s willingness to befriend something that is not the Creator’s self.
God Gives Growth
In the garden, where life comes from soil and where death returns to it, we learn that our life cannot be reduced to what we achieve. In the words of Kathryn Tanner, we learn that “All we need to do is draw upon what has been achieved without us, grasp it with empty hands, open our hungry mouths to it, which is just to recognize that everything necessary has already been done for us to remedy our own utter incapacity” (Christ the Key, 101-102). If we are inclined to think that the meaning of life is what we make it, the garden teaches us that the meaning of life is what is given to us by the God who loves us. Nothing we could consider to be a human achievement could be achieved without God, the true gardener (1 Corinthians 3:6–7). These are lessons that can be read about and mentioned in the classroom, but can only really be learned by getting some soil under your fingernails and watching life spring from the ground.
I take young people to the Farminary not because I see God there, but because I trust that when we “grasp with empty hands,” God discovers us there. And there’s a lot we can learn there that we could never learn from reading old, dead theologians under florescent lights.
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.
Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He’s been in youth ministry for over ten years and holds an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at University of Aberdeen. He lives in Toms River, New Jersey, with his wife Amanda and their son Henry.