“Called To Exercise Loving Care
A Review of
Farming as A Spiritual Discipline.
By Ragan Sutterfield.
Reviewed by Stan Wilson.
Farming as A Spiritual Discipline.
Booklet: Doulos Christou Press, 2009.
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Ragan Sutterfield is a writer and a farmer in his home state of Arkansas. Currently he helps direct a farm at the Felder School, a public charter school for troubled youth, and he writes and lectures on the subjects of sustainable agriculture and the theology of creation. Farming as a Spiritual Discipline is a collection of essays born out of two lectures and a sermon given at Englewood Christian Church in November 2008.
One significant contribution Sutterfield has made in these essays is to help Christians recover spiritual disciplines as concrete, fleshy practices of the church. This is spiritual writing, which does not mean that Sutterfield is attempting to flee from the body, the earth, or the body of Christ like so many other writings about spirituality. It means that he is looking for ways in which the same Spirit who got involved with the creation is still working among us humans in the created order.
Sutterfield has written a balanced set of essays that flow well between concrete proposals for action and thoughtful contemplative reflections for the church.
Among the concrete proposals, Sutterfield wants us (the church) to act by finding small plots of land, building up the soil on them, and growing food together. He wants us to find and support local farmers. He wants us to begin producing rather than consuming, to raise chickens in our backyards, and grow tomatoes wherever we can.
These concrete proposals are clear and bracing. His sermon in particular makes me want to get my hands dirty, but the real power of the essays is in his contemplative strategies. Sutterfield recognizes that changed actions flow only from a new way of seeing, so he also tries to introduce us to the new “habit of mind” which is the agrarian vision. For Sutterfield a crucial step in acquiring this new habit of mind will involve learning how to see our place within creation.
Sutterfield has done a lot of good, clear thinking about the doctrine of creation, and these essays are a gift to church people trying to find our place in God’s created order. I was especially helped by his identification of two common heresies of creation, one which sees all of creation in terms of human use, and the other which sees humans as irreparably destructive within creation. The heresy in both views is the separation between humanity and creation.
The created order is not something other than us, which is at our disposal to use and abuse as we see fit; neither are we humans necessarily destructive of creation. The cosmos would not sigh with relief if we were gone. Instead, we are fragile, dependent, limited creatures within creation, called to exercise loving care and cultivation.
It is Advent now, and the church is once again called to adapt the odd posture of waiting. It’s a strange way to start a new year – not to rush out and fix the world, but to learn to wait for God to show us the way. Advent is a good season to ponder the practice of farming. As Sutterfield reminds us, “a good deal of farming is waiting.” We plant seeds in the spring and wait until summer to eat. We plant cover crops in the fall and wait and hope for renewed vitality in the spring. We wait for centuries to see an inch of new topsoil. I recommend a good seed catalog and Ragan Sutterfield’s essays for your Advent reflection.
Stan Wilson has been pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, MS since 2002. He is married to Jennifer, and they are the parents of Jane (7) and Kate (4). They live on a small farm where they are learning how to grow vegetables, raise chickens, and share with neighbors.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com