Becoming a Tiller of Soil
One of my favorite sections of Home Depot is the power garden tool department. Even though I have all the tools I need, I still like browsing through Home Depot’s collection of power mowers, chainsaws, and string trimmers (better known as “weed whackers”). Among all of those machines you can find some power tillers. These tools look rather like lawnmowers, but in place of horizontal blades that cut grass they have vertical blades that cut and turn up the soil. In a word, they till.
According to the NRSV, God put the man in the garden “to till it and keep it.” “Till” is a reasonable translation of the Hebrew verb ‘avad in this context…“To till” means to break up, plow, or turn up the soil before planting. Tilling enables hard ground to accept seeds. It aerates soil that has been tamped down. It can help fertilizer to be absorbed into the dirt prior to planting. Tilling isn’t planting seeds, caring for young plants, or harvesting. Rather, it is preparing the soil for fruitfulness that is to come.
There is an element of metaphorical tilling in work beyond farming. Teachers till when they prepare a learning environment. Managers till by seeing that the environments, systems, and relationships in their care will allow those they supervise to work well. Leaders till by shaping corporate cultures, defining core values, and lifting up compelling vision. Often, we have to break up old assumptions and practices for the seeds of innovation to be planted and grow.
Of course, so much more could be said about how our work is a form of tilling. Preparing, planning, and prioritizing could all be forms of tilling. Tilling describes work that prepares the soil, so to speak. It gets things ready for new life and for ultimate fruitfulness. Tilling is a central task of our lives, one that God has entrusted to us so that we might fulfill his intentions for our work.
The Bible has its own Garden Path
The Bible has its own garden path. It runs from Genesis to Revelation. In fact, some of the most important events in the Christian faith take place in Biblical gardens, evens around which Christianity has established its doctrines as great rocks in the sand. Many of us have known these crucial teachings of the Christian faith since we were children-the fall into sin in the Garden of Eden, Christ’s night of sorrow in the garden of Gethsemane, his resurrection from the dead at the Garden Tomb…God first planted a garden. He is given many names in the Bible-grand names, majestic names-but from the beginning to the end there is one name more illuminating than the rest by which we can know him: God is a gardener.
In Genesis 2:8, we are told, “God had planted a garden in the east.” Immediately we get an image of the Deity stooping down from the high heavens to dig a hole in the ground for a maple sapling or an evergreen, eventually dropping to his knees to grub about in the soil. He is doing the things we do in gardens-or we’ve seen others do: patting earth firmly around the base of a newly planted choke cherry bush, spreading the roots of a petunia, placing carrot seeds, watering. There is mud under his fingernails, mud under his skin, mud streaked under the sockets of his eyes. “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground-trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (verse 9).
The earth had been completely unformed and empty; in the six-day process of development God had formed it and filled it—but not completely. People must now carry on the work of development: by being fruitful they fill it even more; by subduing it they must form it even more . . . as God’s representatives, [we] carry on where God left off. But this is now to be a human development of the earth. The human race will fill the earth with its own kind, and it will form the earth for its own kind. From now on the development of the created earth will be societal and cultural in nature.
Holding on to Earth
There once lived a peasant in Crete who deeply loved his life. He enjoyed tilling the soil, feeling the warm sun on his naked back as he worked the fields, and feeling the soil under his feet. He loved the planting, the harvesting, and the very smell of nature. He loved his wife and his family and his friends, and he enjoyed being with them. Eating together, drinking wine, talking, and making love. And he loved especially Crete, his, beautiful island! The earth, the sky, the sea, it was his! This was his home.
One day he sensed that death was near. What he feared was not what lay beyond, for he knew God’s goodness and had lived a good life. No, he feared leaving Crete, his wife, his children, his friends, his home, and his land. Thus, as he prepared to die, he grasped in his right hand a few grains of soil from his beloved Crete and he told his loved ones to bury him with it.
He died, awoke, and found himself at heaven’s gates, the soil still in his hand, and heaven’s gate firmly barred against him. Eventually St Peter emerged through the gates and spoke to him: ‘You’ve lived a good life, and we’ve a place for you inside, but you cannot enter unless you drop that handful of soil. You cannot enter as you are now!’ The man was reluctant to drop the soil and protested: ‘Why? Why must I let go of this soil? Indeed, I cannot! What ever is inside those gates I have no knowledge of. But this soil, I know . . . it’s my life, my work, my wife and kids, it’s what I know and love, it’s Crete! Why should I let it go for something I know nothing about?’
Peter answered: ‘When you get to heaven you will know why. It’s too difficult to explain. I am asking you to trust, trust that God can give you something better than a few grains of soil.’ But the man refused. In the end, silent and seemingly defeated, Peter left him, closing the large gates behind.
Several minutes later, the gates opened a second time and this time, from them, emerged a young child. She did not try to coax the man into letting go of the soil in his hand. She simply took his hand and, as she did, it opened and the soil of Crete spilled to the ground. She then led him through the gates. A shock awaited him as he entered heaven . . . ………….there, before him, lay all of Crete!
Image Bearers in the Garden
If we are to be God’s image-bearers with regard to creation, then we will carry on his pattern of work. His world is not hostile, so that it needs to be beaten down like an enemy. Rather, its potential is undeveloped, so it needs to be cultivated like a garden. So we are not to relate to the world as park rangers, whose job is not to change their space, but to preserve things as they are. Nor are we to “pave over the garden” of the created world to make a parking lot. No, we are to be gardeners who take an active stance toward their charge. They do not leave the land as it is. They rearrange it in order to make it most fruitful, to draw the potentialities for growth and development out of the soil. They dig up the ground and rearrange it with a goal in mind: to rearrange the raw material of the garden so that it produces food, flowers, and beauty.
The Perfect Soil for Winemaking
My first call to ministry was in Eastern Washington state. It turned out to be one of the most prolific winemaking regions in the country. One of the things I learned from a local winery was really quite fascinating. But let me back up for just a moment. When it comes to soil for growing things, whether it be flowers or vegetables, trees or shrubs, generally speaking you want a rich, fertile soil. Lots of organic material like compost or manure provide the nutrients necessary for the plants to grow in abundance.
But apparently, with wine it is quite different, if not the opposite, from other plants ideal growing conditions.
The perfect soil for winemaking is actually quite low in nutrients. In our area, there was a vinicultural heritage site, in other words, a place set apart as an ideal location for growing wine. Interestingly enough, it was almost entirely made up of sand, which as any gardener will tell you, is devoid of the kinds of nutrients we would expect to create the perfect grape for wine.
But just as interesting is why wineries prefer soils with such low nutritional value: when this is the case, the majority of the nutrients go, not to the vine, or the leaves, but straight to the grapes. What a great metaphor for our lives.
Sometimes we need to go to desolate places, not the lush, green landscapes of an Eden, but rather, to the wilderness, where there is so little life, where pain and suffering are intrinsic to the experience, in order to really “bear fruit,” if you will allow a little pun. It is often in the wilderness that we learn the most about God, about our own sinfulness and need for repentance.
But it is also out of such a place that the best of us: a newfound humility, a greater capacity for compassion and love. A deeper reliance on the “vine,” that is God’s sustaining us over the comforts of this world can take place. So perhaps, when God plants you in a desert, devoid of most nutrients for healthy production, he is actually doing something spectacular to help you grow a deeper understanding of yourself, and more importantly, a deeper love for Him.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Topsoil and Christ
The most exemplary nature is that of the topsoil. It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness.
It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. Death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future.
See also Illustrations on Gardening/Farming
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Soil. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!