“As long we you do not have experience of this
dying and becoming, you are only a troubled guest on this dark earth.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I spent the summer of 2017 immersed in a contextual education internship at South Street Ministries in Akron, Ohio. Though involved in many aspects of South Street’s summer programming, my main areas of study were the roles of the church and community in two areas: healing the wounds of mass incarceration through prison reentry and cultivating healthy neighborhoods through urban agriculture. This reflection was written in August in Akron as I explored the theological aspects of my work there.
by Emily Ling
The uncertainty I feel in attempting to articulate anything concrete about my theological beliefs about the afterlife can largely be avoided in the daily routine of my internship at South Street. Neither helping a child find the right size tire at the bike shop nor grabbing a glass of iced tea for a customer at the Café requires me to communicate about concepts of salvation or immortality, even if almost every minute I am challenged to better embody love. But at funerals, there is no avoiding the subject of eternity. If people are ever longing to hear confident words about life everlasting and reunions with loved ones who have departed, it is on those days where friends and family gather to directly face saying farewell to someone they deeply cared about.
So on July 22nd at the funeral for Thomas Jones, I joined with the staff from South Street Ministries as they said goodbye to their fellow teammate and brother, and I reflected on what hope is to be found in the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead – and so might raise us from the dead as well. Certainly, to have faith in both Jesus’ and our own resurrections can serve to give comfort that being separated from loved ones in this lifetime will not mean being separated from them forever. And it can help us make peace with pain in the present moment if we believe that joy will be found in being immersed in God’s love and glory after we die. But what implications for our current life are there regarding the resurrection if it is to be taken as true? Does it change anything about how we actually perceive and approach the relationships and circumstances that we navigate every day?
During the eulogy, Pastor Duane Crabbs read from 1 Corinthians 15:35-41 in the Message, a section of scripture that I had not previously heard in that translation. It reads,
“Some skeptic is sure to ask, ‘Show me how resurrection works. Give me a diagram; draw me a picture. What does this ‘resurrection body’ look like?’ If you look at this question closely, you realize how absurd it is. There are no diagrams for this kind of thing. We do have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a “dead” seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different. You will notice that the variety of bodies is stunning. Just as there are different kinds of seeds, there are different kinds of bodies—humans, animals, birds, fish—each unprecedented in its form. You get a hint at the diversity of resurrection glory by looking at the diversity of bodies not only on earth but in the skies—sun, moon, stars—all these varieties of beauty and brightness. And we’re only looking at pre-resurrection “seeds”—who can imagine what the resurrection “plants” will be like!”
Eugene Peterson’s translation of the passage highlights how paying attention to creation – and gardening in particular – provides clues about God’s nature and the way in which brilliant, new life may grow out of death. The idea resonated with me, as prior to starting seminary, I had spent most of the past four years volunteering on organic farms and had found the work to be deeply spiritual. Rhythms of life and death, an economy of abundance, the richness of a diverse ecosystem – those beautiful realities are all manifest in tangible ways in the work of tending the soil and growing food that is nourishing for a community. It is all sustained by a powerful life force that is ingenious in design and which is clearly out of human control. To see one okra seed being buried in dirt only to sprout and grow over six feet tall, or to watch a swallowtail butterfly emerge from its pupa tomb, is to bear witness to a seemingly Divine pattern of glorious creations being formed out of things that have perished. Nature, perhaps more than any other consistent source in our daily lives, provides some justification for hoping that our own lives might indeed be transformed.
In Romans 8:11, Paul writes, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (NIV) Though certainly Paul seems to believe in a literal resurrection from the dead for believers, he makes this statement in an exhortation to stop living by the sinful nature in the present moment. It is that hope for the present moment — for the possibility that we could know something powerfully healing and transformative now – that seems most needed for many of the people I have met this summer in Akron.
In considering the resurrection, farmer and theologian Clarence Jordan said,
God raised Jesus, not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that he himself has now established permanent, eternal residence here on earth. He is standing beside us, strengthening us in this life. The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to be with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick prisoner brothers [and sisters] with him.
If we are to believe that Christ is actually present with us now and that his resurrection power is capable of making a joyous family out of those who are hungry, marginalized, incarcerated, and needy, we must be in relationship with those whose lives have experienced a metamorphosis. Confidence is built when we witness first-hand how relationships, bodies, and communities that were broken are now alive and thriving with the fruits of the Spirit. We must know this metamorphosis in our own lives too, which necessitates consenting to the death of our own presumptions of identity.
While there is a vast amount of ecological knowledge that informs a good farmer, most wise ones will tell you that the labor is more of an art than a science. Systems are complex and factors are many. If that is true of growing kale and rearing piglets, how much more so is it true of the process of our participation in God’s restoration of humanity? I believe that is perhaps why writer and farmer Wendell Berry closes his famous poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” with the exhortation to “Practice resurrection.” We must practice the mystery of nurturing things that were dead back to life. We must practice creating an intimate family out of the ragamuffins that were lost in our own isolation and sickness. Such a practice is what I see happening at South Street on a regular basis. Men who used to pass each other by in delusions of substance abuse now encourage each other in continued sobriety. Women who used to sit alone in prison cells now work together to help other sisters get back on their feet after incarceration. The relationships are not perfect, but they do testify to a strength that cultivates beautiful community out of a collective of individuals who showed few signs of life.
I recently asked Jeff, a gentleman at the Front Porch Fellowship church, what he has learned about God from growing his own food. Jeff has previously struggled with addictions but now is clean, passionate about his faith, and is teaching folks how to grow their own produce and sell it at farmers’ markets. He responded, “Caring for plants is reflection of how God cares for us. I want those plants to grow and I’m willing to put forth effort to make them the best they can be. God does the same for us.” The miracle of the resurrection in part seems to be that, if there is a God who does in fact care about us being the best we can be, then that God also bestows us with power to live up to that potential. The question for the church that claims to believe in the resurrection is whether we’re willing to actually practice living as if Jesus is abiding with us and all our fractured brothers and sisters, here and now.