Our bodies are fat, weak, joyless, sickly, ugly—the virtual prey of the manufacturers of medicine and cosmetics.

Wendell Berry, “The Body and the Earth”

Home gardens are thriving again. A shaky economy and public health scares in the industrial food system have sent people back to the soil in search of safe, nutritious, affordable sustenance.

Community gardening is on the rise, too, and when undertaken as an intentional ecclesial discipline, this practice can help to form and nurture some essential habits of the life of faith: hospitality, humility, and fidelity to a particular place.

When I worked at a large suburban church in North Carolina, I helped to establish Covenant Community Garden on the church property. In the few years that I was privileged to see that plot of earth grow and flourish, it became clear that it was functioning, on many levels, as a prime locus for Christian formation.

Gardens, it turns out, can be fertile soil in which to grow not only rutabagas but relationships. Seeds, sun, and soil are not merely pretty metaphors for describing desired “spiritual” growth: they are the material realities of a garden’s shared work and witness—of bodies toiling together, of the mysteries of creation that link us to the land we inhabit, of life-giving abundance that summons forth praise and gratitude.

A garden—the work it demands, the joy it brings, the harvest it produces—nurtures both body and soul and allows, in fact, no tidy separation between the two. The salvation the Bible speaks of is related to, is rooted in “health”—the well-being of the entire created order, the whole cosmos that God desires to heal and redeem. Scripture’s aim, as Wendell Berry has observed, is not the freeing of spirit from matter. It is, rather, “the handbook of their interaction.”

In a few days I’ll gather with some friends to reflect on these matters of gardening and growth, food and faith, body and spirit and soil and sun. We will nurture our bodies and our spirits as we enjoy each other’s company and share meals together. We will explore what it means to be captive to cultural ways of constructing bodily health and spiritual well-being. We will try to name how it is that attentiveness to these matters is crucial for living faithfully as the body of Christ in spirited witness of his healing power and presence.

And I expect we’ll soon recognize what the good people of Covenant Community Garden regularly experience: Working the ground together week after week, season after season, year after year reminds us—in often tedious and mundane ways—that the life of discipleship is slow going; that formation is for the long haul; and that the mystery of transformed living is one in which some people plant, others water, but it is God who gives the growth.