All things are connected; the context of everything is everything else.
Wendell Berry, The Way of Ignorance
I spent a few days this past week with some good friends, talking theology and eating great food—my idea of the perfect vacation. We didn’t discuss the current health care crisis, at least not in the ways that presidents and partisan politicians usually do. But we did talk a lot about health (ecological health, human health, ecclesial health), and we talked a lot about care (care for the earth, care for others and ourselves).
Our task was to reflect on what it means for the church to be a community of (and a witness to) wholeness and well-being, and to consider what we can learn from the best agrarians whose practices offer something of a glimpse of the promised shalom of God. If the advocates of “slow food” have taught the world something important about attentiveness, patience, and the joy of sustenance prepared and shared together, what might it mean for busy, self-important, on-the-go Christians to be about the business of “slow church”?
We are conditioned in our culture to think of health and healing as highly individualized, exclusively physiological concerns. But scripture is clear that healing has to do with the mending of all of creation, and that healing the sick has to do primarily with restoring a person to his or her community. At its most basic level, health involves, as Joel Shuman has written, “a set of assumptions about the relationship of a person to his or her community and its place on earth.”
So well-being is not just about a clean bill of health for me from my doctor, but also must be about the well-being of the place I live, the people I interact with, the community and world of which I’m a part. As Wendell Berry puts it: “the community—in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and . . . to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”
When we pray for someone to get well—to be healed of an illness or infirmity—our prayer also ought to be for the well-being of the place, the people, the neighborhood, the land: the whole community to which that person is connected, to which that person is bound in relationships of mutual responsibility and care.
In my last post, I mentioned Covenant Community Garden in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina. For three years now, a group of folks—young and old, black, white, and Latino, skilled and unskilled in the art of gardening—all have come together to work the soil and grow food together. They don’t do this because they need a hobby. They do it because they believe that their own health and the health of others in the community is tied to the well-being of the land; to the food we put into our bodies; to the gift of friendship that is cultivated along with the squash and the beans.
When we grow food together we learn that our lives are linked—not only to one another; not only to the plot of ground that produces vegetables for us; but to faraway people and places affected by the choices we have made about food, indeed by the choices we hyper-consumers have made about how we live our lives in their totality.
We are coming to know the hard but liberating truth that health—genuine well-being—is membership in something bigger than our own self-interested circle of concern.
Jesus called this “something bigger” the Kingdom of God. He didn’t mean by that term a far off distant place we go to when we die. He meant an alternative way of being human together; a lived, shared reality that we can glimpse and bear witness to here and now.
Whenever and wherever the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things—there is the Kingdom of God.
Whenever and wherever hospitality is offered to strangers—there is the Kingdom of God.
Whenever and wherever forgiveness and reconciliation take place—there is the Kingdom of God.
Whenever and wherever people share the bounty of the earth with neighbors and friends—there is the Kingdom of God.
Whenever and wherever the sick are restored to health and to community—there is the Kingdom of God.
Politicians don’t talk like this and they shouldn’t. But this is the Church’s language, and we have something to say about health and care and what it means to be mindful practitioners of both.