The Helpless Gardener

The helpless gardener

It is a time for gardening in many parts of the world, although we are at different stages of the cycle. Some are preparing the ground, some working to keep out the weeds and some harvesting. For those still in lockdown, at least this activity is open to many of us and causes un-prepared strained backs and tired arms.

And the work of theological education?

We certainly have to pull up a few weeds in the preparation of the soil of our student’s brains and hearts. I think of some of the standard “evangelical myths”, of some of the crasser denominational prejudices, of silliness imbibed from some popular devotional books, of wrong attitudes to scripture.

In their place we set about planting key concepts and attitudes which we hope will grow and prosper, claiming the soil for usefulness. Good weather helps and the societal and educational “weather” has been a bit turbulent during the coronavirus.

And the harvest of our work, the summative assessments, do show that some seed fell on stony ground, some on the highways and byways where students trod underfoot elements of our careful teaching and some bore much fruit.

But perhaps the biggest lesson of gardening for theological educators is our relative helplessness. For all the work of the gardener, he or she does not make the plants grow. The soil helps, the weeding helps, the position and light helps. But the weather is not in our control and above all, the nature of the seed itself and the general principle of growth and life infused into this world by God, cause the growth.

It is vital we understand that, in theological education, we do not operate a factory where the raw materials come in at one end and the finished products go out at the other. We operate with the far more complicated and humbler paradigm of the garden.

We do our best with the weeding and the planting and the fertilising but we are not in the end responsible for growth. That is, whatever the “weather”, inside the students themselves and with God.

This leads to two fundamental truths which we need to impress upon ourselves and our students. First, they and only they are the ones who determine to grow and, in the end, determine the growth by their effort and their connection with God the source of life and growth. It will be their own success or their failure at the last if we have done all we can (blessed thought!). Secondly, prayer and reliance on God for the whole theological education enterprise is a fundamental building block for the understanding of our work and the fruitful life of a theological student.

Sunday evening on the last day of the year 1882, in the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, C.H. Spurgeon preached one of his best and worst sermons on the text John 20v15 “Supposing him to be the gardener”, the words about Mary when she mistook Jesus after the resurrection. His sermon was completely wrong as to exegesis (he supposed Jesus to be the gardener of our souls) but some found faith in Christ that night and others had their faith strengthened. Such is the grace of God for preachers and teachers alike.

Hopefully this little post, based on my poor analogy will find similar undeserved grace from its readers.

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4 Comments on “The Helpless Gardener”

  1. Scott Cunningham Says:

    It’s interesting, along these lines, to think of the etymology of the word “seminary”. And, then the words of Paul comes to mind, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

  2. perryshaw Says:

    A poignant reflection, Graham. Particularly in these days when so many of us feel hopeless and helpless in the face of a year of cumulative crises, it is good to be reminded that while we are called to diligent faithfulness it is ultimately God who brings change.

  3. caseyng99 Says:

    An interesting analogy—like the hard work of gardening, it is up to the students to grow as they connect with God.

  4. Paul Cookey Says:

    A nice and very thoughtful piece as usual. Of course we are helpless at certain points as theological educators. We do our best to be a blessing to our students and we do all we can to get them to the expected end. But whatever they turn out to become goes beyond our ultimate control. Our helplessness is our humility. To me, there lies the grace of God for the educator and there lies his/her submission to what goes beyond him/her. Thanks Graham for this piece. I feel humbled and blessed. Shalom.


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