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It All Starts in A Garden: Joining God at Work in a Creation that Groans with Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat

In this episode, Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat shares the theological underpinnings that inspire the sustainable efforts and regenerative agriculture practices at Russet House Farm. She and Chris also discuss worshipping outside, eating locally, times of Sabbath and Jubilee, and caring for creation as we long for God’s ultimate goodness for our world and our neighbours.

The following is a transcript of Season 3 Episode 6 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well Hello friends and welcome back to another episode of do justice. My name is Chris Orme, and I'm honored to be your host today, and every once in a while in these conversations, I just get incredibly blessed to meet and speak with one of my heroes and today is that day.

So so so super excited to have Dr Sylvia Keesmaat with us. Welcome, Sylvia thank you for being with us. 

Sylvia: I'm very happy to join you today, Chris, thank you, 

Chris: Dr Keesmaat is a permaculture farmer, a writer, an activist and a teacher. She teaches part time at Trinity College at the Toronto School of Theology.She is the co chair of the bishops committee on creation care for the Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sylvia is the co author, with her husband Brian of Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, and Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. Sylvia speaks and writes on topics related to the Bible and justice. Being a church at the margins, and the climate crisis, Sylvia lives on a farm in the Kawartha Lakes region in beautiful Southern Ontario.

With a fluctuating number of people and animals and Sylvia, the first question, just coming off the heirloom tomato sale. How did it go?

Sylvia: It went very well and, and I hate to say that I actually benefited from other people's tragedy because it was very hot here last week, and everybody put their tomatoes in and then we had three nights of frost. So I spent, I've spent a lot of time in pastoral care for people who lost lost their tomatoes and we're facing a summer without, without tomato, toasted tomato sandwiches.

So, I was, I offered a discount to people who lost their tomatoes to the frost because I felt so bad to be benefiting from their loss, but it was an interesting sale. Yeah.

Chris: I'm glad. You know the the heirloom tomatoes actually have a special place in my heart. My grandfather was a farmer in Jordan station. And one of the best things that we like to do in summer, was he would call it a tomato steak sandwich. We get the biggest tomato he could, fresh baked bread slice, a thick slices of tomatoes, sprinkle a little salt on it and that's your lunch and it was just divine, so I understand the pain and frustration of the folks who have lost some plants. It’s hard. Yeah, yeah.

Sylvia, you are a grower of vegetables. Just before we get into some of the meat of our conversation together. Tell us about your most successful growing experience what was the most successful vegetable you've ever grown.

Sylvia: Well that's a really hard question. I think, I think I would name two. Both of them were kind of unusual one one is a, an indigenous squash called Giti-Okosomin squash and its enormous just enormous, and I got the seeds from Randy Woodley who, who is a permaculture farmer and Indigenous writer who's written a book called Shalom and the Community of Creation. And so he's a theologian, and a grower and a farmer and. And so that's, that was a real joy to grow that squash, that that ancient indigenous squash out for him. I’ll just stop with that one.

Chris: I love that. Now, now, you, you are the property where, where you do your farming and your permaculture farming it's called Russet House Farm. Can you tell us a little bit about the the property and maybe a little bit about sort of the ethos of what it's all about.

Sylvia: Sure. the farm is named after an old russet apple tree that was hre when we moved here that our neighbor who was 80 at the time said was old when he was a boy. So this very old tree and we knew that people in the neighborhood had called this the rest of house because of that tree. For generations, and it's 50 acres our property, 35 of that is wooded part of it cedar part of it, maple Woods, and the other 15 acres, are pasture and house and gardens. We have cattle in the summer that come from a local organic farm. And we rotational graze those cattle for for a neighbor, and the rotational grazing we were mimicking what predators do in the wild, so that the field doesn't get overgrazed, and it gets fertilized in small chunks.And as a result, the soil fertility has really increased.

We also have pigs in the summer that we, that work for us in some ways, pigs like to root and we've been wanting to create a food forest and part of our pasture so the pigs come every year and they they dig up grass and create create an area where it's easier to plant easier to plant bushes and shrubs and pollinators. 

And we have chickens. We just had chickens hatch out yesterday so that's very exciting. There's a lot of peeping going on around here. And we also have kittens right now too actually so it is a place where the ethos is new young life every spring. That's, that's for sure.

And we also have people who come to our farm every summer to learn about sustainable living and organic growing so we have at the moment two people.

Next week, a young couple is coming to help us for a week, and later this summer will be having a refugee family from Colombia, who had a farm in Colombia and are now living in a basement apartment in Toronto, so they'll be coming to get out of the city and learn about rolling here which is a little different than Columbia but I'm anticipating I will, we will learn as much from them as they will coming to our place.

So we try to have our farm, we try to have hospitality happen here in as many ways as possible. Under normal circumstances when it's not Covid, homeless folks from sanctuary place in Toronto come up to the farm for retreat days.

Generous Space has had their, their camp outs here. We've also hosted other communities that do ministry, and have have had the retreats here, and the act five program from Redeemer College has come up here number of a number of times we're partnering with them as well so we kind of feel like we've been given this amazing gift, With this, this house which is fairly large and this land. And what are the ways that we can can share it with as many people as possible?

Which is why Covid it's been weird we have Brian and I have never spent this much time with just the two of us. You know, even when our kids left there were always people showing up at our farm so we're still together, we're still together. And, and we're enjoying practicing hospitality a little bit more, 

Chris: there might be another book on the, on that, maybe.

Sylvia: Yeah, I’m not sure we'll write another book together but we’ll see.

Chris: you're a biblical scholar. And here's what I love about this is that there's, there's this intersection of of biblical theology of ecological science that sort of coming together in this is working farm.

For our listeners who I mean, one of the driving questions I think for a lot of us, when we want to get into some of these conversations today we're talking about, you know, climate care creation care and climate change and what's the faith based response and how can we be in that, in that conversation, but for our listeners it's, and for me to the question is you know well what, how does my faith, connect to this?

And so when you as a biblical scholar turned to Scripture, what from, from the biblical text inspires you to care for creation so deeply on a daily basis through the work that you do on the farm?

Sylvia: Well when I'm teaching about the Bible, and when I'm teaching the Bible and looking at the narrative arc of the whole story where the story begins where the story is headed, and everything in between, it's very clear that from the get go we are placed, we are placed in this incredibly diverse and beautiful creation. It's called a garden, in Genesis, but it's almost more like a food forest or a wilderness right? God planted all these trees that are good for food that bear the sea, eat food for us. And we’re called to image God in that place, and so God...and what’s one of the first thing God does: plant a garden, right? Basically, but we're also called to till and to  keep or better to serve, a better translation is to serve and observe creation.

So what does it mean to observe the world around us. And what does it mean to be attentive to itsneeds and I think that word serve is, exactly, it is exactly the same as the word we get later in the New Testament where we are called to be in service of one another. Right.You know, Jesus says, you know, those who are in authority of the Gentiles you know they lord it over each other, but you are called to be servants of one another. 

And so I think we're also called to be a servant of creation that's the language that's used in in Genesis chapter one and. And all of this is rooted in, it comes very deeply out of Reformed theology, and my Reformed roots.

Initially when I wanted to do graduate work, I wanted to write about the new creation, because one of the distinctive things about a Reformed worldview of Reformed biblical worldview is that we're not trying to escape this earth right we're not we're not hoping for some rapture into heaven, but we expect to be resurrected on the New Earth. So I wanted to explore what that would look like? what what the new creation look like, and then interestingly enough, as I read the text more and more I realized maybe I should start with what the creation what it is to live faithfully not in a new creation but here and now the place, the creation we find ourselves, and that emphasis that emphasis just carries on throughout the whole of the text. 

So if you lookat the laws that Israel is given, you know, and as a good Calvinist I think the law is really important. You know, a lot of those laws are about how to, how to care for the land you know what do you do when you come upon a mother bird sitting on her eggs, there's a law about this, you know, just take the eggs, don't take the mother bird. Because creation needs to be able to regenerate. Right.

When you harvest, there are laws about how you harvest your food. Don't go right to the edges have a Sabbath year. So there's food for the poor but also for the wild animals, right there's a concern for the wider creatures that that surround us, in the text.

And of course, in those texts that talk about how we haven't been faithful, like say Hosea chapter, chapter four, it talks about creation morning. Right.

And, and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea perishing. And so there's the lament of the land, when we are unfaithful. So all of those things are those themes, go throughout the whole of the story, and call us.I think tell us that part of being faithful image bearers is caring for God's creation.

Chris: Yeah.  It's like a widening of the idea of neighboring well, we're not just talking about people. It's like a, yeah. Yeah, I love that image, I love the imagery that that you provide there, um, it's been a weird year and that is probably the understatement of the century.

It's early yet, it might not be the understatement of the century but it you know it might be a candidate. But it's been it's been a year of unsettling. In a lot of ways, it's brought injustices into center focus, as well as spotlighting some new patterns that could possibly lead to restoration there's always that sliver of hope, that comes through and when problems are highlighted as well.

But we saw lots of articles, and I remember at the, at the beginning of the pandemic about smog going away. About wildlife reemerging because we all stay at home and you know I remember seeing the one of the Was it the dolphins were swimming in Venice or something like that like that, you know, and having been to Venice I was sort of like wow yeah that would be something to see.

But there's been this sort of focus on Wow Look, it can it can get back to sort of a healthy balance, How can we learn from that positive unsettling of patterns for ways that we can continue to grow like? What can we learn from that?

Sylvia: Well, I mean that's it that's a really good question.

It's interesting that I think one thing that Covid, kind of did for us is for a lot of people, it gave us Sabbath. Actually that kind of Sabbath I was mentioning, where, where you know things are left fallow for a year that's, that's why wildlife was able to return because we weren't doing our usual activities of, you know, buying and selling and moving around and and tourism and all that kind of stuff.

And, you know, for a lot of people, some of the patterns that came out of that were patterns of rest and wonder. So, you know the reason, the reason it's very difficult to get seeds and plants, is because in the spring the last two years is because more people are gardening and more people are thinking about their own food, and sites that people report do citizen science stuff around insects and birds they've just shot up because people are paying attention, and taking more photos of things. And so, you know, part of what Sabbath was for was rest and wonder right actually delight.

This was the time when God delighted. I mean, you have that, that, you know, tov, tov, tov.  Good good good. It's good good good all through the beginning of creation. And then God says it's very good and then God rested. The sense of delight in creation, I would hope that that would be one thing we would carry through, and also just this closer connection to growing our own food, and to having a sense of, here's, here's, here's how the earth feeds us in this place.

So around here, a lot of people were buying local: buying food locally and connecting with farmers, there's been this huge shift to local buying. I would hope that would be something that would continue that said, because when people are buying locally, they have a sense of what's in season and eating out of season I think is one of our, the greatest sins that we commit because eating out of season results and incredible environmental destruction, moving food up from the south, so. So that would be that would be a switch that I would hope would, would continue that that local, local growing of food and and connection to food.

Yeah, so that taking delight. And, I mean, the other thing and this is, this is tied to issues around creation too, is in the Bible, Sabbath and ultimately Jubilee meant the people got their land back, it was an economic reset too. And we've, we've had this weird kind of Jubilee feeling in Covid because the government started handing out checks right like you know I know people who, suddenly, made the normally they make minimum wage, they couldn't work, so there's suddenly getting $2,000 a month, and its enormous and they can afford the rent. I can afford food and, and that's kickstarted a conversation around basic income. And that kind of economic reset i think is pretty it.

It's instructive. I think it's created a conversation we need to continue having about how our, our economics works. 

Chris: Yeah, yeah. 

Sylvia: I'm gonna I'm gonna say one more thing, actually.

The other thing that's starting to happen, is our worship, people are beginning to worship outside.

So one of the things we're doing on as part of the bishops committee on creation cares we've created guidelines for creating an outdoor sacred space and outdoor space for worship, and just regular services can happen out there but we're also creating some services that center around the blessing of a garden, people do this for houses. The blessing of a garden, joining in praise with creation as the Psalms do and also serve as the services of lament and grief, as we lament what's happening with the, with the climate crisis. So, that, I'm not sure that would have kickstarted quite so much if we hadn't been forced outside by Covid.And now that can be carried forward. 

Chris: Yeah, yeah, I love, I love the idea of of worshipping outside we've been able to do that in my faith community as well. And actually it's funny because I talked to someone in, and they, they said, How do you like it? and I said I really like it. I love being outside. I love it it's amazing and yeah How do you like? it was good but I found that bird really distracting, I go, I go maybe church was distracting you from the bird,

So kind of to your point, I, I like, I like that. You mentioned, you mentioned lament as we are in this season, it's, it's extremely tough and I think, you know, we're, we are, we are recording this conversation at a time in Canada when we as a nation are reeling from the discovery in Kamloops.

And I think, you know you you in your work talk a lot about resisting Empire and in all of its forms and resisting and pushing back against colonialism and teaching us how to de colonize in these spaces.

You know I asked, I asked you what we could learn from sort of how things went as as creation sort of exhaled at the beginning of the pandemic. What do we need to resist, what normal, don't we want back? What do we need to push against?

Sylvia: Well, I mean it's a tough one because people really do want normal back, and what they mean by that is they want to be able to go to stores whenever they can and they want to be able to travel as much as they can and. And I think one of the things we want to push against that the, the pandemic has pointed out to us, a couple of things, I think, I think we want to really not have the normal back of holidays, vacations, traveling means means going to other places that then bear the burden of our, of our trash, of our waste of our or our carbon footprint of all of that.

You know, perhaps, because we've been forced to travel within our country, to travel locally, perhaps that's something that we could retain, that we could learn to delight in the pathways near us, that we could slow down and how we think about movement.

We have two, two young people here this summer who every Saturday have taken their bikes out and just cycled around the Kawarwtha lakes, and I keep looking at them and thinking, I haven't even done that.

I haven't been biking around here, you know more at a slower pace around here than I've done. now, I've been in the canoe more than they have. But still, that that's been, it's just so wonderful that, that's kind of how they're I mean, they're they have access to a vehicle, but they're on their, their bikes every. So that kind of slowing down. You know, as, as, so we want to resist speeding up again.

I was also, I was also struck by the fact that generosity went up during the pandemic. So I'm on the board of sanctuary, which is a ministry to people who are homeless and Toronto and.

And, you know, generosity, people have been so generous realizing that our challenges are much greater with regard to folks who are homeless. And they've been able to be so generous because they're not spending that money in restaurants on clothing on other, you know, consumables just going out and doing consumer spending.

And so I think some people if they're paying attention have realized they do have a capacity for deep generosity for those who are in need, when they are not engaging in fulfilling their own desires and wants, so much.

So, I would hope that something we don't go back to we don't go back to spending everything we earn on ourselves, but we keep in mind that there are very, very vulnerable people out there, and there will be more because the housing market has just shot up and homelessness will continue to rise after, after this pandemic. So, so resisting falling back into those old patterns of consumption, I think is something we really want to resist

Chris: yeah, cling tight to this to this space, you know, yes, stay tuned because more is going to happen. Yeah. Yeah.

You co authored the book Romans disarmed resisting Empire and demanding justice and chapter five of the book is is called Creation the Defilement of Home, and the chapter opens with a lament for the land.

And if it's okay I just want to read the first couple of words or read a section. A small excerpt.

This is what you write.

This is what it means to live in the Spirit of Jesus, not the place of a spiritual high or continuous joy. No, at the center of Empire, in the midst of a culture of death, in a world where powerful countries refuse to take climate change seriously, and oil leaks by the million litres into the Muskig, where Indigenous women continue to disappear and Palestinian teenagers weep over their barren future in that world, living in the spirit looks like the agony of childbirth. Living in the spirit looks like the tear stained face of someone who can't quite believe how bad it is, and who knows that this isn't how it is meant to be

You. I mean that rocked me, I'll say, when I read that, the first time I read that and I know it was, it was a talk that you, it was part of a talk that you gave live and watched you give that several times, and that part always  rocks me.

Because it's, it's kind of like blunt force trauma to the soul but there's also this, but chin up young person because there's something good here to you point to this space between despair and hope. And I want to ask you to encourage our listeners, and maybe me, I could use it. We could all use it right now. But what does life in that space look like for you? How do you do that?

Sylvia: Parker Palmer calls that space Tragic gap. how do you how do you live in the tragic gap?

And I think there's a couple things. One thing that enables me to live there is, first of all, knowing that this is where God lives, that God is living in this place of heartbreak, where God had hoped, God had such high hopes for the world and for us and our relationship together.

And God, the biblical story is full of God's lament as that, those hopes are dashed, and yet, God is committed to staying in the relationship, to living with that heartbreak, to living with that grief.

Because love goes all the way down, right, heartbreak isn't the last word. God's love goes all the way down and God's, this is what the end of Romans 8 is about, God's love surrounds us in the middle of that grief and heartbreak.  So that's, that's the first thing that enables me to live there, the sense of that, that all, you know, the sense of God's arms around me, in the middle of it all.

The second thing is, knowing that this isn't the way it's supposed to be. I mean, knowing that this isn't the way it's supposed to be helps to create the heartbreak because you know you know people living on the streets aren't the way it's supposed to be. Species disappearing, that's not the way it's supposed to be none of it.

And that means God has hopes for something better. And what God has hopes for usually comes to pass right so God is continually working for redemption and restoration that's that's what God does. The whole of the biblical story, you know from the fall on is God working to bring restoration and healing. That's all the stories about. That's what Jesus life was about. That's what the Spirit is about. And we know that in working for that in working to fulfill those hopes, we are working alongside God's hope for the world.

And part of enabling that to happen, part of having energy for that hope is having a vision of what it can look like. There's a, an author, Rob Hopkins who's done a lot of transition towns he's got a book called from what is to what if,  from What if to what Is. He talks about imagination. You know that we, you know, we don't have imagination as to what we hope the future will look like. We don't know how to work towards it, but if we do have a picture of that. Then we know, we know what we're working towards and more energized to it so the end of this story the you know the biblical story where you've got you know the new heaven and the new earth, no tears crying, a river through the city with trees on the side of the river. The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nation's. So, the tree of life from the beginning of the story will heal all of us, will heal the nation's, and those trees will have fruit in their seasons. It's a food forest, right? We’ll be living in a forest, amongst trees, with enough food for everybody.

That vision is incredibly compelling for me.

And because it's so compelling, I want to make it happen. I'm not just planting trees because I think they're going to look nice on our property, but in planting trees because I know that that's what's going to heal, other people, and other creatures. And in the end, when God's new vision comes down to earth, it will, what I've been doing will fit with it.

Right, so, so there's this sense, not of the Bible lays out all these things and we got to do these things to be good people and you know and that way our relationship with God will be right. I mean, that's not motivating for anybody. No it's God has said oh this incredible vision, and I look at it and think, Holy smokes I want to be a part of that, so much. And it's going to cause me heartbreak, because I want to be a part of it. And because I want to be a part of that, I'm going to see grief, and I'm going to see sorrow, and I'm going to every time I look over at my neighbor's property which has Round-up on it.

I'm going to feel like crying.

And that's where this that lament in the book came from. It came from that piece of property. And what I see when I look at it. And that's okay, because those things deserve to be limited over grief means you love something.And so grief is an okay place to live.

Our culture tries to get around grief, which we'd like to medicate our way out of it. And I think I've realized no I'm being faithful if I'm living with a grieving God in the middle of hope for, for what things can actually be one day.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Amen and Amen. Thank you so much for being with us today. Before we go, Sylvia how can how can people follow the work that you're doing and  stay up to date with all the good stuff?

Sylvia: Well that's that's a good question and it should be directed at somebody who's technologically savvy.

Chris: Well it was asked by someone who isn't so…

Sylvia:  stuff about our farm can be found at our website And we have a Facebook page connected to that.

I'm launching a new teaching initiative called Bible Remixed, and there will be a website and Facebook page that will will be populated over the next couple months for courses that I offer. I'll be offering more courses online, connected biblical courses that are open to anybody, anybody can come and take those. So, so, and that'll be announced on the russet house farm site as well. And occasionally stuff I've written shows up on the blog that my husband Brian Walsh writes for, Empire Remixed, so people can find stuff there as well. 

Chris: Awesome. Awesome. Folks, do yourself a favor and check all of that out, please, please, please. Our guest today has been Dr. Sylvia Keesmaat. Slyvia, thank you again so much for this conversation. God bless you.

Sylvia: It's been my pleasure Chris. Those were great questions and I enjoyed talking with you.


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