the garden city: cultivation, work and goodness

the garden city: cultivation, work and goodness

For many, summer means long, lazy days. We stretch our sunscreen-lathered bodies out on pool deck chairs, soaking up as much sun-baked warmth as we can. The days stretch similarly, expanding to accommodate as much goodness as we try to squeeze it with.

For me, this is taken a bit to the extreme. I’m waking up at 5:30a.m. without fail each morning without an alarm, my body clock seemingly attuned to the rising of the sun. On mornings like this one, my body decided of its own accord to be alert at 3:37a.m.

I won’t even try to explain why my body insists on waking while 99.99% of the normal world is deep in dreamland at this hour, but I will make use of this quiet hour to write to you about my days: how I’m spending my hours, what the PhD has been filling my mind with and my musings on work-rest rhythms.

So, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the theology of work lately. Partly due to a John Mark Comer book I’m reading called “Garden City” 

Comer starts from the Genesis vision of humanness: Adam was put on this earth to fill and subdue it. We were to make something of this toho wabohu, this wild wasteland. Eden is not a luxurious garden to lounge about and pick apples whenever I please; it is filled with raw material for the human to cultivate.

And in the partnering with God to cultivate and create, we fulfill our role as humans.

I confess I often have this romantic ideal of the bucolic countryside. At the root of my dream of becoming a farmer’s wife is the desire to escape into an Eden-like garden – a place to be silent, alone, with God.

My farmer husband, of course, would do all the heavy grunt work, and I, the wife, would wander the meadow, pick wildflowers, harvest my organic vegetables, sell warm, farm-fresh eggs to my neighbours.

Distanced from the grime, pollution, politics and hurry of the city. I wouldn’t have to worry about scholarship applications, finances, taxes or resumes.

My days would be filled instead with the yeasty smells of rising sourdough, and the peace of morning Lectio Divinia only to be interrupted by the crowing of a rooster reminding me to collect the eggs for the day.

More realistically, however, my days look like this:

I fast-walk to the metro, trudge up broken escalator steps (why do these escalators suddenly stop working??), make a dash across the platform and grab hold of the bright blue pole, now dulled by the fingerprints of all the commuters before me (how often do they clean this thing – if ever?)

My legs are sweating under the cotton of my black sweatpants (yes, we have to wear long pants everyday in the summer you’re in lab). But I slip my arms through the lab coat sleeves anyways, stretch the thin purple rubber over my hands, spray them with ethanol (ah, the smell of clean).

I open the incubator; the comforting 37 degree thick air greets me and I search for my plastic dishes of pink liquid.

I feed my cells, pipette more pink liquid so they are well-fed.

I write leadership statements for my scholarship applications (yeah, it never stops I hear…), work on my PhD preliminary report that I’m trying to finish for the end of July.

On the metro back, I hold onto the blue pole again, and flip open to Comer’s “Garden City”.

He talks about how there is no word for spiritual in the Hebrew language because  in a Hebrew worldview, all of life is spiritual. The laws in Leviticus cover everything from skin disease to what to do with mold in the kitchen because it all matters.

We don’t work all day at some job we think is inconsequential, so we can get off work and go “serve the Lord”.

But the work we do at our companies, schools and homes is our partnership with God to cultivate and create something good and beautiful out of the raw material of this earth.

We were created to do good work. And to do it well – excellently, with joy.

What that means for me in this PhD is that I do good science.

I stay committed to the joy of finding things out, even though I am not immediately rewarded for it. I take the time to actually understand problems, to read organic chemistry textbooks so I understand what’s actually happening in my round-bottom flask. I stay curious and creative as much as I can.

I pray for my nanoparticles (I’m serious).

It also means that I take joy and delight in the small things.

I look a little longer than normal into the microscope eye pieces, and wonder at how the cells spread their pseudopods across their dish.

I listen to the way the vacuum sucks up the media with a satisfying gurgle.

I feel the way the pipette tips eject into the waste box with a satisfying click.

And then, a lot of it is also recognizing how little is in my control.

I mean, I understand the basic broad concepts of how cells grow and how amine groups couple with the carboxylic acids. I can follow instructions to feed the cells and perform EDC reactions based on what scientists have been doing for ages.

But I’m not the one causing the DNA to replicate and the nucleuses to divide. I don’t physically go in and join the amine with the carboxylic.

All I’m doing is following steps. I don’t really know how it actually works.

So, when anything good happens. When the cells start to be confluent, or the amide bond shows up on the FTIR, I am amazed. I wonder that anything good happened at all.

And so I’m grateful for any small breakthrough. I know they are gifts.

I know this isn’t scientific at all, but I believe that God can bless my nanoparticles. That He actually cares about them. They matter to me, so they matter to Him.

Lastly, on work-rest rhythms. There are two chapters in the Comer book on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath isn’t simply “not working” but it is a declaration that the work is enough. It is a celebration and enjoyment of what we have already done.

It’s so easy, especially in a job with no clear 9-5 boundaries, to work all the time.

Granted, sometimes, the best ideas come when I’m cutting my nails, or at 3:37 in the morning.

But, I have to be conscious of going to bed each day celebrating what has been done, telling myself that it is enough.

I remind myself of the moments I have received as gifts. The little revelations that have come to me during the brief moments of clarity.

I thank God that I had enough money to spend on the rich, creamy latte with the hand-crafted tulip, and the $3.75 Pilot marker pen that when pressed against thick paper bleeds rich, creamy black ink.

Confession: I’ve always been too cheap to buy pens (and avocados, for that matter). But I bought my first pen at a stationary store in years last Thursday and still can’t get over how happy the rich black ink makes me.

I really believe life is as rich as you make it to be and that God meant for it to be full to overflowing with abundant life.

I read Psalm 16:11 and can’t imagine it any way otherwise.

So, while my first few months in Montreal was spent yearning to return to the bucolic village life (and never have to look at my resume again), I am slowly coming to terms with the richness of participating in God’s culture-cultivating even in my PhD.

Instead of escape, I want to transform. To take this raw material I am given, and make something good out of it.

I do it because it’s who God is. It’s who God made me to do.

And I pray for us, that we would start to see our work – our days, our moments – as holy, good, abundant, and in seeing that, we would not run from but instead sink deeper into it.




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