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When I was in college, I was a counselor at a Christian summer camp in Michigan. Every session a volunteer from The Gideons International would come with their big box of little orange New Testaments and hand one to each kid — a Bible of their very own. We staff had the same (literal) song-and-dance routine every time — as the kids filed out of their seats, we’d serenade them with the words, “Read your Bible, pray every day and you’ll grow, grow, grow.”
We Christians sure do love to grow.
I’ve been thinking about growing as we round the corner into autumn. I have this tiny little raised bed garden in my front yard that withstands my obsessive watering in May and then survives my sheer neglect come late July. This week, the lanky kale plants are still tall and green enough, but everything else seems to have given up for the year. Vegetables, as it turns out, aren’t meant to grow, grow, grow; at some point, they need a break.
Earlier in the pandemic I spent ten months with a cohort of other Christians learning to pray together over Zoom. I signed up for it expecting it would help me grow — help me use the unexpected down-time to finally solidify a habit of journaling, or a regular meditation practice, or perhaps turn me into a super zen person who could quote St. Theresa and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. But none of those things happened; I didn’t really grow at all. What I did was better than that: I learned to just be. It’s the closest I’ve felt to God… ever.
It turns out, the goal of growth has sometimes felt like a burden to me.
Which makes sense, because growth costs something. Our era’s obsessive focus on economic growth has been a huge burden for some time now, shouldered mostly by the world’s poor and the planet itself. We’re beginning to reckon with the consequences of this obsession with unrelenting growth. I learned that a group of Christian leaders around the world recently met on Zoom themselves for an online conference on the theme of “Degrowth.” They asked how Christian theology might intersect with the idea that the goal of life is not growth. In a pursuit of “living sufficiently and sustainably,” the Christian leaders envisioned global economies that could shift to “give value to… ecological and well-being indicators rather than treating everything as a commodity.”
In other words, perhaps God did not intend that humans would force every good thing to grow, grow, grow.
I have believed a story that equates growth with faithfulness, that equates consumption with identity, that equates power with worthiness. It’s a hard one to unlearn. I had to laugh this week when a friend reminded me that the poet Mary Oliver, who penned the ever-stressful question “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” had a pretty great answer for what she’d do with hers: stare at grasshoppers, walk around in the woods.
Perhaps when growth is no longer the goal, what emerges isn’t small at all.
“I Don’t Want to LIve a Small Life” by Mary Oliver
I don’t want to live a small life. Open your eyes,
open your hands. I have just come
from the berry fields, the sun
kissing me with its golden mouth all the way
(open your hands) and the wind-winged clouds
following along thinking perhaps I might
feed them, but no I carry these heart-shapes
only to you. Look how many small
but so sweet and maybe the last gift
I will bring to anyone in this
world of hope and risk, so do
Look at me. Open your life, open your hands.