This essay is part of the Renovating Holiness Project. Janel Apps Ramsey is a staff member at Bloom Church Denver. She graduated from NTS with an MA in Theological Studies. She loves exploring topics of women and church, wholeness and healing, and techno music. She lives with her husband Baird, cats Yao and Ty, and Helena the Hedgehog. She loves waking up and seeing mountains every single day.
The community where I serve expresses its vision as “cultivating gardens of resurrection.” To explore this idea more fully, I’d like you to meet Helena the Hedgehog. A hedgehog is a softball sized insectivore with short sharp spines on her back and sides. They have a soft furry underbelly and an expressive face with a cute button nose that wiggles from side to side. Hedgehogs, in their native habitat, live in gardens and hedgerows in several parts of the world.
Helena lives in a cage in the corner of my living room. In a perfect world, I could train Helena to live in my garden during the summer and then bring her inside to protect her during the winter and spring. (They hibernate and often die in the cold.) But unfortunately, when she does what she was created to do, she isn't really thinking about the fact that I want her to stay only in my patch of garden. Helena was created to tend the garden at large to help make all things new.
Stewardship is in her DNA. Eating bugs, stirring up the soil, and protecting the garden are all things she does naturally. She is a kingdom creature, cultivating what is given to her. However, when my cats want to play with her, or when she sees an arm come over her like the shadow of a bird, she takes a defensive posture. She immediately curls up into a ball and puffs out her quills. In this defensive posture, safety means keeping everything else out.
For Helena, vulnerability comes when she is doing what she was made to do. Moving around in the garden means that her belly is exposed and her defenses are down. A few weeks ago, I let her out to roam the yard. She was SO excited. She walked the entire fence line, rambled through the raspberry bush, and foraged through the grass. In her excitement, she got a little cut on one of her legs,which she barely even noticed. I had to keep an eye on it the next few days and make sure she was okay.
If I just put her in a cage with food, water, clean bedding, and a wheel to run on, she would be well taken care of. But if I never picked her up and played with her, or let her run around outside, she would get bored, which would lead to several negative behaviors. When bored with the world, hedgehogs will self-harm. To release their energy and frustration, they will gnaw on their feet, sometimes until they can’t walk. Second, if they get suspicious and paranoid, they will stop allowing you to tend to their needs. From rolling into an indistinguishable ball of prickles to head-butting you when you are trying to care for them, they can become extremely difficult to interact with. Even though I am trying to help her, to trim her nails so she can move around better, she butts me out.
Sometimes, when she is in this mood, I have to put her down and walk away. Luckily for her, I’ll come back and try again. But if Helena started taking this posture every time I went to tend her, it would lead to estrangement and death. If she wouldn’t let me feed or water her or clean her cage, eventually the build up would kill her, and she would never even know it was her fault.
At her best, Helena tends to the world. She brings life to the garden, much like we are called to cultivate the kingdom of God on earth. In our spaces, the places we inhabit, the people we intersect with, we are to bring the kingdom. To do this successfully, we have to be vulnerable.
Like Helena, to do our work, we have to take a posture that lets the world near us in uncomfortable ways. This is when the church is at its best. Pouring our being into our work when everyone else is slacking. Reaching out to people groups that don’t have any other help: children, adults, addicts, the abused, the disabled, or the homeless. Taking care of our homes. Reaching out to neighbors that might reject us. Walking with our friends through hardship, turmoil, and doubt. Giving a hug. These are things we do to posture ourselves in service to the world. They open our hearts, and while we may get hurt, they are things that God desires for us.
Like Helena, we can turn inward. When we stop building the kingdom and tending to the world that we have been given to steward, we can start to harm ourselves in serious ways. We become obsessed with preserving and protecting instead of engaging with creation. Our world becomes one that is closed to newness, bounded by rules, and well rehearsed in head-butting.
The desire to insulate, burrow down, become lethargic, and react violently to threats is normal. But, when this happens, growth is stunted and the garden of the Kingdom goes untended. Specifically, when one has to be more worried about continued admittance to the garden than living out who they were created to be while tending the garden, one loses the opportunity for growth and development. When we emphasize behavioral norms above relationships with real human beings, we all end up chewing our feet off.
To have a relationship with Helena, I have to accept that sometimes I will get poked. Sometimes she will pee on my lap, and sometimes I have to clean up her mess. Authentic relationship with people is even harder. Sometimes we will fail, be disappointed, or hurt. But authentic relationship means that we love more deeply, embrace the failure with love and forgiveness, and work toward a future filled with love and meaning. “We are biologically, cognitively, physically and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick. … the absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.”1
When we create a garden Kingdom that lets people grow as they pursue living out the new creation, the essence of post resurrection sanctified living comes to fruition. When we live out the new creation, then the ‘Kingdom of God on earth’ steps beyond the bounds of a prayer and becomes reality.
This is a kingdom that has space for all people and empowers its people to bring the kingdom with them in whatever they do. Whether teacher or mechanic, pastor or tech worker, the church becomes the resource that gives the support they need to build gardens of resurrection in the world around them. As people live out their vocation and purpose, as they are continually being transformed, it brings holiness and wholeness into the world. Dr. David Benner says, “Communities that support transformation in their members and adherents are communities that are themselves open to transformation.”
As holiness is expressed as wholeness, not only do the people grow and become more like Christ, but the church also lives out its mission more fully. Instead of sitting in the fellowship hall biting our feet and polishing our quills like a frustrated and restrained hedgehog, we go out into the garden of the world and make things new. We pull up weeds, fertilize the soil, and make gardens of resurrection that people can see from afar. This holiness - one that is green, growing, vibrant and captivating - draws people into the life of the church and into the life of resurrection and holiness.
As we live out this call of wholeness, whether in a Nazarene community or outside of it, we are agents of transformation. We take our daily tasks, our vocations, and our purpose, and share them with a world that needs to be made whole. May we more fully embrace people as they grow so that the world can partake in our mission, that the new creation of the kingdom will spread, bearing fruit in ways we never expected.
Come join Helena in the garden. She is waiting for you. She can’t wait to help you build the Kingdom for her Creator God. May you tend it well, with grace, love, and vulnerability.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.