Heading into it, I hoped A Different Way would be a time for rest, peaceful reflection and discussion. I came away having found all those things, but also with a challenge; to hold onto and embody the full hope of the gospel.
A Different Way is a week to explore Christian alternatives in the realm of the home economy; money, work, consumption, production, and sustainability. This year it was facilitated by Jonathan and Kim Cornford, and took place in Long Gully, Bendigo, with the Seeds community. Ten of us took part, billeted with various households in the community, all within 15 minutes’ walk of one another.
Long Gully is one of the poorer and more stigmatised neighbourhoods of Bendigo. Originally home to the gold diggings and the miners who worked them, it’s never really strayed from its working-class roots and is home to a fairly large commission housing zone. We began the week with a walk through the bush next to the Cornfords’ home, connecting with the place we were in and its significance to all those who have been sustained upon it—from the Djadjawurrung who lived there from time immemorial, to the miners who scoured the land for gold, right up to the kids of the Seeds community, who make cubbies and huts in the bush.
The walk grounded us, and this was a key theme throughout the week; grounding the often-spiritualised heart of the gospel in material life—this body, this place, this time. As someone who grew up in a fairly mainstream church in inner-city Melbourne I had some insight into the difference of the Christian life. It tended to revolve around sexual morality, some aspects of personal financial frugality and generosity, and treating others with love and respect. It was later as my passion for justice became more closely intertwined with my faith and biblical understanding that I began to grasp how wide and deep was the gospel’s call on my life, and how radical. A Different Way was an opportunity to sit with a community that lived out this truth and soak it up.
Each day focused on one of five topics: creation, good work, salvation, hope for the poor, and money. Every day was bookended by prayer, reflection and singing. We would then move into a bible study followed by a discussion on application. The afternoon was for rest, followed by some physical work, which involved building a garden bed, tending the community garden at the local church, and rendering the new mud-brick house of one of the Seeds community members. Dinner was followed by some sort of reflective exercise or discussion as well.
I found the week satisfying, relaxing and exciting in equal measure. In many ways I felt at home. I know my stuff around the garden, I am attentive to the sustainability of my life choices, I have an appreciation of the biblical cases for creation care, Indigenous justice, service alongside the poor, I am wary of the trappings of wealth and comfort; what could I have had to learn from this week?
What I drew from it was a challenge that went far deeper than something to know or to do. The challenge to hope went right to my centre, and it will be much more difficult to achieve than reading a book or planting some seedlings. I, like many of my peers, am all too often prone to cynicism. This drowns my imagination and creativity, blotting out my aspirations to fullness of life. I have come to associate aspiration, positivity and joy with silver bullets, misguided good intentions, and naïveté. But in a bible study midway through the week we considered Jesus’ sermon on the mount, and someone said ‘eternal life begins now’.
My understanding of the Christian life can at times tend towards self-flagellation. This term literally means self-flogging, and it features in some monastic practice, but has come to describe any practice of beating yourself up. Often I measure authenticity of belief or integrity of action by how much it hurts. This isn’t a great recipe for embodying hope, bringing light to the world, or growing the spiritual fruits of love, joy, peace and so on.
What I noticed with the Seeds community was the fullness of their life; the joy of their children, the bounties of their gardens, the cheerful clucking of their chooks. Does this mean they’re self-indulgent, somehow straying from the dark, narrow, muddy track Jesus wants us to whip ourselves along? Not at all. There can be a joy present in faithful Christian community that truly witnesses to the power of the good news.
If you’re interested in spending some time learning with the Seeds community, they will be holding a weekend on The Arts of Home Economy in Autumn 2018. Email enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
A Different Way runs every second year, so the next opportunity will be November 2019.