Tending the diaconal garden

By Marshall Scott

I’ve been taking some vacation. Well, at least I haven’t been going into the hospital. I haven’t been off doing anything dramatic or exciting. Being relatively new in her current position, my wife has less vacation time than I do, so I’ve been taking some days away while she still has to work. I’m not really good at vacating, and so, having not gone out of town, I’ve found myself as busy as if I’d gone to the office, if not more.

So, I’ve been spending my time at the parish garden – putting up rabbit fence, breaking sod. We’ve expanded this year by 50%. That has meant more fencing and new ground to break. A parishioner donated portable fencing, movable panels, more than enough for the expanded garden. However, it was designed to keep horses. It’s good for keeping the deer out, but not much good against anything smaller. So, I had to cut and fit lengths of garden fence, bent out at the bottom (it discourages critters from burrowing in) and fastened with zip ties. I went after the new ground with a heavy tiller, donated by the same parishioner. The heavy machine did an awful lot of the work, but it still took its toll on me – hard work in the hot sun.

There’s something very diaconal about working in the garden. Things diaconal have been on my mind, because I’m preaching an ordination of deacons soon. It’s a privilege, and I’m honored that the ordinands would request me. And it certainly has my attention.

As I said, there’s something very diaconal about working in the garden, not least the parallel with the first seven appointed by the apostles. This garden is one of a number supporting the feeding ministries in Kansas City, recently reported here at the Café. At its inception, the ministry of those first seven deacons was also a feeding ministry. “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task.…’” (Acts 6:1-3) While the fencing and the tilling weren’t as direct or immediate as serving at the tables, the food we produce will be served in its time.

More broadly, working in the garden also reflects for me something of the deacon’s vocation as described in the Prayer Book. The Outline of the Faith, the Prayer Book catechism, says, “The ministry of a deacon is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as a servant of those in need….” In the Ordination Rite, the new deacons are told, “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world.” (BCP p. 543) I have written before of my own sense that gardening gives me a glimpse into the work that many in the world have to do simply to feed themselves and their families. In this case, the work goes toward feeding the homeless and hungry closer to home.

In another personal reflection, this work is diaconal for me because I’m not in charge. Both the Ordination Rite and the Outline of the Faith emphasize that the deacon’s work is about assisting. I’ve already noted the role in assisting those in need. However, the vocation is also about assisting those in charge – both their bishops, and also the priests to whom the bishops assign them. In this garden, I am not the one in charge. I’m one taking directions. I certainly support the work, not least because the leader in the garden is my wife; but in this work I’m absolutely a dutiful follower.

At the same time, what I’ve been doing really enables what others will do. Paul said, “One plants, another waters, but God gives the growth.” Well and good: but, if the ground is not tilled, the planting cannot happen. If the rabbits aren’t kept out, the harvest will not be what it could be, and some crops won’t come to harvest at all (after all, even rabbits have favorites). As the diaconate has grown over the past generation, deacons have often been asked to enable the work of others, both by leading specific ministries and by educating to help people find their own vocations.

I will admit that I am acutely aware of diaconal themes in ministry. The fact is that as a hospital chaplain most of my work has to do with showing the compassion of the church by assisting those in need, serving in a setting where I’m not in charge. Much of my own chaplaincy involves administrative activities that are intended to guide and enable the ministries of others. It is true that my work also includes celebrating the Eucharist in the hospital chapel and anointing the sick, and that I have the opportunities to help many colleagues by supplying in their parishes. However, when most of the work is considered, I believe (and have shared with bishops) that healthcare chaplaincy can be an appropriate ministry for a deacon.

I’m also clear that many of the activities I’ve cited, and certainly my work in the garden, don’t require ordination at all. I’ve heard over the years the complaints from some priests that the resurgence of the diaconate has simply taken a number of very effective lay ministers and added them to the ranks of the ordained. I would certainly agree that some priests simply don’t take advantage of the deacons who serve with them.

I still think we can call these ministries diaconal, whoever might carry them out; and we can appreciate the vocations of the deacons in our midst. They lead and model these ministries for our edification, and for the edification of the Church – literally, the building up of the Body.

Perhaps we can go a step further. We have long held in the Episcopal Church that we share in the priesthood of all believers. We have also long held that the Christian faith and life is not simply about what we believe, but also about how we demonstrate our belief in service in the world. Certainly, we emphasize in the Baptismal Covenant proclaiming by example, and seeking and serving Christ in all persons. Perhaps we need to think about the diaconal ministries in which we all might serve, and in which ordained deacons can lead us. Perhaps we need to think about “the diaconate of all believers.”

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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