We have a friend whose son went off to college a few weeks ago. I was speaking with his father about it, who doubted his son’s ability to live on his own.
“He won’t even make his own bed,” he told me. “I don’t how he’s going to succeed in school.”
I had never seen his son’s bedroom, though his father’s concern sounded familiar, since my own father had said the same thing about me when I told him I was moving away from home and getting my own apartment.
“I shudder to think what your apartment will look like in one month,” my dad said.
But something interesting happened. Somewhere between packing my things and moving and getting settled in my new apartment, I changed. Somewhere in the 10 miles between 550 E. Broadway Street in Danville and 417B Walnut Street in Plainfield, I learned to pick up after myself. It was the oddest thing.
We’ve been talking about the characteristics of grown-up people. I’m not going to name them all here, since I did the last time we were together, so we’ll just call this the eleventh trait of grown-up people and let it go at that.
No doubt wishing to encourage this trait, it was the second assignment God gave humanity. At least according to the book of Genesis. Does anyone remember the first assignment? Be fruitful and multiply. Now we know all too well that folks can be fruitful and multiply without being grown-up. But the second assignment gets right to this morning’s theme, when God gave humans dominion over everything that grew, everything that flew, and everything that had the breath of life.
“You’re in charge of it,” God said to our first ancestors. “It’s your responsibility to tend all this. Don’t screw it up.”
God probably didn’t say, “Don’t screw it up.” I added that for dramatic effect.
This brings us to the eleventh characteristic of grown-up people. Grown-up people take care of things. They tend to things. Some have interpreted the Genesis phrase “have dominion over” to mean humans are superior to the rest of the creation, so we can do with creation as we please, it is here to serve us. No reputable scholar I’ve ever read supports that view. This isn’t God giving us carte blanche. It isn’t God giving us complete freedom to act as we wish. It is the assignment of responsibility. It is guardianship. When someone has a child, that doesn’t mean they have complete freedom to do with that child as they wish. Though we sometimes hear an ignorant parent say that. “It’s my child, I’ll raise him however I want.” That’s not what God means here. God isn’t saying, “Do with the world whatever you want.” That isn’t what God is saying. God is saying, “I’ve made you the guardian.” It’s an assignment of responsibility.
When we elect a president, we’re not giving someone complete freedom to do with the United States what they wish. We’re not making them a king or queen. We’re giving them an assignment of responsibility. And if they start acting like a king or queen, and do whatever they want, we vote them out and assign the responsibility of leadership to someone else. I’m not mentioning any names. I’m just telling you how tending is supposed to work. Immature people dictate, demand, and dominate. Grown-up people tend.
So God tells us to tend Creation and Jesus tells us to tend one another. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.” That’s tending language.
I read a fascinating article this week about scientists around the world who’ve been studying people 100 years-old and older. While the scientists were aware of one anothers’ efforts, they had purposely not cooperated in their research in order to see if they arrived at the same conclusions. They studied every aspect of super-old people—nationality, religion, vocation, diet, hobbies, family-size, marital status, body type, weight, personality type, mental health—just about every characteristic we humans possess. While they discovered that super-old people had many things in common, two qualities were unfailingly present. The first one was diet. They all ate plant-based diets. No meat. I was scarfing down an Arby’s roast beef sandwich while reading the article, thinking, “I am so screwed.”
The second characteristic was something I never would have guessed. I was thinking weight or mental health. Right? But it wasn’t. It turns out super-old people shared the same hobby. Gardening. Every single one of them grew flowers or vegetables. The scientists concluded that being physically active out of doors had tremendous health benefits. They discovered the act of tending, of caring for something, of bringing something to life and nurturing it, had an immediate and beneficial effect on one’s health, happiness, and overall well-being.
Isn’t it interesting that in our religious tradition, human-life started in a garden? What did our ancients know that we’ve forgotten? The value of tending. Grown-up people tend. They realize the great purpose of life is to tend, to nurture, to help life grow. When we do that, we grow too. We become grown-up.
I knew this guy growing up who was irresponsible. His name was Jim. We went to high school together. He was one of these guys who drank too much, partied too hard, took lots and lots of drugs, lost lots and lots of jobs. We lost touch. A few years ago, I’m in Pennsylvania giving a talk and I look out in the congregation and there’s Jim, looking perfectly normal. Not just normal, he looked well and fit and happy.
After my talk, he made a beeline for me. He asked if I remembered him. I said sure, and told him it was great to see him, that he looked wonderful.
He said, “Tell me the truth, you thought I’d be dead by now, didn’t you?”
I thought it the better part of discretion not to answer that question, so asked him what he’d been doing in the 40 years since I’d seen him.
He owned his own business, was married, with three kids, and a grandchild on the way.
“It was the kids,” he told me.
He said. “You know how sometimes when broken people have kids, they end up breaking the kids.”
I told him I was aware of that pattern.
“Well,” Jim said, “sometimes just the opposite happens. Sometimes having to care for some one or some thing brings out the best in a person, not the worst.”
So God gave us dominion, gave us something to tend.
Jesus told us the measure of our faith was how we treated the broken down and beat up, the least of our brothers and sisters.
And life teaches us, does it not, that grown-up people realize the great purpose of life is to tend, to nurture, to help life grow.
So friends, I ask you, what and who are you tending these days?