Phillip Jensen grew up in rural Iowa. He and his family returned there three years ago to follow their particular calling of farming and ministry. They grow several acres of vegetables for the CSA (community-supported garden) that they started, have a herd of Red Wattle hogs, a flock of hens, and a milk cow. He also runs The Earthen Institute, a ministry alongside the farm that seeks to care for marginalized folks and families in transition. Summer 2014 will inaugurate the launch of a new ministry on the farm: The Earthen Institute’s Prairie Apprenticeship Program (contact Phillip Jensen for more info).

Adam Joyce: What makes a good farm?

Phillip Jensen: For us, a good farm is a healthy farm. And we would define “health” in a pretty broad way. I think a good farm seeks the health of its local community and economy; customers; land, water, and air; creatures; employees; and farm family.

A good farm would be responsive to all these things – and probably many more, too. A farmer and his/her farm will respond to all these relationships in different ways. Each farm (each “good farm” that is) is so different because its relationships are different, embedded in a local context.

It is difficult to assess the health of a farm from a distance and within a short period of time. Care takes time and is very detailed. In a sense there are no “good farms” because even good farmers make big mistakes. Good farms are probably the farms and farmers that learn from their mistakes.

There is no handbook for good farming. There are too many variables in any given place and at any given time—too many relationships.  There are a lot of mistakes to be made and many lessons to be learned. A healthy and therefore “good farm” is a forgiving farm. It has margins built into it so that mistakes can be made and then forgiven. Farms with no margins (economic, land, time, weather, buildings, etc.) are much less forgiving when mistakes are made. I should probably credit Wendell Berry for most of these thoughts – thoughts that I’ve digested and made my own.

AJ: What is an instance of your work as a farmer that you are most proud of? 

PJ: We’re pretty proud of our community-supported garden (CSA). We feel like it expresses our desire for wholeness and health within our local community.  We live in big farm county – big machinery, big fields, big livestock confinements, big debt, big scale. It’s industrial agriculture. So what we’re doing is different – but people love it. Farming and farm life used to be much more relational at its core – much more human and earthy and pastoral. We are not competing with industrial agriculture. Many of our customers are large-scale farmers and their families. We are inviting folks into a way of farming and community life that has healthy relationships at its core.

Also, we’re proud of the hard work that is involved.  Large-scale gardening is hard work.  Different crops, weather, pests, customers, few mechanical implements, etc. make it demanding and varied work. So we feel good about being able to be successful at what we do.

AJ: How have you developed your own sense of calling and theological language for your work? Are there any tensions or complexities that still trip you up when you think about your work being part of God’s work?

PJ: We have developed our sense of calling and with help from many different people – most of them probably don’t know it.  The ministry of L’Abri Fellowship has been more influential in the working out of our calling then we can appreciate. Ransom Fellowship and the work of Denis and Margie Haack. Our time at Covenant Seminary – particularly a class called “Calling, Vocation, and Work” taught by Donald Guthrie and Michael Williams. The work of Wendell Berry (introduced to me by Steve Garber) has been influential. The folks with Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) have been very encouraging and helpful – it’s just a great organization. I’m still figuring out the theological language. It is there and continuing to develop. Farming and faith are both ancient occupations and many skilled and faithful farmers have explored their confluence.

How does calling develop? I really don’t know. There’s been a lot of help. I did not grow up farming and my dad is not a farmer. However, I am from four generations of Iowa farmers. I have uncles and grandparents who farm. My wife’s family is the same way. All four sets of our grandparents were Iowa farmers at one time. So, I didn’t pick this out of a hat. It was there for the pursuing; it was available. Not an easy choice –  one that was reasonable with who we were, where we were, and what we had been given.

I think the tensions and complexities in farming in regards to being part of God’s work are the same as in many different areas. It’s so easy (and wonderfully life-giving) to say “all truth is God’s truth” and affirm with Kuyper about there not being a square inch in all of creation that Christ hasn’t claimed as His. Being part of God’s work is difficult to discern – and even more difficult to enact. I believe that each moment of each day – in whatever farm task – is holy unto the Lord. I am not just “making something of the world” on my farm but am a Spirit-filled “agent of redemption” in my various farming tasks. I am rarely wise enough to determine what redemption looks like in the gritty details of any given situation. When I am graciously given insight and wisdom I rarely have the courage to pursue the redemption that I ought to enact. And when I do have both the wisdom and the courage I rarely have the strength to see the act of redemption to ample completion.

So, just as in anything, I can’t farm in my own wisdom, courage, or strength.  I need the Lord to farm as I ought. I need the Lord when I fail.

AJ: What is the Earthen Institute and why did you found it?

PJ: The idea for the Earthen Institute was sketched out with my dad – Alan Jensen – about 12 years ago in the middle of winter in a remote cabin in the wilderness of far northern Minnesota.  He’s the real reason for its existence.

My dad was a pastor, has worked professionally in community development for many years, and now is a professor at Evangelical Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Kathmandu, Nepal where he teaches courses in community development and continues his work with the Earthen Institute there.  It has been his insight into the disconnect between Christian discipleship and earthen existence that caused the Institute to form and continue.

AJ: What is the theological vision that animates the work of the Institute?

PJ: Work is good. Redemption in Christ is holistic. Earthen existence has everything to do with Christian discipleship. Callings and vocations need not be spiritualized as a means of evangelism or missions.

AJ: It sounds like you are saying that work, worship, and sanctification are connected.  Could you tease that out a bit?

PJ: Clearly work and worship are affected by our sanctification. As we grow in holiness our work ought to reflect that – in it’s unselfishness, integrity, beauty, wholeness, love, and humility. Our worship will also be truer, deeper, more wholehearted, and joyful. All these things are good and true. From sanctification our work and worship are re-oriented, changed, redeemed.

I’m really interested in the ways that work and worship move us towards sanctification. I think that they both work in similar ways. Gathered Christian worship is the culmination of our work. Work is not different or separate from worship. Both work and worship are  different beats in the rhythm of life. Those beats and rhythms – that melody – is oriented towards a certain audience. Both work and worship – yes, all of Creation – are liturgical elements of a cosmic and eternal song that is sung to the King. When we enter gathered Christian worship we are taken up into a robust love song to the Lord. As we are taken up we are changed, oriented, sanctified to be the people that we are created, called, and redeemed to be – sanctified and fully orbed human beings with feet planted deep in the earth.

Good work operates in a similar way because Creation is uniquely oriented to its Creator and Redeemer. Scripture testifies in many places to the song of Creation that is sung to God. The passages of Scripture that speak this way are metaphors, but metaphors aren’t there to tell us lies. Metaphors provide alternative explanations of the truth. So when we enter into Creation through work that is properly oriented and set within the grain of the universe–work that is purposed and primed to worship its Creator and Redeemer–then we are changed and oriented ourselves. Through this work in and with Creation we are further aligned and sanctified to be the people – the earthed vessels – that God intends for us to be.