When I was a child, I was fascinated by terrariums.
There can be something alluring about creating miniature worlds. It’s a chance to observe a world under glass. It offers the challenge of nurturing a balance of plants, soil, moisture and light. The lush microcosm stimulates the imagination: It could conjure a version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or perhaps offer a little insight into the Mesozoic era.
I tried to create a terrarium once or twice. I found a large, wide-mouth pickle jar and layered pebbles and dirt in the bottom. I collected mosses and a few small tropical plants and planted them in the soil. I found a realistic-looking ceramic turtle to give it a little fauna. I sprayed a fine mist of water on the plants to get things started, and then closed off the jar.
The little sealed garden seemed to do well for a while, but then the plants started looking sickly. I replaced them with some new plants, but the same thing happened. Eventually I lost interest, and the life in the terrarium slowly died.
Today, I see terrariums as one of the many strange legacies from the Victoria Era of the 19th century. At that time, the scientific method was gaining momentum. A certain class of affluent, white, educated men were figuring out the workings of the universe like a clockmaker figuring out a complex timepiece by disassembling it and examining the pieces. Charles Darwin and others catalogued flora and fauna. Individuals and communities collected specimens in glass cases, arboretums, conservatories, and zoos.
Looking back, we can see how these practices helped contribute to some of our ecological ills today. We have been conditioned to see nature as “other,” as a curiosity, as a thing to collect and catalogue…and control. We have been conditioned to see humans as the pinnacle of the evolutionary chain.
It’s only been relatively recently that we are unlearning this Victorian approach to the universe where “Truth” is defined and refined by that certain class of affluent, white, educated men.
It’s only been relatively recently that we are understanding that the universe is a web of interconnection, and that life needs diversity and interaction in order to thrive. The richest soils and most interesting plants grow at the edge between two different ecosystems: where forest meets meadow, where meadow meets stream, where stream meets lake, and so on. Open systems need these interactions to flourish.
Terrariums are closed systems. They can only make a small part of what they need to thrive. They are cut off from important nutrients and cycles that would allow the same plants to flourish and reproduce in an open system.
Sometimes our congregations find themselves functioning like a terrarium, in a closed system. The limited diversity that is present does not provide nutrients of new life or ideas, or the synergy of new life emerging.
This is why we on your Central East Regional team try to create experiences where congregations can meet with one another and share the richness of their experiences and learning. We host monthly drop in calls for leaders to connect. Last month’s New Day Rising conference was an example of congregations sharing strategies to dismantle white supremacy culture. The year-long program of Retooling for New Realities is helping congregations make larger shifts in approach and culture to meet today’s challenges.
If you are feeling stuck or stagnant as a congregation, look around to see if you are surrounded by the glass of habit and isolation. It may be time to find your way into a larger eco-system where you can grow and thrive.