I have another story for you from the garden…I know, maybe you are getting sick of stories from the garden? But, the thing is, two of my favorite story tellers also focus on stories from the garden, or about the land—those storytellers, are, of course, Jesus and Garrison Keillor.
This story is from a few years back. It, too, is one of the instrumental pieces in my becoming the ‘gardener’ that I am today. It was really the sort of ‘taking it to the next level’ of my gardening prowess.
It was summer. Maybe even July, which is, under normal circumstances, a bit too late to begin planting seeds. But these were not normal circumstances.
My good family friend, Jack, like a father to me, and what I had left after my own father had passed away three years before, was nearing the final stages of dying from cancer. He was still living a fairly ‘normal’ life, but it was clear that he would not be ‘winning’ this battle. It was, as you can imagine, a difficult time.
As it happened, two of his three grandchildren were away at camp. The third, Tommy, at 6 was too young, and had to stay home.
To be honest, I don’t really remember exactly how it played out, but, on a whim really, Tommy and I decided to plant a garden in his grandparents back yard. Or Tommy decided. Like I said, I’m not sure how it actually began. But I can tell you how it grew.
There was a lot of unused dirt, that had been laying fallow for years. I wasn’t entirely sure that it was capable of growing anything, truth be told. But we decided to take a chance, and to see.
So, Tommy and I made a trip to the nursery, and I told him to pick out whatever he wanted to plant. Let’s just say we left with quite a collection of seeds—pumpkins, corn, tomatoes, onions, carrots, Crenshaw melons and even morning glories, which we only later found out were poisonous, but which provided a beautiful canopy of color along one of the fences.
For the next few weeks Tommy and I cultivated sections of that fallow, untouched dirt and waited to see what would happen.
Again Jesus began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’
As we began to talk about Not Church for May, and the realization that it was falling on Mother’s Day, it was suggested that we take that and allow it to guide us toward a theme of ‘nurture.’
To be honest, I was less than thrilled. Nurture? I thought. It somehow struck me as a Hallmark excuse to sell cards—this sort of surface level celebration of all things motherly and sugary and sweet. But that is what the group had decided, and I wasn’t going to be the one to overrule it.
But as I thought about it, nurture seemed, to me, a bit sentimental, a bit ‘warm and fuzzy’ a bit ‘kum ba yah’ and group hug. It seemed, as I thought about it, to lack grounding, to lack roots. It was, perhaps, a beautiful flower, but one whose color faded quickly, almost like the seed in Jesus’ story, the seed that was dropped along the path and quickly plucked away by the birds, or that which fell amongst the rocks, sprang up quickly, and then was scorched by the sun.
The sun was hot that summer, that summer that Tommy and I planted a garden in his grandparents’ backyard—no gloomy marine layer in that July. Each afternoon, Tommy and his mom would come over to his grandparents’ house to water the ground, to water the seeds.
For my part, I was a bit nervous. I had never done such wide scale planting before. I had no idea if it would ‘work.’ I had no idea if we would actually be able to grow anything in that hardened, dried out and crusty dirt. Added to that, I had let a six year old do most of the work. Did we really know that the seeds had been planted at a quarter of an inch, or a half inch or…? Everyone seemed to look to me as the expert, since I was the one with the idea. But I was learning along with the process. Sure, I had been planting tomatoes for the previous three years, after the passing of my dad. And I had dabbled with zucchini—supposedly the easiest thing in the world to grow, but for which I seemed to lack the secret, getting one mediocre squash the entire season. All of my gardening had all been in pots in my moms small yard. Nothing of the scale or magnitude that Tommy and I were attempting.
This past week, as I began working on a new section of my garden, adding the freshly composted soil that I’ve been allowing to decompose for the past six months, it occurred to me, and for those of you who are parents, you mothers in particular, this will likely not seem surprising—that nurture is hardly a ‘fluffy’ or ‘sentimental’ idea—it is hard work!
Preparing that soil had meant moving mounds of dirt, adding truckloads of dried manure, searching for enough dead leaves and other decomposing plants to mix in, and hauling them, in buckets and large garbage bags, down the road from where I had found them and into the garden. It meant pick axing the hardened ground to loosen it in preparation. Shoveling, moving it slowly, in buckets, from one part of the garden, into a pile, and then from that pile to the final destination. It was back breaking work, almost literally.
On top of all that, it meant carefully transplanting my tiny little tomato shoots, and the seedlings of something in the squash family that I can’t remember exactly what I planted, seedlings that I have worked hard to get to this point, and putting them into the newly prepared ground, hoping that they will be able to take root.
What was taking root, that summer, was more than simply those seeds Tommy and I planted. What was taking root was, in a quite literal sense, life.
In the midst of a time where death seemed to hang in the air as something not quite present, but on the tip of your tongue, we were literally sowing life. Hope. The act of gardening, of planting seeds, is, by its very nature, an act of hope for the future. It is not an immediate process. It takes effort—it requires nurture. And it waits for growth, for new life.
Over the course of the next few months there were times when I had to be out of town, During those times I’d get a phone call, from Jack, Tommy’s grandfather, giving me a report on the garden. “Erin, you’re not going to believe it, but I think the morning glories are going to take over the block.” Or “Hi Erin, I just wanted to let you know that the tomatoes are taller than Tommy now.” Or “This pumpkin vine looks as though it is going to take over the entire back yard.”
It was amazing. Like nothing I had ever seen before, or anything I’ve seen since. That garden—that hardened, fallow ground—burst forth with abundant new life. It was, I believe, a gift of pure grace. It offered a respite from the death, and an experience of and participation in cultivating, nurturing, life.
It was like the seed, in Jesus’ story, that fell on the good soil—it came up, produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, a hundred times.
There is a term I’ve been reminded of lately. Beloved community. It was a term used by a young woman—younger than me!—who is an artist and in the process of becoming a Presbyterian minister, and who seeks to foster such ‘beloved community’ in her life as an artist and as a minister.
It struck me that, like the word nurture, the word community can often be seen as something a bit, well, a bit sentimental and not necessarily very deep—can’t we all just get along, why don’t we pretend to be buddy buddy—a sense of glossing over the differences or the challenges and putting on a happy face. But community, like nurture, does not have to remain in the realm or at the level of a Hallmark card.
Which is why I like this phrase, beloved community. For me, it conveys a sense of something that may require pick-axing hardened ground, moving bucket loads of dirt, waiting months, or even years, as the elements are allowed to come together, to sink in, and to create a rich and fertile soil, a good soil, one that bears much fruit.
A beloved community is one which may take some work, some hard work, but which bears much fruit, which blossoms, and displays its colors in a beautiful canopy.
A beloved community is one that…offers hospitality to friends and strangers alike—and we all know that no one is allowed to remain a stranger long in this place!
A beloved community is one that comes together to celebrate weddings, to remember those who have passed on, to enjoy life over a shared meal or an evening cocktail, or that comes together in a space like this, to set our intention on that which binds us all together in our common journey…
A beloved community doesn’t pretend that it is perfect or without fault—we all, at times need help finding our way—but a beloved community is one in which we come alongside our neighbors, our friends, and even those with whom we might disagree on politics or religion.
A beloved community, it seems to me, does not live only for itself, but offers itself to the world, a taste of the richness and goodness of life lived in all its fullness.
That, is what we nurture.
*A sermon written for Not Church on Mother’s Day. Thanks to Doug Rye, for delivering the sermon on my behalf.