We put in a good garden, this year, and we’re reaping the rewards. My husband built raised beds and bean trellises, and I filled them with lettuce and carrots and runner beans and more.
Not zucchini, though. I like zucchini just fine, but people who grow it always have trouble getting rid of the abundance. It starts with a gentle offer — hey, I have a little extra zucchini, do you want some — but it quickly progresses as the successful growers of zucchini become more and more adamant that someone must relieve them of the prolific harvest. It starts with an offer, but by the end of the summer people say things like, “I left some zucchini in your office, hope that’s okay!” while running away so that the zucchini can’t be returned.
So, I figured I’d just leave my car unlocked and make use of whatever veggies the desperate zucchini growers stashed in it, and use my garden space for other things. I like to think of it as one of the ways that I can serve the world.
The nice thing about planting and weeding things, aside from the food, is that it gives you time to think. Whether you’re sowing an entire field of corn or weeding flowers in a border, the work is sort of repetitive and you can only go so fast. And since I’m a preacher by trade, and only a farmer in my backyard, my thoughts turned toward the ways in which gardening is like the Gospel.
Our backyard was overrun by bugleweed, this spring. It’s sort of pretty in the lawn, with its little blue flowers, and it smells pleasantly minty when I pull it out of the garden beds. It’s tenacious, though- it spreads just like any other mint, which is to say that it’s the Genghis Khan of yard work. It’s everywhere it wants to be, and it does not know the meaning of the word “surrender.”
I spent an entire afternoon happily ripping it out of a bed while listening to a podcast, only to come back in a few days and see its ruffled green leaves showing again. You can guess, I’m sure, what I did wrong- I ripped out the stems but not the roots.
How often is that what we do? I see a problem in my own heart, and I rip out the evidence of it. Flowers are gone, stems are gone, nothing more to see. It’s invisible, for a time or two.
But the roots are still there, and so the problem comes back. Our hearts don’t need a haircut- they need to be rototilled. There’s no point in getting rid of the outward evidence of sin if we aren’t dealing with what lies beneath.
That’s a radical step, one that we can only take with Christ. The word radical itself derives from the Latin radix, meaning root, which also gives us words like radius and radish. If we’re pursuing holiness, if we want to love mercy and do justice and walk humbly with our God, if we want to be in this business wholeheartedly, then we won’t get there by staying on the surface.
We look at the outside, but God looks at the heart, right? When Christ brings healing to us, he brings it to our root. That’s what we need in order to bear fruit, just like my garden beds.
You know, this whole story of God and people started out in a garden. Once upon a time, there was nothing. No light, no sound, no shapes or forms. The Spirit of God, as a wind, dove and crested over the face of the deep. It was then that God began to speak, and then that light was formed; God’s opening act was to give permission for light to enter the world.
So. The day, and then the night, tumbling cycles of light and shadow. Good.
Then the dome, separating the waters below from the waters above the sky. Good.
Then the rumbling up of dry land from within the seas, barren, then covered with plants and trees. Then the lights, each placed in the dome of the sky: sun, moon, and stars. The sea filled with fish, and even sea monsters, and the sky filled with every winged creature imaginable. Herds of cattle appeared, and salamanders, monkeys, bears, and raccoons. Good.
And then God said, well, this is going to need someone to take care of it, so he made the first farmer/park ranger/shepherd/climatologist that ever existed and put it in the garden of Eden. Very good. That’s how the story goes, anyhow. It all started in a garden.
And the Bible’s greatest moment of glory happens in a garden, too. Jesus’ body is laid down in a borrowed tomb, set in a garden. Laid down in death, he rose in resurrection- just like any other seed.
Paul describes, in his first letter to the Corinthian church, the doubting sort of response that this idea receives: “Some skeptic is sure to ask, “Show me how resurrection works. Give me a diagram; draw me a picture. What does this ‘resurrection body’ look like?” If you look at this question closely, you realize how absurd it is. There are no diagrams for this kind of thing. We do have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a “dead” seed; soon there is a flourishing plant.”
How true is that? Imagine handing a pea to someone who’d never seen one before, asking them to envision a vining plant with delicate flowers. Imagine handing a corn kernel to someone while describing a gangly stalk of corn, or holding out a tiny lettuce seed while extolling the salad to come.
Through resurrection, things that are dead change into things that are unimaginably glorious.
You have to see it to believe it. I remember growing beans in grade school, in plastic baggies taped to the window, so we could see the developing root systems and the tiny leaves unfurling. Otherwise, how would we believe that this little rock like thing was where green beans came from?
Likewise, you can’t look at an infant child and see what life will be springing forth from it at two or fifteen or sixty-seven or ninety-three, any more than you can hold the humble cowpea close to your eye and see the whole bush. We see the wreckage of shattered relationships, of nearly unbearable griefs, of sickness and depression and death and despair, but God sees ahead to the moment to come when we are so overrun by abundance that we can’t find enough people to take our zucchinis.
We see brokenness, but God sees the crack through which the light will come in.
Resurrection is a mystery, and a guarantee. It’s also a practice.
Here’s one example of what practicing resurrection has looked like for me. I grew up working in a big garden. My dad was in charge of raising food for all the cows, and my mom was in charge of raising people food. She didn’t grow everything that I know now — the okra that I planted would have taken one look at the cold stony soil of upstate New York and died beyond the power of resurrection — but she planted and canned enough to see us through a long cold winter.
What she didn’t plant, though, were flowers. Why bother? Can’t eat that. There was a little bed of tiger lillies by the driveway, but that didn’t really count since they were just dug up roadside weeds.
So, when I started gardening on my own, I didn’t plant flowers either. Peas, check. Tomatoes, double check. Basil, check as many spaces as I can find openings.
Flowers, though, are just silly. Even if you’re growing edible flowers and adding them to salads, they still take up a ton of space compared to their yield. It makes more sense to plant lettuce in that space, get the whole salad rather than just the decoration.
But you know how sometimes you think you’re sure, but then a friend changes your mind? I started talking with a friend about gardening, and she pushed back on this idea of mine that flower gardening didn’t make any sense. She pointed out to me that I don’t carry that kind of Scrooge sensibility into any other area of my life. I don’t object to wonderful stained glass windows, or to music that I suppose could be called frivolous, or to interesting art, or fascinating architecture, or poetry that moves my soul.
Why, then, should I make a point of objecting to planting flowers? Beauty is a gift from God. I suppose it’s disrespectful not to celebrate it.
So, now every year I plant some flowers. We’ve had a pretty purple dahlia, and a ton of zinnias. This year, I added some hollyhocks to the corner of a bed, and we raked up a section of another bed and planted a wildflower mix.
And you know, hard as it is to admit it, just waiting on those flowers is an experience of joy that I hadn’t previously considered. They’re unnecessary, and that’s part of what makes them beautiful. God doesn’t need us for anything, and yet he rejoices over us with singing. Why should I do anything less?
Maybe next year I’ll even plant zucchini.
Julie Rudd pastors at Wilmington Friends Meeting. You can learn more about Wilmington Friends Meeting at www.wilmingtonfriendsohio.org, or www.facebook.com/wfmeeting.