Lessons from a reluctant gardener

The first thing I’ve learned about gardening is that it is basically foolproof. I drop the seeds in the ground and pray for rain. A week later, whether I followed the packet instructions or not, I see sparks of life. I imagine if I could watch the seeds underground it would look like a firework–a little spark of potential energy that gathers power from its very atmosphere until it erupts, seemingly infinitely, in all directions. How does it do that? I’d say to myself. Gardens hardly need a gardener.

Unless you’ve got one of those gardens that also grows weeds.

It isn’t hard to grow a garden; the seed, the soil, the rain, and the sun are the only ingredients you need and the chlorophyll does all the work. The work of the gardener, it turns out, is not to grow things but to kill things.

I spent two hours in my garden this morning killing things. Hacking wildly with a pointed rake, clawing carefully with my fingernails, I removed the most aggressive plants that were stealing the energy from my chosen plants. Before I left, I blessed the soil with a healthy dose of fertilizer, so I can feel like I’m contributing somehow to the miracle.

Gardeners do not grow plants. Gardeners choose which plants they will allow to grow. It is spiritual work, or at least it was for me this morning. I had prayed little more than a “create in me a clean heart” this morning before the baby woke up. It wasn’t until I got in the garden that I realized I’d been praying to a Customer Service God who takes my defective merchandise and hands me a new one over the counter. In the garden I remembered that the gospel is a scattered seed that only grows where the weeds don’t choke it out. A clean heart is one that nurtures the chosen virtues and banishes the rest, no matter how easily those attributes might grow. In other words, a clean heart, a sanctified heart, generally requires cleaning, not just an even exchange.

The second thing I’ve learned about gardening is that the weeds are obvious. They are the plants that spread without seeds. They are the plants that thrive when I’m negligent. I had worried I would not be able to tell the difference (and in fact I did pull one of our cucumber plants out by mistake!), but I’ve found the weeds are obvious and pervasive and tenacious. It is not difficult work, but it is hard work. It is sanctifying work that rewards diligence and repeated, careful attention. It is work that makes me long for Eden.

I may never understand the cooperative effort that is our sanctification in Christ, but my gardening lessons bring me closer, I think: I allow the fruit to grow and thank God’s grace for providing the soil, the sun, the rain, the seed. I remove the species that grow too easily under neglect, and realize I can either tend to it daily or pay for it later. I wait and water, hoe and hope, always anticipating the harvest. I know what kind of harvest I want from my garden, and so I plant those things. I know what kind of harvest I want from my heart, and so if it is not the fruit of the Spirit–“love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”–it has to go.

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