Vegetable gardening has been one major response to the economic recession. Tough economic times have sent people everywhere scurrying for garden books and packets of seed. In 2009 an estimated 9 million Americans started gardens to supplement their diets. Even the White House planted an organic garden to supplement the presidential salads. Community gardens are springing up on church parking lots and vacant lots. But I am concerned that this movement may not be sustainable unless we learn how to connect our new found passions to our faith.
Perhaps one reason God created human beings to tend the garden is because God knew that it is in its midst that we connect most intimately to the character and ways of our Creator. Yet much theology about creation care focuses more on preserving wilderness areas and overcoming pollution than on the joy of gardening.
Gardening is an important part of the rhythm of my life. Our front porch currently bulges with seedlings ready to be planted. Our side garden will shortly provide a feast of broccoli, cauliflower and salad greens. In summer we hope to harvest a feast of over 150 pounds of red, yellow and orange tomatoes and an endless supply of squash which always taxes my cooking ingenuity. There is no more satisfying experience than to eat produce freshly harvested and cooked from the garden.
Gardening is beneficial in other ways too. Celebrating God’s presence is one way I absorb the soothing rhythms encased in the seasons of the year. I was delighted to discover that early Egyptian monks recognized gardening as part of God’s mandate to care for the earth. Throughout the middle ages too gardens were dearly loved by monastic communities and were considered an essential part of the rhythm of life. Gardening enabled them to recreate a glimpse of the paradise man and woman once shared with God.
Gardening not only renews and refreshes me, it also teaches me important lessons about the God who created and cares for us. God is revealed through so many aspects of the created world. Early Celtic Christians believed creation was translucent and that the glory of God shone through it. They felt that all of life reflected God’s creative presence and sustaining love.
In my e-book of garden reflections To Garden With God, I say:
“There is no place quite like the garden for connecting to the story of God. So many of Jesus’ parables and the events of his life, death, and resurrection take on new meaning in the garden. I read about the death and resurrection of Christ in the Bible, but I experience it every time I plant a dead seed, bury it in its earthy grave, and watch it burst into life. I read about the faithfulness of God to Israel in the wilderness, but I experience it every time I watch the rain fall and nourish the seeds I have planted. I read about the miracle of the fish and the loaves, but I experience a miracle every time I am overwhelmed by the generosity of God’s harvest.”
Gardening has taught me to look for God in all my daily activities and encounters. As I watch the days and seasons follow their expected patterns, I am reminded of the faithfulness of a God who comes to us in all seasons of life. Our God, who poured out such great love in the complexity, beauty, and diversity of creation, still cares for us and will never abandon us.
Every season teaches new lessons that connect to the gospel story. Our journey begins in winter, the time when most of the natural world is drawing deep into itself, preparing to rest. The trees retract their sap and drop their leaves. Animals retreat to their lairs to hibernate, and birds flee the cold weather. At this season we too should slow down and reflect on our lives and spiritual state. In the Northern Hemisphere, it coincides with the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas. It is a time for looking inward, for new beginnings and new depths of understanding.
In spring we dig the ground, plant, and fertilize. Bulbs and trees blossom with exultant enthusiasm. This is the season of greatest garden activity. We nurture the newly planted seeds into life and tend the trees in preparation for a rich harvest of fruit. This is the Easter season, the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is when we plant new seeds of faith and cultivate all that will one day blossom and bear fruit in our lives and in God’s world.
Summer is a season of abundant growth and productivity. We begin to reap the harvest of our long hours of spring toil. In our spiritual lives, there are also seasons when everything seems to flourish and produce fruit in abundance without much effort on our part. It is a time for both work and fulfillment. In the church calendar, this season begins with Pentecost and the in-filling of the Holy Spirit whose enduring presence enables God’s life of love, compassion, and abundance to flourish in and through us. Pentecost ushers in the second half of the year, what is sometimes called Kingdomtide, when we are meant to live out the life of God’s kingdom.
Autumn is also a season of great activity as the year culminates in the lavish harvests and feasting that often accompanies them. We dry, can, and preserve the harvest for the days of scarcity that lie ahead. In our lives we need to recognize these seasons when our physical work gathering in the harvest of our efforts is tempered with the prayer and preparation needed to sustain us throughout the cold seasons of life that assail all of us at times.
For me, harvest time mirrors the overflowing generosity of God. When we diligently work the earth – sow the seed in season, fertilize, water and nurture the crop, the harvest is often overwhelmingly abundant. So abundant that we must share our bounty with others if we want to fully utilize it.
Perhaps you don’t enjoy gardening like I do, but I suggest you take time to reflect on the God revealed in creation. Pray for those who earn their living through interaction with God’s earth. Farmers, forestry workers, landscape gardeners and conservationists are a few of those who labour in God’s good creation who need our prayers. We all reap the benefits of their efforts as we eat their produce, admire their landscapes and walk amongst the parks they preserve.
If possible work on a local farm picking apples or raspberries. Plan a harvest celebration and feast that includes the produce you pick. Make the feast totally of food that is in season. Consider sending a note of thanks to local family farmers or national park workers as a sign of appreciation for the efforts they put into preserving God’s creation and in providing you with the abundance of food for your table. An even more radical possibility is to visit migrant farm workers and share your feast with them. Their backbreaking work often for very low pay and little thanks provides us with a rich array of inexpensive produce.
If you live in the city, make an effort to get outside into God’s creation at lunch hour. Whether it is sunny or rainy, sit in a local park and reflect on God’s glory shining through the plants and animals around you. Visit a local farmer’s market – there are growing numbers in most cities. Buy seasonal foods and plan a feast. Pray for farmers local and global whose livelihoods are in jeopardy because of environmental degradation or unjust trade agreements.
What takes place in my garden over the year is a constant reminder that we are co-creators with the living God. We plant the seed and water the soil but God germinates and grows the plant. Even during the dark cold days of winter God is still at work putting down roots, enriching the soil, preparing for growth. Similarly God gives life to all our efforts. We plant the seed of God’s word. Sometimes we have the privilege of seeing it burst into bloom, but it is God who breathes life into our efforts. Through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and in those around us God still grows mighty plants out of tiny mustard seeds.