If you live in the Northeast, you may find yourself paying more for a pumpkin this year. Of course, such circumstances are not due to corporate greed. Nor are there any pumpkin charlatans trying to covertly raise the price. Instead, due to excessive rain and early frost dates, much of the pumpkin crop in this area has been damaged. Pictured below are two pumpkins that my husband and I managed to harvest early. While I would have liked to plant another small patch of them, it seems that such efforts would not be fruitful. And so it goes for the art of gardening, in which things like weather, pests, and disease reign above our attempts to control them.
However, despite the uncertain outcome of this labor, I find that gardening is an endeavor worth pursuing. One that not only reveals to us biblical truth, but one that encourages, or rather, forces us to move further along in that process of sanctification, for which all of God’s creation was intended.
1) Gardening as Revelation: The Relationship Between Humans and the Land
Perhaps the first thing that will strike you, when you begin to garden, is that gardening is dirty. While your concept of gardening may currently be inspired by the picture of a Martha Stewart-esque woman gracefully tending to her crops while still managing to look both clean and peaceful in Burmuda shorts and a fashionable sun hat, such fantasies will disappear after ten minutes of shoveling dirt to prepare the soil, or after spending an hour weeding on a hot day. For me, gardening often results in a mixture of sweat, dirt and mosquito bites worthy of a long shower.
And yet, I do feel that I have gained a slightly more elongated perspective from this dirty activity. Not only do I feel more connected to my food, which, to my surprise, sucks life from mother dirt as it matures, but I also feel more connected to that dirt itself, as I realize that from dust I also came, and to dust . . .
In generations past, people were not as removed from dirt as they are today. Instead, they were reliant upon the dirt for survival and even struggled with the temptation to worship it, or at least, the gods who were rumored to control it. Of course, this was not the artificial New-Agey sort of nature worship that we see in eco-friendly, homeopathic-remedy-wielding, earth-mothers of today’s generation. But rather, it was a “my life depends on this” sort of devotion to that which was mysterious and seemingly divine in nature.
Thus, embedded in a narrative of laws regarding sexual conduct, we find God clarifying to His people, just who is actually in control of the earth. “You must keep my decrees and my laws” He says, “And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you” (Leviticus 18:26, 28).
While this warning does in part address the perverse sexual rituals that had been incorporated into worship in order to procure fertility of the land,” it also makes clear that any “violation of the sexual code [or of any code, for that matter] pollutes both the people of the land” and “[requires] a cleansing process that will drive them out and allow resettlement.” In such text, there is “an understanding of an intimate relationship between land and people that would have been natural to a people who based their lives on agriculture and herding” (IVP Bible Background Commentary Old Testament).
Thus in one way, gardening helps reveal to us a long-lost relationship with the land, in which we are made aware that it is neither us nor the Grandmother Willow tree from Pocohontas that controls the land, but God. And like the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, our sustenance and survival are also in His hands.
2) Gardening as Revelation: The Relationship Between Humans and Plants
Similarly, gardening also helps reveal to us that particular creation that is lesser than but similar to ourselves, or at least, caught in a similar predicament. In Job, we are challenged to “Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? [that is, who does not know that God is both all-powerful and all-wise, even in circumstances such as those that befell Job] In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7-10).
And yet, from these lesser creations, we are much estranged. Barbara Kingsolver expresses this sentiment rather poignantly in her journal-like memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, when she describes encounters with those outside of the farming communities. She says:
We don’t know beans about beans. Asparagus, potatoes, turkey drumsticks–you name it, we don’t have a clue how the world makes it. I usually think I’m exaggerating the scope of the problem, and then I’ll encounter an editor . . . who’s nixing the part of my story that refers to pineapples growing from the ground. She insisted they grew on trees. Or I’ll have a conversation like this one:
“What’s new on the farm?” asks my friend, a lifelong city dweller who likes for me to keep her posted by phone. . . . So I told her what was up in the garden: peas, potatoes, spinach.
“Wait a minute,’ she said, ‘When you say, ‘The potatoes are up’ what do you mean?” . . . “What part of a potato comes up?”
“Um, the plant part,” I said. “The stems and the leaves.”
“Wow,” she said. “I never know a potato had a plant part.” . . .
To conclude, Kingsolver insists:
My husband and I decided our children would not grow up without knowing a potato has a plant part. (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p. 11-21).
While for Kingsolver, such knowledge of a plant may be the ultimate revelation, for Christians, these astonishingly various shapes and “colors of the wind” point to a God of infinite wonders and creativity. Such wonders do not have to be over-analyzed or contrived, such as the infamous Ray Comfort/Kirk Cameron assessment of a banana, but are inherent within such basic miracles, such as that of a seed coming to fruition.
On this subject, Kingsolver is, again, knowledgeable, stating: “Biology Teachers face kids in classrooms who may not even believe in the metamorphosis of bud to flower to fruit and seed, but rather, some continuum of pansies becoming petunias becoming chrysanthemums; that’s the only reality they witness as landscapers come to campuses and city parks and surreptitiously yank out one flower before it fades from its prime, replacing it with another” (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p 11).
This “fading from prime” to which she refers is none other than the stark reality of death, which comes to us all in a post-Eden world. Such disorder and chaos are often directly tied to the sins of the people of Israel and their on-and-off pattern of obedience to God. For instance, in Hosea, we find that “there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying” (Hosea 4:1-3).
And yet, it is also revealed to us in Romans, that in times of both drought and plenty, all of creation remains in bondage to a fallen world, tainted by sin. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). In Knocking On Heaven’s Door, David Krump describes this specific state of travail, stating that “caught between the collision of two opposing spiritual forces, the cosmos groans under the combined weight of both” (Knocking On Heaven’s Door, p. 200).
Thus, like us, this lesser creation has fallen far from its perfected state and is now forced to inhabit a world where all is not well. And more often than us (for when do plants ever cease pointing to God?), this lesser creation has an instinctual though non-conscious awareness of its place within the order of creation and its purpose on earth, and it testifies loudly to the design of a Holy God that has been tainted by death and destruction. Take a whiff of air from a compost pile or that vase of decaying flowers that you have neglected to throw out, and such tainting with be made clear to you in a very visceral way.
3) Gardening as Formation: Ever-Approaching and Awaiting Perfection
Of course, it is in the garden that we also become aware of God’s promise to creation, which does not abandon it to death forever but intends to restore it to its former glory. And at the same time that creation groans under its present circumstances, it also “waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21).
And like all of creation, we also await perfection in heaven, where not only will our bodies be perfected, as those of the flowers and the trees, but our souls, too, and all the fruits of the Spirit that have been sown as seeds within us will be fully ripe and bountiful for the harvest.
In this way, we come to recognize ourselves as the seeds and ever-maturing fruits of God’s own harvest. And it must be noted, that through the act of gardening, we ourselves may grow in patience, joy, tenderness, self control, and other fruits of the Spirit–fruit which is just as much a foretaste of the Kingdom to come as the actual fruit that we harvest from our meager plots.
Thus, as we pull weeds from our gardens and attempt to make straight the paths of those climbing plants that just can’t seem to find their way to our trellis, we look forward to a day when all such plants will be perfected. To the day when we “will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song . . . and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). A day in which this wasteland, where April is indeed the cruelest month crumbles under the incoming reign of a Garden of Eden on earth.
So go forth. Work the land. Plant seeds. Eat berries. But above all, seek after God and all that He wants to cultivate and reap in your life and in others. For the harvest is plentiful, but the workers . . .