There’s a place at Grandma and Grandpa’s house where everything is always good. Up the hill behind the kitchen window the woods are cleared and the sun hangs out all day above a little crest of earth where Grandpa used to pull tomatoes. This June marks six years since he last turned a shovel in that ground, yet still, in the middle of the overgrown grass and twisted thickets is a small wooden sign proudly announcing “Grandpa’s Garden.”
Grandpa’s Garden has always held a sort of magic for me. Before we lived in Minnesota my family used to vacation at their little house in the woods, and while Grandpa would be up there yanking weeds I’d be chasing garter snakes at a safe distance or catching the leopard frogs that sprung from the grass as I ran by. Once, when it was just him and me, he picked a tomato and I followed him back to the kitchen where he sliced it and put it between pieces of toast and melted cheese. I received that sandwich from Grandpa like a child at his first Communion – goodness and grace from the ground he’d toiled over. The woods and rivers surrounding their house are full of all sorts of mystery and adventure, but that bright garden atop the hill is a special place, alive with critters and sunshine and images of Grandpa before he passed.
I often work night shifts patrolling our relatively quiet campus, and last week, during our third consecutive night of rain, I walked up to the garden with my powerful Maglite and studied the ground in its darkness. I was in a place not used to visitors at that hour, and it felt like I was intruding on some mysterious secret, like a child walking downstairs late at night for a glass of water only to find his parents playing cards and drinking wine with strangers. And there in the dark, with the rain falling sternly, the garden seemed to possess its own urgency. In the daytime when the sun is bright the humans come with their watering cans and shovels and they poke around as best as they know how, but here in the darkness the earth and the rain seemed to be getting some real work done. And the worms! Oh the worms! Wherever the light fell, the giant, swollen nightcrawlers slurped back into the dirt as if I’d just burst in on them changing underwear or toweling off after a shower; and there were hundreds of them, some as thick as fingers and others like spaghetti, working the soil as only worms can.
The more time I spend around gardens the more I appreciate them for their energy and beauty. Whether it’s the wisps of steam curling from the giant compost piles at Growing Power or the way Grandpa’s hilltop feels warm even in the frozen January sunshine, gardens are fascinating and full of life. Yesterday morning, as we enjoyed our first seventy-degree day in several weeks, a fellow seminary gardener commented in wonder at my impressive sunflower seedlings, “It’s amazing how dirt and sunshine can somehow take these little seeds and turn them into plants taller than you or me.” And then, as I mixed rich compost at the base of my young tomato plants I marveled about how weeks previous this dirt was nothing more than the eggshells and coffee grounds I’d discarded after breakfast. What wisdom and strength the earth must possess!
About the Triune God the Nicene Creed reads:
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible…
And in one Lord Jesus Christ… by whom all things were made…
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life…
Those last words strike me – The Giver of Life.
The life-giving work of the Spirit can be perceived in various ways, but I can’t help but sense that the same Spirit that gave life to Grandpa as he shouted from his pulpit is the same Spirit that gives life to Aleah as she drops her granola bar in the dirt…and it’s the same Spirit giving life in a garden where the soil and sun make strawberries so sweet you can hardly stand it. All of creation hangs on the life-giving breath of God.
Gardens are special places. Some of Jesus’ last moments before his Passion were in a garden, his sweat turning to blood as he anticipated his death. And Grandpa’s sweat dripped upon his garden as often as his wheezing chest and failing heart would let him six years ago. And now, in my family’s corner plot of the seminary community garden, I can spy on worms as they soak in the midnight rain or listen as the stems seem to stretch and straighten in the morning sun, or kneel next to my wife while our necks turn red and sweat darkens our shirts.
Gardening isn’t always profound. It doesn’t always remind me of Grandpa or witness to the Spirit’s work in creation. Sometimes it’s nothing but blisters and ambitious bugs. But spend enough time in a garden and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. Gardens are fascinating, and if bright vegetables and stunning flowers aren’t enough to keep you interested, consider gardening simply for the fact that something amazing is going on in there. You’ll see.