Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Gardening

This is my pastor's note for the July newsletter.  Given the upcoming lectionary texts, I think I'll be digging a bit deeper into the gardening analogy for sermon writing.  Any thoughts?

            I’ve already confessed that I am not a gardener. Both of my parents enjoy gardening, but somehow their knowledge was not passed along to me. However, during our week in Cincinnati, I spent more time working in gardens than I had up to that point. I think gardening offers many metaphors for our spiritual journey and growth. Don’t you think?
            Soil makes a difference.  On Monday morning, we were planting at the Civic Garden Center in soil that had been brought in.  It was easy to work with, and we knew that the shrubs and trees that we were planting would thrive.  Monday afternoon, we were in the community garden of a church, tilling land that had until last year been covered by a house.  We dug up some big rocks, a few bricks, and some other artifacts that showed the ground hadn’t been used to grow much for a long time.  Some areas were very dry, and there was also a lot of hard packed clay, but one of the volunteers noted that the soil would improve each year as they cultivated it. Similarly, we need to cultivate our spiritual soil.  Tending regularly to the practices of prayer, worship, and study of the Scriptures will encourage growth.  Neglected spiritual soil is less fertile.  It is more difficult for our faith to take root and grow.
            Weeds grow like… well, weeds. We spent almost the entire day on Thursday weeding, and while we completely cleared a good number of beds, there were still more areas that we could have weeded.  It seems that the things we want to grow require such tender care, but the things we don’t want to grow have no problem at all taking root and settling in. They rob the good plants of the resources they need to grow.  It’s not enough to pull out what you can see; you have to dig in deep to get out the root.  Otherwise, the weeds will come right back.  And it isn’t easy to get out the whole root.  Even if you do manage to completely clear out weeds from a bed, they will still find their way in one way or another.  Weeding is a never-ending task.
            Our lives are full of weeds – those things that crowd out the good fruit that we are cultivating, the things that sap our time, energy, and resources and leave us without anything left to give.  Weeds can be like sin or temptation – the things that creep into our lives and take root.  Or they can be like an invasive species – something that we initially invite into our lives that quickly takes over. It doesn’t matter how fertile or infertile our soil is – the weeds will still grow.  Weeds keep us from producing the kind of fruit that God calls us to produce, the fruits of the Spirit.  Weeds separate us from God and from each other.  Weeding is a constant task in our lives.  Sometimes, when we realize that our gardens have become beds of tangled weeds, we need the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to come in and till up our soil and start anew.
            You have to know what you’re planting.  When we put seeds in the community garden, we had to mark the rows to remind us of what had been planted.  We had to space things out and plant to the proper depth, and so on. You don’t have to plant weeds – they just come.  But you do have to plant the seeds that will grow into the plants that you want.  I’ve never had to nurture impatience, judgment, or selfishness.  Those tend to sprout up no matter what I do.  But the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – those are all things that need to be planted and tended in ways to make them grow.
            I could go on for a while with the metaphors, but I think you get the idea.  In this growing season, let us consider how we are tending our own gardens, and how we are helping to nurture other fields. Think especially of the younger generations.  How will they be taught to cultivate their own spiritual path?  Let us look to the true Master Gardener for wisdom and guidance.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Roughly 15 years and 50 weeks ago, I went to Cincinnati for the first time with my dad and sister for the PC (USA) General Assembly.  My sister was a Youth Advisory Delegate representing Abingdon Presbytery, and perhaps my dad had a role there, too.  I was long for the ride.  More specifically, I was along for the drive.  I had just gotten my learner's permit at the end of April, and in a few months I would have my full driver's license, so I was eager to get in as much driving as I could.

Little did I know how much driving experience I would get on that trip.  Soon after we got to Cincinnati, a member of our church passed away, and so my dad and I basically checked in and turned around to drive back so he could preside over the funeral.  I drove through the night while he slept in the car, and then while he presided over the funeral I slept at home.  When he got back, I woke up and drove the 360 miles back to Cincinnati.

Now, on the eve of leaving for a mission trip to Cincinnati with some of our youth, I am potentially in a similar situation.  Never would I have thought back in 1995 that, 16 years later, I might be making a round trip from Cincinnati back home to preside over the funeral of a member of my congregation - as pastor.  Whew.  But here I am.

This particular member has been struggling with Alzheimer's disease for the past 5 or 6 years.  We never knew the vibrant and lively woman before the disease, but this past week, as I've been sitting vigil with her family, I've gotten a glimpse of this special woman's life.

On Monday I received a phone call that she was in very bad shape, and probably wouldn't make it past a few hours.  I went right away, and talked with her caregivers and family, praying with them for what I thought might be the last time before her passing.  It wasn't.  It is now Saturday night, and as of my visit this evening, she is still breathing, and her family and caregivers, gathered at her home, continue to wait.  She has been unable to eat or drink since Sunday, and we have all marveled at the strength of her heart, to keep her body going against all odds.

Of course we all know that it is a matter of time, and not much time; hence, I am prepared to make a day trip from Cincinnati during our mission trip to preside at the funeral and burial.  Those around her keep asking, "What is she waiting for?"  Her loving husband of 55 years passed away 2 1/2 years ago, and she has been looking forward to their reunion.  She was not afraid to die, but she also believed that every day of life was a gift to be cherished.  That is a difficult truth to affirm as those who love her watch and wait, each day, seeing her body slowly succumb to the disease that has ravaged her mind and body these past few years.

We all want her to go home, to be released from the disease that has taken so much from her.  But we wait.  I don't understand God's timing, and I have questions about whether this really is God's timing.  The family says, "Well, God just keeps showing us that he is in control."  And I believe that God is, ultimately, in control.  But I don't believe that God has the need or even desire to show us that God is in control.  While I believe that God is in control, I also believe that we are waiting - that God is waiting.  We are still in the "in between" time - the "already and not yet," where we are assured that God has conquered all sickness and death, and yet our current reality is a world marked by brokenness and decay.  I believe that just as God will redeem all of creation, so too, God will redeem time as we know it.  Then time will really be God's timing, and all our waiting will be over.