Gardening Is Worship

Josh Larsen asks a good question about gardening in his blog on Thinkchristian.net  http://www.thinkchristian.net/index.php/2010/04/22/gardening-act-of-worship-or-poor-stewardship/ .  He asks whether gardening is an act of worship or poor stewardship. I was inspired to write the following response.

Gardening is worship. So is teaching and woodworking and homemaking. That is why Calvinism continues to be the expression of Christianity that most appeals to me. Soli deo gloria. God’s sovereignty over all, every human activity designed to give him praise, all of life sanctified in Christ and to Christ. On that level gardening is indeed simply another sphere where Christians can thoughtfully work out their faith convictions.
 
So, as Josh suggests, there are stewardly and not-so-stewardly ways to garden. Every plant is tagged with a card that outlines its growth requirements and also proudly asserts that gardening is good for the earth. I smile wryly at that because every plant I buy also comes in a plastic, non-biodegradable pot. Fortunately, my favourite nursery recycles their pots and I do go to the trouble of returning all the pots. I have begun making my own compost. It’s a nod to environmentalism and I have a long way to go to refine the process. I am using a standard cylindrical compost container, but there is a newer version available, a drum that you can roll to circulate the mixture. It looks much more manageable for me, and can create more compost in the same physical space. When I do buy topsoil or triple mix, I buy it in bulk and my husband loads it on his pickup truck. Saves a few bags. I also have an aesthetically pleasing rainbarrel unobtrusively tucked in a corner and I regularly use that water instead of my hose. For those who know me well, it has an ingenious perforated cover, so no frogs or snakes or other slimy creatures can get in to gross me out!
 
Another stewardly practice is dividing your perennials and filling your garden with your own plants. Many varieties of hosta, ligularia, daylilies are easy to divide. I have many plants in my garden that are gifts from friends. There are naturalist-type gardeners, however, who do not like this practice as it, in the long-run, perverts the natural habitat and plant eco-system of an area. But I live in a suburb. Natural no longer exists on my street, anyway. 🙂
 
Gardening is not just about doing something for the environment. For me, it’s really not about that at all, even though I strive to be at least somewhat eco-sensitive in my efforts. For me, it’s primarily an artistic endeavour. I am painting my yard with plants. The composition is everything. Thus, any arguments that apply to why should Christians take the time to create art, to write books, to learn to play an instrument also apply to gardening. On some very deep, instinctual level, I find gardening, like writing, to be an order-producing activity. It creates an inner peace, a plane where I am in touch with God, using his God-given abilities to imagine and execute cohesion and meaning. T. S. Eliot’s poem Choruses From the ‘Rock’  contains a few lines about creativity that have always stayed with me: “The Lord who created must wish us to create/And employ our creation again in His service/Which is already His service in creating.” Language, purposely arranged, can create beauty out of the chaos of experience – linking all those disparate, disturbing, joyful or painful events. When I write, I put my world in a place where it can be objectified and comprehended. When I garden, I am doing the same thing. I’m arranging plants, meticulously removing weeds, amending the soil, and planning space. The garden itself becomes sculpture. 
 
Colour, texture, shape, form, line. All of these design elements are critical in my garden. The whole effect has to be pleasing to the eye, as well as smaller vignettes and focal points within the whole. As most gardeners know, structure is foundational in the garden. The shed, the fences, the boundary line of cedars, and larger trees create the backdrop on which smaller shrubs and plantings are hung, so to speak. All of it is planned and manipulated to achieve an effect. On the one hand it is very artificial. On the other hand, it’s still organic. I can’t begin to describe the sheer joy of July when the garden is at its peak. I can go outside again and again and be absolutely delighted by waving grasses, bright, bouncy poppies, dainty coreopsis, all in harmonious colours and complementary shapes and sizes. Spring is pretty good, too, with the redbuds in bloom and the pear tree and the weeping cherry. Even fall and winter offer certain panoramas that are breathtaking.
 
This is not how everyone gardens, I am well aware. My neighbour used to have a vegetable garden in the lot next to mine. He mocked me daily for the fact that you can’t eat anything from my garden. I mocked him for the utilitarian ugliness of his garden. Some gardeners use only native plants. Some just scatter plants and flowers willy-nilly. Each to his own. Mine is tidy and architectural.
 
I do find gardening a way to carve out some extended time for reflection and prayer. Sometimes I think I want to call my garden The Amen Corner because it’s my preferred place to pray. I also shamelessly anthropomorphize my garden. My three Canadian Hemlocks are my Shannon, Patrick, and Tom trees, named for my kids. Throughout the garden are rocks I’ve collected from various locales – from my friend Harmene’s beach, from Cuba where Patrick got married, from our trip to Europe. Many, many plants and trees are endowed with nostalgia. I can tell you every plant that I got from my neighbour Theresa and my other neighbours, Jim and Linda. I have a special redbud hand-selected by my friend Art DeGroot, a co-owner of DeGroot’s Nurseries. Someday, I hope to write something about the impact gardening can have on a neighbourhood. There is a lot of good that can be accomplished in a community through gardening, both in terms of sharing foodstuffs, and in terms of beautification.
 
My husband is a carpenter and he built the home we live in. The backyard was a blank canvas twenty-three years ago. That brings a uniqueness to my garden as well. It is completely ours. We built it together. Mark has poured tons of energy into my dreams. He constructed what I call the second-best shed in our town (the best is our neighbours’ but they paid six times the money :-). He built a fence that is both functional and handsome. He has rototilled, slugged dirt around, dug holes for trees, removed dead bunnies and birds, sunk a firebox into the ground, hauled stone, and basically proven his love for me a thousand times over with sheer muscle. He doesn’t care a fig for gardening. It’s all for me. He’s not the most verbal guy, but all I have to do to hear “I love you” is look at my yard.
 
Have we spent too much money? Not really, given our hands-on approach. Should I be spending my time at the soup-kitchen or in other “kingdom” pursuits? I do those kinds of things, conscientiously. But, if I read the Bible right, from beginning to end, God is a gardener. I think he loves to watch me garden.

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Last Thursday I Prayed in the Dutch Library

(I wrote this back in January and posted it on Voices (a CRC online discussion group). I decided to post this slightly-revised version on my blog and share it on Facebook since April 25 is GEMS Sunday. This entry references the GEMS theme for 2010. 

I was doing my Thursday job in the Dutch Library, running off 150 bulletins, 112 inserts for the mailboxes, and 40 children’s bulletins. Yes, believe it or not, we still have a “Dutch Library.” And it is still used regularly! There are a few faithful seniors (mostly women) who borrow the (mostly romantic) books with their 1940’s and 50’s covers depicting glamorous young ladies, blond hair beautifully rolled, who are obviously in need of sincere Christian gentlemen to rescue them. There are no cards to sign out the books, and no one is keeping track.

These are some other things in the Dutch Library:
1.    the photocopier and paper cutter, which I use for the bulletins
2.    stacked boxes of paper
3.    a stretcher and first aid/trauma kit
4.    a portable pulpit
5.    ropes to block off the back pews for the afternoon service (they don’t work ~ the non-conformists and rebellious just unclip them and sit where they want anyway)
6.    a TV/DVD stand for catechism (our Grade 11 class still watches Lew Vandermeer on the Belgic Confession) 
7.    extra tables
8.    a shelf with office supplies and Bibles and Blue Psalter Hymnals
9.    a blackboard covered with VBS posters illustrating the story of Peter walking on the water to Jesus who is flashing a charismatic and very white smile. The last poster shows Peter also smiling broadly. Apparently, this is the moment when Jesus grabs him and Peter is feeling very relieved. The posters come from Gospel Light (is this a betrayal of FaithAlive ?).  🙂

Sometimes I read the Bible while I wait for the bulletins to be copied, sometimes I chat with the pastor if he is around, but mostly I pray.

Ten identical worksheets are taped to the wall, each of which says “Prayer: no worries” and has a picture of a kneeling woman lifting up her hands in prayer. The GEMS have written out the Philippians 4:6 text on their papers: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” My favourite one is Allison’s who has used glitter markers to add a bouncy yellow ponytail to her young lady and coloured in her own freehand illustration … a yellow sun (with rays) partially hidden behind a blue cloud.

That’s a tough verse for me. I am anxious far more often than not. Worry is a strong contender for my besetting sin. Maybe that’s why there are ten sheets with the same message lined up on the wall where I do the bulletin every week! Whether it’s sunny or cloudy or somewhere in-between, I can pray to relieve my worries. Last Thursday I prayed for my family. I prayed for my own church, for my pastor, and for the people named in this week’s bulletin who need prayer and support. I prayed for people I know on Voices. I prayed for Rod and his village (a church), for Paul and his living stones (a church), for David and his efforts to have his church well-represented on the world wide web. I prayed for surprising Pastor Doug who likes rock music! I prayed for Pete that he might be given patience and hope as he forges a new future. I prayed for Ken R. as he, too, must find new ways to follow and serve the Lord. I prayed for Ken P. and RLF. I prayed for Ginger’s new pastor and Craig’s chess club outreach. I prayed that we will grow in respecful dialogue. I prayed that we each in our own little corner might serve God and our neighbour.

I try hard to disguise it, but I am a ridiculous, sentimental sop, and there are times when I find it so amazing to be connected to such a far-flung network of believers, at home and online. I can get choked up thinking about all the places where God is served in ordinary and extraordinary ways. I imagine all the other tacky little “Dutch Library”  rooms, churches with red doors, white canvas tents, pastors’ offices in frigid and temperate places, schools, courtrooms, and gardens in Canada, the United States, and Holland where we all worship the same Lord and Saviour. My wavering faith is propped up.

Whenever I flounder, which is far too often, Jesus reaches out, smiles, and says, ‘I’m right here.” He doesn’t get tired of rescuing me.

Leaning Walls and Tottering Fences

 

     “How long will you assault a man? Would all of you throw him down – this leaning wall, this tottering fence? (Psalm 62:3)

      “…he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.” (Psalm 62:6)

The giants in my world are toppling. Their hip bones are snapping, their eyes are clouding, and their songs are growing faint. They are succumbing and I cannot bear to watch. Lately I keep going to their funerals.

They were the pillars of my childhood – post-war Dutch immigrants, rising fresh-faced from the aftermath, confident men and capable women, galvanized by their belief that in Canada hard work could engender opportunity. In a wave of brash togetherness, they challenged an uncertain future, crossed the ocean headlong, and framed their churches, schools and new lives at full tilt. The men smoked pipes and Players, read De Wachter and The Calvinist Contact, and declaimed their strong opinions about church and politics to each other, Canadians not being particularly interested. The women curled their hair with bobby pins, wore aprons and cherry red lipstick, hung out the laundry on icy clotheslines until frozen stiff, polished the Sunday shoes every Saturday, and wrote letters home.

We laid to rest another one today. Husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather.  A Christian man who served the Lord as best he could for as long as he could. Like those other colossal figures of my youth, he was a proud man, driven to be a success in his adopted country, firm in his role as the head of the household, determined to keep his church pure. He had his tempestuous side, even more so when a stroke six years ago robbed him of his vigour and abilities.

His stricken body was a prison. There was no gradual resignation to his condition. He raged against his infirmities and frailties until the end. His impassioned refrain: “I want to go home.”  

Siep’s funeral today reminded us of his gentler side and happier days. He had an artist’s love of nature, drawing close to God in the craggy Rocky Mountains and in the lilacs and hummingbirds of his own garden. He nurtured show pigeons with tenderness. He was a woodworker with a meticulous hand. A businessman and risk-taker. My brothers, who spent a lot of time with Siep and his son, Steve, remember a worm farm in their garage! He enjoyed watching hockey with the boys on Saturday night. But, most of all, at his core, like so many others of his immigrant generation, Siep was a churchman.

That fiercely possessive love for the church is what chokes me up at all these funerals. These immigrants eagerly mortared their sweat, dollars and souls into their churches. The original members of my church logged 2,910 hours of free labour to construct our building. The countless hours donated by the wives who made the meals and tended to the children so their husbands could hammer and nail a “house for God” were not logged.  🙂

This was not the “let’s worship God in the great outdoors” generation of the seventies, nor the church-hopping generation of today. They loved their church so much that they almost forgot it was God’s church. They were invested in every detail of the building – from the colour of the drapes to the tulip varieties planted in the front flower-bed. Men served countless terms on “consistory.” Four years in, one year out. Women bustled their large families to church twice a Sunday, in neatly pressed shirts and immaculate dresses, hair slicked back or tidily braided. At one time I might have dismissed it. Snubbed it as habit, tribalism, works righteousness. I’m older now. Now I call it love.   

Siep was responsible for constructing the parsonage that stands next to our church here in Wyoming. As an elder, he took his turn reading sermons in Dutch when a pastor wasn’t available. He served as a volunteer treasurer for twenty consecutive years. Two decades of painstakingly entering numbers into the books by hand and personally delivering the paycheques to the custodian and the pastor.

He sang in the choir for decades, too. My brothers and I will never forget his singing face, his mouth a perfect oval as he sang the hymns he loved with unparalleled gusto. We didn’t know anyone else who could sing that way! He never learned to articulate the English th.   “How’s Caty today?” he would inquire at church, smiling at me with big friendly brown eyes.

The pastor preached on Psalm 62 at Siep’s funeral. After the message, we sang “When Peace like a River.”  The voices of the congregation swelled mightily, united in love, love for Siep and his family, love for the church, love for the Lord. The surge in volume was unmistakable.

Not me. I wasn’t singing. My throat was clogged. Struck dumb like Zechariah by the glorious audacity of that crescendo. In 1954 when my forebears positioned the concrete blocks in the trenches, proudly laying the foundation for their new church home, sin, heartache and tragedy moved right in, too. Today, at Siep’s funeral, more than fifty years later, every pew in the sanctuary could groan with a heavy weight of sorrow. A score of widows and widowers mourning their own losses. Parents grieving children taken too soon. Children struggling with life-long impairments. Betrayals by brothers and friends. Pre-marital sex. Unplanned pregnancies. Divorce. Bounced cheques, skewed tax returns, and loans never repaid. Suicide. Adultery. Spousal abuse. Straying family members. Alcoholism. Gossip. Envy. Even murder. Siep’s own niece lost her life at the hand of her husband. No reason why Job’s wife couldn’t stride right into our fellowship at that very moment and legitimately cry out her bitter advice: “Curse God and die.”

But there we were anyway, bruised and bleeding, defiantly belting out a song about peace like a river. Leaning walls and tottering fences absurdly claiming victory. Not resigned to our aching woundedness, but raging against the prison of our own sorry lives. Daring God to free us and affirm our hope: “O Lord, haste the day when our faith shall be sight.” All of us together one desperate Jacob: “I will not let you go until you bless me.” All of us one stubborn Job: “I know that my Redeemer lives.” All of us together one anguished Siep: “I want to go home.” 

They weren’t giants, after all, Siep and his generation. They served the Lord as best they could in the world they were given. His children and I are doing the best we can in the world we find ourselves in.  Sin still easily entangles. Trouble still plunks down uninvited beside us. But we sing, we believe, we wrestle with God brazenly until he leaves his mark on us. We rise up from our Peniel pews and go forth, re-named the Redeemed. We take our turn at mortaring love into a spiritual house.      

Siep’s suffering was consecrated with that love. There were cards and prayers from the classmates of his granddaughter at the Christian school, cards and prayers from his grandson’s catechism class, cards and prayers from his church family. A large-print bulletin was produced for him every week. There was his daughter’s friend who faithfully wheeled him around the nursing home, on days when he was cheerful and on days when he was anything but.

There was the housekeeping aide, my sister, who sought to connect with Siep as often as she could while at work. He called her and everyone else “lieve” (little loved one), that sweet Dutch diminutive, a touchingly affectionate echo from the past. Once, on her coffee break, she joined him at a Sunday chapel service. His wheelchair was in the back row, so it was a simple matter to slide in beside him for a few minutes. He was slumped and uninvolved. She held the hymnbook and sang, embarrassed at how loud she sounded amongst all the other spidery thin voices. Then, to her amazement and shock, Siep suddenly began to quaver the familiar lyrics along with her: “Sometimes ‘mid scenes of deepest gloom, Sometimes where Eden’s bowers bloom, By waters still or troubled sea, Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.”  An old song now gilded with a sacred patina. She says that moment will stay with her forever.

There was old Mr. Batterink, a long-time fellow church member, who also lived at Meadowview. Lefert, or Lee, as he was known by the staff, befriended Siep every single day of his stay there, a calming anointed presence. In the beginning, when Siep could still communicate and would strongly voice his displeasure, Lefert would remind him, “Remember, Siep, remember, we look up.” And, I’m crying as I type this, at the end, when Siep was in a place far beyond speech or response, Lefert simply sat with him, holding his hand.

There were his children, freely forgiving his outbursts and anger, time after time. Hugging him, reminding him with every embrace who he was, their beloved dad and opa. There was his wife, Atty, who for six years daily came to sit with him in the sun, her chair as close to his wheelchair as possible, sharing a thermos of tea and some grapes or apple slices.

These acts of love are not to be weighed on a scale. It’s not about balance, levelling the evil in our lives with the good. The cross absorbed all our evil and the empty tomb secured all our good. But God plies his own mysterious audacity – using his own sinful and desperate followers to perform ordinary wonders.

It was hard to say goodbye to Siep at the cemetery today. It was cold. It was windy. We wrapped our jackets around us tightly and huddled in. Flecks of snow slipped down from the grey clouds massed above. But, oh, if those clouds had been rolled back like a scroll, we would have seen the angels laughing and skipping with joy to usher Siep to the Master.  We would have seen Christ himself smiling in welcome, leading Siep to his place in the choir. And Siep’s mouth would have been open in that perfect oval, singing “It is well, it is well with my soul.”

(with thanks to the family for their kind permission to share some of Siep’s story)