When I was a child, my dad worked for IBM. This meant that my formative years were spent in the well-groomed suburbs of Dallas, Miami and Atlanta. Such suburbs are filled with wonderful neighborhoods and plenty of new construction for all of us transplants. Days were filled with skateboards on sidewalks and BMX bikes in the streets. Nintendo took our time on rainy days and no one I knew ever messed with a garden.
Though there were probably humble gardens tucked out of sight due to homeowner’s association agreements, for the most part, gardening in my suburbs meant selecting cucumbers and tomatoes from the produce section of Kroger.
In recent years, despite a lack of experience, insight or instinct, it has become my practice to make use of a few buckets of soil and grow some vegetables. Each summer has produced cherry tomatoes, some peppers that were too spicy to eat and cucumbers that looked better than they tasted. Despite my lack of gardening experience, I have quickly learned a few things.
First, I have learned that the rabbits and deer will probably get what they want (maybe that is because I use ‘chickenwire’?).
Second, water and sunlight are much more important than MiracleGrow (there is probably another lesson there).
And third, my garden always gives up on me long after I give up on it.
Now, on this third lesson, I took the above picture on December 9, 2015. Though everything else was dead due to three months of neglect, the bright red peppers were still trying to convey hope. Looking back, though the cukes and tomatoes did not hold out like these hot peppers did, they kept producing long after our family’s schedule allowed us to quit tending the buckets at the end of our driveway. And, when you step back and consider our lives and the institutions around us, doesn’t that sound similar? Does that, in any way, remind you of any churches you know?
The lesson from my garden and from institutions that are well founded and well-run, is that they often produce good fruit, long after we quit tending to them. And as we look around today, many of our churches are still producing, at least something, even though we may not tend to them like we once did. Perhaps the glory days of everyone pushing, dreaming, and embracing change and development ended long ago. If so, much of the fruit we have produced recently is likely a product of a faithful foundation and good work across time, and not our penchant for production in the most recent season of our life.
Gardeners know that fallow seasons are OK when we recognize them. Periods of rest are a part of God’s grand design because we cannot possibly cultivate in every corner of our spiritual or institutional life every second of every day. We cannot constantly water, fertilize, or turn over the soil. There are times when we need to step back. There are times when fields must lay fallow. And, there are definitely times when we just wait.
On the other hand, given too much time and inattention production decreases, weeds weasel in, and memories of beauty are all that remain. Then, because we seem to remember the good better then it ever was and our memories of struggle and work easily fade over time, we pine for the glory days, forgetting all the work it took to bring about that glory in the first place.
As we turn the calendar to 2016, there is no shortage of posts, blogs, articles, and self-help propaganda to help us get on track. I believe that if we truly want our congregation’s spiritual garden to grow again, the first task is simple: tend to it.
Let’s get active and find the weeds.
Can we find fresh soil?
If we begin to tend to the things that truly matter, don’t you think we will find that those things are quite willing to grow? I think that is what we will find.
I am no gardener but I know my garden rarely gives up on me before I give up on it.
I am no spiritual expert, but I repeatedly see that God hasn’t given up on me.
And finally, I am not an excellent Congregational Consultant that can help you much beyond my suggestions here, but I see churches that are still producing life and faith, even though many have long given up on them. Imagine what we will be able to do when we get back to the practice of tending to the garden that is our faith community!