With five kids to raise, my parents planted a big garden every year. What hard work it was for my brother, with the neighbor’s borrowed mule, to hold the plow steady while the mule plodded along, overturning soil and rocks. One of my jobs was to follow along and toss out the rocks to the side of the garden. How exciting it was the year Dad hired a different neighbor to come with his tractor, and turn the soil so quickly!
Another year Dad bought a gas-powered roto-tiller to break up the soil even more finely after plowing. A younger sister watched Dad closely as he maneuvered the machine in a fashion, which to her I imagined, looked like our brother riding his bike and “popping a wheelie” by pulling up the front of the bike and riding some distance on one wheel. Dad had pulled back on the handlebars of the roto-tiller, and my sister declared: “Daddy got a wheel with the roto-till!” Not only did we get a good laugh together, but her phrase became a little chant: “Daddy got a wheel with the roto-till, the roto-till, the roto-till…” Singing and laughing while breaking up unpliable soil and readying the garden turned a chore into a fun task, producing a lasting memory which brings smiles every time the story is told.
Many more steps were required to plant the garden after soil preparation: marking off areas for various plants, creating correct depths for rows of corn, learning the number of seeds to place in soil and spacing needed for differing plants. Lots of tending and caring were required across the summer with watering, weeding, and weeding, and… did I say, weeding? Certain parts of this enterprise were NOT fun, no matter how much singing or laughing we did! Even envisioning food on the table, or a pantry full of beautifully canned vegetables didn’t stop the hot July sun from baring down, or end the pleas from each child: “Can we stop now? It’s too hot!” There was little comfort to be found, in the moment, in my mother’s words: “You’ll be glad we did this when winter comes!”
There was joy at the table, and deep gratitude in remembering.
But, in the end? What an amazing sight! Gorgeously ripe veggies of stunning colors filled the garden, the kitchen table, picnic table and baskets: sweet corn, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, peas, onions, sweet peppers, squash, cucumbers, cabbages, collard greens, turnips, watermelons, even some big, juicy strawberries! Of course, Mom was right. And, her words still echo in my mind. Not only were we glad for the food, but the deep satisfaction of what had been accomplished together could not be measured. There was joy at the table, and deep gratitude in remembering: “WE did this—we helped cultivate this bounty together!”
Physical preservation and canning of the harvest as well as the yummy food my mother kept putting on the table provided so many lessons about community building and neighboring I’ve only lately come to realize. It wasn’t just immediate family, or our very large, extended family who joined together in this process. Neighbors, next door and down the road were a part of this endeavor, as were the men who owned the mule, the one with the tractor, and the “Feed and Seed” shopkeeper where we picked up supplies and tomato plants. The God of all creation was present and provided the sun, the rain, the wind, the birds and bees who participated in pollinating plants and were fed themselves. And, there were occasionally the rabbits, the deer and moles who found their share, too!
Engaged in the work of Neighborhood Seminary and relationship-building within our ever-growing and extended community, I think about those family gardening experiences. I recall the beautiful vegetables and fruits we grew, wonderful family meals and learning the ways of my mother, grandmothers, aunties and neighbors for sharing labor and preserving food. Retrospectively, those garden experiences provided basics for learning about cultivating shalom, even though I didn’t have concepts or vocabulary for this work. Gardening became a total sensory immersion and brought together an unnamed experience of wholeness as body, mind, spirit, family, neighbors, and creation were connected in a holy grounding and freedom—all at the same time.
It's sometimes messy work. It's often hard work. There will always be the weeds that pop up -- my weeds, your, and somebody else's.
Other life lessons of community and faith were sown into the soil of life through the gardens. I learned that essential to cultivation is awareness of and appreciation for varieties of seed and how to sow them. Experiences of God’s shalom involve attentiveness to spacing and needs of unique plants. Preparation and sustained engagement with the soil, the earthiness of our being are basic commitments—for the long haul; no matter the weather. It’s sometimes messy work. It’s often hard work. There will always be the weeds that pop up—my weeds, yours, and somebody else’s.
Cultivating Shalom blossoms with an inherent truth: every kind of “seed “in this Garden holds within itself the imprint of God’s wholeness, God’s shalom! Recently I saw a photograph of bare rose sepals by Nicholas Kramer, on the Center for Action and Contemplation’s website. A notation about the photo spoke volumes to me: …in these bare rose sepals, is the pattern of life: the budding of spring, the bloom of summer, the wilting of autumn, the barrenness of winter. In accepting this process, we unveil and make room for new life, new growth, new blooms.
The seeds hold all that is needed for fullness of life, fruitfulness and relationship with the whole Garden! The seeds point to the cyclical nature of the garden. Soil preparation, seed planting, tending, harvesting and preserving food are repeatable, but each cycle is unique, and every one of them is ever moving forward in time toward maturity and the fullness of being. I am beginning to imagine the cultivation of shalom as cyclical, yet ever-expanding and moving forward. Through spiritual practices and embodied discipleship, remaining in relationship with community, God’s shalom becomes reality. Like first shoots from the ground. It grows and grows-- thriving, abundant, full and running over, enduring, encompassing, life-giving and sustaining.
Cultivating shalom is filled with joy and laughter. It’s about singing songs and telling stories of our lives even as we live into fuller experiences of togetherness with one another, with God, in God’s story. It’s about growing wisdom and compassion along with justice, peace and kindness. Cultivating shalom is about celebration, not just at harvest time, but in and out of season. It’s like standing in the strawberry patch with sun-warmed soil beneath your toes, rubbing dirt off the biggest strawberry EVER, popping it in your mouth while juice runs down your chin, and Aunt Minnie scolds you with a laugh for eating “her strawberry!” It’s about celebrating ALL of the goodness of God growing up together in the Garden for Shalom. Want to join me in the Garden? We’ll all be glad we did!