It is no coincidence that, as I am writing a book on the fruit of the Spirit, I am also learning to be a gardener. I recently discovered that my yard features a cherry tree, an apple tree, two different kinds of grape vines, and numerous different ornamental flowers. I have also planted several types of squash, watermelons, and tomatoes. I am, to say the least, an unorthodox gardener. I am sure that my Iowan neighbors laugh at me whenever I march outside, armed with an undersized watering can, a random straw hat, and hobbit-like gardening shoes. They probably wonder at my bizarre, ungainly methods, which include waving giant weeds around like trophies whenever I wrestle them from the packed earth, whacking at my cherry tree with a rake in the absence of a fruit picker, and praying over my struggling spaghetti squash.
I am an unorthodox gardener. And yet, in some ways, I am an incredibly orthodox gardener. I may not understand much about horticulture, but I do understand theology. I am finding a great deal of cross pollination between these two disciplines. Although I still send long, frantic texts to my gardener friends, I am learning to apply what I know of theology to my gardening and, to my delight, it is working.
- Pull the weeds. A few weeks ago, I sprayed weed killer on my garden beds, which were so overgrown they looked like a set from Jurassic World. I hoped to passively rid myself of pests, but to no avail. For the good of my garden (and my soul), I ended up having to wrest giant ragweeds from the earth by hand. It was worth every scratch and sunburn. In the end, I had four clear garden beds and at least one sonnet on sanctification. As with gardening, we have to grab sin by the stem and rip it out by the root. Like when I sprayed the ragweed, I too often deal with leaves, trying to mitigate the symptoms of my sin instead of getting to the bottom of it.
- Care for the soil. After clearing my garden beds, I enthusiastically purchased squash and melon plants. But, upon looking at the soil, I realized that it would be unfruitful without some help. I remembered at once the parable of the soils and purchased nutrient-dense compost to till along with this old, parched earth. As I worked, I had no clue whether I was using the proper tools but I did know that I was doing the correct thing. We constantly need to till the soil of our hearts; none of us is always “good soil,” without any need for fertilizer or manure. Instead, we need to be feeding our soil, shaking it up so it does not harden or dry up. And so I broke up the old soil, mixed in the new, and did my best to prepare it to receive my little plants.
- Eliminate the dead stuff. After planting my squash and melon, it became clear that two boxes had better soil than the others. My watermelon is thriving, as is my acorn squash. The pumpkin plant took some time to adapt but is now flourishing. The spaghetti squash…well, it needed my prayers. More than this, it needed to be pruned. Somehow, this plant became infected with bugs that ate out the inside of its stems. First, I had to kill the bugs and then remove the dead stems. My poor plants looked pathetic; they’d begun beautifully only to be reduced to yellowed stems and a couple of withered leaves. However, this freed them to start over; without the infected parts, the remaining stems began to thrive again. I know very little about pesticides and pruning, but I do know that, if we desire to be fruitful, we must eliminate all that is dead and dying within us.
- Don’t get in the way. Although I have had to put work into my gardening, I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is to not get in the way. When I was a child, I planted a turnip. Every day, I would pull it up to check on it. Predictably, it died. It is necessary to clear weeds, to refresh the soil, and to prune decay, but I am learning that it is also necessary to know when to step back and let things bloom in their time. That I am not a natural gardener is proven by the fact that my healthiest plants are generally the ones I have not touched. So, too, with sanctification. The Holy Spirit does not need my power but my submission. We are to work in accordance with our faith, but a great deal of this work is learning to staying out of the way, to not quench the Spirit. I am learning to remove what is dead or destructive, but to leave unhindered what is life-giving and good. My Easter lilies—like those of the biblical field—are thriving. They are doing exactly as they are created to do and all I had to do was keep the weeds at bay and not get in the way. It is similar for those of us who are in Christ; we are remade for life and growth, so long as we put to death our old ways and do not inhibit his new creation.