I began this year’s garden a couple of weeks ago.
To be technical, I began the garden about six weeks ago when I started the process of removing the sticks and leaves from the raised beds and cultivating the dirt with a hoe and the tired muscles in my back and shoulders. Or to be even more precise, I began the garden in the fall when I cut down the worn out plants from last year’s garden, folding the rotten fruit and vegetables into the soil, covering the beds with leaves for mulch.
Though we try to mark beginnings and endings when it comes to growing food, planting and harvesting aren’t really the work of gardening. They are just the ceremony. The rituals of tending and watering and loosening and binding, these are the work of the land that determine in the end whether we eat or not.
On Easter Sunday, when I arrived home in the evening I saw a resurrection miracle right in my garage. The seeds which I had buried in the dirt in tiny pots, that later will produce tomatoes and peppers and zucchini and eggplant, had risen to life, stretching toward the sun in a hopeful unfurling. I found myself smiling, anticipating. Every year I plant these seeds and every year I am a little surprised when they emerge from the soil. But this is not the end — there’s nothing to eat yet, and it’s not the beginning — though maybe a milestone.
This is just one of the many small steps of the middle, the place where most of gardening happens, the place where most of life happens.
In her recent book, Still: Notes on a Mid-faith Crisis, Lauren Winner describes spiritual life in the middle.
In the American church, we have a long tradition of telling spiritual stories that culminate in conversion, in the narrator’s joining the church, getting dunked in the waters of baptism, getting saved. But . . . the baptism, the conversion, is just the beginning, and what follows is a middle, and the middle may be long, and it may have little to do with whatever it was that got you to the font.
The book, then, is about a segment of the middle in which Winner moved from struggling to remember God’s voice to finding a renewed sense of his presence. But it’s not a linear path from A to B; it’s not even a path with a beginning and an ending. That’s not the language of the middle.
Instead, there was a season of looking back, a desperation to move ahead, and a hopeful sense of movement.
Five times in the chapter called “Ode on God’s Absence,” Winner uses the phrase “time passes.” Sometimes, the best thing I can do in the middle is to let time pass. Later, looking back, I can see signs of life that were not apparent to me in the middle of the middle. Other times, passing time leads to an ending or a beginning of sorts, and in the ceremony that accompanies those, I find a relief from the middle.
There is another survival technique for the spiritual middle: keep doing what I have done in the past. Some people call this “going through the motions.” They think that praying and reading the Bible and setting aside Sundays and gathering with friends on holy days are somehow cheapened or diminished by not doing them every time with my whole heart.
Winner also talks about these rituals during the difficulties of her middle period. She admits the near impossibility of praying when she is questioning what she believes – “like a barefoot hike from Asheville to Paris.” And she confesses that she has never been much of a Bible reader – “I have often shrugged off the Bible as tedious and alien.”
But over and over again, during the section of the book called “Movement,” Winner is following the church calendar, attending services with friends, reading the Bible in new places, saying prayers – if not actually praying, and in these spiritual habits that she first came to know in the beginning years of her conversion, she finds herself navigating the middle.
. . . the middle is the language of spirituality, of devotion, the language of religious choreography. It is the middle voice that captures the strange ways activity and passivity dance together in the religious life; it is the voice that tells you that I am changed when I do these things and that there is something about me that allows these happenings to happen; and yet it is the voice that insists that there is another agent at work. another agent always vivifying the action, even when unnamed.
In my years as a cancer survivor, I have grown intimately acquainted with the middle. Since I am tested for cancer every three months, I have brief beginnings and brief endings. During the day or two before getting test results, I have a sense that things could change significantly, and in the days just after the results, I am usually relieved or occasionally preparing for more treatment.
All the other days? Middle. Great periods of time when I naturally lean more toward dread than hope, times when I have to force myself to keep living, growing, thriving, or the stagnation might undo me. During these middle days, I have to allow time to pass and keep doing what I’ve always done or the middle changes me and makes my faith untenable.
The Bible is full of instructions and stories and advice on farming and gardening. Sabbath law required fields to lie fallow every seven years, judgment was meted out in vineyards that could be planted but not harvested, exiles were comforted with permission to build house and plant gardens in Babylon.
Jesus particularly loved farming metaphors to describe the kingdom: the man who sold everything to buy a field, the vineyard owner who hired workers to help with the harvest, the seeds sown on different types of soil.
Sometimes in these passages we are called to help with planting, sometimes with watering, often with harvesting, but never is the activity of the middle, the growth, attributed to anyone but God.
I think about this as I water my spinach and pull weeds away from the beet seedlings.
“Grow!” I say to the little shoots sticking out of the dirt.
Then as a prayer to Jesus, I add, “Please?”
And suddenly I realize I’m not talking about spinach anymore.
Photo by Kate Ter Haar, via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons License.