Listening in the Garden and Learning from God

— by Andy Wade –

Hovering honey BeeSometimes things don’t go as you plan. That’s true in the garden, it’s true in daily life, and it’s true in the church. As I’ve worked with Mustard Seed Associates, as I worked as a missionary in Hong Kong, as I’ve worked locally here in Hood River, Oregon with FISH food bank and the Warming Shelter, I’ve noticed something happening. It appears that God is in the process of reorganizing the garden – breaking down the walls between denominations, and creating new partnerships and coalitions for greater Kingdom of God impact in the world.

I’ve been working in my garden a lot this year. One of the things I’ve been experimenting with is the idea of “garden neighborhoods”, that is, intentionally planting different kinds of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers together so there is a synergistic effect, a better and more bountiful harvest. Garden neighborhoods are kind of a spin-off from companion planting. I know a lot of you are probably already familiar with this technique. It amazes me as I watch a dense and diverse garden flourish with a mixture of colors, textures, and smells in such a way that good bugs are attracted, bad bugs are repelled, and soil is amended for the benefit of all the plants. I’ve even noticed that often the vegetables taste better when planted in neighborhoods rather than in sections that are all one type of plant.

Sunflower in gardenOur garden is organic and, except for an aphid outbreak earlier in the year, I haven’t had much in the way of problems following this cozy gardening method. In fact, I’ve been enjoying the garden so much that each year more and more lawn disappears, making way for a new bed, a new neighborhood. I’m to the point now that I want to redesign the whole backyard so that I can use the space more effectively, possibly even incorporating a prayer labyrinth or some other tool for encouraging prayer and reflection. But at this point to make the changes I envision will be a lot of work. I know the outcome will be wonderful. But I’m not sure I want to put that much time and effort into the changes.

I believe God is in the process of building new garden neighborhoods like Anawim Christian Community, The Parish Collective network, The Church of the Beloved, and exciting new events like the Wild Goose Festival, Inhabit Conference, Creative World Festival, and It’s not that what has gone before is bad, or necessarily even out-dated. But as new communities are formed and revitalized, like the garden neighborhood, we begin to discover synergistic effects: new life, more energy, unexpected growth, and a beauty that surpasses anything we could grow independently of one another. It’s kind of like Jesus talking about new wine being poured into old wineskins, what a mistake that would be because the old wineskin is no longer flexible and would burst as the new wine matured.

But this kind of renewal, this kind of re-birth, takes work. The early church was experiencing growing pains as God was moving Jews and Gentiles into a new, growing neighborhood. It would have been simpler and much easier just to grow Jewish Christians in one garden and Gentile Christians in another and Samaritan Christians in yet another garden. But God, in his wisdom, chose a more profound and beautiful way.

And this beautiful way is the Church, the ecclesia of God, the Body of Christ. God continues to do companion planting. But I think it might even be bigger than that. One of the issues faced in gardening is that, if you plant the same plants in the same location long enough, the soil begins to go bad; pests and diseases that prey specifically on those plants move in, and their development and fruitfulness gradually diminishes. In our human wisdom we came up with toxic pesticides and fertilizers that worked for a while. But now we’re learning that they actually kill off life in the garden, damage the soil, and even enter and damage our bodies. God has a better way, the way he created life to interact, grow, and be fruitful.

In the garden, one of the ways to overcome this problem is to rotate crops. Where once we planted beans, peppers, and potatoes, we now plants from the cabbage family. Where the tomatoes, basil and carrots were, we now plant lettuce, spinach, and chard. And sprinkled throughout for splashes of color and pest control we have marigolds, calendula, and nasturtiums.

Since God created both the garden and the church, it doesn’t surprise me that a similar kind of crop-rotation in necessary in the church. God often steps in and stirs up the church, mixes things, rattles our cages, to reinvigorate the soil of our hearts. It takes planning and work. It takes cooperation and patience. It takes imagination and creativity. And, like new wineskins, it takes flexibility. The Apostle Paul uses a gardening metaphor in his first letter to the Corinthian church:
“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.”

Now here’s the funny thing; when it comes to the ecclesia garden, the church, we can be planted and watered and still not grow. Sometimes we grow well for a while, then plateau. Perhaps we’ve been planted in the same spot for too long. Or possibly we’ve been doing the same thing over and over, just tweaking its appearance or giving it a new, more exciting name. Perhaps we’ve resisted the idea of a new neighborhood because we know that kind of change takes a lot of work. It’s easier to go with the quick-fix: dump some chemical fertilizers and pesticides on it to artificially prolong its life.

But one of the really important spiritual lessons I’ve learned from the garden is this: I’m not just growing things for my family to eat in a couple of months; I’m also preparing the soil so that each year it’s healthier, stronger, and more fertile for growing things in the future, even for those who will plant the garden long after I’ve moved on.

It’s the same with the church. What we’re doing today may or may not always be exciting. But we also have to ask ourselves, what are we doing today that is laying a strong foundation for the ecclesia of tomorrow? All of this is founded on how we work together with Christ and with each other today.

How is your garden growing?
Where have you seen God re-arranging your garden for healing, health, and greater harvest?

Take some time this week to sit in a garden. It might be your own, it might be a community garden or even a park. Pray, listen, dream, imagine. How might God stir up your community for Kingdom purposes that you hadn’t even imagined before?

Let us know – we’d love to hear your stories!

Learn more about The Spirituality of Gardening by ordering Christine Sine’s Book, To Garden with God, or arrange a Spirituality of Gardening seminar at your church or organization.