When I was growing up in the red clay hills of eastern Georgia, my parents believed firmly in the value of a big garden.
We lived on four acres of land. The house and yard took up about a third of that. The garden comprised an acre or so. Most of the rest was wooded and fenced in, with enough goats to keep the undergrowth under control and to provide meat for the freezer.
I hated the garden.
I liked most of what came out of it, especially the corn and butterbeans, peas and potatoes, but I did not enjoy either planting, weeding, watering, or harvesting.
I recognize now that my father did the hardest work, plowing and preparing the rows with a heavy walk-behind garden tractor. When we planted, he’d dig the holes and we’d come behind dropping seeds or tomato plants.
But the weeds grew as fast as the vegetables, and it took all of us to keep up with them.
Chopping Bermuda grass was the worst. My middle brother and I spent many hours in the hot sun with hoes that were too big for us, trying to dig out the grass while not digging up the peas and butterbeans.
Mainly, we were trying to finish as quickly as possible so we could go back to playing in the shade.
The first time I “got my bell rung” was on one of those days. Both of us were mad about having to be out working in the sun, so it didn’t take much to spark an argument.
We took to throwing dirt clods at each other, which were mainly harmless until my brother flung one directly at my head. It turned out to be a dirty rock rather than a dirt clod, and he had a good arm. When it hit me right above the ear, I clearly heard a bell ring.
I would have cursed that garden if I hadn’t been taught that such words would put me in danger of hell fire, and I often declared that when I grew up, I would never plant a garden.
Now, of course, I wish we could do that very thing. Vegetables always taste better when you’ve had something to do with raising them.
We do what we can on our little fifth of an acre, half of which is occupied by the house. We have three raised beds on one side just below the fig tree, and we extended a flower bed into the front yard far enough to make space for a few short rows.
It’s enough to plant a sampling of green beans and squash, tomatoes and bell peppers and okra. Last year, we planted black-eyed peas straight from the dried bean section of the grocery store, and they did very well.
Weeds are manageable, but we have a robber’s den of voles that love to tunnel into the garden and eat the roots of our plants, especially the bell peppers. I’ve tried turning the hose into their exit holes and drowning them out, but they just laugh at me.
It’s tempting to use poison, but that’s a cruel death even for varmints, and a potential danger for our neighbor’s cat, who likes to stalk them but rarely catches one unaided.
We discovered a repellent consisting of something like sawdust infused with castor oil. It has kept them out of the peppers so far, but they just moved into the yard.
We also struggle with blossom-end rot, which plagues our squash and zucchini. Following advice from garden stores and websites, we add powdered calcium to the soil every year along with material from our compost bin. We have tried spraying a liquid version on the leaves. For a while, I saved our eggshells, boiled them, and poured that around the plants.
This year, we found another website claiming the problem is not a lack of calcium, but a lack of water to get the calcium into the plant, so we installed a couple of rain barrels and keep a hose handy so we can make sure they don’t go dry without wasting too much city water.
So far, at least half of the young squash are still shriveling up and dropping off before they get three inches long.
It’s frustrating, especially since the money we spend on fertilizer, supplements, and vole repellent could buy a nice box full of vegetables at the farmers market.
But, we persist. It’s what we do.
If I should dare to compare – and I dare because, why not? I can’t help but think about how much this reminds me of the spiritual gardens we call churches.
We want them to grow and be healthy and produce fruit, whether we’re thinking of adding new believers or seeing “spiritual fruit” among current members.
We do everything we can think of to overcome obstacles and make that happen. We get advice from consultants, spend money on new resources, and encourage congregants to get involved and do their part.
We may see some growth, some positive fruit from our efforts.
Experience teaches, however, that nothing we do will stop the weeds of the world from competing with the kingdom vision, or the subversive voles of distorted theologies from gnawing at the roots of Jesus’ teaching, or the blossom-end rot of our own apathy from stalling healthy growth.
But we persist, don’t we? We keep planting. We keep weeding and watering and praying for a harvest.
It’s our calling. What else can we do?
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.