The Growing Season

May 16th, 2014

Today, people eat locally for a variety of reasons: to support local growers, to choose healthier options, or to reduce their impact on the environment. These are all lifestyle choices, but it used to be simply the way things worked. People had to eat local, because there was no alternative! Now, eating locally takes effort.

It’s getting easier to eat local food all the time. In my own city, we have several local farmers’ markets, which means that we can meet the people who grow our food face-to-face. They often have good ideas for how to prepare the things they grow. More and more restaurants proudly advertise that they buy their food locally. Because the food doesn’t have to travel as far, when we buy locally, we reduce our energy consumption. We can buy food in season, at its most flavorful. And we can support local businesses, which are often run by families who in turn give back to their local communities.

In Bible times, people’s lives were intimately connected to the rhythms of planting and harvesting. Jesus often used metaphors of plants and growing things (Matthew 13), and he often tells his disciples to “be fruitful.” He tells his followers that they can judge a plant by its fruit: grapes are not gathered from thorns, nor figs from thistles (Matthew 7:16).

Jesus’ words cause me to reflect on my own relationship with food and with spiritual disciplines.

In the spring, my attention often turns toward getting outside and getting my hands dirty in an effort to grow more of my own food. Several Saturdays ago, I joined the throngs at a local home improvement store who were drawn out of their homes by the warming weather. I loaded my car with bags of mulch and soil and a few more garden tools. My palate remembered the goodness of home-grown tomatoes. I could imagine the juicy ones that taste like liquid sunshine. My wife and I made plans to hit the farmers’ market the next weekend. This summer, we resolved, we will eat better.

I did all this knowing, though, that my gardening and local-buying efforts are sporadic and half-hearted. It’s easy to dream of being a master gardener when the spring sun is at an angle that makes being outside pleasant. But eventually the sun will be directly overhead in the summer, and the mosquitos will bite, and something will burrow into the stems of my cucumbers, shriveling them on the vine, and multiple weekend church events mean I won’t go to the market or even see my garden until it is covered with weeds and the okra pods are a foot long and tough as leather. This is when I throw in the towel and go to the grocery store and buy something shipped from California or Chile.

There are two lessons for spiritual life that I have learned from my own gardening efforts:

First, in my own spiritual life as in my gardening life, it’s important to remember that the real work is not completed in a single growing season, but over years of practice—including multiple failures. This year we moved our raised beds, because we realized that last season, our sun exposure wasn’t optimal. We let our compost cure longer before we mixed it in with our soil. We learned that some things just aren’t worth the effort of growing this year, but maybe we’ll try them again next year. The same sorts of things are true in my spiritual life: certain spiritual practices (like journaling) didn’t really work for me until I was in a different stage of life. Rather than beating myself up because I couldn’t pray and journal regularly, I left it alone—and came back to it when I was ready. Learning to extend a measure of grace to myself about my discipline is, itself, a lesson in spiritual discipline.

Second, it is a process made easier by a community of shared values, of people who are also working at home-grown spirituality. We’ve learned a lot about gardening from people who have done it much longer than we have. We’ve also learned to appreciate different strategies for achieving the same results, like using worm bins to accelerate composting, or using beer to bait slugs. In the Christian faith, we have millennia-old traditions of spiritual practice from which to draw, but we also have living mentors and allies in the faith who can give advice, and who let us know it’s all going to be okay.

Whether you are just growing a bean in a cup on your windowsill, or whether you are a master gardener, remember that things grow naturally when they are given what they need. Be generous to yourself, and give yourself the space, the sunshine, and the soil you need to be fruitful.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. He blogs at

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