Dying to Live

Over the last several months I have handled seeds of all shapes and sizes. All of them appeared to be lifeless and could easily have been confused with an element of soil or compost. But at the core of each is a living entity just waiting to be awakened through death—awakened to produce fruit and to reproduce many more seeds. Jesus connected this process to the spiritual life:

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.” (John 12:24-25)

Most of us want to leave a lasting impact in the world. We want to reproduce ourselves and our vision and to leave something significant behind. Jesus is telling us that the only way to do this is through sacrificial self-giving. This is like planting yourself as a seed in fertile soil. We often resist this sort of thing, claiming that we just don’t have time, fearing that it will spread us too thin. And perhaps this might be true—it can be a bit like dying—but it is in such unselfish acts that we plant a lasting legacy, that we reproduce our hope in the world. It is through such acts that we become Christ’s presence for others.

Where do you begin? It might start by you giving up some of your favorite  activities to share that time with a needy person. Or it may mean sharing your favorite activities with others. A golfer might share a round with an elderly neighbor or a lonely teen. Gardeners might share the joys of gardening with children in the neighborhood, perhaps starting with their own. Volunteer at a community garden and share your expertise with neighbors. Volunteer at a food pantry, tutor kids at an after-school program, coach kids in the sport you love as part of a local youth league, pick up trash in a local park and ask your neighbors to help. The list of possibilities is endless. God will show you what to do if you listen. Just take the time to intentionally plant yourself. Ask God Himself to plant you. Then watch to see the miracles that God will do in and around your life. The alternative really isn’t worth entertaining:

Jesus said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?” (Luke 9:23-25)

The peace prayer of Francis of Assisi concludes with a good summary of these thoughts and reminds us that there are blessings for those who offer themselves as a blessing to others.

“It is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”

Garden Tip: Take the time to plant with others. Open up a bed in your garden for your children or other children in the neighborhood. Open their eyes to the mundane miracles so often overlooked in our busy world—the miracles that come from planting seeds and watching them grow to reproduce themselves. If possible, participate in a community garden, where you can share your wisdom and love with others. Plant vegetables with the express goal of sharing the produce with people who need it. In so doing, you will plant your life among those who need to hear from God. He will speak through your acts of self giving.

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Dandelions

I write in celebration of the dandelion—that paragon of joyful exuberance, reproductive prowess, and neighborhood contention! It’s the sunny face of spring, a sign of unstoppable fecundity—but, oh, such a wellspring for anger and frustration!

They say that good fences make good neighbors. This is certainly true in many ways, but I haven’t yet seen a fence that can stop the movement of dandelion parachutes dancing on a breeze. I often smile as I drive down a neighborhood street in spring and see the landscapes shift back and forth between lawns of deep green and those of yellow punctuated with tufts of white. And I can sense the seething frustration in the keeper of the green lawn, knowing how as the season extends, dandelions will sprout throughout his sea of green, threatening the life of the solemnly tended grass. And I can sense the response of the cultivator of dandelions, defending the right to preserve the wildness, the nutritious greens, the sunny yellow faces, the dancing parachutes, or perhaps declaring freedom from pesticides or just an inordinate amount of weed pulling.

I understand the conflict; I struggle with it in my own mind and garden. Sometimes I look on dandelions as I did as a child—sunny yellow blossoms, buttons of pure joy, just waiting to be woven into a garland to grace someone’s head; a ball of white parachutes docked neatly in a lacy globe, just waiting to be dispersed on the wind with a gentle blow. And I bolster these thoughts with an adult celebration of wildness, including the knowledge that the blossoms attract beneficials like lady bugs and that the bitter greens make an extremely nutritious addition to my salads.

But then I remember how quickly dandelions multiply to dominate my lawn and garden, how they overshadow the grass until it slowly dies away. I remember that they can easily live up to their name (a corruption from French dent de lion, i.e., “tooth of lion”—referring to the jagged, tooth-like edges on the leaves), overwhelming other living things in their shadow. I remember that they are more fetching sprinkled on a backdrop of green grass than being the primary ingredient of the lawn. And I remember the sweat required to dig enough to keep them under control, or how my stomach turns as I spread an herbicide when the grass and I become overwhelmed.

The work of gardening and cultivation includes cooperating with nature, but that doesn’t mean complete acquiescence to all its forces. Weeds are weeds because they can survive just fine even when everyone is out to kill them. Even the best of weeds need to have some boundaries, especially when living in small spaces. And many of the most beautiful plants that grace our gardens need our protection from their hardier, wild botanical relatives. A few thoughts to take away:

  • Some of the most beautiful gifts in life go unappreciated because of the biases and preconceptions we bring to them. Sometimes we need to check our prejudices to receive the good things right before our eyes.
  • A gift in overabundance is not much of a gift at all. Often a good thing becomes a bad thing because there’s just too much of it.
  • As much as we’d love to control everything in life, we cannot. Sometimes it’s best to lift our eyes toward heaven and smile. Use the gift of dandelions to remind you that the Creator is really in control. The only path to true joy is in recognizing and embracing that fact.
  • In all areas of life, a balance must be struck—a mysterious intertwining of control and relinquishment, of striving and trust, of works and faith. God has called us to be gardeners from the very beginning, a calling that requires us to be, on one hand, directive toward creation, and on the other, subservient and cooperative with it.

Garden Tip: Embrace wildness—at least a little. Allow, even plan for, the presence of some dandelions in your space and learn to rejoice in their presence. Celebrate with a yellow garland or by blowing white parachutes into the wind or by eating a nutritious salad of “lion’s tooth” greens. Plant a dandelion variety with large leaves in your salad garden. If you have a large meadow area, just let them take over along with other wild native plants. But if you live in a close neighborhood of small gardens, remain a gardener. Keep the dandelions at least somewhat under control—for the beauty of the garden and for the love of your neighbors. 🙂 For a good article on additional benefits and control methods for dandelions, take a look here. For some thoughts on weeds more generally, look here.

Cost of Living

There are things we all remember—images, events, words etched on our memories by the trauma of a moment—a moment that leaves one changed forever. Here is such an event, such a moment, for me.

I was twelve, or thereabouts, and as is common for a boy that age, I was asked to participate in the slaughter. We were taking part in a community celebration, and the celebration required food. The meat on the menu was goat, so the goat had to be killed. Being called upon to help was an honor, something my sisters were not asked to do. And so I went happily to the slaughter.

My job was to hold the goat’s head still while its throat was being slit. Since I didn’t have to do the cutting, I wasn’t worried about what was about to take place. I had often participated in the killing of chickens. But my job here put me right over the action, and a goat is significantly bigger and somehow different from a chicken. What followed left its mark.

I was in Africa, where I spent my childhood and youth, and this sort of thing is commonplace. Without refrigeration, meat is generally kept “on the hoof” and only slaughtered when it’s about to be cooked. How often we arrived at someone’s home for dinner, and as we sat down, the children were sent out to catch the chicken that would soon be our meal. Going out to eat could easily be an all-day affair.

As we began, the goat was lying on its side, with its feet tied together. I was holding it still with my hands on its side, its chest quietly heaving. It was still quiet, but its eyes showed fear. The man in charge of the slaughter took its head by the horns, stretched its neck backward and pushed its horns into the ground, leaving its throat taught and exposed. I was then asked to grab one of the horns and keep them firmly in the ground, with my other hand steadying the animal’s shoulder.

Then the slaughterer took a sharp knife and quickly found the ideal spot and unceremoniously cut deep into the neck. Suddenly the relative calm and quiet turned violent. The body beneath my hand began to struggle violently, the brown eyes went wide and white around the edges, and its cries—ah, the cries!—tore through the air. The sound didn’t come from its mouth, but from the slit in its throat, a gurgling, struggling, hopeless cry—a sound forever painted on my mind. And with the writhing body came the blood, pumping outward in warm gushes over my fingers, my hand, onto the dust of the ground.

As the spurts of blood dwindled, the guttural, gurgling cries softened, and the jerking struggle quietened, I watched the warm brown eyes as they slowly gave up their light. Then all was still, silent. The eyes were glassy and lifeless. In the quiet after the storm, I found myself pale and shaking. Such was the price for a feast. Over the following hours of roasting, cooking, feasting, there was laughter and conversation. The shakiness gave way to fun and games as we ran and chased the day away.

But I was left with a new realization—my life costs something. Something dear is given daily for our joy, our sustenance. And now I always wonder: Is what I bring to the table worthy of the cost? Or would the many daily sacrifices made on my behalf be better left unoffered? How many such gifts do I take for granted? How many do I fail to notice and fail to give thanks for? (I am not arguing for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle here, though there are clearly merits to such a path.)

In a society where we hide the real costs of our luxuries—even of our necessities—where meat comes to the kitchen wrapped in Styrofoam and cellophane (or, at best, in newspaper), not still warm with recently pumped blood and with the sounds and smells of death still in the air, can we have any idea of the cost or value of our lives? Do we pay attention to the costs that some other person or creature has to pay for our own joy and sustenance? I know most of us go through life blithely (and foolishly) unaware. I know that I am often blind, deaf, and ignorant of the consequences of so many of my actions—even actions considered by most to be good and necessary.

And if there is a painful cost to even the everyday necessities of life, how much more is the cost of willful sins. The account of Adam and Eve’s sin in the book of Genesis ends with a small but significant detail: “And the LORD God made clothing from animal skins for Adam and his wife” (Genesis 3:21). Some creature had to die to cover the shame of the first man and woman.

May God give me eyes to see and ears to hear the cries of every creature that suffers to make my joy and sustenance possible. Not so that I will reject all joy—only so I may count the costs wisely and be truly grateful for all I receive. And may I be careful to minimize the trouble I bestow on others, whether through everyday duties or through selfish and willful sin.

Garden Tip: If the laws of your community allow it, add domesticated animals to the life of your garden. Ducks and chickens can help to rid you of various insect pests and provide a good source of manure for your compost pile.  They are also a good source for meat and eggs. A few sheep or goats can keep an extensive meadow or lawn clipped quite short, along with providing manure, meat, and milk. As you draw life from these creatures, and as you have occasion to take a life to provide food for your family, reflect on the true cost laid out so graphically before you. Remember also that sin has painful consequences for all those close to you, to your heavenly Father who loves you, along with all other members of His good creation. Seek ways to be a blessing to others rather than a curse.

Mustard Seeds and Other Small Beginnings

Each year I plant mustard greens in my garden to add zest to my salads. But as the days warm, you have to stay alert with this hardy garden annual. The plants quickly bolt, and if you let the seeds get away, they bounce all over the garden. Then for several years you’ll wrestle with mustard seedlings all over the place. If you collect the seeds before bursting their pods, they can be crushed to make the condiment so common in cooking and sandwich making.

A related plant, garlic mustard, has a distinctive garlic aroma and taste. It was brought to North America as a salad herb, but it has gotten away from everyone! In the spring, many roadsides and streamsides are dominated by this hardy biennial. In its second year, it grows about three feet tall in optimal conditions and blooms with white flower heads in spring. By early summer, it’s spraying its seeds for the next year’s seedlings. It’s constantly trying to invade my garden.

Jesus was also intrigued by the mustard plant and its seeds, and he compared it to the Kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32). The species of mustard Jesus certainly had in mind is the black mustard, one of the largest of the mustard species, and common in the Middle East even today.

The seeds of all mustard plants are tiny and round, much like all seeds for plants in the brassica family. Though there are smaller seeds in existence, the mustard seed is certainly very small. The black mustard plant is quite large and puts up a very tall stalk (often around 5 metres or 16 feet in height), which blooms at the top. Each plant produces a large number of seed pods, which broadcast the seeds near and far when the seed pods dry out and break. Birds do often perch on the branches and take part in shaking the seeds out. The branches from the center stalk are certainly strong enough to support a bird’s nest.

So how is the Kingdom of God like a mustard seed? Most manifestations of God’s Kingdom have small beginnings—in a person’s heart, in a family, in a community. But then they quickly grow and multiply in the hands of God. For us all, what we have to offer to God and other people is really only small in the larger scheme of things. But we can find peace in the knowledge that even one small gift can be made to grow large and then multiply into thousands—when it is offered to God in faith. That gift only needs to be given, just as a seed needs to be planted, not unlike the five loaves and two fish once offered by a young boy to Jesus (John 6:1-14).

Jesus also used the mustard seed to talk about faith: “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible” (Matthew 17:20). He was saying that we need only a very little faith to accomplish wonders through the power of God. Oh, that we had even such small faith! If we did, the world could be a different and better place. And truly, by planting the small faith we have through frail acts of sacrificial love, God can grow His unstoppable Kingdom and the world can become a different and better place.

We should not hold back just because the best we have to offer is only small—like a mustard seed. That is the best anyone has ever had to offer.

Garden Tip: Plant some mustard greens to spice up your salads. When they go to flower, pick the flowers to add both flavor and color to your salads. The green seed pods can also be used to spice up your salads and other cooked vegetables. The greens are also excellent steamed. And you may just want to let some of the seeds mature and drop. As you watch the seedlings appear throughout the season and the following spring, you will remember how God can take whatever you plant and multiply it in amazing ways for the good of His Kingdom.

Watersheds

We sense it in times of flood, when the water runs high over the ground. We look upstream to see where the water is coming from, then downstream to see where it is flowing. We look upstream as we watch the flotsam roll in over our ground, and then wonder where our own garbage will end up. When we see the movement of water over our land, we are reminded of a truth: No matter how isolated we may feel in our place, we are always connected to others.

It is difficult to find a good map that marks off watersheds. Centuries ago, rivers and other waterways dominated our maps. Waterways were an important mode of transport, while also being a significant deterrent to travel. It was tough to cross them without a bridge or ferry. They also marked the flow of water through a region, and a careful study of the rivers and streams could give one a pretty clear picture of one’s watershed. But today’s maps are dominated by roadways and often ignore the natural features entirely. Most of us aren’t even aware where the water flows.

When I saw a watershed map recently at an outdoor education center, I was struck with my connection to the people both “upstream” and “downstream” of me. (Or could it be “upwind” and “downwind”?) I don’t live along a river, but the runoff from my place goes somewhere, carrying with it whatever resides in my grass and soil, whether weed seeds or pesticides. It ends up in a nearby wetland and then a stream, a river, and eventually an ocean. Fish will swim in it; frogs will sing in it; salamanders will slither in it; perhaps they’ll all die in it. Some of it may find its way into a town’s water system and someone’s drinking glass. What am I gifting the people downstream? And what have I been gifted by the people upstream?

Jesus once said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12; Luke6:31). Most everyone would agree with the wisdom of the golden rule, especially when standing on the suffering side of the equation. But it has often occurred to me that we often aren’t aware of much of the grief we are handing out to the people and other creatures downstream of us. Whether it is the mess in our fields or the brokenness in our hearts, what we do and who we are has a profound effect on the people around us.

  • An angry person tries to bury it deep, but then the anger bursts out in ways that leave wreckage on spouse, children, and friends.
  • An investor buys stock in a company that shows a successful bottom line, but the people downstream of its factory are paying the price in sickness and deformity.
  • Someone allows lust to fester in the heart, turning friendships into idolatrous worship, leading to foolish slips that can echo painfully for generations.
  • An eager shopper buys discounted shoes and T-shirts, not realizing that the rest of the cost was paid by a hungry child in a distant slum with blistered fingers and a back raw from a beating.
  • Some are imprisoned by unhealthy fear and false shame, silencing their voices and rendering useless their desperately needed gifts.
  • Some allow greed to take control, leading to the hoarding of wealth as many people go hungry, even die of starvation.

In one of his sermons, the great Poet John Donne said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of they friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” We are all tied together, even the most isolated of us. Sometimes it is our very silence and isolation that destroys those connected to us. We often sin more gravely with our omissions than with our commissions.

So as you watch a leaf flow by on a stream or seeds blowing on the wind, ask yourself who is standing downstream or downwind of you. And ask if your presence upstream is a blessing or a curse, for either or both can be granted. But if no thought is given, chances are that suffering will come of it. Grace and peace to you as you think on it. And if you don’t think and act well, it could be that the poison you drop will someday pour back on you.

Garden Tip: Be careful about the pesticides and fertilizers you use in your garden and on your lawn. Study how to do things organically. And if you truly believe you must use some of these chemicals, chances are you don’t need nearly as much as is recommended. (The chemical companies would love to sell you more than you need!) Most artificial fertilizers damage the living portion of your soil, the very part that allows continued and sustained fertility. Earthworms and other nearly invisible creatures are easily killed and are no longer available to turn organic matter into plant food. Use compost whenever possible for fertilization, or allow a more diverse lawn, including some clover, that can do some of the work of fixing nitrogen for the grasses. It takes some time and effort to take an organic approach to gardening, but it can be done with some planning and patience.

Onions, Leeks, and Garlic

Oh, and melons and cucumbers, too!

When it comes to cooking just about any savory dish, it is difficult to do much without onions and garlic. Their pungent flavors give life to just about anything. And the fresh aroma of a crisp cucumber or sweet melon is one of the best things about summer. These vegetables and fruits were common in ancient Egypt, where many of the vegetables and fruits we enjoy today were grown in irrigated gardens along the Nile River. As slaves in Egypt, the Israelites grew accustomed to these delicacies. The only trouble was, eating these fruits and vegetables came part and parcel with their enslavement.

And when they were set free, they escaped into the wilderness—and to a restricted diet. In time, they began to remember that there were some delicious things attached to their slavery, and some of the people wanted to return.

The foreign rabble who were traveling with the Israelites began to crave the good things of Egypt. And the people of Israel also began to complain. “Oh, for some meat!” they exclaimed. “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!” (Numbers 11:4-6)

Most sorts of slavery come with a few perks. That’s why it is so easy to become a slave. Whether it’s an addiction or an abusive relationship or some other broken way of life, there are aspects of the situation that draw us and keep us there. And when we finally break free and begin to build a life of freedom, sometimes the small “joys” of our broken lives come calling, and we turn around and head back toward trouble and suffering.

So are you tempted to return to Egypt? Don’t turn around. Keep taking steps forward. Follow the sometimes painful path toward health and freedom. For the ancient Israelites, they had a pillar of cloud and fire to lead them in the right direction. If we look for it, we also can find guidance. In Christ, we are all truly free—free from the power that sin holds over us and free to turn away from the temptation to return. Embrace your freedom. Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

Garden Tip: Plant a garden bed with onions, leeks, and garlic. It is easy to purchase seedlings or sets to start onions, and sets are readily available for garlic. Leeks can easily be purchased as seedlings. Seed is available for all of these and seedlings are easily started in a pot on your window sill. Use these plants to remind you that in Christ, freedom from slavery is yours—and give thanks. And let them alert you to the dangers of “the good things of Egypt”—and remember stay on track toward freedom. If you’re not a planter, cutting up an onion by hand should suffice as a reminder. If you’d rather not deal with onions, plant some cucumbers. They are easy to grow just about anywhere if you have enough sunlight. Train the plants up a fence trellis to keep the fruits clean and to save space.