As in the case of so many around the world, when all of the things closed just before the Spring of 2020, I was driven towards one of the few doors that remained open: mainly those of the garden centers. We traded for garden boxes and soil, and I planted flowers and herbs and tomatoes, most of which were lost when the Oregon wildfires blew in our direction. Nevertheless, the gardening bug had bit, and I happened to be married to a man who, among his many admirable qualities, worked at a large garden center.
Last year, knowing approximately 5% more than I did the previous year, I planted a “Lamenting Garden.” Standing sentry amidst color spots, roses, pollinators, herbs, and pots of determined tomatoes, were Weeping Cherry, and fragrant Lilac trees, a beautiful and resilient short Takeyama Japanese Maple, and a tall Weeping Cedar of Lebanon. We hung chimes in their thin branches, so that there would be music when the wind whispered through their leaves. In one corner of the garden, I crammed Water Lilies and Hostas around a small pond of goldfish. Across the drive, overlooking the valley, we added seating and a fire pit. I found solar lights for a dollar and sprinkled them throughout the garden so that it would look like stars had fallen to the ground after nightfall. There was a frequently used bird bath and a not so frequently used bee house that our toddler delighted in regardless.
Off and on, over the spring and summer, I would open the camera on my phone and walk around, recording moments of birth, life, death, and even resurrection, as dead seed transformed into new life around the garden. The practice seemed so simple, so primal, and so necessary in the face of a global catastrophe that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Scientists have said that the act of placing our hands in the soil releases endorphins, the medical community has long espoused the benefits of sunlight, and, of course, plants filter and clean our oxygen, and there is something to be said for the health benefits of home-grown food. But I found myself engaging the Garden for different reasons. By semi-intentionally, and then with great intentionality, planting a Lamenting Garden, every sense was invited to participate in the most ancient of spiritual practices—to walk with God in a garden, and to bear witness with and of creation. And if that were all, if the Lamenting Garden brought me back only to the place of Creation’s inexplicable joy, as well as the place of its first sorrow, that would be enough. But, in my walks through the Garden, I recalled a second garden, the Garden where Word Made Flesh walked, and cried, and sweated blood, and prayed, and invited his friends to be with him in his sorrow… and I found myself in that Garden too.
In my work with pastors and churches, I find myself frequently wondering what church looks after we emerge from the frozen winter of the pandemic. Church leadership has already begun to weed out programs and services that are structured to rely on large leadership and volunteer teams. The meaning of church attendance is being redefined with many services being streamed online and congregations are reimagining opportunities for meaningful engagement. Additionally, many congregations have realized that they can no longer avoid engaging in critical conversations. In the coming months and years, these congregations will have to decide to either enter these conversations with humility or to yield their space and influence to those willing to do the work that accountability and repentance require.
There are a lot of uncertainties right now… and a lot of opportunities to yield to the overwhelming weight of a broken world and the participatory work of transformation. I have hope in the resilient pastors, the persistent church planters, and in the many, many individuals I know who have dared to plant and prepare in the midst of the pandemic winter because they believed in the promise of spring. The plethora of creative material that has sprung up from the solitude of the last two years, including Three-Fifths Magazine, has been astounding. I look at the upcoming generation, as well as those who “dream dreams and see visions,” those that have heard the Spirit’s call to walk in the Garden, to dig deeply, and to breathe deeply, and to participate equally in the lament and the celebration of creation during this season, and I have hope because those who walk in a garden know when spring is coming.
By Naphtali Renshaw