Work with Your Hands

I don’t mind confessing that my hands hurt. This morning, I spent several hours trying to make some semblance of order in my mother’s disaster of a backyard. Then, after a trip to Costco, we did a couple of tasks in the garden. First, we weighed the eight rabbits that we bought this week. One of the beasts drew blood as I held it for a close and rather personal inspection. That rabbit, which we affectionately dubbed #4, is female if you’re curious.

Having finished the warmup acts, Penny and I attacked the main event. She wants to set out her tomato plants tomorrow and she wasn’t happy with the support system that we had installed. The new arrangement involved pulling up ten t-posts and re-setting eight of them. Then we arched three cow panels, sixteen-foot-long grids of heavy welded wire and attempted to wire them to the posts. The idea seems fairly simple. It turned out rather complicated, and I’m pretty sure that our procedure was not the most efficient we could have followed.

Now my back aches from pounding in posts and my fingers ache from twisting wire. I also smell a little ripe as the day is warm. And did I mention that I was wounded in action trying to handle a rabbit?

It is at moments like this that I understand why both of my grandfathers, born toward the end of the 19th century, made their way from the farming that had supported their ancestors back into the mists of history and toward anything else. These men, when they were on the farm, would have laughed at my day as a light load.

So why would I, a person who doesn’t have to do heavy lifting outside, choose to encounter these chores. I understand that lots of well educated people piddle in the garden, but most of them don’t wrestle with cow panels. They wrestle with hosta bulbs.

There’s something to be said for being physically tired at the end of the day, to have your work involve less email and more perspiration. In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul gives some instructions for daily life to his readers:

But we encourage you, brothers and sisters, to do this even more, to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you.–1 Thessalonians 4:10-11

Work with your own hands. I like that, even though I’ve pretty much always earned my living throughout my life by jobs far from manual labor. Was Paul a fool, urging people to take on mundane jobs? Was he encouraging the Thessalonians to settle for less than they could be if they engaged in some extracurricular activities and studied for the SAT?

My colleagues at school think that I’m underselling my talents raising rabbits and putting in a large garden. They also think I’m being foolish investing my writing skills creating children’s Bible study curriculum. But that is the work of these hands.

The Tip of the Spear

I have asparagus! Over a month ago, I mentioned that I had planted 18 asparagus crowns in a row out on the edge of our yard. Yesterday, I saw the first sign of life from those plants. When I say I have asparagus, I more accurately have only one plant definitely growing, but that is asparagus. I’m confident that the others will come along presently. And some of those that sprout later might wind up producing far more spears for me. Who knows?

Who knows indeed. Last night, I scanned that asparagus trench looking for more of the little fern-like fingers poking up amidst the clover and bluegrass that lap over into the dirt. I didn’t find any more, but I’m convinced that within a few days, more shoots will be above the ground. I’m convinced that by summer’s end, I’ll have all 18 plants growing. Maybe it’ll be fewer, but I have a hope for 18.

Gardening is an act of delayed gratification. You place a seed into soil and wait for it to sprout. You then carefully nurture it, believing that it will grow. When it’s nearly time to set that plant out into the wild, open world of the garden, you expose the plants to the sun for a few hours over several days to harden them off, believing that the sun and the wind won’t destroy them. Then you put them into the garden bed prepared for them, train them up, keep pests off, pull weeds, and, perhaps 80 days later, you begin to pluck fruit.

Some vegetables yield more quickly. I’m convinced that you can plant radishes in the morning and harvest in the evening. Others take nearly the entire season, but all of them require time and hope. You bury something in the ground, you place it outside where all manner of things can attack it, you invest your time in caring for it, and all the while you believe that there will be tomatoes or squash or beans or something good produced. Paul could have been speaking of gardening when he wrote this:

So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.–2 Corinthians 4:18

There’s a parable in my single asparagus plant. I felt joy when I saw that frail, ferny stalk emerging from the soil. That joy, however, is just a tiny glimmer of the joy (and good food) that will eventually follow from that row of plants. More profoundly, all the blessings of today are a down payment on the incalculable riches that await us in eternity.

We plant. We wait. We have hope, and the outcome will be amazing. And until that day comes, at least we can grill some asparagus.

Seeds of Change

Seeds are amazing. Henry David Thoreau, not usually known as a friend to orthodox belief, spoke truth about seeds: “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed.” A single tomato seed can grow into a single plant that will put on up to 200 fruit–tomatoes are fruit, by the way–each of which contains 150 or more seeds. A typical tomato plant might yield 40 pounds of edibles and 30,000 potential new plants. Plus the vines of the plant will grow huge, requiring some sort of support for the best production and health.

And that’s really nothing compared to the mustard seed. Jesus famously compares the kingdom of God to that seed:

He presented another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It’s the smallest of all the seeds, but when grown, it’s taller than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.”–Matthew 13:31-32

I have to admit that, as one of the enlightened people who prefers mustard on his hot dogs, I was disappointed to learn that the mustard plant Jesus refers to here is not the one that French’s and others use to make that delightful yellow condiment. Instead, the plant referred to here is most likely the salvadora persica, the so-called toothbrush bush. These plants can grow as tall as 20 feet, which would certainly qualify it as “taller than the garden plants.” Its seed looks like dust.

Some proud academics, it seems, have discovered seeds that are actually smaller than Jesus’ mustard seed. Obviously this passage should said, “It’s the smallest of all the seeds, except for an orchid on a continent that you haven’t yet discovered and the size of which you won’t have the tools to measure for a couple thousand years.” Might it be that those who gleefully point out that the mustard seed is not actually the smallest of all the world’s seeds have missed the point? If so, then what is the point?

  • The kingdom of God starts out as a small thing, but it can grow into something really large.
  • The kingdom of God doesn’t look like much at the outset, but it can become something remarkable. (That’s really another way of saying the first item.)
  • The kingdom of God, when fully grown, will bless others–as in the birds of the sky who nest there.

But I am left with a question. Who who is the man who sowed this seed in his field? Does the man represent the person who has sought the kingdom of God, as in Matthew 6:33, or is it God Himself doing the planting? In the previous parable, the wheat and tares, the farmer was God. I’m not sure here, though, if we are being called to plant it in ourselves or if God is doing the planting.

What do you think?

Spears from Pruning Hooks

This afternoon found me on my knees. Was I in my closet taking my deepest thoughts to the Lord? No, I was out in our garden, planting asparagus. Asparagus is a marvelous crop. Plant it once and, properly maintained, it ought to keep bearing for at least twenty years. If that’s accurate, then the 18 plants I placed in the trench today should be yielding spears of goodness until I’m nearly 80.

There’s an old joke about planting. “When is the best time to plant a tree?” “Twenty years ago.” By that logic, the best time to plant asparagus is probably two or three years ago. That means that to have the stuff on my plate this year, I’ll need to hit the market.

To get the new plants started, I had to dig a trench about six inches deep. The hardest part of that was keeping the trench running straight. From there, I separated the plants. They looked like some sort of alien squid creatures, the sort of thing that looks cute in the movies until it fixes itself to your face and sucks your brain out.

I placed those individual plants at 18-inch intervals and covered each with a few inches of dirt. That’s when I found myself on my knees. Once those were planted, I doused the whole row with the hose and waited for the spears of asparagus to appear above ground. So far, they haven’t. Two years from now, I’m hoping to see edible growth.

Had I waited until next year to plant, of course, I’d be looking another year down the road. While my patience is limited, I’m glad that the plants are on the clock now. Ecclesiastes 11:4 underscores the folly of delay:

One who watches the wind will not sow,
and the one who looks at the clouds will not reap.

If that were being written today, might it point to those who watch Netflix or look at the grocery ads? I don’t know.

We find all manner of reasons to delay the things we ought to do. Right now, having been behind on grading for weeks, I’m caught up but facing a writing deadline that will have me at the computer all this week. I finally broke down and bought a new lawnmower today so that I can get onto that job.

But it was that work on my knees that I’ve really been putting off. Now I’m not talking about crawling around the garden but about spending my time with God. If I don’t sow in that manner, I can’t hope to reap.

I have plenty of time for prayer as I wait for the first harvest-worthy asparagus spears to emerge from the soil.

The Rumpelstiltskin Effect

If it is possible to spin gold out of straw, a la Rumpelstiltskin, we are well equipped, with fifty square bales of wheat straw piled up next to our garden area. Penny is determined to plant the bulk of the garden in these bales. The process might be something that I’ll take up at a later date, but today, I would like to consider the idea of turning straw into gold, or, as Dire Straits sang, “Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free.”

After we took delivery of the bales, Penny felt some concern. We dropped $350 on these things. Straw bales, it turns out, are not cheap. At some point, we have to think about spending more time and money on the growing of vegetables than on what those things would have cost at the grocery store or farmer’s market. Have we reached that point?

You can’t plant your artichokes in the middle of the grass, so we have to do something to prepare a bed for planting. We could spade it up by hand, which is a titanic undertaking and sure to leave our backs aching for days. We could buy a rototiller, which is probably not the best way to prepare a bed and would run us about as much as the straw bales if not more. We could build raised beds, which would involve a good deal of lumber plus some trucked-in soil, plus a lot of work. The bottom line is that there is no free lunch–or at least no free bed to plant your lunch veggies into.

We can’t magically turn those straw bales into a side of beef. We can’t even get an unreasonable amount of vegetables from our seeds. But we can get plenty, even after investing a fair bit. Proverbs warns us about trying to turn straw into gold.

Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty. A faithful man will abound with blessings, but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.–Proverbs 28:19-20

Similarly, when we’re in too big a hurry, when we’re looking to get rich quick–whether those riches be in gold or in asparagus–we’re behaving foolishly.

Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.–Proverbs 13:11

If we’ve been wise with this approach to planting, then the harvest will be plentiful. It won’t make us rich, but it will yield a profit. And when the season is done, the straw will have composted, leaving our soil richer and better prepared for next year.

We’ll keep you updated.Square Hay Bales.

First Step to Bountiful

Tomato seeds have officially sprouted! Lettuce also. Yesterday, it was just dirt. This morning, there were two little tomato sprouts. Now, we have tiny plants popping up in every tray. It’s the miracle of life!

Who claims the credit for this marvel? Me? Not hardly. I had nothing to do with it. Yes, as noted earlier, I did pick up the package from the front porch when it arrived, but I did not prepare any trays, plant any seeds, or even control the grow lights. Instead, my amazing wife deserves all the credit.

Simply having seeds is not enough. We have to plant those seeds. We have to care for them, water them, and all that sort of stuff. They might keep us waiting for some time, but eventually, they will burst forth into life. In time, they’ll also burst forth into edible stuff: fruit, leaves, and so forth. But it all starts with the planting, the sowing.

Paul speaks to this in 2 Corinthians 9:6:

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

Our intention this year is to sow bountifully–not just in our garden but in our wider life. We intend that, but the flesh, as we know, is weak.

I’ll keep you updated on the progress of our garden. Get ready for bounty.