Sowing & Reaping

Interim Minister Rev. Lyn Cox

Blessed is the earth, which brings forth food for all that lives. Blessed is the rain, flowing with the water of life. Blessed is the sun, which calls to grow and which speeds our return to the earth. Blessed is the wind that carries the seed and the mist, the warm and the cool, the new and the returned. May we collaborate with and give thanks for the forces that create and uphold life. Blessed be.

I am a clueless gardener. It might be a little bit of an overstatement to say I like gardening. It might be more accurate to say that I find gardening fulfilling, even though I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. I learn spiritual lessons from gardening, mainly about how I am not in control of the universe. Perhaps because I needed to learn that lesson now more than ever, I made an ambitious plan for this year’s garden. Starting in February, I made lists of plants and I used graph paper to map out how I hoped the garden would look.

Around May 1, my kids and my partner came home from a Department of Agriculture educational event with tomato seedlings in medium-size containers, around which they had planted spinach, beans, peas, and sunflowers. My kids had great luck, and soon we had little plants ready to be put into the ground. The spinach couldn’t make the transition, but the other plants looked promising. I re-drew my maps.

Under the general category of “I am not in control of the universe,” I have learned a few corollary lessons so far this summer. Lesson One: squirrels love tomatoes. In past years, when I grew cherry tomatoes, I could harvest some before they were snatched up. This year’s crop of lovely, disease-resistant, full-sized heirloom tomatoes proved to be irresistible to our local furry friends. Lesson Two: When you let children plant seeds, they will definitely put more than one seed in every hole. What I thought would be three sunflower seedlings turned into six tall, lovely sunflowers. There were seven, but squirrels like to eat sunflowers almost as much as they love tomatoes. Lesson Three: not all seedlings survive to bear fruit, no matter what you do. The beans had an early crop, then half of the plants died, and the rest needed a month of tender, loving care. All of the pea plants died except one. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we hope.

In late July, as I was deciding if I wanted to plant again for a late harvest or if I wanted to give up, I was reminded of the old aphorism about planting beans: “Sow four seeds as you make your row: one for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow.” In other words, plan for uncertainty. Take chances, knowing not everything we try will bear the fruit we hope for. When the odds are slim, increase your tries.

Hearing this rhyme again helped me get out of the trap of, “Why me?” Gardeners and farmers in many times and places had gone through the disappointment of losing bean seedlings. The saying has some variations, such as replacing “mouse” with “cutworm,” “rook,” or “pigeon.”  There are many ways for a seed to end up as something other than food for humans. Loss does not always arise from lack of effort or character flaw. Sometimes things just don’t pan out. Sometimes you learn from mishaps. The old rhyme pushed me into an experimental mindset, the ability to try new things, or to try again after failure with the full understanding that there are no guarantees. I planted some new beans and peas, along with some radishes and beets, hoping for a late September harvest.

Moving from a focus on failure to a focus on experimentation also helped me to be grateful for the plants that did survive and grow. Nurture what is working well. Give thanks, because spectacular things do not happen through the will of one person alone. If you saw my post about today’s service on Facebook or Twitter, I included a photo of the very first pea that came to maturity in my garden, one beautiful little pod, turning green and plump against very long odds.

This is the essence of some earth-centered holidays that happens around this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere, this holiday of the first harvest and the high summer tinged with the first glimmers of autumn. Some might call this holiday Lammas, which is a holiday about bread, celebrating the first grains of the season being harvested and threshed and ground. Some might call this holiday Lughnasadh (also spelled Lúnasa), after the god Lugh, a god of craftsmanship and many skills. At Lammas, we practice gratitude, we focus on the blessings we do have, and we realize that the earth itself is a more powerful partner than individual human gardeners in bringing about the abundance of the season. We remember sowing the seeds months ago, and we remember that planting is always a gamble, and we collect seeds from this year to use in the spring. When something bears fruit, we plan to use that experience in the future, we share the credit and the harvest, and we put love and artistry into the further work of transformation.

As it turns out, the spirituality of gardening carries with it some ideas that are echoed in science, education, and congregational life. One of my science education role models is Ms. Frizzle from the book and TV series of the 1990’s, “The Magic School Bus.” If you don’t know Ms. Frizzle, ask your nearest children’s librarian. In every book or episode, her students complete research projects about something like magnetism, the solar system, dinosaurs, or the human digestive system. When the students run into a question they can’t answer, Ms. Frizzle proposes a surprise field trip. “To the bus! Seatbelts, everyone!” The bus mysteriously becomes big or small, or travels through time or outer space, or withstands the conditions of a volcano or a waterfall so that the students are able to make observations and answer their scientific questions. Ms. Frizzle always says, “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!” These three instructions are key for the ability of the class to learn new things and to have fun while learning.

Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy. You will hear me say these three things again, because they also speak to a congregation’s opportunities during the Interim Ministry period.

Going back to the spiritual insights of Lammas, we learn at this time of year that we had to take chances. Only one out of four bean seeds in the rhyme led to a harvest. Sowing any kind of seed at all, literal or metaphorical, is a gamble. Not everything turns out the way we hope. Indeed, even as we bring in the first fruits, these are risky times. Sudden storms that cause the crop to rot or drought that invites wildfire are both real possibilities in August. Our inability to control the universe does not mean we are bad or lazy or incomplete. Living life to the fullest, learning and growing, requires a certain degree of risk.

In spiritual community, especially during the golden opportunity of an Interim year, we take chances together. We experiment with new ways of understanding the world, with different ways of worshipping and of doing church. We take the risk of speaking the truth with love. Take chances.

Make mistakes. Ms. Frizzle reminds us that the scientific method involves making a hypothesis and testing it. If we guess right every time, science doesn’t advance as quickly. We have to be willing to be wrong sometimes, and to admit we were wrong so that we can get to the juicy, exciting part of the learning process. We are human beings and we are fallible. Our tendency to make mistakes does not and should not cut us off from human community or from the traditions of spiritual growth or from the disciplines of science and craftsmanship. Humans are welcome in community, broken and whole, flawed and fabulous.

Lugh, the god who is celebrated at Lughnasadh (Lúnasa), is a character of many skills. He’s a warrior and a wheelwright, he’s a musician, he’s an athlete. Even mythical characters have to practice. Getting better at anything, from blacksmithing to gardening to being human, means we have to start out not being very good at it. Fail spectacularly. Fail with gusto. Fail better, and keep learning.

I tried growing beans and peas, and I mostly failed for the first harvest. Some part of that was due to random chance, but another part helped me learn about drainage, pest control, and planting more seeds than I think I am going to need for my crop. We’ll see how the second harvest goes. When I remembered that it’s OK to make mistakes, I was able to celebrate what I had and use what I learned rather than dwell on failure. Make mistakes.

Get messy! Farming involves getting covered with dirt, and sometimes covered in things more specific than dirt. Science education can lead to all kinds of messes, from vinegar and baking soda reactions to rock collections to close observations of living things. The abundance of Lammas puts us knee deep in flour, or the gluten-free grain of your choice. In the middle of a chaotic rush to bring the harvest home, we pay more attention to what we are doing together than on looking neat and pristine or on creating the illusion of having everything together.

In spiritual community, we get messy by being vulnerable and by accepting the range of wisdom and experience and emotion that our companions bring to community. An inclusive community welcomes all people, but not all behaviors. Figuring out how to be together, setting boundaries to help the congregation to be a place of courage and growth, is not easy. This is the art of covenant. Communities where people are authentic are complicated and difficult and heartbreaking and annoying and surprisingly joyful. Get messy.   

This Lammas, let us give thanks. Let us remember the risks and acknowledge the losses, yet let us focus on gratitude and abundance. Fail better, and increase tries. This Lughnasadh (Lúnasa), let us celebrate the skills within us and among us, and let us commit to the love and artistry of living in community. As we bring in the first fruits of this new church year together, let us commit to a path of spiritual growth, lifelong learning, diverse and welcoming community, justice, and compassion. To stay on that path, let us take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.

So be it. Blessed be. Amen.