My mom and dad came to visit this weekend. They’ve been fully vaccinated for a few weeks, and I think they were chomping at the bit to GO somewhere. I hadn’t seen them since Christmas, and while three months isn’t the same as the year and a half that other people have been waiting to hug their parents during this pandemic, it’s plenty long.
Of course, the pandemic is still raging and I’m only half-vaccinated, so we didn’t do much. But I did take them to the garden with me yesterday morning, where they got assigned the task of stringing trellises for the rapidly growing peas.
It took a while. There are three raised beds, and their trellises evolved from one to the next. Mom was unsatisfied with her first attempt, and tried a couple of times to revise it…but once you unroll all that jute string, it’s sort of hard to adjust the web. “Don’t worry,” I told her, “we’re just going to tear it all down in a few weeks!” She did not appreciate my reassurance.
But it’s true: those peas are shooting up and they will bud and flower and produce delicious snap peas in a few weeks’ time. We’ll harvest and share them, and pull the finished plants out so we can succession plant something else in those beds. The trellises are super important (last year, the pea tendrils tangled all up in themselves and bent the plants over into an impossible nearly-flat mess). But they aren’t permanent. They’ll do their job and then we’ll take them down.
I spent most of the morning pulling out collards and cabbages that were going to seed, harvesting the last over-wintered leaves and making room for new zucchini babies that were outgrowing their seed starting boxes on my porch. I thinned out rows and rows of radishes, uprooting plant after plant that an enthusiastic middle school kid sowed abundantly a few weeks ago. The radishes need space to grow their fruit, so even though the uprooting feels like destruction, it’s actually the only way we’ll see any radishes at all.
This is the way of the garden, I’m learning: all of our labor is temporary. We create conditions for plants to thrive, temporarily, and then we dismantle them.
The artist Andy Goldsworthy has spent his entire career creating this kind of temporary beauty:
I watched a documentary about Goldsworthy’s work 12 or 13 years ago, and I still think about it regularly. His work depends on the earth’s materials – rain, leaves, twigs, ice, petals, wind – and it lasts only as long as the earth allows it to stand: a mandala of petals is blown away by a breeze, an outline of his body as he lay on the ground in a rainstorm is gone as soon as he rises, ice melts and mud washes away.
I’m not a visual artist, but preaching sometimes feels like art. And if preaching is an art, it’s this kind of temporal, contextual, dependent and sort of ephemeral kind of art. A sermon depends on the raw materials of text, congregation, and Spirit. It lasts as long as I am speaking it, or as long as someone hears and remembers it, or whenever someone happens to click a link to read a manuscript, if I’ve saved it. Conditions of the day and the space and the people present and the Spirit’s movement change it, boost it, enliven or subdue it.
I find this way of thinking about my work and labor to be effective and profound: all our labors are temporary. Even thinking about “legacy” work – through raising children or making gigantic monetary donations or tending to heirloom tomatoes – even these things will eventually pass away and be forgotten. We’re only human, after all, and just like the snap peas growing in those beds, we will produce our fruit, whatever it may be, and then join in the eternal compost pile.
We might take this knowledge and decide, then, that nothing matters, that we might as well quit trying, that the peas will be just as fine folded over on themselves as they would be if we constructed an intricate trellis for them to grow tall and sturdy. We might decide that nobody needs to hear what we have to say right now if it can’t live on in perpetuity for future generations. We might receive this truth of our own limited, contextual, time-bound natures and just…give up.
That’s one option. And, honestly, we could all probably do with giving up some of the things we tend to invest so much time, energy and anxiety in. But there are other options, too. We could receive the truth of our human limitation and decided, like Andy Goldsworthy, to create some beauty with it. We could accept that all our labor is temporary and choose to invest ourselves in it, body and soul, in ways that delight and comfort the others around us. We could acknowledge that nothing we do or say or create or tend will last forever and find freedom in that fact.
We can choose to do it all with love.
Paul says all this way better than I can:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.