Where I live there are churches on almost every street corner. Some have metal fences enclosing perfect green lawns, reminding me that I am not allowed inside. That I do not talk to God in quite the same way.
Growing up, my mother brought us to Sunday school every week. Our services didn’t talk about things like homosexuality, or abortion, or sex before marriage. We didn’t eat fish unless we wanted to. Instead, we talked about the golden rule and how Jesus did good things for people you don’t always want to do good things for. We made food baskets for the homeless. We shopped for other people’s kids at Christmas. We are Methodist.
Before the sermon, the children were directed to classrooms in the basement where we colored stories of the Bible in workbooks. Sometimes we cut out paper figures of the disciples and Jesus and made them into finger puppets. I never made Jesus talk to me when he was in my hand. I wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say.
When I was older and no longer went downstairs, I tried to talk to God while the rest of the Congregation was in prayer. But I couldn’t quiet my mind and found myself studying hand-sewn banners on the wall. I traced the words with my eyes: faith, remember, rejoice, and tried to listen to what I was supposed to be hearing. I did appreciate the silence, save for the creaking wood of the pews as people shifted in their seats, and the smooth vellum pages of the hymnals cutting the air when it was time to sing. I loved that paper.
Usually I spent the service praying for the people I knew and was afraid of losing. Sometimes I apologized for things I did or said or thought. But I never heard God in that room. I remember a man always rode his bike to church. Even in winter. And the rain. He could not drive because of his seizures. But he always came. I wonder if God spoke to him on the ride home.
Nowadays my church is my garden. My runs. My kitchen table in the sun. No one delivers sermons there. No one feels the need to say anything at all. When I am running I think about the rocks and the roots my feet avoid along the trails. I think about what is right in front of me. And then I look to the sky and think about people far away and exploring galaxies nearby. I think about dust smiling.
In the garden my mind doesn’t wander. I am focused on the ground. I comb the soil, toss out rocks, shards of glass and hollowed out seeds from two seasons ago. I think about how to improve it. I rake and pull more rocks and debris to the surface. And then I get on my knees for closer inspection.
The soil in my yard is dry but not sandy—a powdery clay that dries like cement. Breaking up the soil is difficult. I push tablespoon-sized clumps through my forefinger and thumb and twist. Pieces shatter into smaller pebbles. Hard as stones. I wonder if this is ever going to get easier. I wonder if I am doing it right. I wonder if anything can survive here. Eventually I pull up an old carrot and a handful of worms that curl in and unwind in the sunshine. And I am filled with hope.
Even though I am late. I thought I would have had my lettuce and peas in the ground by now. But it snowed. Then rained. Or I was busy when it didn’t. Now I am playing catch up, readying the ground to accept my seeds. They did not come in a packet pulled off a shelf but a drawer at the seed store. They were poured onto a scale in front of me like candy.
I hear people singing in the church across the street. I pause to see if I recognize the hymn. I don’t. In the backyard I examine the infant carrot seeds in my palm. I feel responsible for them. What if I overcrowd the rows? What if the birds come for them? I consider all that could go wrong: I could plant the seeds too deep, or too shallow, they could roast in the Utah sun, they could mold, or drown, or freeze.
They could live. Take root and thrive.
Before I dug the first row, I sought out counsel from the oldest gardener I know: my Grampa. Although he stopped growing his legendary tomatoes years ago, he hasn’t forgotten how what it feels like to dig a plot of earth and hope for the best.
Me: Grampa, how do you grow tomatoes?
Him: You plant them.
Me: Then what?
Him: You eat them.
Me: What do you in between?
Him: You watch them grow.
In my Grampa’s world, there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things: you show up or you don’t; you work hard or you don’t work; you don’t worry about broken you just fix the problem.
So on Sunday I dug and planted. I watered and now I will wait to see if there is anything worth waiting for.