Essay

Cultivating Faithfulness

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Trust in the LORD and do good;

Dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness.

Psalm 37:3

The polar vortex last week had me looking at seed catalogues and dreaming of summer.  

For a long time, I wasn’t very interested in gardening.  I never grew much beyond houseplants, a few self-tending rose bushes, and the occasional tomato.  But several years ago, during the last seemingly endless winter of snow upon snow, I fantasized about sunshine and decided to turn a large swath of my backyard (a 25’ x 25’ area) into a garden. 

It was a seed catalogue then, too.  Filled with glossy beauty shots of vegetable, fruit, and flower and a steady incantation of wondrous names like Ruby Queen and Black Krim, Triumph De Farcy and Dragon’s Tongue, the imaginative possibilities suggested by these pages were endless—magical beans just waiting to grow into stalks fit for little girls and giants alike to climb. 

Of course, tending a garden is an imaginative act.  Tending a garden is in part to hope—to believe in a harvest yet to come.

It is also a commitment to work.  Ordering the seeds isn’t enough.  Planting isn’t either. 

That first summer of gardening taught me several important lessons, ones with excellent application to work of my daily life—whether that’s in my teaching or campus service or in my relationships with others or whatever.    

1. You must engage the project—there is no such thing as a theoretical gardener. 

2. Gardening is an excellent corrective for perfectionism because you control so little of the process.  

3. In fact, things sometimes grow in spite of you.

4. Cultivating the soil is very hard work. Rototilling just about killed me. I had to learn to use the machine correctly: not so hard that I was digging holes, not so lightly that I was simply skimming the surface.   

5. It’s smelly and messy to enrich the soil.  But worth it.  And completely necessary.

6. Weeds are inevitable. Deal with them when they’re small and easy to get rid of.  They overrun a garden before you know it.

7. Plants need proper support—a tomato without a cage, a bean without its pole, are unhappy vegetables.

8. Things seldom turn out how you expect—bugs take over, critters invade, or you have a crop of beets beyond your ability to eat them all. Use it as an occasion to laugh.

9. But some things are predictable, like too much squash or an explosion of cherry tomatoes.  Use it as an occasion of generosity. 

10. Nothing is as delicious as something you grew yourself.

I’m reassured by what T.S Eliot observes in the Four Quartets: that the mark of success, the way to find contentment, is to “nourish the life of significant soil.” In other words, working to make the ecosystem of one’s life a richer, more vibrant environment. This isn’t a grand or fancy aspiration—but it is absolutely vital: how am I contributing to a climate where things will grow and thrive? Or am I—through my actions and attitudes—making it less productive? Is my presence adding nutrients or leaching them away?

And #11: you’re only a caretaker.  The soil, the sun, the rain all come from a greater hand than yours. 

The same hand that is tending us, too.  

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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