I’m just coming off the most challenging few years of my life, and I continue to grow and be stretched and learn so much along the way. This post gets personal, but this is part of my story (albeit a very small piece of a much larger story) and I’m inviting you into it. Just so we’re clear, I don’t share it because I want pity. I’m way past that, and pity is an obstacle to what I really desire, which is transformation.
I share it because usually things need to be named before they can be transformed. Too often we fail to transform because we fail to name, and we fail to name because, as people of privilege, we especially seem to dislike the discomfort of the naming. If you’re already uncomfortable by what I just wrote, consider this your opportunity to stop reading and move on.
“How does this end,” I have wondered, “if people of faith are unwilling to stand up and boldly model a better way of political engagement? Will we continue to spin and spiral in darkness, waging war with the weapons of our murderous words until everyone is dead inside? Or will we lay down our killing words and enter life-giving conversations sharing hopeful stories about the way the world could be?”
I enter my garden to remember that life and revival can cut even through the hardest crust of winter. I enter my garden for the tactile reminder that persistent planting, watering, weeding, pruning, tending and coaxing can nourish a life-giving community of green things as they push up out of the ground. I enter my garden to see the fruit of hard work- to know that all the bending and kneeling under the heat of summer with sweat piling in the folds and creases of my skin and dripping off my chin in heavy drops, nearly always yields good things. I enter my garden when I need to be reminded of how the world can be if we work diligently towards the vision of it’s fruition.
The last few years have been like bits of gravel pocketed in my cheeks and scraping around in my mouth alongside sweet saving dollops of honey that roll around on the tongue and remind me of the goodness of life. My husband, a pastor, ran for the United States Congress. . .as a Democrat.
A Christian pastor. . .running as a Democrat. . .in West Michigan. I hardly need to spell out for the readers of this journal how that went. We knew it would be a difficult experience given that we live in a predominantly white, Christian, conservative Republican community. We never imagined the extent of the vile things that would casually dribble from the mouths of the people around us.
Needless to say, I’ve been spending a lot of time on my knees in the garden as of late.
By the end of what surely was the most divisive and tumultuous U.S. election season my generation has ever experienced, we had moved out of our house twice because of concerns of violence and harassment at our home, on a regular basis people drove by our house slowly with the windows down shouting obscenities before peeling off with a roar.
Several families in our Christian school community made it clear through emails, anonymous snail mail, Facebook messages, and icy stares that our family was unwelcome and unwanted at “their” school. Our kids endured more than I care to write about here. We were slandered in unmentionable and dehumanizing ways, even some local pastors told us straight up that we were not Christians if we voted for Democrats.
Strangers on Facebook — people who had never met us or engaged in meaningful dialogue with us — wrote monstrous heart-stopping words about our family and took giddy pleasure in publicly boasting about all the ugly things they would like to do to us — including how they would have their way with me and my then eleven year old daughter.
Why? Because there was a “D” beside my husband’s name, and that was enough to justify vilification. There was no end to the violent, poisonous, and dehumanizing rhetoric — including by self professed Christians.
Throughout history, dehumanizing labels and rhetoric have always been a precursor to justifying violence. Always. And so it was so very difficult to realize that this kind of cruelty was lurking underneath so many of the polite and well-manicured faces that moved among us.
Thank God, our family also experienced overwhelming support from friends, other parents at the school too terrified to publicly let anyone else know they voted for Democrats, other pastors, other Republicans, and our kids’ teachers — so many people who loved us and stood by us through all of it. Without that significant community of support we would have never survived the struggle. They say you find true community in difficult times, and this proved true for us. This has been the honey of the last few years.
Last spring, my friend, Shane Claiborne, hammered out the barrel of a gun and transformed it into a beautiful garden trowel for me. He is literally turning weapons into garden tools. Gripping the carved wooden handle and plunging it into the hot summer soil became a repetitive symbolic reminder that we are called to be people of life and hope — not death and destruction. We are called to throw light at the darkness, to dish out love to those who slam us with hatred. We are called to embody God’s way of shalom in the midst of a cruel and chaotic world. We are called to self sacrifice in the service of others — not to sacrifice others in service of ourselves and our selfish power gains.
Gardening has become a meditative, contemplative practice where I’ve learned to intentionally examine the workings inside myself and begin the work of easing out the hatred that hides in the corners of my own heart — a hatred that tempts me to draw a sword and swing back. Here I am learning to appreciate and name the good in even those who seek to hurt my family. Here in the silence of the garden, God seems always present and always whispering to me the reminder that violence nearly always begets violence whether we are talking about global warfare or a war of words intended to wound and kill, and that God calls us to step away from it.
Daily I find myself in the garden where all my grief and angst gets worked out as I knead tears and compost into the soil of the garden beds and into the soil of my soul, where I bury seeds alongside my scars, and wait to see what grows. In my moments of anger I tear the flesh of destructive and invasive weeds out of the ground before they overshadow the good things growing. This has been holy, sacred healing work that uproots the anger in me too. I have learned that it takes time for the vision of hope and possibility to emerge transformed, to push roots into the nutrients and stretch its arms straight up, grabbing fistfuls of sun and mulch on its way to the sky.
Imagine what would be possible if we had the strength and humility to beat our partisan weapons into plowshares and work together — side by side in the garden — towards reformation and transformation of the systems that determine how we live together. Imagine if we held up a vision of a world where everyone has the opportunity to thrive and we threw ourselves into the work of making it so?
The more time I spend in the garden, the more I sense the Spirit of God hovering inside me, and the more deeply a peace that passes understanding begins to take root and grow in me, even as this wild spiteful storm seems to be following our family. The more I experience God’s peace, the more I find myself able to let go of the grief and pity that I had been feeling for myself and the easier it becomes to transform it into prayers that God’s Spirit would work in the hearts of those who seek to harm. Out of the heart the mouth speaks. So I guess it’s a transformation of hearts that I’m really praying for — a transformation of mine, of theirs, and of the whole wide world.