Henri Nouwen writes:
It is impressive to see how prayer opens one’s eyes to nature. Prayer makes men [and women, I’d add] contemplative and attentive. In place of manipulating, he who prays stands receptive before the world. He no longer grabs but caresses, he no longer bites, but kisses, he no longer examines but admires…. Instead of an obstacle, it becomes a way… (from Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic)
I have spent almost every morning of my renewal leave praying outside. The squirrels are chattering. The birds squawking and cirping. A starling is eating dead leaves off of a dying tree, while a cardinal sits on my garden post, and a squinny is digging a hold in the landscaping. It has been noisy out here on the porch. And busy. There is always something to watch and hear.
And I do feel more deeply appreciative of what I am discovering. The cardinals are new. I hadn’t seen them before this morning. The orange and magenta and purple in the butterfly garden are just now coming into full bloom and I can imagine how striking that space will be in a few years as the plants naturalize and spread.
But there has been some manipulation going on as well in my back yard. Some battles I am choosing to fight. Putting in the garden, for one. Clearing out the weeds. Being intentional about what to keep and what to change.
In my organic ministry course, we have talked a lot about paying attention to what the land is telling us. What does it need? What grows best there? We can fight against nature all we want, but the land will keep fighting back. Or, we will strip the land of every good nutrient as we force it to produce what we want, in an efficient manner, every year.
Success looks like a good harvest. Abundant production. With little regard to what we have sacrificed in our manipulations.
My manipulated vegetable garden isn’t producing much this year. The rabbits have eaten all the green beans. The peas never came up. It has not been warm enough for the peppers and they aren’t growing as abundantly as I would hope, nor are they putting on flowers to bear fruit. The raspberries we planted last year blossomed, but I think the birds ate all the berries. Only the tomatoes appear to be on the verge of production and “success.”
But these past few weeks have helped me to appreciate what I have. The tiny garden is feeding our wildlife at least. While I might find the intrusion frustrating, it is also fun to watch the joy my cats take in watching the birds and squirrels. I’m also learning lessons in the process that I can apply next year: the need for better protection, starting my seeds earlier, cultivating a healthier and less sandy soil for growth by adding compost and nutrients. Those lessons are also success.
And I wonder how the time spent paying attention in this season will impact how I pay attention in the church and community.
How often do we manipulate our people and programs in order to produce the results our conference or denomination or the latest church growth book has suggested? How often do we use cookie cutter approaches that might bear fruit in the short term, but have no long term understanding of what will keep the church soil healthy and vibrant? Do we appreciate who our people are? Do we spend time getting to know them before we start to shape them? Do we allow what they say to use to alter our plans for ministry? What is the community teaching us? What are our children teaching us? What are the interruptions and oopses and failures teaching us?
Maybe there is a middle ground between manipulation and appreciation. A place where we really pay attention to what is happening in our churches and communities and we explore the places we can make some intentional changes that will honor what is there and create the conditions for healthy and flourishing life… now and in the future.